Friday, 17 October 2014

Counting them out and counting them back in again

One of my current clients is preparing for a graduation ceremony, which got me thinking. It’s been my view for some time now that many features of academic administration in universities can be explained by graduation: that is, they all work towards the task of making sure that the right student walks across stage with the right name called out to get the right degree certificate, and dressed in the right robes for a good photo.

Two proud graduates ...
Let’s take this in parts.

Firstly, the right student. So that’s about recruitment and admissions, that’s about enrolment, module selection and assessment, and that’s about keeping tags through a student record system on who a person is and whether they’ve passed the exams.

The right name called out. Well, that is also about a student record system, but it’s about knowing the student – which name do they actually use; how do you pronounce it; how do you make sure that the person reading the name out sounds like they’ve actually heard of them and aren’t surprised to see them there. So it ties in with things done to make sure that a student actually feels at home in the university and that someone knows them. Often the departmental office...

The right degree certificate. This ties into programme approval; any professional or statutory accreditation; making sure that the programme and the modules are all set up on the record system so that the transcript is easy to produce; and making sure that the credentials of the degree are all correct. Although a degree is really about the education, the validity of the certificate and transcript are really important in the instrumental uses of an education which students do care about.

The right gown and photo. This is about making the day memorable, so that the student leaves with fond memories; so that their family and friends get a good impression; so that there’s a tangible reminder to show proud grandparents; and so that the student (no, the graduate!) feels a lasting connection, and will stay in touch. With the alumni office. So that they might come back to give talks about their career, mentor current students, give money, leave legacies, and also say good things about the university whenever they get the chance.

I think graduations are great, as they’re one of the few days when everybody in the room is glad to be there. They can be wonderfully uplifting, with sudden displays of love and happiness and all manner of human frailty revealed. They are also, more prosaically, a significant milestone in the journey of a student.

And perhaps that’s the point I’m really getting at here: all of the different processes and functions in a university add together to make a student journey, which is a big part of their life story. It’s pretty important stuff, and seeing and recognising the joins and the connections makes it a better journey. So go to graduation and enjoy it; help out in marshalling the procession. But also think about all the steps necessary to get the right student the right degree with the right name read out and the right photo. And think what could be done to make it better.

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