Tag Archives: education

Why become a Fellow of the HEA?

One of the things that social science academics like to discuss is the value of theory. We instill in our students the importance of academic research and theory. We discuss how theory can be used to better understand practice. We also like talking a lot about the importance of reflection; critical reflection that is underpinned by theory. Yes, theory, theory, theory. Everywhere you look there is more of it, Marxist, post-structuralist, Keynesian, feminist, the list is endless.

But do we practice what we preach? If theory and reflection are all that important then presumably we all engage in theory and reflection to underpin our own practice? Do we?

Actually, in order to become a ‘teacher’ at a university (I started in 2001/02) all you need is, ideally, one degree higher than those you are ‘teaching’. Of course it isn’t really ‘teaching’ but that might warrant another post another time. But there is no requirement for formal teaching qualifications. Or at least there wasn’t when I started.

Increasingly universities are requiring staff to undertake some form of training in teaching and learning prior to taking up a lectureship or other academic post. This is often linked to accreditation with the Higher Education Academy and aligned with the UK Professional Standards Framework. But rather than suggest that you must become a Fellow (or Senior Fellow etc) I would argue that you should become a Fellow of the HEA.

I undertook the process of applying for recognition as Senior Fellow in 2015 (via the QMU CPD Scheme). Prior to that I had not really taken much time to reflect on my approach to teaching and learning. What I did was largely the result of the many great lecturers I experienced as an undergraduate at Glasgow Caledonian University – which had so many amazing lecturers at the time that it’s impossible to list them all in one blog post. I had never truly reflected on this and considered what it was about the approach of academics there which contrasted so much with my experiences of school education and how this had impacted on my position in the seminar room / lecture hall.

The process of going through the UK Professional Standards Framework and the HEA application process forced me, for the first time, to properly engage with pedagogy. I read Mezirow, Freire and many contemporary texts on teaching and learning (references provided below). Going through these texts, and thinking critically about my own professional practice, made me much more self-aware. It helped me understand why I do some of the things I do but also made me question some of my practice. This isn’t a one-off process but something that I will continue to do.

Since I gained recognition as a Senior Fellow of the HEA a number of colleagues, from a number of universities, have asked me to send them a copy of my application. I have discussed my application and have supported colleagues in developing their ideas. But I’ve stopped short of sharing my application for one very simple reason – it would be of very little value to anyone else. My application reflects my experience, values and practice. So should yours. Every application should be unique. Every application should, in my opinion, be personal.

My top tip for applying for recognition from the HEA? Make it personal. Start with why you have chosen this career. What is it that has motivated you to be someone who supports student learning? What is it that continues to drive and motivate you.

And one more thing, don’t ask students to engage in theory and reflection if you’re not prepared to do it yourself.




Astin, A. (1984) “Student Involvement: A developmental theory for higher education”, Journal of College Student Development, 25, 297-308.
Ahmed, Y., Ry Neilson, J.C., Raine, J. and Synnott, M. (2013) ‘Special Issue on Developing the Reflexive Public Manager’, Teaching Public Administration. 31: 3 pp.3-5.
Allan, J. (2013) “Foucault and his acolytes”, in Murphy, M. (ed) (2013) Social Theory and Education Research, London: Routledge.
Alvesson, M. and Willmot, H. (1992) (eds) Critical Management Studies, Sage: London.
Apple, M.W. (1982) Education and Power, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Ball, S.J. (ed) (2004) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Sociology of Education, London: Routledge.
Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, SHRE and Open University Press.
Biggs, J and Tang C. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill and Open University Press.
Bloom, B.S. (1979) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook 1: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay.
Brookfield, S.D. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Chickering, A.W. and Gamson, Z.F. (1987) “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education”, American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 39 (7): 3-7.
Demaine, J. (ed.) (2001) Sociology of Education Today, Hampshire: Palgrave.
Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, London: MacMillan.
Elias, D. (1997) It’s time to change our minds: An introduction to transformative learning. ReVision, 20(1).
Entwistle , N. (1988). Styles of Learning and Teaching, London: David Fulton.
Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power, 2nd Edition, London: Routledge.
Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. (2009) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice, 3rd Edition.
Joyce, P. and Coxhead, F. (2012) “Ideas and Issues in University Education for Public Services Leaders”, Teaching Public Administration, April: 1-12.
Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching, a framework for the effective use of educational technology, 2nd Edition, London: Routledge.
Lees, H. (2013) ‘Silence as a pedagogical tool’, Times Higher Education, 22 August 2013.
Little, B., Locke, W., Scesa, A., and Williams, R.(2009) Report to HEFCE on student engagement. Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, The Open University February 2009, available online at: https://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/hefce/content/pubs/2009/rd0309/rd03_09.pdf
Lucas, U. and Milford, P. (2009) Key aspects of teaching and learning in accounting, business and management”, in Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice, 3rd Edition, p382-404
Meighan, R. and Harber, C. (2007) A sociology of Educating, 5th Edition, London: Continuum International Publishing.
McKimm, J. (2009) Teaching Quality, Standards and Enhancement, in Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall (eds) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 3rd Edition, London: Routledge, pp. 186-197.
Reay, D. (2004) “Finding or Losing Yourself? Working-class relationships to education”, in Ball, S.J. (ed) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Sociology of Education, London: Routledge.
Smyth, J. and Shacklock, G. (2004) “Teachers doing their ‘economic’ work” in Ball, S.J. (ed) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Sociology of Education, London: Routledge.
Synnott, M. (2013) “Reflection and double loop learning”, Teaching Public Administration, 31: 124-134.
Papert, S. (1993). The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, New York: Basic Books.
Piaget, J. (1977) Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Quinn, B. (2013) “Reflexivity and education for public managers”, Teaching Public Administration, 31: 6-17.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Werthman, C. (1963) “Delinquents in schools: a test for the legitimacy of authority’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 8: 39-60.
Zaretsky, R. (2013) ‘If silence is golden, we should invest in it during seminars’, Times Higher Education, 8 August 2013.




Tagged , , ,

Do league tables matter?

League tables are most commonly associated with football. Everyone knows that the team who wins the most games goes up the league table. The team who finishes top at the end of the season our the league champions. Having won the league the champions may secure promotion to a higher league or entry to other competitions such as the Champions League or Europa League. And everyone knows that Partick Thistle are, on that basis, not as ‘good’ a team as Celtic, Aberdeen or Hearts. Yet I still support the Jags and think they are better for lots of different reasons.

So, what about league tables in the context of Higher Education? One of the challenges here is knowing what counts as success? It’s not as simple as scoring goals – there is research output, student satisfaction, completion rates, student-staff ratios, employability. And how highly should each of these be ranked? Each league table rates these factors to differing degrees (see here for more comparison of league tables). As well as the most well known tables, such as The Guardian and Times Higher there are also a number of alternative league tables (see here for more). So the overall picture is incredibly complex, even confusing. Hardly surprising when we consider the complex nature of public services (as I’ve written about previously).

There are many question marks around the way figures are reported and potential gaming that takes place in order for universities to increase their performance. Issues like, for example, whether those universities that score well in research are doing so at the expense of their teaching and learning – and do research active staff also engage in teaching or is this primarily delivered by lowly paid staff on causal contracts or PhD students?

Another challenge is the way in which all institutions are compared on the same metrics and in the same table. It is rather like having Partick Thistle and Real Madrid in the same league and expecting them to be equally competitive. Consider, for example, that the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583, has 6,422 academic staff, 6,458 non-academic staff, endowments of £14.4m  in 2008-09 and total income of £592m (see the Facts and Figure 2016). QMU gained full university status in 2007 (having been first established in 1875 – almost 300 years later than UoE), has a total of 251 academic staff (including researchers) and total income of £38m in 2014-15 (which is actually about half of what Cambridge University received in endowments alone in the same year) (more Facts and Figures 2016). So in terms of headcount alone University of Edinburgh has 26 times the resources that we have at QMU and yet we are expected to compete against the same metrics. To extend the football analogy it’s like playing a team of 286 players against a standard team of 11 players. In this context it might seem that university league tables are truly absurd and best ignored.

Alternatively we could consider the extent to which any one university moves in the rankings year on year. Recently QMU went down on The Guardian league table from 76th to 101st place (see the full table here). But does that mean we have got so much worse over the last twelve months? Again rather than looking at the league table as a whole it might be helpful to compare our closest competitors: Edinburgh Napier (down from 64th to 70th), Glasgow Caledonian (down from 89th to 99th) and Abertay University (up from 93rd to 85th). What this shows is that institutions do tend to move quite a lot year on year. It would seem that very small changes in some of the metrics can result in a very large shift in the league table position. So again, league tables don’t say very much.

Of course, if universities were compared on a per capita basis some of the stats might appear very different. One might ask what on earth do larger, more established universities do with £1bn of expenditure a year or with 26 times the number of staff of smaller institutions. I would argue that QMU generates a lot of benefit with a very small percentage of the income that more established universities enjoy every year. Actually, I think that we are an excellent university. I know that we punch well above our weight and that our staff are incredibly committed to the student experience. I know that we have improved significantly over the seven years that I have worked there. I know there are still things that could improve – but I know that everyone is committed to making that improvement happen.

As just one example of our commitment to the student experience our our recent staff away day focused entirely on our undergraduate provision – and three students were invited to join us for part of the day to discuss their experience. I’ve never known that to happen at any other academic staff away day. And the one common thread across the entire day was how can we improve the student experience and the employability of our graduates. Everyone believes it and everyone is committed to it.

If you want a great experience as a student I can’t promise that you’ll get it at QMU – but what I can promise is that we’ll do everything we can to make it a great experience. What’s more, I know that if you don’t have a positive experience we will ask for your feedback, we will listen AND we will take action.

But here’s the thing; if a student has a negative experience at university, or perhaps doesn’t get the degree they wanted to get, who is ultimately to blame? I actually think it’s misleading to consider the success of a university as being solely down to the performance of the staff. Actually, much of our ‘success’ as measured by league tables, is not within our control. A university is as much a collection of students as it is a group of academics, academic-related and other professional and support services staff. In this sense the analogy with football is clearly completely preposterous – with football the success is down the players on the pitch; with universities the success is as much down to the fans on the stands (the students) as it is down to the players on the pitch. And while it may be easy for football clubs to buy new players during the transfer season what can a university do if the students do not engage in the learning activities in the way that they should? Of course we can encourage students and create learning activities that students want to engage with. But failing that all we can do is award those students lower grades – which then affects our league table position.

So please tell me, what can Partick Thistle do to compete with Real Madrid. And what can WE do to compete with Cambridge?

Tagged , , ,

Coffee, lunch, education, networking, experience, trip to Brussels!

EU Referendum, elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly, English local councils, London Mayor and London Assembly, police and crime commissioner elections. May 2016 is due to be a busy month for all of those with an interest in Politics, Policy and Public Administration. At a global level the development of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal’s and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change represent major challenges for all those working in public service contexts. All of this means that the next few weeks and months will undoubtedly involve a degree of change for our public services.

At QMU we are bringing together some of the top thinkers in public administration for a research colloquium on Friday 13 May 2016 in order to contribute to ongoing debates around the successful leadership of change in our public services. Attendance for delegates is FREE as this event has been kindly sponsored by the Joint University Council’s Public Administration Committee (of which we are an institutional member).

Spaces are limited so please book now to reserve your place: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/leading-change-in-public-services-tickets-24921644309

Confirmed speakers include Prof Paul Cairney, University of Stirling, Scotland, Prof Paul Joyce, Universite Libre de Bruxelle, Belgium, and Prof Jari Stenvall, University of Tampere, Finland. As well as learning about the latest academic research delegates will benefit from some key insights into professional practice from Dave Watson, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland and Steve Toft, Director of Crucible and writer of Flip Chart Fairy Tales. A full draft agenda is available here.

Following this conference we will be publishing a short report and speakers will be invited to contribute to a special issue of a peer-reviewed academic journal.

This FREE event is just one example of the type of learning experience that can be expected by students on our new MPA programme. We always endeavor to build the research base of our teaching and engage with policy and practice. By doing so we can assure that our postgraduate programmes are context-driven and problem-focused.

Previously we have also been able to offer our students free places at other professional conferences. We also have a number of great guest speakers (though this does not include Donald Trump!).We are also able to offer free tuition through a number of scholarship schemes and tuition fee loans from SAAS. There are also SAAS living-cost loans up to £4,500 available to cover living expenses while studying. Other scholarship information is available here. We will also be offering free workplace learning opportunities to all students on the programme in association with ACOSVO. And, we are able to offer tuition fees at a reduced rate as this is a new programme.

As well as offering extensive support to our students we are also able to offer an excellent student experience. The following short video illustrates some of the benefits of being a QMU postgraduate student. We are also current planning excursions and fieldtrips for our new MPA students including a trip to the Scottish Parliament and to the EU Parliament in Brussels.

As well as all this we have recently validated a Professional Doctorate in Public Administration (DPA) whereby students from the MPA will have the opportunity to transfer over to the DPA after having completed six modules (and meeting other entry criteria). More on this later!

We are keeping student numbers on our new MPA low in order to be able to provide an excellent student experience so to reserve a place on the programme please apply now: http://www.qmu.ac.uk/courses/PGCourse.cfm?c_id=277

Tagged , , , ,

ACOSVO Leadership Exchange

As part of our new MPA programme we have developed a partnership with the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations (ACOSVO) to include a practical experience opportunity for our students. For some of our students this will involve participating in ACOSVO’s highly innovative Leadership Exchange programme.

In order to gain some first hand experience of this programme – and to develop my own professional practice – I took part in a leadership exchange over the last six months. The following is offered as a reflection on my participation.

I was paired with Andy Dey, Operations and Development Manager at ACOSVO. The purpose of our exchange was largely to explore the links between our two organisations and, for me, to get experience of the Leadership Exchange prior to it becoming a core part of our new MPA programme. This last point was important as I wanted to make sure I had a concrete understanding of the process before advising our new students. But equally the former purpose was necessary so that we could scope out together how our two very different organisations would work together in supporting students on the MPA.

The first thing to note about my particular exchange was that, as exchange partners, we could not be more different in our backgrounds and experience. Andy has experience at a senior level in the military (RAF/Air Commodore) and third sectors, including the running of multi-million pound, multinational organisations. I am an academic (albeit I do work in the real world!).

This difference was not a barrier to learning. In fact, I would argue that having people working together from different organisations and backgrounds is an enabler of learning. What is important for learning to take place is that both parties are open to the opportunity and are willing to challenge and question their own practices, values and beliefs. In doing so it’s important that both parties in the exchange respect the others’ perspective. I’m reminded of my favourite Rabbie Burns poem, To a Louse,

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

With any learning or development opportunity it’s important that those engaged in the process enter into it with the right mindset. If one party approaches any learning opportunity thinking ‘I know best’ then realistically there won’t be much learning!

So whilst the exchange partners may come from different backgrounds and experiences it is important that they share a common purpose. Thus the first stage in the ACOSVO leadership exchange process, filling out the application form, includes questions such as:

  • What are your areas of experience and knowledge which might be of interest for an exchange partner?
  • What topics would you like to explore during your exchange?
  • What would you like to gain from a Leadership Exchange

Within our MPA programme we are extending this by requiring students to complete a Tripartite Agreement between the university, their exchange partner and themselves. This will detail their anticipated learning outcomes from the exchange and the types of activities that they will be involved in to achieve these outcomes.

Within my exchange the key outcomes were clear and were shared between myself and my exchange partner so that the experience was a positive one. We met a number of times at both ACOSVO and at the university. I was able to sit in on an ACOSVO board meeting and Andy contributed to one of our Collaborations Operations Group (COG) meetings. As well as our meetings we had regular email communications. Again, communication is important for any learning experience to work – not to mention partnership working.

For our MPA students there will be a requirement that they attend four campus-based sessions about the workplace learning element of the programme. For those going through the leadership exchange there is a requirement that 24 hours of ‘contact time’ be used within the Leadership Exchange itself. This might equate to six half day (4 hour) sessions or three full day (8 hours) sessions. Again there needs to be this level of commitment and engagement in order to get the most out of it – particularly when benchmarked against Master’s level learning outcomes.

But what did I get out of it? A greater appreciation of the great work done within the Third Sector; positive affirmation that what we do as a university in terms of governance and quality assurance is of a very high standard; and contact with a hugely experienced Third Sector leader – who also happens to be a great guest speaker! But most of all I would say that my experience on the leadership exchange made me realise just how great the idea of leadership exchange is – and the case studies from others who have taken part testify to the value of this programme.

I would recommend the ACOSVO Leadership Exchange programme to anyone who genuinely wants to develop their professional practice. I’m delighted that at least one of my colleagues from the senior management team at QMU has embarked on a leadership exchange having heard about my experience – hopefully others will follow. Moreover I know that the MPA programme will be a terrific learning experience for all involved and I can’t wait to get started in September!

Applications for our new MPA, in partnership with ACOSVO, are now open. Click here to apply.



Tagged , , , ,

Donald Trump confirmed as Visiting Professor on Edinburgh MPA programme

I’m delighted to be able to confirm Republican Presidential candidate and entrepreneur Donald Trump as Visiting Professor on our new MPA programme.




Donald is well known for both his intellectual thinking and his strong Scottish roots. He has recently been lauded by international organisations such as the UN and WHO on his use of the latest academic research to inform policy on key issues such as immigration, women’s rights and climate change. As such he’ll be a real asset to modules such as ‘Gender and Equality’ and ‘Social Justice and Critical Perspectives on the State’.

Applications for the MPA are now available here.

For more information see our course leaflet or this website.







** In case you hadn’t worked it out already, it’s April Fool’s Day! **

Tagged , ,

Academics in the Real World

I’m often asked if I have any real world experience. Sometimes I’m even told ‘what would you know about the real world’. There are so many flaws in both those standpoints (and much has been written about this previously) but I think there is another important point to consider. What is happening here, is that there is a perception that universities, and by extension those who work in them, are somehow different from everyone else. That we are not ‘real’.

The fact that, in Scotland over 56% of the population attend university has seemed to have been ignored. University education is for all – all ages, all backgrounds, anyone with a thirst for learning. It’s not some distant or exclusive ivory tower. We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns – even academics.

But more than that, I believe that everything we do in universities, has some form of practical focus and thus some basis in ‘reality’. One of my favourite quotes is by Kurt Lewin (1951):

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”.

To develop any theory we may conduct experiments, collect surveys or observe communities. Then, when we then want our research to have an impact, again we are drawn to working with external organisations and professionals. Whatever the methodology, whatever the subject matter and whatever the impact there is always an external motivation and focus to our work.

For me this is absolutely critical – and the idea that ‘practical’ and ‘theory’ are diametrically opposed is utter nonsense. Yes, theory may not always work out the way we had hoped or anticipated, but that is not to say that it doesn’t matter. One of our students, who is Head of Policy, Performance and Development at Anytown Council, summed it up by saying about our postgraduate programme that,

“[This course] covers very contemporary and relevant issues – which aids the application of learning into the practical work environment. A good level of engagement with academic literature and research enhances this further. In a very time-constrained work life there is value in this course and I have not regretted my investment of time (which isn’t always the case!!)”.

In other words, theory enhances practice! In my own work I have been fortunate to work with many external organisations. I have delivered a PgCert to public servants on behalf of Academi Wales and I’m currently supporting delivery of an MSc Public Services Leadership to City of Edinburgh Council, Dundee City Council and Orkney Islands Council.

Recently, I have been involved in developing a new MPA programme. Again we wanted to make sure there were strong links with appropriate external organisations. As a result we have set up a partnership with the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations (ACOSVO) to enable all students on our MPA to take part in some form of work experience while studying. This is a fantastic opportunity for students to see the links between theory and practice first hand.

We are offering this MPA to individuals and to organisations. And we are always keen to work with external organisations to support employees and to inform the delivery of excellent public services. What’s more, we have arranged a special discounted fee level for this programme for it’s first year. But does the ‘real world’ want to work with us? Well, assuming that’s where you are right now – let me know!


This post is also listed on LinkedIn where there have been a number of very interesting comments posted about the extent to which those working in universities can support those in other public services. This can be viewed here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/academics-real-world-ian-c-elliott

Tagged , , ,

What is an MPA?

By Dr Ian C Elliott, Dr Peter Falconer and Susanne Ross

What on earth is an MPA? Is that similar to an MBA? Why would anyone want to do an MPA? These are just some of the questions we have been asked when speaking to public service professionals about the development of the MPA at Queen Margaret University.

So what is an MPA? Well, to start with, it is a Master of Public Administration. In other words, it’s the public sector equivalent of a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

In that case presumably it must be similar to an MBA? Well, yes and no. The MPA and MBA are what are known as Type 3 master’s programmes – in other words, post-experience master’s. Entrants to this type of programme would typically have at least two years experience. In this sense the MBA and MPA are similar – both are typically post-experience master’s programmes.

But is the content of an MPA similar to an MBA? This is where things start to get more complicated. There is no single set curriculum for MPA programmes. As a result some (though not all) MPA programmes have content that is very similar to what you would find on an MBA. Modules can include things like strategic management in the public sector; human resource management in the public sector; financial management in the public sector and so on. In other words, an MBA with a public sector slant.

So why would anyone want to do an MPA? Increasingly there is a recognition that private sector management techniques do not always translate into public service environments. Different skillsets and different perspectives are needed to transform public services. Those with professional experience will likely have significant management skills already. Studying an MPA, as opposed to an MBA, can help develop new skills and new perspectives.

The QMU MPA in Edinburgh is structured around a philosophy of transformational change. In designing the curriculum our starting point was to consider what makes public services distinctive – their central role in promoting social justice and equality. Modules include ‘Gender and Equality’ and ‘Social Justice and Critical Perspectives on the State’ alongside ‘International Trends in Public Administration’ and ‘Leading Change in Public Services’. Rather than reflect public services, the State and society, this MPA programme aims to shape the public service landscape of tomorrow.

If that is something you can relate to then this might just be the MPA for you. Further information is available in this programme leaflet or at our website. For more information contact co-directors Dr Ian C Elliott: ielliott@qmu.ac.uk or Susanne Ross: sross@qmu.ac.uk

Dr Ian C Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Business & Public Services, QMU Edinburgh.

Susanne Ross, Lecturer in Business & Public Services, QMU Edinburgh.

Dr Peter Falconer, Reader in Public Services Management, QMU Edinburgh.

Tagged , , , ,

Why I don’t like email

Please don’t email me

Every semester when I start my undergraduate teaching I begin by setting the ground rules. Things like the importance of attendance, the need for extensive reading and so on. All what I would expect is fairly standard stuff. However, one area where I seem to differ from many academics is in my approach to student support. I tell all my undergraduate students not to email me.

This may seem unsupportive. I should stress that at the same time as telling students that they should not email me I do explain why and I also explain the variety of other ways they can and will receive support with their studies. However, this message can sometimes get lost. Given the increasingly consumerist nature of students and marketisation of higher education I thought it would be helpful to provide a blog post explaining my position on this issue.

The following provides a detailed list of my objections to email as well as touching on the other ways I provide support to my undergraduate students.

1. Email is distant

Email is an impersonal and distant mode of communication. This does have some advantages, for example with distance learning students. However, I see my full-time undergraduate students at least twice a week – once in lectures and once in seminars. The use of email can create a sense of distance where, in my view, it should not exist. Consequently I tell all my undergraduate students that, rather than send an email, they should rise any questions they have in class.

Now there is an important exception to this rule. I do think there is a need for use of email with postgraduate students, many of whom are either studying part-time or by distance learning, and so do not have the weekly contact that full-time undergraduate students have. It is also fair to say that email contact is useful outside term time for all students.

2. Email is individual and hidden

Students who receive significant advice or support from lecturers via email communication can, in effect, have an unfair advantage over those who do not receive this information. Rather than responding to individual students by email I devote the first 10 mins of class to an open Q&A session. This allows me to relay answers to all students at the same time – thereby eliminating any favoritism or the likelihood of receiving several separate emails on the same topic. Where any questions relate to assignments I make sure to upload the question and reply to our university Virtual Learning Environment in the form of FAQs so that all students can see the reply – and these FAQs are copied over into future years.

3. It takes seconds to send and minutes to reply

Sending email is very easy for the sender. It can take seconds to write an open-ended question such as “I am having difficulty understanding the distinction between concept x and concept y. Could you please tell me how these two concepts relate to the theory of z“.

That may be a very good question. But while it might take seconds to send, replying is likely to take some minutes. As a result we can find much of our time filled up with what many refer to as “dealing with email”. Alternatively, answering such a question in class is likely to take less time and importantly can stimulate a greater discussion among the students and so support their peer-to-peer learning.

4. Clog up inboxes

The desire to be inclusive when using email often leads to sending one email to multiple recipients. From one email you can then receive multiple replies which can very quickly help fill up an inbox. Alternatively using discussion forums or social media will also encourage replies but without the limitations of the email inbox.
Email, sucks.

Source: Kristiewells (available here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristiewells/6022279419/)

Ultimately email inboxes are never big enough. No matter where you work you will undoubtedly have, at some point in your career, reached a point where your inbox is full. This can block other emails from getting to you. As such it is best to encourage less use of email – as well as proper management of your inbox (which I must confess I don’t always do).

5. Lack of tone or inflection.

Part of the difficulty in replying to email is the lack of tone or inflection that is possible. In effect this means that we can spend significantly more time drafting an email in order to fully explain what it is we are trying to say than would be possible verbally. There is also the risk that students who write emails, potentially in the heat of the moment, send something which does not entirely reflect their particular concern(s). This can lead to an answer that does not entirely address their concerns – and so lead to follow-up questions and further email exchanges.

6. Email as a weapon.

There is also a sense that some people may use email in order to receive a written response with the intent that this can be used as “evidence” later. This places even greater onus on us to carefully craft emails. The excessive use of email in this way is also an indication of a lack of trust which should be resisted at every opportunity.

7. Computer security

Recently my personal email account was hacked. All my contacts were sent an email, seemingly from me, with a link which (I assume) was linked to a virus. This highlighted for me the inherent insecure nature of email compared with verbal communication. Social media is not immune to such attacks either and so again verbal communication can be preferable.

8. Casual formality

Emails have the immediacy of a tweet or a text but retain an inherent degree of formality more akin to letters. This makes it difficult to judge what is an appropriate tone. The immediacy of email also contributes to assumptions that all emails will receive a response – and an almost immediate response. In this sense social media can be easier to use as these platforms do not tend to have the pretense of formality that is often associated with email and responses are limited to (in the case of Twitter) 140 characters.

9. Antisocial

There is no substitute for face-to-face contact. At the same time there isn’t enough time in the day to meet with all students separately and so some ‘distance’ support is important. But in my view email is, among all alternatives, one of the worst forms of communication method. Again the closed and impersonal nature of email makes it, in my view, a deeply flawed communication method. In comparison many social media tools, such as Twitter, are open to all and so can stimulate a wider discussion and debate. In that sense I think the use of Twitter is actually better than email. It is also important for lecturers to have regular open office hours where students can simply pop in without having to set up a meeting (something which again usually requires email).

10. The idea that email equals support

Some academics may feel that being available (virtually) to all students 24/7 demonstrates a commitment to student support. But the impersonal and distant nature of email, combined by the lack of inflection or tone, can mean that important context can be missed. It may be that what the student is asking about is a symptom of a greater problem which would be raised through a face-to-face discussion. It is also important to stress on students the importance of attendance and that email correspondence combined with engagement with the Virtual Learning Environment does not represent a substitute for face-to-face contact. Finally it is important, in my view, to encourage students to be independent learners who have the confidence and aptitude to find information for themselves.

Final thoughts

Now all of the above is also qualified by the fact that when an emergency arises which cannot wait until the next class then of course students still can use email. It should not however be the default option for any and all queries. It is important that lecturers provide clear and full (and up-to-date) information to students via module handbooks and Virtual Learning Environments. These sources should help to eliminate the need for students to revert to email communications. Lecturers should also be available at the start and end of classes to address any ongoing concerns and to have regular office hours where students can ‘pop-in’. In my view the use of email is no substitute for these methods of support.

So if you are an undergraduate in one of my classes please note that you will find all relevant information about the module and assignment via the Virtual Learning Environment. Important information will be reinforced in classes. There will also be an opportunity at the start of every class to ask any questions you may have. But unless for an emergency please do not email me.

Tagged , , , , ,

What are Public ‘Services’

In a previous post I highlighted some of the challenges that are inherent in managing public services due to the nature of being ‘public’. However, there are also challenges that come with managing a ‘service’. These challenges apply across private and public services, and whether delivered by public, private or Third sectors.

These issues are quite important to recognise for all managers given the continuing rise of the service sector across the world. In fact services account for 62.9% of global GDP

The key characteristics of services are intangible, heterogeneous, inseparable, and perishable as defined by Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry 1990 (although some, notably Lovelock and Gummesson, 2004, have questioned this classification).


Services are largely intangible. They are about having an experience. Of course there are some physical characteristics associated with most services, such as the quality of chairs in a fine dining restaurant, but what makes services unique from goods is the extent to which perceptions of service quality are impacted by environmental factors and customer-provider interactions. These intangible factors are very difficult to control or manage.

Take, for example, a business offering guided bus tours of the Scottish highlands. There are a number of physical features of this service such as the comfort of the seats on the bus. But ultimately much of the service experience will be influenced by factors entirely outside of the control of the business – weather, the interaction with staff, the behaviour of other customers on the bus (to name but a few). These intangible factors make service interactions very unpredictable and difficult to control.

Creative Commons license: by Pedro Szekely


The fact that services are intangible also means that they are not easily stored for future use. So if there is excess capacity this cannot be stored to be sold at another time. In other words, services are perishable.

Take, for example, a street performer. If they do not attract a significant audience for their performance that equates to lost income. They cannot get that time back. Hence the pressure within many services to get ‘bums on seats’. Consequently, pricing is key – particularly with services that have high fixed costs and a fixed capacity such as with cinemas, restaurants and bus tour companies.

Creative Commons license: by Trey Ratcliff

Inseparability of production and consumption

Most services are produced at the same time as they are consumed. So the street performance will be consumed at the same time as it is ‘produced’. This means that quality control is much more difficult than with goods. It also places significant pressure of service staff to always ‘perform’ at a consistent level. This requirement of service workers to perform is best described by the Hochschild (1983) concept of emotional labour. Numerous studies have shown that the strain of constantly having to perform can lead to stress-related illnesses. This blogpost by Flip Chart Fairy Tales highlights a number of other reasons why people in service occupations tend to have more sickness absence that in other occupations.

As an example of the inseparability of production and consumption take transplant surgery. The medical staff must perform consistently under the most extreme pressure with every single patient. Mistakes can cost lives and, unlike with manufacturing, are often not easily rectified. Yet quality inspection and control can only happen at the same time that the ‘customer’ is receiving the service. Furthermore the speed of service delivery is critical. Under these circumstances it is truly impressive what our health workers do on a daily basis. Hence those who use a service, such as the NHS are likely to be more satisfied with the service than those who do not as outlined in this Ipsos Mori report.

Creative Commons license: by Army Medicine


The intangibility and the fact that production and consumption take place at the same time means that the service provided may be slightly different every time. This has significant advantages in terms of customisation and innovation. But it is also costly and can lead to dissatisfaction if a minimum service level is not met.

So a service experience, like a rock concert, may be different every time. Take for example Bruce Springstein’s recent Hyde Park gig where he sung the song, Take Em As They Come, especially for one of his fans in the crowd. The flexibility of many services allows for this sort of innovation and customisation. However, this may be experienced by different people in different ways – even at the same time. The need for some control is also highlighted by the fact that the same Hyde Park gig ran over time to such an extent the organisers were forced to turn off the speakers in order to comply with the terms of their licence.

Nonetheless, the more a service is standardised (which improves efficiency) the less personalisation can be achieved (potentially affecting effectiveness). Imagine if a barber gave every customer the same hair cut. It might be very cheap and efficient but would almost certainly affect customer satisfaction. Given the increasing focus on efficiency over effectiveness it is perhaps not surprising that public attitudes towards the NHS are falling.

Creative Commons license: by Christian Holmér


These factors, when taken together, mean that services are very difficult to manage. When you include the publicness of public services, as well as the complex problems many such services have to deal with, it is perhaps not surprising that they are not always perfectly efficient. Indeed it has been pointed out on this excellent set of posts by Flip Chart Fairy Tales (Part 1; Part 2) just how difficult efficiency gains are in service industries. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t even try to create efficiencies – but it might help to start with realistic expectations.


Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. California: University of California Press.

Lovelock, C. and Gummesson, E. (2004) “Whither services marketing?”, Journal of Services Research, Vol. 7 No.1, pp.20-41.

Zeithaml, V.A., Parasuraman, A. and  Berry, L.L. (1990) Delivering Quality Service. New York: Free Press.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,