By Susi Poli
It was by chance that I sent my application for a sponsored delegate place at the Annual Conference of the German Association for Higher Education Research (GfHF), held in Munich in April. SRHE had called for a student/early career researcher, fully sponsored by GfHF, to engage in their panel discussion at the pre-conference on making the connection between HE research and practice. Surprisingly or not, I was shortlisted and I got the place!
Before leaving for the conference I became aware that there is a distinction to be made between ‘early stage researcher’ as defined by the EU, and ‘early career researcher’ (ECR) based on UK terminology. The first refers to the European Commission’s Charter for Researchers, which clearly states the professional status of the researcher from the early stage, ie from the doctoral phase onwards. In contrast the UK considers its doctoral candidates as ‘students’ and doesn’t afford them professional status (Hancock et al, 2015). However, I was happy to be seen as an early career/stage ‘something’ or researcher, appreciated even more as a woman and an experienced/mature (or both) professional in her mid-40s.
The leading questions in preparation for the panel discussion were:
- How do you use data produced by HE research for your work or how are data that you produce used for HE management?
- Where do you see possibilities and limitations for HE development based on HE research?
- How do you assess the political and social relevance of HE research for HE development?
The other participants at this panel session were: Edith Braun, senior researcher at INCHER Kassel; Kerstin Janson, senior researcher at the University of Applied Sciences for International Management and Logistics; and Roland Humer, Danube University Krems.
A few days before the conference I was told the other panelists would speak in German, with only me speaking and interacting with the audience in English. That sounded reasonable: the others had been invited a long time ago and were already prepared to speak in their native language at the panel discussion.
However, the feeling of being an ‘alien’ in George Mikes’ terms (2016) came straight to my mind and so I saw myself again being an alien, and not just in England – as I have reported in relation to the culture I met in the UK university environment, in a forthcoming book chapter on ‘Postgraduate study in the UK: Surviving and succeeding’ (in press). At the conference I would again feel like an alien, but, I told myself, it’s challenging to be an alien – or to be seen this way – so perhaps I could use this to see things differently from how most of the others see them. Valorising this feeling could therefore help!
Overall, the conference was focused on changes affecting the HE sector in Germany, with impacts not only on governance, but also on funding and staff. My overall impression was to see some forms of resistance to change (in Germany as in England). I heard someone feeling scared of a management ‘invasion’ and of replicating the UK model of HE. One research question for me and others at the conference was: is the UK model scary?
The points I made at the panel discussion were:
- As a doctoral candidate enrolled in an EdD and insider researcher too (whether as an early stage or early career researcher), I could grasp the advantages of using research data and see its crucial role in making connections between research and practice. From an early stage my career has involved connecting research and practice, from dedication to professional practice and exploring a range of workplaces in HE management, to the MBA at the Institute of Education in London, and now through to the doctoral stage.
- As regards possibilities and limitations, I talked about running seminars in my workplace on my research as well on its findings. Not surprisingly, I find many peers happy to hear this and to raise their own issues too. These seminars are more often run at teatime or lunchtime, to enable these peers to share their knowledge informally and to find inspiration through the discussion in their spare time.
- Relevance in social and political terms was trickier; I focused on cases at different levels, from the macro to the individual, which dealt with:
– the role played by societies and professional associations in the UK – SRHE, LFHE, but also VITAE, ARMA for research managers or AUA for university administrators, among others – and how this differs from most of what is done by sister associations in the rest of Europe. My point was who leads and who follows in the debate on burning issues affecting the sector, and how this varies in different contexts.
– new UK-based initiatives such as the new ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global HE set up at UCL IOE and the role that this UK-led partnership is expected to play in HE research internationally.
– looking at my doctoral thesis – on professional women as leaders in HE management and their patterns of attitudes and career strategies, but also their role models – I assessed the relevance of its impact and of aligning the understanding of these issues among women placed in different HE sectors in Europe, whether in academia or in professional posts. I expect we will discover ways to achieve alignment by working together, depending on context.
At the conference I met Richard Budd (Liverpool Hope) and I took every opportunity to connect with researchers and staff from German universities. The conference was a superb opportunity for networking, but it was also a way to come across issues informing others’ research. Among these, I learned much more about institutional research, what this type of research can do for us and, specifically, for me from now on. Whenever you take your research or part of your knowledge somewhere, you may find reinforcement and justification; sometimes you just get pointed in another direction.
SRHE Member Susi Poli is currently a doctoral candidate at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.
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