Category Archives: Learning and Teaching

Curriculum Co-Design and Co-Production

In public administration everyone is talking about collaboration, co-production, co-design, co-commissioning. But do public administration academics practice what we preach? In this post I want to briefly discuss some of the key findings from my latest research which is available for free download here: https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739420968862

In the various degree programmes and modules I have designed I have always tried to ensure that students are engaged in the design of the curriculum and that they benefit from a blend of professional experience and academic learning.

Typically this has been achieved through a range of learning activities such as fieldtrips, leadership exchanges, action learning sets, coaching and in-class sessions – many of which I have written about previously. It is important that throughout the learning experience students are engaged and empowered in order to make lasting change to the communities they serve. But it’s not enough to talk or read about this – I believe students need to experience it too. This is particularly important in public administration programmes.

Thus it is important that public administration students have ownership of their degree programme(s) – and have ownership of improvement. Just as the communities they serve should have ownership and power to deliver improvements to their areas. This relates very much to Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation:

Arnsteins Ladder - IElliott2

Students are not simply the passive recipients of knowledge – but they should have significant delegated power and control to make changes to their degree programme(s). There are a number of ways through which this is facilitated including through student-staff consultative meetings.

One exercise I have used for a number of years now is based around the concept of curriculum co-design. This has always generated lots of great ideas and discussion. During one such session a student, who was looking a little perplexed by the process said,

“I’m just trying to take it all in. It’s just so different to anything I’ve done before. All I can think right now is WOW”

Former student

That was a wonderful thing to hear. As academics we want to stretch our students (figuratively of course) and challenge their assumptions. This student was clearly expressing a sense of “liminality” – in between receiving and producing.

The use of curriculum co-design in the classroom is particularly beneficial in public administration programmes as co-production has become an influential practice in public services across the UK. In England this is part of a shift in how public services are designed and delivered through the localism agenda. Examples include the development of combined authorities and elected mayors. In Scotland co-production is one of the key pillars of the Scottish Approach to Public Administration as seen in community empowerment. This is part of a wider trend within public administration which has seen a shift from direct top-down delivery of services through to outsourcing and privatisation and now to increasing collaboration, coproduction and co-design of our public services.

It was my experience of using curriculm co-deshn in the classroom, and finding few examples of it being used elsewhere, that led me to reflect on this practice in this journal article:

Elliott, I. C., Robson, I., & Dudau, A. (2020). Building student engagement through co-production and curriculum co-design in public administration programmes. Teaching Public Administration. https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739420968862

Ian Robson (Northumbria University) and Adina Dudau (University of Glasgow) worked with me on the article, helping with my auto-ethnographic reflections and in writing the final piece. I am delighted to see this now available for free Open Access via Teaching Public Administration and that it will feature as part of a special issue edited by John Connolly (University of West of Scotland) and Alice Moseley (University of Executer) on “Curriculum Design in Public Administration Education: Challenges and Perspectives”.

In our article we conclude:

I must thank all those involved in development of this article including students, reviewers, my co-authors and the special issue editors. Hopefully this represents a good example of collaboration and co-production that will stimulate further debate on public administration pedagogy for years to come.

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Doctoral Research – the examiners perspective

I have previously written about Why Do a PhD? and How to Prepare for your Viva. But the final examination of doctoral research is based on both the written work (the thesis) and the performance of the student at the viva voce (verbal examination). So what is the motivation for examining a doctoral thesis? How does an examiner go about examining doctoral research? How does an examiner prepare for the viva? And how do they go about reaching a final decision on the quality of the work?

For every examiner this may be different. However, from my perspective I thoroughly enjoy examining doctoral research. I find it to be a great opportunity to learn about the most current research and to discuss this with an emerging scholar. I also want to help the researcher to improve the work and ensure that it is the best that it can be. Ultimately, I am on your side.

In examining a doctorate I will read the thesis thoroughly, making copious notes, and thinking about areas of the thesis where I will want to focus within the viva. By the time I have finished reading the thesis I will have made a judgement about the quality of the research – but it is then important to gain an understanding of the motives and learning of the researcher.

By the time it comes to the viva I will have read the thesis at least twice and will have lots of notes to guide my questions. Typically I will start by asking about the student’s experience and their motivations for doing the research. I may want to know more about the decisions that were made around choice of methodology and methods or how the theoretical focus of the research has been arrived at. Overall I will be exploring the researchers motives and their competence as an independent researcher. I will also want to know what they might do differently if they were to do the research again – what has the researcher learned through the process and are they able to critically reflect on their own practice as a researcher?

Overall I want to make sure that the research can be as good as it can be. It’s important to remember that, by the time you come to submission of your thesis and the viva, the researcher will have engaged in lots of peer review and formative assessment of their work. This may be by presenting at academic conferences, by getting feedback from their supervisors, or through their annual review(s). I will be assessing both the written work and the performance in the viva. As such it is important to prepare for both. What I’m looking for is to see the researcher as a potential future colleague – as a peer.

Remember – I am interested in the research, I want to learn about what has been done and I’m really looking forward to the viva conversation.

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Conducting qualitative research via online platforms

Over the next few weeks I will be developing a number of resources on research methods to support some of my teaching. Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic many of these resources will be about online research methods. I am adding them here so they are publicly accessible for anyone else to use.

This Twitter thread highlights a number of references relating to online qualitative methods.

More recently this tweet by Dr Sophie Yates has identified an excellent Google Document listing a wide range of sources on conducting online research:

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Interview with Gary Bandy

This all started with a discussion on Twitter about one of the core texts on the MSc Strategic Leadership for Public Services programme.

I added the author, Gary Bandy, into one of my comments in the thread and after some more discussion Gary kindly agreed to do a short recorded video with me. Unfortunately my webcam cut out half way through the interview. Clearly our tech is going to be challenged over the next few weeks!

This video interview is listed below.

Gary has a number of other online resources including an online school which can be found at https://courses.managingpublicmoney.co.uk . This includes a number of free resources including the free 5 questions to ask about your budget at http://bit.ly/budget5q

Over the last few days I have been developing resources to support online delivery of my modules. As the restrictions on travel continue we will need to do more to support each other via online platforms. If there is anything you think I could help with do get in touch – we need to work together more than ever right now and I’d be very happy to help.

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Brexit and Scottish Universities

I am currently conducting some research with Professor Margaret Arnott from University of West of Scotland on the potential impact of Brexit on Scottish universities. This is clearly a difficult topic to study at the moment as their remains so much uncertainty around what path the Brexit negotiations will take and subsequently when and how (and even if) the UK will eventually leave the European Union. The Scottish dimension adds an extra layer of complexity – this piece of research sets out some of these complexities in more detail.

Scotland, as a constituent nation of the UK, must follow UK policy on all reserved matters including decisions related to Brexit. But at the same time Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU. Within this debate education is of particular interest as the Scottish education system has always been distinct. With devolution this policy divergence has increased (Keating 2005, 2010) and led to the emergence of the so-called Scottish Approach to Public Services (Housden, 2014; Elliott, Forthcoming).

Source: BBC accessed at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-39317865

Policy divergence is exemplified with the funding of higher education for whilst undergraduate tuition fees were introduced in the UK in 1998, they were soon abolished in Scotland by the Scottish Government who have remained resolutely opposed to tuition fees. This policy has become immortalised in the “Salmond Rock” which sits in the grounds of Heriot-Watt University which is inscribed with his statement that “the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students”.

Source: Flickr (Licensed under Creative Commons)

Although the free higher education policy is seen to be a way to extend educational opportunities it has been found that maintenance grants have declined since this policy was introduced (Hunter- Blackburn 2016) and that students from less affluent backgrounds have suffered as a result. Furthermore the approach to funding of Scottish universities, and the decline in international students following UK Government changes to immigration rules, have contributed to an increasingly difficult financial environment. In 2016/17, 9 of Scotland’s 19 universities reported a financial deficit (compared to just one in eight in England) (HESA 2018).

In relation to Europe, the potential impact of Brexit on Scottish universities may be far greater than on universities in the rest of the UK. Scottish universities have benefited €558m from the Horizon 2020 programme and €64m from the Erasmus programme (Universities Scotland 2018). In total European funding sources account for 9.4% of all research funding in Scottish universities (£94m) in 2014-15 (ibid 2018). Also, Scottish universities have proportionally more EU staff (11% of all staff, 17% academic staff and 25% of research staff) and students (9%) than the rest of the UK (ibid 2018).

The Scottish university sector faces many financial challenges. Despite education being a devolved policy there are many related issues, such as immigration policy and foreign policy, that remain reserved. Thus, the financial sustainability of universities has become precarious both as a result of Brexit but also the UK Home Office ‘hostile environment’ policies. It is unclear how Scottish universities will cope with the potential effects of Brexit but whatever happens this issue has raised significant issues in relation to the devolution settlement.

This will be discussed at the following conference: https://www.regionalstudies.org/opportunities/call-for-papers-the-impact-of-brexit-on-regions-in-europe-essca-angers-france/

References:

Arnott, M.A. (2017) “Jigsaw Puzzle” of education policy?: nation, state and globalised policy making, Scottish Educational Review, 49 (2): 3-14. Available online here.

Elliott, I.C. (Forthcoming) The Implementation of a Strategic State in a Small Country Setting: the case of the ‘Scottish Approach’, Public Money and Management.

Housden, P. (2014) This is us: A perspective on public services in Scotland, Public Policy and Administration, 29 (1): 64-74. Available online here.

Hunter Blackburn, L. (2016) Equity in student finance: Cross-UK comparisons, Special Edition: Widening Access to Higher Education in Scotland, Scottish Educational Review, 48(1): 30-47. Available online here.

Keating, M. (2005) Policy convergence and divergence in Scotland under devolution, Regional studies, 39 (4): 453-463. Available online here.

Keating, M. (2010) The Government of Scotland: Public Policy Making after Devolution, 2nd Edition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Purchase here.

Universities Scotland (2018) Universities Scotland’s Brexit Priorities, accessed online at: https://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/publications/brexit-priorities/

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Strategic Leadership for Public Services – The Impact and Legacy of the Strategic State in Scotland

I have a PhD bursary available on this topic. The research will commence in October 2019 and is funded for three years. Do get in touch if you would like more information.

There is growing interest in ideas of Public Leadership (Dickinson et al. 2018; Brookes and Grint 2010; t’Hart 2014) and the Strategic State (OECD 2010, 2012, 2013). Yet there remains a lack of clarity around what constitutes effective leadership, where it is applied and how best it is supported. Crucially, there remains uncertainty around the place of values in a public service context and how leadership can or should hold an ethical stance. Similarly, the devolution of greater powers to regions and localities has sparked interest in place-based leadership (Beer et al, 2018; Hambleton and Howard, 2013; Hambleton 2011).

Where do values come from? How do these values then intersect with the context of different localities? Do public service values differ from other sectors? And how are these reconciled when working in collaboration across different organisations in different sectors. This research will explore the role of strategy and leadership within a public service context. Traditional theories of leadership have highlighted how, for example, situational factors can influence leadership (Blanchard and Hersey). But the role of localities, particularly in relation to public leadership, remains under researched. This doctoral study will draw on the experience of leaders from different localities and contexts to explore how public leadership is influenced by these environmental factors.

The project will use a qualitative approach to explore issues around the role of leadership and localities. Participants will be selected using both purposive and snowball sampling to ensure that a wide range of leaders are included in the study. The outcome will include a comprehensive model of location-based leadership which will fully recognise the local environmental factors that must be taken into account when considering the development and support of future public leaders.

Find out more, including how to apply, here:  https://www.findaphd.com/phds/project/strategic-leadership-for-public-services-the-impact-and-legacy-of-the-strategic-state-in-scotland-advert-reference-rdf19-bl-lhrm-elliott/?p104169 

References

Beer, A., Ayres, S., Clower, T., Faller, F., Sancino, A., & Sotarauta, M. 2018. “Place leadership and regional economic development: a framework for cross-regional analysis”. Regional Studies, April, 1-12.

Brookes, S. and Grint, K. 2010. A New Public Leadership Challenge? London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dickinson, H., Needham, C., Mangan, C. and Sullivan, H. (eds). 2018. Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce, Singapore: Springer.

Elliott, I.C. (2020) The implementation of a strategic state in a small country setting—the case of the ‘Scottish Approach’, Public Money & Management, DOI: 10.1080/09540962.2020.1714206 [see related blog post here].

Hambleton, R. and Howard, J. 2013. “Place-based leadership and public service innovation.” Local Government Studies, 39(1): 47-70.

Hambleton, R. 2011. “Place-based leadership in a global era”Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance, May–November.

Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. 1969. Management of Organizational Behavior – Utilizing Human Resources. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

OECD 2010. “Finland: Working together to Sustain Success”, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, doi: 10.1787/9789264086081-en.

OECD 2012. “Slovenia: Towards a Strategic and Efficient State”, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264173262-en.

OECD 2013. “Poland: Implementing Strategic-State Capability, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264201811-en.

‘t Hart, P. 2014Understanding Public LeadershipLondon: Palgrave Macmillan.

Additional readings

About Me

How to prepare for your viva (PhD / DBA / DProf)

The Scottish Approach to Public Services

The Sustainability of the Scottish Approach to Policy-Making

Why do a PhD?

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How to prepare for your viva (PhD / DBA / DProf)

There are already quite a few excellent blog posts available on how to prepare for a doctoral viva. I don’t want to simply repeat what has been said elsewhere but thought I would provide some of my own thoughts on the doctoral viva. I have been a PhD student, PhD and DPA supervisor and PhD examiner. My thoughts are based on this experience though I would also freely admit that I am still learning. Being awarded a doctoral level degree does not mark the end of a process – it is a recognition that you are ready to start on the next stage.

This post was inspired by a question at the recent Doctoral Workshop at the PAC Annual Conference (a free workshop for doctoral students from PAC member institutions). The question was about how best to prepare for the viva. I hope some of the below will, at the very least, provide some reassurance if you are about to have your viva. Do though speak to your supervisors regularly in the run up to your viva – they will always be best placed to advise you.

1. You are ready

The first thing I would stress is that, by the time you have submitted your thesis, you will have spent anywhere between 3-7 years preparing for your viva. All the time you have spent reading, writing and researching is preparation time. No-one will have prepared more for the viva than you have – and no-one will know more about your thesis than you do. That said, there are some things you can do to help get ready for your viva and to avoid some of the more common pitfalls.

2. Be active in choice of examiner

It is important that you contribute to discussions around the selection of examiner. You should by now have presented at a number of academic conferences and you may have a view on who you would, or would not, like to have as an examiner. It’s important that you have a discussion with your supervision team about potential options and that your views are taken into account. That said, the final decision is likely to rest with your director of studies and will need to be ratified by a committee within the university.

3. Know your examiner

Of course an examiner cannot be a close friend, family, co-author, former or current employee. But you should get to know your examiner through their academic work. For example, some academics are very interested in methodology and philosophy of research methods whilst others have a much more pragmatic approach to research. This will significantly alter the type of questions you might expect to get and even the type of answers the examiner may be looking for. Likewise some academics have methodological preferences with some highly focused on quantitative methods, others have a strong preference for qualitative and (you guessed it) some lean towards mixed methods. This is something that your supervision team should take carefully into account when selecting an examiner – but again it’s important that you input to these discussions.

4. Reference your examiner

It is also important that you know your examiners academic publications. What journals have they published in, which editorial boards do they sit on, what are their most cited articles, what is the general theme of their research? Yes, do reference the work of your examiner, also reference their journal (if they are a journal editor) and it’s also worth taking note of their co-authors.

5. Do a mock

Again your supervisor should set up a mock viva for you but if this doesn’t happen then you should be proactive in organising your own mock viva. Ideally this should be with someone who has significant experience of examining doctoral work and the mock should be as true to life as possible. This will help you practice your answers and overall approach to the viva. It’s worth getting someone to observe or you may want to record the mock in order to review back.

6. Think about your answers

When it comes to the viva it is likely that you will feel nervous, excited, energised or all of the above! Undoubtedly adrenaline will be taking effect. In these circumstances it is really important to take a breath before you answer any question – don’t just rush in with the first thing that comes into your head. Silence in the room can seem daunting and you may feel the urge simply to speak in order to avoid awkward silences. But it is important to listen carefully to the question, think carefully about your answer, and then speak.

7. Answer the question you are asked – not the question you want to answer

So take your time, think, clarify, think, reply. I really want to stress the importance of listening carefully to the question being asked. It’s essential that you understand the question, think, and then answer the question. If you are not sure what the examiners mean by their question then ask for clarification. It can be quite frustrating for an examiner when a doctoral candidate gives political answers to viva questions (in other words answering the question you want to answer rather than the question you were asked). Likewise it is important not to digress or ramble as this can also be quite frustrating and you run the risk of opening up lines of questioning that the examiner hadn’t anticipated by addressing other topics or issues. So remember, listen to the question, clarify if needs be, think, and then answer.

8. Accept flaws and bounded rationality

A PhD is by nature an in-depth study of a highly specialised topic. That means that you will be expected to be highly proficient within the area that you have studied. You will also be expected to have some understanding of the wider academic literature and methods and how your work is located within the broader field. But should absolutely not be expected to be expert in everything.

With particular concepts or bodies of literature that you have used within your thesis you will be expected to be highly knowledgeable. There may be key authors within the wider academic subject-area that again you would be expected to be familiar with. Doing some relevant teaching while you are completing your doctoral research can really help with this broader preparation. But you should not be expected to be expert in all literature, all academics, all concepts. We all have limits to our knowledge and it is important that we acknowledge those. Therefore it is ok to say that you don’t know, that the examiner has raised an interesting point that you hadn’t previously considered or that you had considered it but had chosen to focus on something else. What you should do in these circumstances is try to shift the focus back to what you did do – not what you didn’t do. So, for example, yes, I hadn’t considered that particular analytical framework but within the scope of this piece of research I did focus on this analytical framework and that was relevant for this particular research because x, y, z.

9. Stick to what you did and not what you could have done / didn’t do

One, fairly common, type of unhelpful question goes along the lines of “why did you not do a questionnaire” or “couldn’t you have used Foucaulian Discourse Analysis” or “don’t you think you should have conducted more focus groups”. These are unhelpful in that they focus on what you have not done rather than what you did do. It’s not your job, strictly speaking, to defend what you didn’t do – but to defend what you did do. As noted above there may be things outwith the bounds of the thesis that you should be familiar with – but it shouldn’t be necessary to defend what you didn’t do. Nonetheless this type of question may well come up so it’s important to be prepared.

10. Own the process

The PhD / DBA / DProf is a process, it is a product, and importantly it is a person – you are receiving a doctorate on the basis of your knowledge and ability to conduct academic research. So you may be asked about things that are not within your thesis. It is important that you can engage in these questions. You should also be prepared to acknowledge the things within your thesis that you would do differently if you were to do it again – you should recognise that the thesis represents the result of a learning process. That learning process does not end with the production of the thesis but will continue far beyond your formal doctoral studies. You should therefore be able to reflect on the process and the journey that you have taken. But first and foremost you represent the doctorate moreso than the thesis so it is ok to diverge from what was written, don’t be overly defensive of the work, and demonstrate that you are continuing to develop and learn as an independent researcher. You will have spent many years preparing for the viva. Undoubtedly there will have been many ups and downs. The viva is your opportunity to talk about that process, about what you have learned, what you did, what you didn’t do, what you would do differently and how your work represents an original contribution to knowledge. You will be discussing this with examiners who are also experts in your subject area, who have read your thesis and who will be really interested in what you have to say – that may not happen again! So yes, enjoy it!

Some other useful sources

General guides:

https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/presentations/viva

https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/jan/08/how-to-survive-a-phd-viva-17-top-tips

https://www.jobs.ac.uk/careers-advice/studentships/633/ten-tips-for-getting-through-your-phd-viva

https://labcoatlucy.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/how-to-prepare-for-your-phd-viva-10-top-tips/

https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/kingshistory/2018/01/08/viva-preparation-tips-advice/

http://salmapatel.co.uk/academia/phd-viva-preparation-steps

https://researchandinnovationblog.stir.ac.uk/2017/02/02/preparing-for-the-phd-viva/

Example questions:

https://ddubdrahcir.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/is-it-a-phd-or-not-a-phd-unpacking-the-viva/

https://ndphblog.wordpress.com/2017/05/09/40-practice-questions-for-viva-preparation/

https://susansellers.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/a-guide-to-preparing-for-a-ph-d-viva/

http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/ResearchEssentials/?p=156

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Academic Posts Available at QMU

Queen Margaret University are currently recruiting to the following posts:

  • Senior Lecturer in Marketing
  • Senior Lecturer in Finance and Accounting
  • Lecturer in Business Management
  • Lecturer in Finance and Accounting

We are one of only two universities in Scotland to run an MPA programme. We also have a professional doctorate in public administration (the DPA). These are very successful and growing parts of our activity within the Division of Business, Enterprise and Management. As such we really need people who can work across our core business management programmes as well as the MPA and supervise both PhD and DPA students. Please circulate this message to anyone you think might be interested in applying.

I am also happy to discuss these opportunities with anyone who may be interested in applying. The closing date for all applications is 19 February.
Full information including how to apply can be found here: https://www.qmu.ac.uk/footer/vacancies/vacancies/

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The Scottish Approach to Public Services

I currently have a PhD bursary available on the topic of ‘The Scottish Approach to Public Services’. The Scottish Approach has been defined as encompassing three principles in the design and delivery of public services:

  • Coproduction
  • Assets-based approaches
  • Improvement methodology

Lots has been written on the topic (for example, Cairney 2014, Cairney et al. 2016, Coutts and Brotchie, 2017; Elvidge, 2011; Ferguson, 2015; Housden, 2014) but previous research is often based on explorations of the general principles of the Scottish Approach and understandings of how they influence the policy making process. Less has been written about how the Scottish Approach influences practice in localised contexts such as, for example, local government, higher education or social work.

As such I thought it would be interesting to investigate how the Scottish Approach may influence practice. I didn’t want to be prescriptive about which practice setting the research should focus on but I have provided a few examples which will hopefully spark some thoughts. Previously I have written about why do a PhD (click here to go to the blog post) but ultimately if you are passionate about education then doing a PhD is a fantastic opportunity to study a topic in great depth over a three year period.

The QMU PhD Bursary covers:

  • a full waiver of tuition fees;
  • an annual stipend of £14,553 lasting 3 years for full-time study; and
  • a research budget of £2,000 to cover project expenses and travel.

For more information on the bursary see here: https://www.qmu.ac.uk/study-here/postgraduate-research-study/graduate-school-and-doctoral-research/phd-bursary-competition/ 

For more information on the research topic see here:  https://www.qmu.ac.uk/media/4209/cass-phd-bursary-topics-2018.pdf 

My own research on this topic can be accessed here: https://doi.org/10.1080/09540962.2020.1714206 

References:

Cairney, P. (2014) “The Territorialisation of Interest Representation in Scotland: Did Devolution Produce a New Form of Group-Government Relations?”, Territory, Politics, Governance, DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2014.952326

Cairney, P., Russell, S. and St Denny, E. (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?”, Policy & Politics, Vol. 44 (3), 333–50.

Coutts, P. and Brotchie, J. 2017. The Scottish Approach to evidence. A discussion paper.
Alliance for Useful Evidence. Carnegie UK Trust.

Elvidge, J. (2011) Northern Exposure. Lessons from the first twelve years of devolved
government in Scotland. Institute for Government. London.

Ferguson, Z. (2015) What is the ‘Scottish Approach’?, Alliance for Useful Evidence, London. Available online at: https://www.alliance4usefulevidence.org/what-is-the-scottish-approach/

Housden, P. (2014) “This is us: A perspective on public services in Scotland”, Public Policy
and Administration, Vol. 29 (1), 64-74.

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Guest Blog: Postgraduate Students Face Funding Pressures

By Woody Whittick, MPA student at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

The Scottish Government have made many strong commitments to education – not least of which is the commitment to ‘free’ education for undergraduates. It has also expressed a commitment to increasing postgraduate student numbers (see here) (particularly for people sharing protected characteristics such as disability). As part of this support for postgraduates there are loans available to support both the payment of fees and living expenses: http://www.saas.gov.uk/full_time/pg/index.htm

I applied to do the Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Queen Margaret University in order to enhance my future career prospects, which have been set back by incurable health problems. However, I was shocked to discover that although postgraduate students elsewhere in Britain can access living costs (maintenance) loans whether they study full- or part-time, in Scotland only full-time postgraduates can receive maintenance loans.

This rule has put me in a catch-22 situation. Multi-systemic symptoms worsen with extended or cumulative sitting, so I can’t manage full-time work or study, or both part-time work and study. Years of limited earnings have prevented me accumulating savings. I need to study part-time, but can’t afford to without a maintenance loan.

This seems deeply unfair as the decision to only allow full-time students to receive a maintenance loan is disproportionately detrimental to disabled people and to women. We still live in a society where women are statistically more likely than men to have responsibilities for childcare or adult dependants, and therefore may be less able to study full-time or save in advance for living expenses. They may, like me, have to give up part-time work in order to study.

I have received some support from Queen Margaret University which has helped. But this doesn’t solve my living expenses problem. I have searched widely but unsuccessfully for alternative maintenance funding.

In the end I have started the MPA as a full-time student – facing no other feasible option. Unfortunately however, within a few short weeks my neurological symptoms worsened. I feel this proves my point – the current rules are discriminatory towards those with disabilities. This seems to run counter to both the Equalities Act and Human Rights legislation. However, a ‘statutory authority exemption’ applies, meaning I cannot take legal action to redress discrimination using the Equality Act. The only legal recourse is via Judicial Review, at a likely cost of c£30K+. Again, I face a seemingly insurmountable hurdle.

The current status of my case is that I am awaiting the outcome of an appeal to SAAS. I hope that the concerns I have raised, as summarised above, will be taken into account and I will be given the support I need to continue my studies. In the meantime have established that the rule originates from a 2015 statutory amendment. I discovered that the regulations have been successfully challenged at Judicial Review on the grounds of age discrimination, resulting in the upper age limit for loans being raised. I seem to be the first person to have highlighted that these regulations are also discriminatory in other ways. I also now understand that although the government has committed to undertaking Equality Impact Assessments before implementing new legislation, it seems they failed to do so in this case.

Unless my appeal to SAAS is successful and the rule is overturned (at least for me individually) I will probably have to withdraw from my studies completely. Even if SAAS find a way to apply discretion and uphold my appeal, that will not change the rules for other people. It is an incredibly frustrating situation – and one of the ironies if this is that I am not even asking for grant funding – I am only asking for a loan which I would then be required to pay back.

Thankfully there does seem to be a lot of political support for this issue. My local MSP and I have both raised concerns with the Cabinet Ministers for Education and Equality, with cross-party support from the shadow Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative MSPs with portfolios for Education or Equalities, who have all raised concerns to John Swinney through the appropriate channels. We await his response and hope that others will not face the same challenges and frustrations that I have encountered in seeking to complete postgraduate study.

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