Saturday 9 January 2016

Where you stand depends on where you sit

A former colleague was very fond quoting what I now know to be Miles’ Law: where you stand depends on where you sit. That is, what you think about something depends on your perspective. (A corollary of this is, of course, that we are less objective than we might think.)

Several problems on which I have recently advised bring this phrase to mind. The conundrums have been variations on a theme: how to help people who are not physically close together, work well together.

Rufus E Miles: Lawgiver
In a university context this most often doesn’t mean people who are in different continents. There are plenty of examples of research teams on different sides of the world who work effectively together: meeting every now and again to discuss results; corresponding by email; sharing findings by email or over the web; and talking by phone or Skype. Of course, in these situations there is likely to be an agreed goal and methodology, often tied to specific funding; and the success of the project will reflect on all participants (or at least on all of the Principal Investigators), so the incentives to collaborate are there.

More likely the problems arise when people are on the same campus, sometimes in the same building, but not so close together that they bump into each other habitually. For instance, maybe an academic department is spread across several different buildings; or maybe there’s a problem in getting administrative staff within a faculty office and those in a registry to work well together. And often the answer cannot be to simply move them closer together – the reality of the physical estate, or at the least the cost and relative priority of doing this, make such things impossible.

So what to do?

Firstly, help them to see why it matters. Think about how their working together contributes to a bigger goal. And then tell them the story of this – in newsletters, face to face in meetings, make a short film, however you need to bring it to life. But make the narrative real – not about corporate goals and abstractions, but about the difference that they can make to real people’s lives. Help them to see that they’re involved in a big and noble task. Now this is easy if your team is helping to bring peace to the world, harder if it’s about resolving timetabling squabbles. So sometimes you have to look to a bigger goal (for instance the benefits education bring to people’s lives, and the role of effective timetabling in making this happen in a cost-effective and sustainable manner) to make the story. But unless you’re working for an evil crime lord, there’s a positive narrative in there, waiting to be found.

Secondly, regular information flows about what’s going on help bring people together. You could initiate - or help to initiate, if you’re not the one in charge - a system of team briefing, so that everyone gets the same information, face to face, on a regular basis. Once people have a shared knowledge base its easier for them to make the connections between others they need to work with, and understand why someone else’s problem is their problem too.

Finally, there’s a need to help the people know each other as individuals. An email address is easier to ignore than a voice on a phone; a person who you recognise and meet with from time to time is harder to ignore than an extension number that sometimes you dial. Who’s who lists with photos can help – whether on the intranet, in a printed (or emailed) guide, or a noticeboard, they help to make staff members individuals rather than simply cogs in the machine. Or how about finding an excuse to bring them physically together from time to time - ideally a combination of work (makes the reason to be there compelling) and some social, get to know you, time.

These ideas tie in with John Adair’s thinking on good leadership: which means a necessary focus on task, team and individual. Get these things right, and your problems of disconnect amongst your team or your colleagues will begin to disappear.

Saturday 2 January 2016


The Times today reports on a ‘crisis’ in universities, with high levels of student cheating, disproportionately committed by overseas students. The Times story is here, behind a paywall – I’m loathe to give Mr Murdoch any money, so I’ll summarise from other media sources.

From The Times, 2 January 2016
It seems that the Times surveyed UK universities and found that nearly 50,000 had been ‘caught cheating’ over the past three years, with 362 being expelled. In a subset of 70 universities- presumably those which collated data via fee status – overseas students accounted for 35% of cheating cases, but made up only 12% of the student population.

Thanks to The Guardian for their summary of the Times story.

The story focuses on plagiarism – with Geoffrey Alderman asserting that ‘type 1’ plagiarism (copying someone else’s words) is declining, with ‘type 2’ plagiarism (paying someone else to write your coursework for you) is on the increase. No data are given to support this, but anecdotally it feels plausible.

It is an interesting issue. To understand it better you’d need to discuss the nature of plagiarism detection (much more sophisticated than it used to be) and issues around the nature of assessment, and what it is meant to demonstrate. One thing which I’ve noticed across in dealing with student tissues in a number of different UK universities is that expectations of higher education, and of the role in examinations of independent thought, vary across education systems. In some systems, memorising and repeating back the words of authorities – your professor, books and journals – seems to be considered good. So students who copy may, at first, think that they’re doing the right thing. This seems to me to be an educational issue more than a moral one.

Notice also the emphasis on overseas students cheating disproportionately. Multiplying out the proportions, some 32,500 home and EU students were caught cheating over three years, compared to 17,500 overseas students. Yes, it’s disproportionate. I’d be interested to see how many of these were ‘first offence’ plagiarism as opposed to repeat offences (or indeed other sorts of exam cheating.) If you factor in the cultural/educational differences it doesn’t seem like a crisis or a moral panic. But are we meant to understand that overseas students are somehow lowering standards? If so, it’s all grist to Theresa May’s immigration mill. And very unpleasant bread it makes, as well.

I don’t expect we’ve heard the last of this – I’ll be reading ministerial speeches closely to see whether a ‘cheating foreigner’ theme begins to emerge.