Careers Fair at Canham Turner

Though I stood in and around the Canham Turner building six days ago to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty’s emergence, this is my first major event inside the spacious lounge since the revision conference six months ago.

Representatives of thirty-nine organisations had set up stall with the hope of attracting Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics students to apply for job opportunities.

There was no buffet lunch this time, but nearly all of the stalls gave away small pieces of confectionary along with the usual branded pens and glossy leaflets.

I guess it beats Trick-or-Treating.

This being my first term, I am a long way off making a firm choice of career path, but events like these are useful for showing me what my options are. Having spent the last few years of my life and education pushing towards a chemistry degree, the late-stage switch to mathematics means that some recalibration is in order. Events such as this are helpful in devising a new strategy.

Snapping a Sovereign

Many times on this website I have logged my encounters with notable individuals,including so far an astronaut, three MPs, an MEP a baron and a bishop. In recent weeks I have repeatedly made reference to the reconstruction of the campus of the University of Hull. Today those threads intertwine as I recount the opening of the Allam Medical building by Her Majesty The Queen.

First notice of the event was given nine days in advance in an electronic message by the vice-chancellor. More information came in stages, with the exact timings revealed only the night before along with a list of suitable vantage points for people not directly involved. Security was visible yesterday, with police cars appearing intermittently on the forecourt. Today crowd barriers were erected at key points and several hundred people swarmed behind them. Having had a long morning lecture I was unable to stand on the front line, so went into the neighbouring Brynmor Jones Library. Even there it was crowded, but I found a spot of empty window space on the third floor. This turned out to be far more advantageous than standing by the barriers – firstly because I could sit down at a computer desk instead of standing in the cold air, secondly because my window was parallel to the southern face of the Allam Medical building, and through two layers of glass we could see the official party moving around inside. We spotted the bright blue flash of Her Majesty’s dress as she emerged from the lift on the third floor. We also spotted some of her attachment running down the access stairs in advance of her departure. Finally she emerged from the glass doors to return to her state limousine to be driven over to the Canham Turner building for the next stage of her engagement.

Another dense crowd formed in advance of her emergence, so getting a view was impossible. I tried to find an upstairs window in the Robert Blackburn building opposite but could not see anything useful. From directly behind the crowd I could barely get a view of the door and from the steps of student central my eye line was blocked by the large metal overhang. Desperately I sought a viewing post inside Canham Turner, eventually joining a smaller clump of onlookers peering through a glass door off the entrance lobby. The view was extremely limited – made worse by so many students pressing their enormous smart phones against the glass. Attendance at these events always requires a delicate balance between present and posterity – one can spend so much time trying to record the perfect video or photograph that one defeats the objective of actually looking at the subject in the flesh. Eventually we saw the Queen and other guests go by (judging by their elaborate clothes we guessed one of them was the Lord Mayor of Hull) and then I dashed back outside to see the flag atop the limousine shrinking as it drove away. Briefly I considered that the day was over – then I had another idea.

Rushing around the back of the Gulbenkian Centre and the Loten Workshops I found that the access road behind the campus (beyond which are the old sports centre and the new Courtyard accommodation) was relatively uncrowded. The procession of cars passed barely a metre from me. Upon spotting a small girl with a bouquet of flowers, one of the support vehicles even paused and collected them to pass on later.

This is probably the peak of my encounters. Reigning for more than six decades in sixteen countries, our hexadecimal nonagenarian monarch is as famous a human as is ever likely to exist in my lifetime. I guess it’s all downhill from here.

FURTHER READING

SMAPS Board of Studies

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Though all sciences are said ultimately to derive from philosophy, the clichéd question “Why are we here?” does not often form the basis of our teachings or deliberations. Today however, that very question was on the minds and lips of all who arrived in Seminar Room A for a meeting of the Board of Studies, for which no agenda had been given. Eventually the document was found and a more substantive discussion got underway.

Attendance remains an issue in certain classes with some tutorials said to have 20-30 students missing. Some staff also reported very low delivery rates for homework assignments.

The issue of academic support tutors returned as the majority of students still have not met theirs since induction week. I was an exception only by virtue of my tutor being present at this meeting. It was agreed that all students would meet their tutors after completion of an upcoming careers training assignment.

We tangentially brushed upon mathematics’ lack of a home when someone suggested creating a student lounge for the subject and suggested that with a new engineering suite under construction we might be moved into the Fenner building currently used by applied sciences. Details at this stage are unclear and it may not take effect for some years.

Other concerns centred around student ID cards: the electronic scanners used to mark attendance at lectures had in many cases malfunctioned, necessitating a return to paper registers. A course representative also complained that the beep noise after a successful scan was too loud and thus anyone arriving late would inevitably disrupt the class.

Course Representative Forum (November)

This was the first of an expected five such gatherings that one is booked to attend over the course of this academic year. All of the university’s course and school representatives assembled in meeting room 1 at Student Central to discuss topics such as timetabling, academic support tutors and democratic engagement.

The timetabling representative informed us that he and his staff were working with technology from 1998 (ironically the same vintage as most of the attending students) and that they had received this year’s student details four days – as opposed to the usual three weeks – before the schedules were due to be published. Several representatives complained about having one lecture per day, requiring a commute to campus to spend many hours idle. There were also reports of problems with short-notice room changes and classes being given venues which had the wrong capacity (some needing to bring in additional chairs, others being lost in a vast void). It was said that only two lecture theatres in the university were capable of seating more than fifty students.

Moving onto academic support tutors, the same points were raised that I heard at the student-staff forum; many had never been seen. Most people in my course have yet to meet their tutor. A third year student complained that his tutor had never even sent an email.

We were finally asked to give suggestions on how to improve the role of representatives. There were musings about turning faculty representatives into salaried positions, as well as changing the school representatives to self-nomination rather than election (since turnout tends to be very low and many positions are co-opted unopposed). Support was lent to the idea of “clinics” between representatives and their constituents, analogous to surgeries with members of parliament. The education officer wondered aloud about creating a course representative society, though the general consensus was that students would only attend for free pizza. I remember two years President Gill saying much the same. Some things never change…

 

Report from the SEER Committee

Late yesterday afternoon I received a communique from Dr Mossy Kelly, Director of Student Experience for the School of Mathematics & Physical Sciences. As a School Representative I was invited to attend a meeting of the Student Experience Enhancement Review team. It was a very short notice arrangement, but thankfully my only lecture of the day finished just as the meeting was due to commence. Joined by a first year course representative and several of the senior faculty, I was tasked with pouring over the National Student Survey results for the previous academic year.

Far away from my usual classrooms, the panel assembled in the Nidd building at the edge of the business school. Several attendants were delayed by the difficulty of navigating their way through unfamiliar corridors. Rather poetically this would become a major topic of the discussion.

Looking through our survey results, we found that our mathematics courses were almost entirely red on academic support, organisation & management, and student voice, while the learning resources section came up mostly green. We deduced that both of these features could be down to the fundamentally generic nature of mathematics as an academic discipline – one cannot easily make it visually interesting in a brochure. Whereas physics could be represented by it’s lasers and pulleys; chemistry by its test tubes and fume cupboards; biology by its petri dishes and gerbils; computer science by its, well, computers; mathematics consists almost entirely of standard lectures in standard rooms. There are no special objects or equipment that would be required solely for mathematics and not other subjects. This factor works to our advantage in terms of resource evaluation; so long as the university’s library and information technology systems are sufficiently-endowed (and Hull is far from quiet in proclaiming its fulfilment of these criteria), the students will report that their needs are satisfied, without the departmental staff being required to make any further effort.

The downside of our flexibility, however, is that we become a school of nomads. While the other subjects can confine themselves to their dedicated environments we are free to be unceremoniously scattered across all and any spare spaces, so that we are without a secure territory to call our home. A potential result of this is a loss of departmental identity within the faculty. There is no obvious place to go to find one’s teachers to lobby for changes or to request help with assignments. It is not inconceivable that this could lead to a lack of engagement between faculty and students, which might in turn cause the support networks to be weaker than in other disciplines. It would be interesting to compare the survey results for other subjects to determine how much of a difference the presence or absence of a distinct departmental headquarters can make to the effectiveness of the organisation.

No further engagements in this capacity appear immediately on one’s horizon, but communications from administrators foretell some sort of forum being held before Christmas. Perhaps the badges will have arrived by that point!

Student-Staff Forum (October)

We’re in unanimous agreement!

A newcomer to the institution, I approached my first student-staff forum with some trepidation. Armed with nothing but the pre-written agenda printed off the intranet, I arrived several minutes early at an empty meeting room with multiple small desks pushed together to approximate a long conference table.

When the time came some others arrived, but not as many as I had expected. It became apparent that our forum comprised no course representatives from the second or third years, owing to a bizarre timetabling decision which delayed their training until next week. Some of the staff representatives were unable to abandon their classes, which further thinned our ranks.

Those of us who had made it to the meeting sailed swiftly through the planned agenda. We were supposed to review the action register and end-of-year report from our predecessor forum, but it seems they neglected to produce one. Our attempt to study the National Student Survey results were also stalled by the absence of the staff-member with the relevant files.

Rapidly we reached the stage of choosing our objectives for the first semester. Unsurprisingly our key aim was the recruitment of more course representatives to give a voice to the higher years. We also talked about programme experience and how students felt about their courses so far. Anecdotes were recounted regarding past exam papers and revision materials, with staff stressing the importance of learning the material itself rather than simply the test system.

With our unexpectedly small discussion concluded, we opted to adjourn until December. One can only pray that we draw a greater company next time.

FSE Chair Training

I may have gotten here a little bit early.

Barely a day after being introduced to one another for the first time, the school representatives for the Faculty of Science & Engineering regrouped for a second training session. Each of us will be the chairman of a staff-student forum, in which course representatives and members of the faculty will discuss issues with their respective courses, possible changes to teaching methods, feedback and general improvements to be made. We in turn will relay the outcomes of these meetings to higher representatives and organisations to be processed and acted upon. Crucially we also needed to give correspondence on staff-student relations for statistical purposes, including the National Student Survey.

At this session we were asked to explain how we would deal with potential problems in our fora, such as lack of contribution on an item, overlong conversation without progress and attendees airing personal grievances. It was generally agreed that we would have to develop tactical methods of telling certain forum members to shut up.

On the way out I inquired as to when we would receive the badges and “other items denoting the position” as hinted by the union website. It transpired that they might their delivery had been delayed a few weeks to reduce transport fees.

Training for School Representatives

Last week was election season at the University of Hull, with various representative positions going up for grabs as the new academic year gets underway. Though a few hundred votes were cast it was not unusual for a candidate – such as myself – to be co-opted unopposed.

On Friday I received a message from Hull University Union congratulating me on becoming the School Representative for Mathematics. This afternoon I attended a training session in student central where I met my new colleagues and was briefed on what the job would entail.

First we were addressed by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Lea. She told us she would be happy to talk with anyone encountered her, provided she wasn’t rushing to a meeting.

After having our official portraits taken, we split off into faculty groups to discuss our priorities for the year. Steven Storey, the Faculty Representative for Science & Engineering, told us about the work involved in lobbying teachers, managing student expectations and getting reforms delivered to schedule. We were also given copies of the National Student Survey to review and discuss areas of improvement for our schools. There seemed to be a general consensus that our success as representatives depended on how regularly we could get students to check their e-mails.

With the original meeting completed, we were led downstairs to talk with some of the senior staff. It appears that I arrived during a long transitional phase at the University, as most of my new colleagues remembered the system being rather different last year, as well as a different system of names and abbreviations. Some said my status as a newcomer might be an advantage in that it saved me from having to learn everything twice.

Tomorrow I return to student central for “Chair Training”. Hopefully that will be more important than it sounds.

…and hopefully I’ll get to the buffet earlier.

Council Report for Trinity 2017

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Eight days after completing my final examination, it was time for my final corporation meeting. As a student I was finished with Wilberforce, but as a governor I still had one last job to do.

My report for this term was rather shorter than were most of its predecessors. Whereas a year ago we had spent most of this term fretting about an end of year event (which was originally envisioned as an elaborate outdoor festival, but which after months of deliberation was reduced to a sweet stall at the back of a lunchtime musical performance), this time we had that responsibility lifted from us by the PE department. Their sports presentation evening doubled as the summer ball for the year, which left us as councillors fast running out of business. We were also running out of people.

As the weeks flew by and examinations eclipsed schooling as the primary reason for one to be present at college, we found that attendance steadily declined as councillors devoted time to urgent revision, or found that their examinations clashed with meetings. Before the end of May our president (Sohaib Muhammad) had actually finished his courses altogether and moved to Manchester. With the dawning realisation that our council would go extinct before it was dissolved, the decision was made to prorogue ourselves before the half-term break and not hold any meetings in June.

We did get some things done, though: After the announcement of a general election, we stepped up our efforts to get students registered to vote. Already this had been a project recommended to us, but at that time it seemed the only elections this year would be the local ones – and not even in our area. With Mrs May going to the country (coincidentally the 56th parliament sat last on the same day we resumed our meetings after Easter), this key to democracy took on new-found importance.

I  personally erected several large posters at key positions around the campus with the date of the registration deadline and the web address for the digital service. The college also sent group emails to students to reinforce this, as well making paper registration forms available from the main reception desk. On 18th May we forwent our penultimate plenary in favour of directly handing out such forms to students during the lunch period – although a breakdown in communications meant that this did not quite achieve what we had planned.

At our final meeting before adjourning sine die, we discussed possible measures to improve the effectiveness of the student council for future cohorts. Looking back at the previous two years, it was decided that recruitment should begin early, taking advantage of prospective students appearing at welcome days in June and July. We even floated the idea of setting up a shadow council during the early summer which could then hit the ground running come September. We also suggested to ditch the coordinators and subcommittees which, from our experience, existed only in theory and even then very faintly. There was support for having council meetings scheduled as an enrichment activity, giving it a full hour in a student’s timetable rather than being hastily packed into a lunch break. Finally, I was insistent that it had to be students themselves who did the majority of the talking – for in review of my minutes I found that invariably it was the staff-members who would dominate the dialogue.

I was given a round of applause after my presentation and thanked by the governors for my submissions at this and the previous five meetings. It has been mentioned to me several times that earlier student governors have rarely if ever attended so many corporation meetings during their tenures.

Membership of the student council – and attendance of the corporation – has been one of the defining features of my time at Wilberforce. I can only hope that my successor gets as much out of it as I did.

Election Debate at St Mary’s College

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Ten days before the general election, I attended a debate at St Mary’s College between four parliamentary candidates: Victoria Atkins (Conservative, Louth & Horncastle); Claire Thomas (Liberal Democrat, Kingston upon Hull West & Hessle); Diana Johnson (Labour, Kingston upon Hull North) and Mike Hookem MEP (United Kingdom Independence, Great Grimsby).  It was not my first experience to the latter two and neither was it my first experience with Look North, as I previously presented a segment as part of BBC School Report in 2011.

Peter Levy appeared to host the event. Before filming began he led a practice debate on the issue of whether or not The Great British Bake-Off would survive its transition to Channel 4. The general consensus was that it would struggle.

The debate proper began, with the usual topics – the National Health Service, social care and immigration.

Victoria Atkins insisted the NHS was critical and said her party were spending an extra £8bn over the next parliament. Levy wondered how these spending pledges were compatible with caps on VAT and Income Tax. Atkins said they were a low tax party which would create a strong enough economy. Claire Thomas said the Liberal Democrats would increase income tax by 1% in order to pay for the difference. Diana Johnson suggested increases in corporation tax on big businesses, prompting an audience member to ask how that would be defined. Hookem suggested diverting £9bn from the Foreign Aid budget. He highlighted the amounts currently sent to China and North Korea. He then had a heated exchange with another audience member who claimed Paul Nuttal had spoken in favour of privatising the service. Hookem assured us that privatisation was not and had never been UKIP’s policy. When asked about the recruitment of general practitioners, Atkins pointed to the £20k “Golden Hello” given to new GPs in the area by Lincolnshire County Council.

The discussion neatly transitioned to social care. Hookem said new legislation should be brought in to integrate care with the health service. Atkins took some flack for her party’s manifesto difficulties. She praised her leader for having the gall to tackle what she described as a great challenge. She was then criticised for her earlier comments on low tax, which a questioner said meant poor public services.

The next question was from a student, a Conservative supporter disappointed with his party’s rhetoric, who asked if the Manchester attack would lead to more stringent background checks for migrants from problem countries. Johnson said she believed all markets should be regulated including that for immigration. Hookem suggested an Australian-style system and highlighted his time among the Calais “jungle” speaking with British lorry-drivers who feared for their lives. He said we needed immigrants with useful skills but that we had enough low-pay low-skill workers already. Atkins insisted there was no “silver bullet” to solve the problem. Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary was noted for her failure to restrict movement in line with Conservative election pledges. Claire Thomas rejected the assumption that immigration caused terrorism. Atkins reminded us that the Manchester murderer was born in Britain – though Hookem remarked that he had recently gone for training in Syria. The panellists were then asked who would stay or go after Brexit. Hookem was clear that all legal immigrants from before the referendum could stay. Johnson said that to guarantee their rights would send a good message in negotiations.

Victoria Atkins said that the way to get the best deal in European negotiations was to have Theresa May as prime minister. She highlighted Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses in controlling his party – many, including Johnson, had resigned from his frontbench after the referendum. Thomas and Johnson dismissed any suggestion of May as a strong leader, instead calling her a weak and wobbly character who had gone back on manifesto pledges. Hookem invoked his experience on European committees to say that “they don’t want us to leave” and that parliament should have swiftly repealed the European Communities Act 1972. His rant was curtailed, however, as the debate had run out of time.

After the debate had ended there was some milling around to talk to the candidates off the record. I persuaded Hookem to pose for a photograph to use on his Wikipedia page. Sadly the low light and movement of several people in the background meant the picture was rather a blurry mess. I got a candid shot of Atkins which likewise suffered.