General, Students, Trends in Publishing

Is the British education system racially prejudiced?

This is a delicate topic, but as it’s so much in the news at the moment, we thought we ought not to ignore it.

There is, of course, a mountain of statistics to support the assertion that our education system is stacked against people from BAME communities, but also other evidence to illustrate that black and Asian students often go on to be spectacular achievers if they succeed in being admitted to tertiary education. Usually, but not always, these students encounter less prejudice at university – probably because many universities exercise a different kind of prejudice: they are meritocracies. This may be accompanied by the strong feeling in some of the older generation of academics that all that has to be overcome is the same kind of prejudice as that of working-class undergraduates that they themselves triumphed against in the 1970s and 1980s. To muddy the waters even further, white working-class boys emerged some time ago as the group least likely to succeed academically.

It is an unquestionable fact that to get to university you have to succeed at school. If there is racial prejudice, therefore, it seems likely that this is where the problem may lie. Is racial prejudice institutionalised, perhaps covertly, in our schools?

We interviewed a senior teacher who has worked for many years in one of the UK’s largest and most successful comprehensive schools. For obvious reasons, he wishes to remain anonymous, but he spoke to us with passion about this issue.

The school in question was created by the amalgamation of two grammar schools in the 1970s, after which the combined institution became comprehensive. Although the two schools had always educated pupils of different nationalities and creeds, they had been mainly white and predominantly European, as well as academically able in the conventional sense. The school immediately at that point began to enrol pupils from BAME (though this collective term had not been coined then) backgrounds as well, until eventually the school’s population represented over thirty-five different home languages.

There were many difficulties at first which, although the school recognised them, were difficult to resolve. Some teachers were undoubtedly racially prejudiced or old-fashioned meritocrats who were suspicious of or impatient with people from different cultures. As time went on and these older teachers retired, the school was able to develop robust recruitment techniques which ensured that all the staff – including a growing army of non-teaching and support staff, from caretakers to teaching assistants to specialists in the education of children with identified needs to attendance and home liaison officers – were much more representative of the school’s population make-up, shared the same values and agreed on how they would work with students from all backgrounds to provide each child with the support and personal resources to progress well educationally. The school considered it vital to have transparency and clarity through policies carefully constructed by consultation that embraced governors, staff, parents, children and other relevant stakeholders.  

Cultural stereotyping was a more subtle problem. Well-meaning teachers and external influencers might, for example, think it a good idea to set up a steel band for black students and in fact the school experimented with this, but discovered that such a move immediately set participating pupils apart and formed them into a kind of elite. To be properly egalitarian and truly non-racist, the school needed, perhaps by deliberately accommodating particular cultural needs, to encourage BAME students to feel able, by choice, to participate in any school activity. Celebration of individual achievement became central to the approach.

Addressing behavioural issues was another important factor and the students themselves had to understand that, when they were being asked to modify their behaviour, this wasn’t a reflection on their culture, but simply a request to act with courtesy and consideration for others. “At any one time, black students never formed more than five per cent of the school’s total numbers – there were many more Asians – but the black students seemed to be everywhere. The lads in particular were strapping and noisily extrovert. If someone slipped and fell in the corridor, they would find it hilarious and laugh and shout and point. They had to learn to be more aware of the effect they were having on others. It was vital to develop in all pupils the capacity for empathy, rather than simply applying behavioural sanctions.”

Some of these same black pupils proved to be very academically capable indeed once they understood they were valued for themselves and settled down to work. However, over time the school’s own attitude towards what constituted success changed dramatically. Its roots were in the traditional grammar school system of hothousing high academic achievers and rewarding academic success, but by the 1990s its guiding principle was that every student was of equal importance and that each could achieve things which all could celebrate. Mutual kindness and mutual appreciation of talents of all kinds became its mantra. The emphasis was firmly on individual and personal needs and how those should best be met, whether they be educational, medical, cultural, religious, gender-related, social or even financial. It was clear that the school’s internal communication of pupil-specific information must be first-rate, confidential and effectively applied.

Both BAME and ‘Caucasian’ students who attended this school are now doctors, teachers, scientists, academics, members of the police or armed forces and politicians. Some are actors, artists and singers. Others are plumbers, bricklayers, secretaries and hairdressers. Across all walks of life, many have kept in touch with each other. Some return to the school to encourage those studying there today, when the students come from even more diverse backgrounds than previously. The school is now one of the most successful comprehensive schools in the country.  It is, however, the painful truth that not all UK schools have taken a similar approach. Schools with less mixed populations perhaps have not developed the expertise or felt the need to pay so much attention to the preparation of their pupils for the multi-cultural world they will enter as employees; such institutions may not have the resources, both human and material, to reflect the rich mixture of British society. Yet they have a duty to prepare their pupils not just with academic skills, but with the social capability that comes from knowledge and understanding of others and with values that will prevent any inclination to stereotype those who may seem different. As I was writing this, the announcement was made that this year’s British Bookseller Awards were dominated by black female authors. Candace Carty-Williams won overall book of the year with her debut novel Queenie; Oyinkan Braithwaite won crime and thriller book of the year with My Sister the Serial Killer; and Bernardine Evaristo, joint Booker winner for Girl, Woman, Other was named Author of the Year.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Digital Publishing, Academic Publishing, Bookselling, VAT

Don’t Tax Reading: the case against VAT on knowledge

The removal of VAT from electronic publications earlier this year was the triumphant culmination of a vigorous campaign that had been led by publishers, booksellers, writers, librarians, teachers and readers over many decades to protest against taxation on knowledge. Originally it was started to save print books from tax: after VAT was introduced to the UK in 1973, successive governments had cast envious eyes on the thriving book and newspaper industries and debated whether to slap this surcharge  on their products, perhaps at a lower rate than for other consumer goods, as other European countries had already done.  Protests began immediately; there were crises as the threat reappeared periodically, which the campaigners always won – VAT has never been imposed on printed publications in the UK – but sometimes the victory was a close-run thing.

To a significant extent, the advent of e-books hobbled the power of those watchful that the government of the day might target print books again. VAT was imposed on e-books immediately they became commercially available, because it was argued that they should be treated in the same way as the products of the music industry – records, cassettes and CDs. Publishers, especially, were worried that if they protested too loudly the government might retaliate by imposing VAT on print publications rather than removing it from electronic ones.

When Annika wrote about the freeing of electronic publications from VAT a few weeks ago, I remembered a book had been published detailing the early struggles.  I have a copy and had hoped to quote from it.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it then, but yesterday was finally reunited with it. Published in 1985, it’s even more venerable than I thought.  It was designed to be submitted to the Treasury when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Nigel Lawson the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and commissioned by an organisation called the National Book Committee.  (I’ve looked this up: it no longer exists, but in the foreword, contributed by its “Chairman” [sic], Baroness David, she explains that it represented “all the major organisations concerned with the production and reading of books”.) It was written by Marita Evans of W H Smith and Brenda White of CPI Associates (a research organisation similar to Gold Leaf), supported by several prominent academics, including Dr Frank Fishwick, of the University of Cranfield (with whom Gold Leaf subsequently worked on a JISC report on e-books).

Don’t Tax Reading: the case against VAT on knowledge is a fascinating compendium of history, economic argument, statements from prominent authors and accounts of the legal and political debates on the dissemination of knowledge that have taken place since the middle of the nineteenth century. Below are some selected quotations that seem particularly relevant.

“In 1941, in the darkest days of the Second World War, when the Government needed every penny it could get, the idea of a tax on books, on knowledge, was rejected.”

“Any attempt to separate out books of ‘non-educational value’ for taxation would lead to absurd judgements having to be made.  Fiction and poetry, for example, classical or popular, are just as important to understanding, literacy, and to our culture as serious works for formal education.”

“It seems that each generation has had to fight for the independence of the written word .. if this generation is to win its round, we must use words and tactics that are relevant today.  The arguments of the eighties.”

“The Government record for skimping on school books is abysmal: where among every twenty young adults leaving school – not even a classroom-full – there is at least one who is effectively illiterate; where a Government that is introducing huge training programmes to make sure that school-leavers are employable in our fast-thinking, fast-technology society, is now proposing to tax the basis by which those children’s minds are trained – the written word.”

“The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education stated the following: ‘At a time when the Government is crying out for a better-educated work force, imposing a tax on books is not only illogical, it is stark-raving mad. Further and higher education students would need an extra £1.5 million in grants to enable them to buy their books if VAT is imposed. Will the Government provide this? We think not. Students will be penalised and their access to books reduced. And those students already least able to afford books will be the hardest hit.’”

Some of these statements seem quaint to us now. Grants? Today’s students should be so lucky! And  in 1985 students paid no tuition fees. The £1.5 million figure given as a proportion of overall student spend on books is illuminating: in 1985 the proportion of school leavers entering Higher Education was still only approximately 15%. Most were spending – and expected to spend – more in actual amounts – i.e., not adjusted for inflation – than students expect to spend today. The concept of the UK aspiring to a “fast-thinking, fast-technology society” in 1985 may seem risible to us; but no doubt future generations will be having a similar laugh at our expense in 2055.

However, much of the information captured in these extracts raises serious questions about how much progress we’ve made in the intervening 35 years. The Literacy Trust says that 1 in 7 adults in the UK today has the reading age of a child of nine or lower. There is still under-investment in our schools. In 2015, Iain Duncan Smith, the then Work and Pensions Secretary and prominent member of the Cameron administration, congratulated the government because the number of children living in poverty had “dropped to 2.3 million” – “the lowest since the mid-1980s”.  That figure was shocking; and even more shocking was that the government thought achieving the child poverty level of thirty years before was a cause for celebration. There has been further deterioration since: the Children’s Society estimates that four million children are living in poverty in 2020.

Social imbalance and educational under-achievement are of course the result of a complex mixture of factors; they can’t be attributed to a single cause. Neither can a “silver bullet” be conjured to remedy them. However, enabling affordable access to knowledge in all its formats has to be the greatest single action a government can take to alleviate these ills. Let us hope that the removal of VAT from every kind of publication is permanent; but if its shadow looms again, key stakeholders must surely unite again to protect knowledge.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Students

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a student

We asked Daphne van Engeland, who studies in her second year towards a BA in Digital Marketing at Coventry University about her experiences.

Please tell us a little bit about the courses and lectures you attend.

Each of my courses has two one-hour lectures and one two-hour seminar per week. The lectures can be in groups of over 100 students as some marketing courses overlap and the seminars are more interactive in smaller groups, typically around 15 students. During lectures we’d sit in a big hall and listen to the lecturer, while seminars have a more practical focus and we often have to do assignments which we present afterwards.

Which impact did Covid-19 have on your university and you?

From the end of March, Coventry University suspended all in-person teaching and assessments and then continued closing down the campus further as the situation worsened. When the announcement was made, I rebooked my flight to the Netherlands (where I am original from) that was scheduled for April to one that very same week so I could be safe at home with my family. I have been continuing to study from here.

Tell us about your experience of learning remotely.

The semester at Coventry University was already coming to an end, so I ended up not having any live remote lectures. One teacher did upload videos of the topics that he covered, which was about the coursework. We used Microsoft Teams to have feedback sessions for our coursework, which was new but very useful. I did not have any exams this semester, but from other years of my course I knew they had to complete exams in essay-style and students would have a few hours on a set day to complete them. Cheating does not really work in this case because the exams are all about showing understanding and examples.

Which challenges have affected you most? 

I found it very challenging to be home all the time and get myself to do the work as the situation is stressful for me. Having set days and hours to work on coursework helped me a lot. With group work it is a big challenge that we can’t go and sit down somewhere to work together. Having meetings on Microsoft Teams helps, but I noticed there were more miscommunications than we experienced in previous courseworks. Communication from lecturers differs by person, but they are mostly responsive to emails and do their best to make things work. I feel like it’s important to remember this is new for them too.

Has the Library been able to support you?

The online library at Coventry University has always been quite extensive, and that helps a lot now. Luckily, we get our books at the university included in the tuition fees, so I did not need to borrow any. As I am not in the city at the moment, I unfortunately don’t know if they can still provide physical books. I think they will follow the government rules and open up as soon as they are allowed to and can do so safely.

Which learning resources (books, textbooks, databases, software etc.) are you using for remote teaching? Have these changed?

My online resources often include academic articles and business reports. Those were mostly online anyway, so that has not changed a lot. The textbooks that I did need were mine already. My bank also offered a free subscription to a website of resources, which helped me find some more things I needed. What I would like is if some books came with a code to download the ebook version. I could not take all my books with me, and having them online or on my eReader would have helped me a lot.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I think it will take a while before the large lectures will be started up again and I think that in future the university will be more prepared for situations like these. I think classes will be smaller as long as there is no vaccine and that they will keep on providing online content for those at risk of severe illness. Coventry University is moving to a new learning space as a replacement of Moodle, which will hopefully make remote learning easier. I hope that remote learning will be available even when the university opens again. I personally like being able to watch lectures at home, especially when I’m ill.

Please tell us a bit about yourself

I am from the Netherlands where I studied a few years of European Studies before moving to the UK. In my downtime I like reading and gaming. My love for gaming led me to start streaming on Twitch, which is a hobby for now but I’m hoping that it can be part of my career in the future. I have just started a marketing internship for the summer and will be going on straight to my third year at university after that.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

General, Lecturers, pedagogy

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a Creative Writing lecturer

Dr Judith Heneghan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester tells us how the Covid lockdown is affecting her work.

About the University of Winchester

The University of Winchester traces its origins to a teacher training institution founded in the mid-nineteenth century. This became known as King Alfred’s College, and in the late twentieth century it began to offer degrees in the humanities and performing arts, as well as education. It was awarded university status in 2005 and now consists of four main faculties: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Business, Law and Sport and Education, Health and Social Care. There are approximately 8000 students, the majority from the UK (roughly 6% are from overseas). The Creative Writing programmes are located within the Department of English, Creative Writing and American Studies and offer a range of single and combined honours degrees at the levels of BA, MA and PhD.

 Please tell us a little bit about the disciplines you teach in and the courses you teach. How many students are in each course/lecture, the make-up of the student body. How did you typically teach before the Covid-19 crisis?

I teach Creative Writing at undergraduate and Masters levels, and also supervise a couple of PhD students. Creative Writing as a discipline is long-established at Winchester. Cohorts are a mix of home and international students, pursuing full-time or part-time study. Classes usually take the form of classroom-based seminars for groups of between 14 and 28 students. The writing workshop is a key component of our approach and features peer critiquing and small-group discussion.

Please describe the restrictions that have been applied at your city and your institution as a result of the coronavirus.  When were they first put in place?  Are your offices closed? If so, are you and your colleagues working from home?  How do you do this in practice?

From 23 March onwards, when the nationwide ‘lockdown’ began, the University closed to all but essential personnel. I had already begun to work from home and therefore continued to do so. I arranged to pick up a monitor from my office so that I could have two screens set up on my dining room table, which has now become my ‘home office’. Email traffic has not been much changed by lockdown, but I have been using my mobile phone to a much greater extent, mainly to communicate with colleagues.

Have you been teaching remotely, and if so, for how long? Is it a new experience for you and the students? Which software do you use and is it working well? What about exams? 

The timing of semesters at Winchester and the nature of Creative Writing as a subject means that I have not yet had to do very much remote teaching. I had only two weeks of teaching left before classes concluded and I was able to deliver these sessions via Powerpoint presentations, notes and by setting up discussion threads on the University’s intranet. Tutorials were conducted via email, Zoom, MS Teams or phone calls, depending on the student’s own preference.  All of these have worked well as temporary measures. Creative Writing students don’t sit exams, and they have been submitting assignments online for the past two years. My time at the moment is mainly taken up with marking, which I can do at home.  However, when the new academic year starts in September much greater adjustment will be needed. The extent of this will depend on the levels of social distancing restrictions in place by then.  We may have to accommodate blended or online delivery for a longer period of time.

Which challenges have affected you most?  How have you dealt with them?  What are you most proud of having achieved during the emergency?  What would you say are the greatest challenges that your students are facing? How do they communicate with you?  We’d be very grateful if you could add some short anecdotes here!

Possibly the greatest challenge is the level of uncertainty we all have to cope with, especially when I look forward to September. Concluding the current academic year has been relatively straightforward for me personally, and students and staff have been remarkably flexible under the circumstances. Face time and video conferencing have created some welcome camaraderie as pets and family members make unscheduled appearances! However, the past few weeks have unquestionably been stressful for many of the students. One can only imagine their anxiety about current and future jobs, assignments, and access to resources and technology, and we’ll be doing all we can to support them through these uncertain times. Communication between lecturers and students is less of an issue than peer-to-peer learning and contact, which is very important because of the way our courses are structured, but also for socialising and networking; and this will continue to be a significant challenge until social distancing measures are eased.

Have you had access to the library? Are there ways in which the library can provide more help at the present time?  Have they already helped – for example, by providing access to more online content, offering scanning services, etc.? 

My understanding is that the university is indeed providing access to more online content etc.

Please give any further information you would like to add.  What do you think will happen when people gradually go back to university?  Will some things have changed permanently?  Can some good have come out of the crisis and its impact on the ways in which people work – e.g., by using distance learning more innovatively, being more creative with the development of teaching and learning materials?  What are the mid- to long-term impacts on teaching likely to be?

I think it is inevitable that online learning will increase. Necessity will drive innovation across all subjects and perhaps this in turn will extend to innovation in the way we offer traditional face-to-face learning and teaching, as the ‘blended’ classroom becomes more familiar to us all.

Tell us a little about yourself

I came to academia quite late, after an early career in publishing, having brought up four children. In 2000 I studied for an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester, and when my first children’s books were published in 2005 I was invited back to teach. I was Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival for six years, and now divide my time between lecturing and writing. My novel for adults, Snegurochka, was published by Salt in 2019.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Academic Publishing, Digital Publishing, Open Access, Trends in Publishing

From Open Access to Open Research: a summary of developments

As the OA movement picked up momentum, there were some watershed moments in the UK: the publication of the Finch Report (2012), which – to the surprise of many – chose the Gold “author pays” model (in which the author or his or her institution pays an APC, or Article Processing Charge) over the Green free-to-view-after-an-embargo-period model; the ruling by the major funding bodies, including RCUK and Wellcome, that outputs of the research they fund (journal articles and underpinning data) must be published OA and the content made available for re-use; and the requirement of REF 21 that authors’ final peer-reviewed and accepted article manuscript submissions must be placed in an Open Access repository.  The last of these supports the Green OA model, but without the embargo element. 

Developments in Europe were soon to surpass the UK in ambition. The principal research funder in the Netherlands, the VSNU, began to mandate a transition to full OA via “transformative agreements” with major publishers in 2016. In 2017, the Swedish government issued its Government Appropriation Directive to the National Library of Sweden (leading member of the BIBSAM consortium that co-ordinates library spending across the country) that “all scientific publications resulting from research financed with public funds shall be published immediately open access”, with a deadline of 2026 for “transitions” with all publishers to be fully realised; also in 2017, Projekt DEAL, a German consortium of libraries and research institutes, set a target of revising licence agreements with major publishers to “bring about significant changes in content access and pricing” of e-journals.  Denmark, meanwhile, remains committed to Green Open Access, as do some countries around the world, including the United States until recently (though without consistent policy or a mandate).

Despite all this activity, some major research funders across Europe and the UK believed that progress towards attaining full and complete Open Access to their funded outputs was moving too slowly. Concerns over “double-dipping” and the lack of take-up of initiatives such as membership schemes and the “block grants” from UK HEIs, compounded a view that publishers were profiteering from taxpayer-funded research that ought to be open for all. There is much general recognition that publishers do add value, but the margins and perceived behaviours of some have become polarising elements in negotiations with their stakeholders. The hard reality of adverse macroeconomic factors for higher education has fused with the ideal of democratisation of knowledge (propounded by groups like Unpaywall) to challenge the industry to change – although without concomitant change to the academic incentives that drive ever-increasing research publishing in the first place.

In 2018, the EU Commission created cOAlition S and launched Plan S, which set out ten main principles intended to achieve full and immediate Open Access by 2021: “…all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” Key tenets of Plan S are that research must be available via free online access immediately upon publication; be free for sharing and re-use under (ideally) the CC-BY copyright licence; and that publication in hybrid journals is not acceptable unless covered by a transformative agreement.

UK Research & Innovation, allied with cOAlition S, is consulting on its own very similar recommendations at present, with a 2022 compliance target. Separately, the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) of the President of the United States appears to be preparing a similar position. Some academic publishers felt that Plan S merely formalised the goal to which they were already working, although bringing forward the deadline; others, including the largest, have resisted the mandate, which has led to disputes and ongoing battles that these publishers probably can’t win.

A benefit of the pressure being applied by funders is that the most enterprising publishers are considering real openness throughout the research cycle – often of more actual value to researchers than the formal published output – and trying to add value in supporting academic dialogue, early findings, failed experiments, supporting datasets and more.

Open Access for books has also been experimented with, at first either by small publishers – often new university presses set up for this specific purpose – or via open funding platforms such as Knowledge Unlatched; later by the larger academic publishers themselves. In the UK, the 2027 REF requirements have mandated Green open deposit of accepted book manuscripts; UKRI considers them “in scope” from 2024; and the National Endowment for the Humanities is approaching both authors and their publishers with offers of grant funding to turn monographs OA retrospectively. Nevertheless, a viable OA business model for books does not yet exist.

The conundrum that academic publishers have had to address is how to fulfil the requirements of the mandates, treat their librarian customers fairly, and develop a sustainable business model to ensure their own survival.  The “transitional model” developed – which has many variants –  is commonly called “Read and Publish”. It involves signing an agreement with an individual library or consortium that monies formerly supplied to the publisher for subscriptions and/or APCs should be combined in a single payment that allows readers access to the publisher’s content and pays for new articles to be published at the same time.  Ideally, no new money will be introduced into the system, though if a per-article APC model predominates, both cost and complexity will inevitably increase. Some publishers allow unlimited new articles to be published within this payment scheme; others put a cap on the number the payment will cover.

The model is simple in principle but needs much work by both publishers and libraries to make it work, and will only be successful if a) it really effects transformation and b) if the author experience is at least as smooth as it was in the old world of subscription funding.  There are plenty of issues besides this to address: transitional agreements are not intended to last forever – basing payment on historic spending will not work in the long term; funding streams across institutions are not centralised; big research libraries may not be able to publish all accepted articles if there is a cap on the “publish” element of the deal – and if this happens, who will decide which articles to publish?; metadata capture and workflows are still painfully inadequate; crucially, many academics are still unaware, or shaky on the detail, of what it means to publish Open Access and need a great deal of support from librarians and publishers in the form of workshops, online tutorials, etc.; and some confuse OA publishing by reputable mainstream publishers with the “cowboy” publications that proliferated after APCs were accepted as a form of payment, and are therefore hostile to the concept.

Above all, the model must be adopted globally in order to succeed. There may be enough money in the system overall, but its distribution will differ radically under R&P, which has implications for the whole ecosystem. China and the USA lead the world in the quantity of their research output.  Neither has a national OA mandate yet – though some American institutions have now signed Read and Publish deals.  The consumer nations, which publish less than they read, should end up paying less – but how will publishers support research outputs from the developing world? In the long term, publishers can’t run with two major business models – i.e., subscriptions + APCs and Read and Publish.  They need the whole world to get behind the Read and Publish model.  Will this happen?

[Written by Linda Bennett]
This article was first published by Bookbrunch on 13th May 2020.

General, Lecturers, pedagogy

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a lecturer

We talked to Dr. Oliver Lindemann, Assistant Professor for Research Methods and Techniques at the Department of Psychology, Education & Child Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Netherlands

(c) Oliver Lindemann

Tell me a little about your University and the current situation

Erasmus University grew out of the “Netherlands School of Commerce”, which was founded in 1913 and has always been one of the world’s top-ranked Business Schools. In 1966 a Medical Faculty was added and the “full” university under its current name was established in 1973. To this day, the university focusses on Medical, Cultural and Social Sciences and the Business School (RSM) remains a big influence on the university’s overall reputation. In recent years, the Rotterdam School of Social Science and Behaviour has enrolled more students than the Business School. Psychology is the strongest subject within this school by some distance. The percentage of foreign students is high. They come mainly from Germany and the Asian countries.  

Which courses do you teach?

I teach research methods and statistics for Social Sciences across the school. Most of my students are Psychology students but some study other disciplines, mainly Pedagogy. I teach both post- and undergraduate students and supervise a small group of PhD students.
Because my courses are compulsory, typically 400-500 students attend my lectures. In the past year, we’ve even had lectures of more than 1,000 students. Levels of knowledge and interest in my subject are diverse and as the cohorts are also large it is difficult to teach in a way that caters for everyone. Consequently, I record my lectures and ask as many students as possible to watch them online and only attend in person if they must. It’s mainly “talk and chalk”, so it makes little difference to the quality whether I tape a lecture or conduct it as a “live show”.
The students also attend tutorials in groups of about 20 students. There they discuss and practise the methods learned in the lecture.  Since the lockdown this has become much more difficult, because tutors have to support students on a one-to-one basis and provide feedback.  

How has the current situation impacted your teaching and which measures have you taken?

The Erasmus University moved to online teaching and learning when the lockdown began in March. There will be no face-to-face teaching before the summer; all lecturers have been advised to prepare online autumn lectures, too.
I have weekly virtual 1-to-1 catch-ups with the 7 or so BA and MA students whom I am currently supervising; others can book short Zoom calls with me via my website. The students need more frequent contact now because they can’t see me on campus or exchange informal opinions about their work with each other. I also offer online workshops for graduate students and the open science community Rotterdam. We discuss methodological issues of psychology or I introduce new statistical approaches. Usually, these webinars attract 20 – 40 participants.
Our university uses Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online teaching. It is working well, though in webinars you have to set very strict rules. All participants are asked to wear headphones where possible and they are being put on mute; they can ask questions through the chat function. If more than 20 people attend an online session, I try to appoint one “assistant” (a student on the course or someone I ask to join specially) to keep an eye on the chat and  summarise the questions for me, so I can focus on the lecture itself.  Mostly it works out well.

What are the biggest challenges for yourself and the students?

The students’ biggest challenge is non-academic: they face real financial problems. Nearly all of them work to cover their daily expenses, and most typical student jobs no longer exist. Some of my overseas students have had to return to their home countries because they couldn’t make ends meet.
The other big problem is the lack of a peer group. It is a key principle here at the Erasmus University Rotterdam to encourage independent learning by small groups. Some students are very good at scheduling learning groups via Zoom to stay in touch with their peers, but others really struggle. We may not be able to motivate them enough to continue.
Teaching doesn’t present as great a challenge as research to me. I an experimental psychologist and I usually conduct empirical research on participants in labs, which is currently impossible. Students trying to complete their theses suffer similarly; a certain amount of research can be conducted via (online) questionnaires, but the validity of this kind of research is limited.

What about access to learning and teaching materials? How supportive has the Library been?

The library was closed for several weeks but has recently re-opened. It now admits a limited number of patrons. It has always had an electronic-preferred policy, so we always have access to digital resources; currently there are some additional electronic resources, but only for a limited time. It’s my understanding that publishers have helped with this. The library has made extra funding available for additional digital resources we may require for teaching
The library’s digital learning team has been very supportive throughout the crisis, for instance, in getting Zoom licences rolled out in a very short time. They are now busy trying to develop solutions for online exams. Moreover, the university has a Media Lab – quite a professional operation with proper recording studio facilities – but the staff there were overworked even before the crisis, so there is now little chance of getting a window of opportunity there. 
The students suffered when the library was closed.  Rents in Rotterdam are horrendous, so students tend to live in tiny rooms that can barely contain a bed, a wardrobe and a bike, and they often don’t have broadband at home. Therefore, they rely on working space and Wi-Fi in the library. 

Has the use of materials changed?

I have not changed the textbooks and other materials I use for teaching yet. However, it has become even more important only to use material that is available online. For the lecture I am preparing for the autumn – the Philosophy of Science – there are some print titles on the reading list. If I can’t find digital versions I shall replace them with alternatives. It gives me an opportunity to update my reading lists!
I have noticed that it’s become necessary to prepare more detailed exercise notes for tutorials. I normally just distribute some exercises (and solutions) and any questions are being discussed with the tutors; now I have to include step-by-step guides and provide more explanation to ensure the students understand what they need to do. That is very time-consuming for all lectures.
Many publishers offer good learning platforms to support their textbooks. These are really helping my teaching now. The main obstacle is the diversity of the platforms themselves. Each one has different navigability, DRM etc. It would be really helpful if they could be more standardised.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I guess this crisis will have a long-term impact on remote working, especially for non-academic staff, who until now were used to regular office hours. I hope it will become more normal for them to work from home, as academics have done for many years.
I have the feeling that psychological research is currently focusing more on reviews and meta-analysis. Some of my colleagues are finally completing that textbook they have always meant to write.
Overall, the greatest drawback for students is the breakdown of peer-learning. Even the best lecturer in the world cannot replace the experience of learning with and from your peers.

Tell us a little about yourself

I graduated in Psychology from the University of Trier (Germany) and after completing my PhD at the University of Groningen, I worked in the field of numeric cognition at the Radboud Universities Nijmegen and the University of Potsdam before starting my current position in Rotterdam three years ago. I am married and in my spare time I enjoy listening to classical and jazz music. I love cooking (and eating!) and am a keen supporter of the German football club Borussia Dortmund.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Deutsch, Services, Bookselling

“Buy local” during Covid-19 – How German booksellers encourage local shopping online; and what is happening in the UK

Since the 18th of March 2020, all non-essential shops in Germany have been closed owing to the current Covid-19 crisis. Like everywhere else in the world, this affects small shops in particular and even though many offer click & collect or delivery services for their products, the danger of the vast majority of customers simply buying from one of the online giants is incredibly high. Small shops (with less than 800 m3 of shop floor) and all bookshops are now due to reopen from today, but they will have to operate under strict hygiene rules and the expected footfall will remain low.

To inform the consumers about their options and ways to support local shops, the German bookshop chains Thalia Mayersche and Osiander teamed up and started the initiative www.shopdaheim.de (which translates into “shop at home”) about 10 days after the closures. Initially, it was a database of about 1,000 bookshops – you are able to search by postcode or place name and see all the local shops that offer some kind of delivery or collection service locally. Within 2 weeks, nearly all of the 3,000 bookshops in the country joined and now – after 4 weeks – 10,000 shops in 41 industries are listed. The site experiences more than 100,000 views a day (at peak times up to half a million) and has become such a success that recently the Austrian equivalent www.shopdaheim.at was launched.

The site still has its main focus on bookshops, but includes shops that sell confectionary, cosmetics, baby products, flowers, perfumes, fashion, sports and more. Several chains (Intersport, DHL, Douglas perfumes, the drug store chain DM and Blume2000, a flower shop chain) are contributing to the marketing and PR of the site whilst the original founders have invested a 6-digit Euro sum into the site. Currently, the listing of a shop is free of charge, but it might be possible that the display of a shop logo or inclusion into marketing campaigns will become chargeable in future – the owners are planning to keep the platform running; after all, local shops having a shared platform to encourage consumers to shop locally is a good idea at the best of times.

shopdaheim Logo

The UK is less fortunate than Germany. Not only are all the bookshops closed, but some of the distributors have closed down their operations and furloughed their staff.  Gardners, one of the UK’s leading book wholesalers and distributors, closed before the end of March and Amazon is no longer stocking new titles, as it says it must focus on storing and distributing more essential products. It’s still possible to buy some print titles direct from online booksellers such as Waterstones and some publishers are also selling print direct – Bloomsbury, for example, has a well-established online ordering service for both print and electronic books which so far it has continued to maintain.  Many online sellers are also making extra promotional efforts to sell e-books; it will be interesting to see if this results in another spike in e-book purchase, which has long plateaued at around 10% of all sales in the trade sector. 

Libraries are also closed but also promoting their digital services. The British Library has contacted all its members to explain how to access its huge resource of online collections. Some public libraries are still making their online collections available, but others have closed down their services altogether. 

Academic libraries in the UK are also all closed, but their staff are still working from home and making Herculean efforts to provide as extensive a service as possible to all their patrons – students, lecturers and researchers.  Most have built up extensive online collections over the past twenty years which have now become an even more valuable resource than they were prior to the lockdown, but users still need support when accessing these and help in finding exactly the materials they want. 

When the lockdown is relaxed, it is difficult to predict which businesses will become casualties. In recent years, the UK has enjoyed a resurgence of both small independent bookshops and independent literary publishers.  Many of these businesses are run on a shoestring, propelled by enthusiasm and love for books rather than any more concrete financial backing. Our culture would be the poorer if we were to lose them, so it will be worth making an extra effort to support them when they are able to trade again. In the meantime, we could do worse than set up our own version of “Shopdaheim” in the UK.

[Written by Annika Bennett and Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Policy, Universities

KEF – Knowledge Exchange Framework: what is it?

In November 2017, the UK government asked HEFCE (now UKRI / Research England) to introduce a “Knowledge Exchange Framework” [KEF] to measure effective collaboration and knowledge exchange with industry and business. It is designed to complement the already established REF[1] and TEF[2] and to evaluate the contribution universities make to the exploitation of knowledge.

After a consultation and pilots run with 21 universities in 2019, the KEF decisions report and metrics were published on 16 January 2020, followed by the Clustering and Narrative Templates report on 2 March 2020. In these reports, detailed information about the metrics and procedures can be found. The main thing to be aware of is that -unlike the REF and the TEF – it is NOT an excellence framework which measures quality. It is a purely quantitative ranking exercise that – certainly at first – will be purely of informative character.

The first iteration of the KEF will be launched in the current academic year (2019/2020) with Higher Education Institutions [HEIs] submitting their narratives between now and the end of May 2020 and results to be published in summer 2020. Similar to the TEF, the KEF will take a metrics-driven approach, though with a narrative component consisting of three brief statements in the areas of institutional context, local growth and regeneration and public and community engagement. The metrics are based on existing data sources that are available to UKRI and do not have to be submitted by the universities; the metrics will automatically be calculated but not automatically be published unless the institutions opted to participate (i.e. submitted a narrative).  In the first year, participation is not compulsory, but it is highly likely that full participation will become a condition for Research England funding in future.

The key perspectives and metrics used will be

  • Research Partnerships (Contribution to collaborative research and Co-authorship with non -academic partners)
  • Working with business (HE-BCI[3] Contract research income with SME and non-SME business and HE-BCI Consultancy income with SME and non-SME business)
  • Working with the public and third sector (HE-BCI Contract research income with the public and third sector and HE-BCI Consultancy income with the public and third sector)
  • Skills, enterprise and entrepreneurship (HE-BCI CPD/CE income, HE-BCI CPD/CE learner days delivered and HE-BCI Graduate start-ups rate)
  • Local growth and regeneration (Regeneration and development income from all sources and additional narrative)
  • IP and Commercialisation (Estimated current turnover of all active firms, average external investment and Licensing and other IP income)
  • Public and community engagement (Provisional score based on self-assessment developed with NCCPE[4] and additional narrative)

For most metrics, a three-year average will be used.

In order to make the data comparable, HEIs will be split into clusters with individual benchmarks for each cluster. The following clusters are being used in the initial year:

  • Cluster E: Large universities with broad discipline portfolio across both STEM and non-STEM generating excellent research across all disciplines.
  • Cluster J: Mid-sized universities with more of a teaching focus (although research is still in evidence) and academic activities across STEM and non-STEM Disciplines
  • Cluster M: Smaller universities, often with a teaching focus
  • Cluster V: Very large, very high research intensive and broad-discipline universities undertaking significant amounts of excellent research.
  • Cluster X: Large, high research intensive and broad-discipline universities undertaking a significant amount of excellent research
  • Arts specialists: Specialist institutions covering arts, music and drama
  • STEM specialists: Specialist institutions covering science, technology, engineering and mathematics

For the publishing industry the metric “Co-authorship with non-academic partners” will be the only relevant one; however, it is interesting to see that this metric is the only one for which no data source has yet been found. And how should there be? No-one is collecting this data and there is certainly no such thing as a central place for comparison of this. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether this metric will survive or whether it will just become a part of the narrative and therefore based on anecdotal evidence.

 Like any metrics-based system, there are different ways of looking at the data and variation of interpretation. The KEF will create a numeric ranking system of universities’ interaction with business and the public, but how meaningful this will be and what exactly it will tell us, is unclear.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]


[1] Research Excellence Framework

[2] Teaching Excellence Framework

[3] Higher Education Business & Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey

[4] National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement

Academic Publishing, Apprentices, Deutsch

Apprenticeships in academic publishing – part 3: Germany

For the past two weeks this blog has focused on apprenticeships in academic publishing. In earlier blog posts, we talked about the – relatively new – system of apprenticeships in the UK.

Today, we would like to look at Germany, where the apprenticeship scheme has been long established and where apprentices have worked in publishing for many decades. Of course, apprentices have been learning the skills of certain trades for centuries, but a standardised apprenticeship scheme was first introduced in the Germany in the 1920s. Then, many trades applied standards that were thereafter recognised country-wide and guaranteed that each apprentice learned certain basics of his or her trade within the apprenticeship scheme. Since then, the standard length of an apprenticeship has been established as 3 years (some of them can be shortened under certain conditions); and so-called “Berufsschule” (a kind of FE college) is compulsory for each apprentice. Usually, apprentices will spend between one and two days a week at school, and the rest of the time in the companies to which they have been apprenticed. During the school time, they study subjects relevant to their trade, but are also taught English as a foreign language; and German, Politics and Maths, to ensure a rounded general knowledge. At the end of their apprenticeship they have to sit exams – both academic ones (at school) and practical ones (usually a final piece of work that is judged by an external jury). They then get their formal qualification, which is nationally recognised. Apprentices in Germany receive a basic salary from the company that employs them, and their tutor is usually their manager within the company.

In some trades, it is possible – or even necessary if you want to work as self-employed and/or train apprentices yourself – to add a higher-level “Meister” (master craftsman) qualification in the same profession.  It requires study in Business Studies, Law and Pedagogy, as well as becoming proficient in the expert knowledge and skills of the trade.

Apprentices first joined German publishing companies in the 1950s, when a national curriculum for the profession, “Kaufmann im Zeitschriftenverlag” (businessman in magazine publishing) was established. It didn’t take long for non-magazine publishers to follow suit and soon the job title was changed into “Verlagskaufmann” (Business Administration, Publishing). This changed again several times until in 2006, the current name of “Medienkaufmann/-frau Digital und Print” (Media Business Administration for digital and print) was established.

Therefore, German publishing companies have been employing and training apprentices for several decades and they are an integral part of each publishing company.

To find out more details we spoke to Nadine, who started her 3 years’ apprenticeship with a German pharmaceutical publisher in autumn 2019. (She wishes not to be named in full and asked for her employer to remain anonymous)

“I am doing an apprenticeship as ‘Medienkauffrau Digital und Print’ (Media Business Administration for digital and print) with an addition qualification in Media Economics, publishing. The main focus of my apprenticeship is the production of different kind of media, but I also learn about the planning, marketing, finances and many more things. The company I work in mainly publishes academic books and journals, and so far I have been very involved in the marketing of products and advertising sales. However, as an apprentice I change departments frequently, and even within each department the kind of jobs I have vary hugely. This ensures that I learn about the publishing process and the many different departments that contribute to a successful product. At the end of my apprenticeship, I am expected to know how different departments and workflows relate and I should be able to work in any part of the publishing process. It means that one day I may be analysing sales figures and, on another day, I am looking through a selection of freebies to send to customers. That’s what I enjoy about my apprenticeship – I find it interesting to work on a journal that contains specialist knowledge.  Even if most of the content is too specific for me to understand, I have found many interesting articles that have helped me already.
Before I started my apprenticeship, I completed my “Abitur” (A-Levels) at a Sixth Form that specialised in Design and Media. A-Levels were necessary for the apprenticeship, but the main reason for completing them was to keep my options open for the future. At “Berufsschule” (college) I go into a special class for apprentices who are working for additional qualifications: we are also being taught Business English, presentation techniques and rhetoric, and the handling of New Media. In addition to this, we all learn about Business Administration, industry-relevant law, production (for example we learn about paper quality and printing costs), budgeting, multimedia (programmes like Photoshop or InDesign), design and skills in computer applications such as Excel or Access.
I enjoy learning all of these things because they have a relevance to what I do in my job.  A university degree was not something I considered, because I didn’t want to learn purely academic subjects any longer.
The apprenticeship is meeting my expectations; it is never boring, and I get to do a variety of tasks. In my company the apprentices are continually being challenged but never overburdened, and it is always ok to make mistakes, too.
I would definitely recommend an apprenticeship like mine, especially to people who love to read. It is exciting to see how a product is being developed and to see it through from planning to sales. Also, this apprenticeship allows you to work in any department of a publishing house and to follow your strengths. That’s also my plan for the future: I hope I can stay at the company when I finish my apprenticeship, but I do not yet know which department I will want to work in, because I haven’t experienced all of them yet.”

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Academic Publishing, Apprentices

Apprenticeships in academic publishing – Part 2: The Apprentices

In last week’s blog post, we gave an overview over the UK apprenticeship scheme and explained how apprenticeships are a valuable addition to Academic Publishing.

This week we have asked some apprentices to speak for themselves. Gerda Lukosiunaite from the Royal College of Physicians [RCP] and Kaya Spencer from Cambridge University Press [CUP] kindly agreed to tell us about their experiences.

When talking about their experiences as apprentices, both Gerda and Kaya were full of enthusiasm. They both found themselves in similar positions: they had finished school and were unsure about what they wanted to do next. Gerda had been made aware of the apprenticeship scheme by a friend and decided to take that route to become a dental nurse. After qualifying, she decided that she would prefer a more office-based job; discovering that the RCP was looking for an apprentice in its publications department, Gerda decided to apply. She got the place and worked on the RCP’s medical journals and monograph publications. She wasn’t sure what to expect from working in a publishing environment.  She hadn’t really considered publishing before, but found she wholeheartedly enjoyed it. “I never thought I would work in publishing, because I always assumed that you would need a lot of experience to get into it. I was absolutely thrilled when I learned I had got the apprenticeship position in the RCP’s publications department. It was such a great place to be and I was very involved in most of the tasks there: I did some basic admin, arranged for meetings and travel for the team, I was responsible for copyright permissions and liaison with the print room and was even allowed to do some proof-reading  and attend editorial meetings. The apprenticeship did exceed my expectations and I have loved working for the RCP so much, that I have recently changed to a permanent role as Membership Engagement Coordinator. I am still able to finish my apprenticeship in Business Administration at the same time”.

When she finished Sixth Form, Kaya had never imagined that she would work in publishing. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do after my A-Levels and wanted to set myself apart from graduates going for similar jobs to me. After working in some part-time jobs for a while, I was very excited to see the apprenticeship advertised on the CUP website. I had previously unsuccessfully applied for an Editorial Assistant role with the Press, but getting a place as an apprentice was fantastic, because not only was I able to get into a publishing job, it also allowed me to gain another formal qualification. I did my first apprenticeship in recruitment as an interview coordinator, where I worked with colleagues at all levels; this enabled me to gain great knowledge of the Press and a better understanding of the business as a whole – the different kinds of jobs people do, from entry-level positions to board members.”

Kaya finished her Business Administration apprenticeship within the HR department at CUP 4 years ago and has continued to work at the Press. She is currently a Communications and Community Executive and has recently started on a degree-level apprenticeship. The “Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship” [CMDA] is provided by the Open University and runs for the duration of 4 years alongside her current role, offering her continuous development whilst working. “This is a great opportunity to develop myself and build on the skills I already have as well as gain more skills in the managerial area.”
Looking to the future, Kaya says she would like to use the skills and knowledge she has gained to move into a managerial role where she can continue to help others. “I hope to develop the CSR programme at the Press that supports social mobility in Cambridge. I would definitely recommend apprenticeships to young people – we actively promote them to local schools in our area, as we feel apprenticeships are a great alternative to university and an invaluable opportunity to gain more skills whilst gaining real experience.”

Gerda also has ambitions beyond her apprenticeship. She has developed a keen interest in marketing and would like to develop her skills in this area. As she says, “it is never too late to go to university. I may well one day decide to do a marketing degree, but then I will be 100% sure that’s what I want to do and the money and efforts that I put into this degree will be well placed and thought through.”

Many thanks to Gerda Lukosiunaite (Royal College of Physicians) and Kaya Spencer (Cambridge University Press).

We also spoke to an apprentice in Germany, where the apprenticeship scheme has been well established for several decades – look out for our next blog post, where you will be able to read all about it.

[Written by Annika Bennett, Gold Leaf]