Episode 4: Dr Graeme Pedlingham on his career in Higher Education
The Teach Learn Collaborate Repeat podcast is a teaching and learning podcast hosted by Talis. We’ll be talking teaching and tech with experts from across higher education.
In this episode, Dr. Graeme Pedlingham, Deputy PVC for Student Experience at the University of Sussex talks to Natalie from Talis about his career in Higher Education, advice he’d give to other working in the sector and his view on the current HE landscape.
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Natalie: Welcome to the Teach Learn Collaborate Repeat Podcast. Today I’m joined by Dr. Graeme Pedlingham. Graeme is Deputy PVC for Student Experience at the University of Sussex, where he also leads the Cross-Disciplinary Foundation, a program that he established in 2015. He’s also the university lead for assessment, where he works on supporting innovative ways of assessing and feedback practices. Graeme is currently a committee member with the ofs on quality and standards, a trustee for disability charity AbilityNet, and a senior lecturer in English, which is his home subject. So today, we’ll be talking about his career in higher education, advice he’d give to others working in HE and his view on the HE landscape at the moment, which is particularly interesting, considering the last couple of years that we’ve had. So welcome, Graeme, and thank you for joining us.
Graeme: Thanks, Natalie. And yeah, good to be here.
Natalie: So I’d love to hear more about your current role at the University of Sussex. So what does life as PVC look like?
Graeme: Sure. So varied, I think, is probably the best way to put it. It’s generally split between doing more strategic work, thinking about how we can make longer-term changes within the institution. And the operational side, which is a little bit more on how those actually get done, and trying to see the implementation actually, through and measuring the impact of it. So I get involved with both sides of that, really. And then other areas, like representing the University externally contributing to some of the national discussions, which I always find really interesting. And, and teaching, actually, so. So I teach as well and, and do my own research. So it’s, it’s a very diary, I usually speaking lots of different people in the same day, and keeps things interesting.
Natalie:Yeah, sounds like it. So you’re still teaching? How do you balance that with that more strategic side of your role?
Graeme: I probably wouldn’t overthink it too much. I don’t do that much teaching anymore, not compared to what I used to do. But I think they complement each other. To be honest, I’ve never wanted to stop teaching. And I don’t think I ever would. It’s how you connect with the students that say you understand how things are actually working on the ground, as it were. And you get some really honest feedback from them. And actually, you keep your own practice going. And I think I think that’s really important. I think if you’re if you’re thinking about things from a policy perspective, which I have for them, you need to see how that is landing? And what the effect that’s having.
Natalie: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So is there anything that makes up a big part of your role, kind of your PVC role, that you didn’t expect to?
Graeme: Well, I started the deputy PVC role in autumn 2020. So I’ve been doing it for probably about 18 months now. And I think, for me that the pace of change is probably a big part of the job, how do you manage the change that’s going on, and often that’s externally influenced externally. So I started the job during the pandemic. So that was no surprise, that actually, that was always going to be a challenge. Since then, we’ve had a continuing pandemic we have we’ve had industrial action, we still have industrial action. And we have, you know, lots of different changing circumstances. So I think that’s, that’s become more of my role than I probably would have expected it to be. But it’s one of those things.
Natalie: So in your role, you have a real focus on supporting that student transition kind of into and then through higher education. And I believe you’ve been a secondary school teacher at some point in your career as well. So could you tell us a bit more about why you choose to focus on this specific transition from kind of further to higher education?
Graeme: Yeah, sure. So in some ways, I think I think the transition into higher education, in particular, is it’s such a fundamental moment. It’s often a moment of anxiety. I think for students, it’s, it’s where they’re often making a really significant change in their lives. And it’s also really setting the frame for what comes next. I think how students start their journey in higher education often has a really significant influence on how their experience is going to go out. If the next few years, what kind of success they’re going to have, how they’re going to find that. So I think the transition into higher education is a moment that really warrants a lot of focus. Actually, it’s both supporting students, but also setting their aspirations and actually thinking about, where do they want to get to. And often, students might not know that entirely. And often, it’ll change over over the transition period, because I think there’s no fixed transition isn’t one moment in time, as well, it’s, it’s something that students will do over a long period of time and keep doing so I think it’s how students move between identities a little. And that’s something that always interested me. And I think, working in the secondary sector, working with some widening participation charities, in my previous life, I’ve seen the impact that higher education has on students the value that it can bring for them. And I think it’s, it’s a bit of a privilege really, to be able to be in a role to support that and to encourage people to, to find what’s right for them. So I think transition is all about that. And this is probably coming from my my literature background a little bit, I tend to think about it as a narrative. And Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is often the way I kind of frame it, that actually coming into higher education is almost the kind of call to adventure. And then they’re going through different stages through that journey, and there’ll be adversity and there’ll be changes, and there’ll be different influences coming in. And I think that for me, that’s quite helpful way to think about it. Because it’s not just about how we provide a narrative framework for students, but also how they define themselves within their narrative, what story they want to tell about themselves. I think that’s something students discover as they go. So I can talk about this. But hopefully, that’s a little bit of a flavor of why I think it’s important.
Natalie: Yeah, that’s a really great analogy. Yeah, certainly never a straight line. So. Yeah. So is there anything specific about the student experience that is kind of make or break? Are there any kind of really key barriers that you’ve noticed in the last couple of years?
Graeme: Well, I think I think some of them, some of it is always the, I think some of the challenges can be around mismatches between students’ expectations, and what university actually is. So I think one of the challenges around that is practically really good information and guidance. For students be able to experience what university is like and being given some flexibility within that to change direction a bit, I think that’s, that’s something that’s wherever we can do that, that’s really important. And also, giving students the space to, to fail safely, is also really important. And that’s something that I’ve tried to do in various ways. But the biggest barrier, I would say, for students is the sense which many often have of, of pressure of actually, they have, they have an ideal that they have to live up to within University. And, and sometimes that’s not, that’s not the right, ideal. Sometimes it’s not a realistic ideal. And that pressure can be really counterproductive. So I think finding spaces for students to be able to work things out a bit, actually, without, without pressure of expectations, whether it’s theirs or ours, is really important. And that speaks a little bit to the issues around mental health and well-being that we’re seeing at the moment. And over the past few years, that seems to be an increasing phenomenon. And certainly a rise in student anxiety. It’s something that I’ve seen. And I think we can support that through our pedagogy and through our curriculum development. But it also needs support services as well.
Natalie: So that brings me on nicely to my next question, which is what is a big concern now for the academic community or for students that you didn’t think would be 10 years ago?
Graeme: Yeah, thanks. I mean, I think the rise of mental health and well-being support Is, is a significant one, I think. And that’s, you know that like say that’s undoubtedly been exacerbated by the pandemic. And the way that students have a coming to university now is that their previous experiences may be quite different to what they would have been a few years ago. And I think that’s something that is going to be with universities for a number of years. And how we support students through that is going to be a focus over the next few years. I wouldn’t be anticipated quite so much of an emphasis on that 10 years ago. So I think I think there’s that difference. I think I think some of the other things that I might not have anticipated as 10 years ago, perhaps the focus on freedom of speech that we have in universities at the moment that this has become a kind of area of concern. I wouldn’t have anticipated that area of concern, at least, externally. And I think there’s also, I wouldn’t, I definitely wouldn’t call it a concern, I call it a positive. But and it’s also not really a surprise, but I think I think one of the things that’s really noticeable about higher education, compared to 10 years ago, is the increasing value placed on teaching quality. And I think we’re seeing that in, within institutions within how staff see themselves in their careers. And also meeting the kind of increasing expectations around value of higher education and how we measure the outcomes of that. And I think none of that, I think all of that is positive, to be honest, because teaching for me in higher education is the thing that has the biggest impact on students, and in some ways can be the biggest impact that universities have socially as well. So I think that increasing value on teaching is a great thing to see. But, but that has progressed significantly over the past 10 years, I would say.
Natalie: Fantastic. So reflecting on your career now. So if you weren’t in higher education, what do you think you’d be doing?
Graeme: I think I’d probably be doing so things that I’ve done outside of higher education. Previously, I might be working in policy, potentially, I’m interested in policy, I’m interested in that side of things. It’s a really geeky sort of area that that appeals. I might be teaching, in secondary or further education, I’d like to think so. Because I always enjoyed doing that. But yeah, I think I think those are probably the areas I wouldn’t be in. In my role at the moment I’ve I’ve kind of discovered that you need to be, or have a little bit of, well, it helps anyway, to have a little bit of knowledge of legal requirements of finance, of marketing, all these different things.
And some of these, I’m finding quite interesting to be honest. So I think, yeah, it’s one of the nice things is you kind of connect with all kinds of different areas.
Natalie: And so my final question is, what advice would you give for those looking to start their careers in higher education now? And what are some of the less obvious skills that you think are worth taking the time to learn?
Graeme: Yeah, sure. I mean, I, I sometimes get asked this. And I think it’s, I think it’s really tricky, because everyone has different aims for what they want to do within higher education, and obviously, starting in different places. But I think some of the things that would have helped me to know, when I was starting out, probably the importance of forward planning. Try trying to get a sense of what you want to be known for, I think is a useful thing. And recognizing the external experience or experience you’re getting outside of higher education is really useful. I think it’s, it’s exactly what you said, Actually, nicely. You know, the, the road is never a straight one. People go on with kind of circuitous journeys, but there’s a real value in that. And I think it’s about how you value the experiences you’re getting, and how they’re helping you to get to where you want to be. So I think I think that’s, that’s important cuz I think we can sometimes think about academia as a bit of a straight line. But it certainly doesn’t have to be. I think the other thing that helps to do hopefully is understand the value of your time, and the opportunity cost of things. That’s something I really wish people would have said to me before because it helps you to say no, because I think that’s a problem a lot of people have. So when opportunities come up in questioning whether they’re actually going to help you get to where you want to be, or whether your time would be better spent doing something else. I think that’s such an important skill. And, and it takes reflection to know what those things are. The last thing I’d say really is influencing skills. The more kind of experienced people get in influencing I think, the better. Partly, that’s knowing the priorities of the other people you’re speaking to, and trying to see how they aligned with your priorities and getting kind of mutual benefit for that. I think lots of things in our sector are rents, how you use those influencing skills and those networking skills and really not under estimating the power of a cup of coffee.
Natalie: Definitely, that’s brilliant. Thank you so much, Graeme. That’s been fantastic to chat with you.
Graeme: It’s a real pleasure. Nice talking to you.