I’m horrified to discover that I haven’t blogged in nearly a year! So here’s my annual promise to ‘blog more often’ and all that jazz. Or to at least blog a few more times in 2018.
I’m five months into my new role as the head of the library and learning technology at a small art college in the North East of England. My role covers both FE and HE, and I’ve been struck lately by the huge disparity in professional development opportunities for people working in FE as opposed to HE. Especially for those working in small institutions. For context, we have circa 525 students at FE and 500 students at HE at our college.
I’m also embarrassed to realise that the Rosie Hare of 2015, working in a Russell Group university, did not realise just how big this disparity was. Even though I’d worked in a bigger FE College before, I’d never really thought about how people in much smaller institutions had to put in so much extra effort to be able to go to events, or simply be much more proactive to stay up to date with developments in their areas, because they couldn’t afford to go to two or three conferences a year. They have to put in much more effort to get the same (or possibly even less) return on professional development. This doesn’t just apply to people working in libraries or learning tech, it applies to all teaching staff and other business support areas across an institution. How long does it take before you become disillusioned with this?! How does this affect the type of education that students get in smaller FE institutions?!
This is not just a whinge because I’m jealous that I wasn’t able to attend Digifest or the UCISA conference. Yes, I know Digifest is free, but because I joined the college in October, the staff development budget had been allocated for the 2017/18 academic year, so there was nothing left to cover even accommodation or travel. I had hoped to be able to send the staff members I manage to some events this year, since many of them haven’t had the opportunity to attend things like ALT-C or LILAC. Ever. We don’t even have institutional memberships to any of the organisations that are considered ‘normal’ for a university to be a part of. How can you develop your services and personal practices when you’re physically unable to join the organisations, let alone afford the annual conference fees?!
In my opinion, this lack of opportunity is a huge problem and is something that the HE sector and organisations such as CILIP, ALT, UCISA and others need to address if they are committed to equality of opportunity in education. The same commitments that apply to students from ‘widening participation’ backgrounds needs to apply to staff in these types of institutions, too. Yes, there is an element of personal responsibility when it comes to professional development, but applying for bursaries constantly when you know your college can’t afford the cost of an event takes time. Quite often, there will only be one or two sponsored places available, so you’ll be competing with many people in FE, public libraries and other small organisations that don’t have the same kind of budgets that flow around HE institutions. Some of the edtech vendors that rinse the sector for millions of pounds in profit could probably pull their fingers out and give the people who organise conferences more money for such sponsored places, but that is perhaps a longer (and more ranty) argument for another time.
I raised this issue on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, and had a discussion with a couple of librarians about the possibility of staff in HE institutions sharing practice and professional development opportunities with staff in FE. This would be an excellent idea, and probably happens in some areas, but I still think a lot needs to be done from the top-down in professional organisations that represent the education sector to really make their professional development opportunities inclusive. It’s not enough to just say that you “welcome colleagues in FE and other sectors” at your events.
I’ve been that person and have felt defensive when people in FE mentioned issues like this to me a few years ago. I realise now that I was in an incredibly privileged, lucky position and did not have to expend anywhere near as much effort and energy to keep up to date and feel like I was developing. I’m keen to continue the discussion around this!