Author Archives: rwfm201

Death in Devon

Riptide - Volume 7

Riptide - Volume 7

Ginny Baily, Editor of Riptide, describes how they gathered an alternative view of Devon for their latest volume.

When Riptide short story journal agreed – in collaboration with Wordquest Devon – to produce a volume of Devon-themed stories, we were anxious to avoid the clichés – the cream teas, rolling hills, thatched cottages, cosy retirement to beach huts in seaside towns. We phrased our call for submissions carefully, talking about Devon as metaphor, imagined Devons, Devon from the outside as well as from within, and we cast our net wide. We feared, after six successful and varied volumes, becoming parochial.

What we didn’t expect were tales that picked up these clichés and turned them on their head. There is nothing cosy, for example, about the retirement home that features in Martin Sorrell’s story ‘Going West’ which poignantly conveys the frustrated hopes of middle age amid the decrepitude and occasional fleeting joy of old age. Devon in this story is the place where “silly promises” are made, a sort of lost paradise, a metaphor for youth and beauty and impossible dreams.

The beauty of the county emerges in these stories but there is always an edge to it. This is most evident in the depictions of Devon’s two moors. The Dartmoor where the main character in ‘The Wood Store’ by Ben Smith lives is intimately known to him, ‘every sheep-track, every mound of rock,’ but his moor is changing. Second-home buyers are moving in, forcing the locals out. Being able to name every wild flower in a patch of meadow or having an eye for the way the sun presses ‘itself like a pale thumb print into the mist’ is no match for the power of money. In Greg Hoare’s story ‘Inches’ a ‘market town in the folds of Dartmoor’ is the claustrophobic, dead-end setting. There are no prospects in this little town, no jobs. It is a place of Saturday night street fights. Dartmoor here becomes the place from which the young character Dylan wants to escape and London, where the money is, his aspiration. Judy Darley’s ‘The Beast’ is set on Exmoor, at a place where ‘the green grey strip of the moor … met the solid, unwavering purple of the sky’ and here the moor, not just its beauty but the power it has to catch the imagination, the myths and stories it has generated, is both a fearful place and a refuge.

Normally we don’t set a theme for the Riptide stories but we have always found that one emerges as we make our selection – masks and what is behind them in Volume 3, summer slipping away in Volume 4, flight in Riptide 5 – as if the authors, unbeknownst to us, have been whispering in each other’s ears. Of course, there is nothing mystical about this phenomenon. It isn’t that the authors have been listening to each other but that their eyes and ears are attuned to what is going on in the world around them. This latent but always expansive theme then becomes the connecting thread of the anthology. This time, because we’d set a theme, Devon, we imagined that we might constrain or narrow the preoccupations of the writers and that the binding thread of the whole was dictated in advance. The opposite turned out to be true.

We discovered, in fact, that we had given the authors’ licence to let their imaginations soar – a reminder that restrictions can be one of the best ways of sparking creativity as anyone who produces their best meal out of what they can find in the store cupboard can testify. Devon in these stories is the backdrop against which the writers communicate contemporary reality, the zeitgeist or spirit of the moment, and what they tell us is what we already know: that times are hard. Jobs are difficult to come by – whether you’re fresh out of school like Greg Hoare’s Dylan or joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed graduates like the characters in Luke Kennard’s ‘Freaks of Nature.’ From Sorrell’s old people’s home crooner to Shohidur Rahman’s ventriloquist who had ambitions ‘to enter the larger world, with its lights and luminaries,’ compromise, making do, letting go of dreams, colour the lives of many of the characters who people this collection.

There is nothing twee or picture book about the Devon portrayed in these stories. The dead bodies alone should alert us to that fact. There are five strewn among these fifteen tales: two murders, two manslaughters (one of them open to question) and one ‘slow suicide’. But the book, far from being a depressing read, is a powerful and, ultimately, an uplifting one. By bestowing its unflinching gaze on our life experiences – in all their joy and suffering – but doing so through the filter of Devon, something transcendent and timeless is revealed.

At the heart of this collection there is a story, a piece of memoir, by our oldest ever contributor, Roland Tuson, 88. He recalls the daily struggle and poverty of his childhood in Exeter 80 years ago. His story sings with the joy, sunshine and adventure of life, the sparkling beauty of the river, the way it ‘provided a huge adventure playground’. His story is a reminder that hard times are not new and that perhaps Devon, with its timeless core of granite, is uniquely well placed to remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Riptide is a bi-annual anthology of new short fiction by both established and emerging writers. Find out more on the Riptide website.

Egypt’s Revolution: A Year after Mubarak

by Dr Omar Ashour, Lecturer in the Politics of the Modern Arab World

456x277protest“The time of Mubarak wasn’t bad. At least there were tourists and I can get by” tells me a taxi driver. “But how about the police? Did they harass you under Mubarak?” I asked. “Oh, all the time…God bless the revolution!” The conversation summarizes the attitudes of millions of opinionated, but politically inactive Egyptians, the so-called “party of couch” (Hizb al-Kanaba). Many of whom bitterly complain about the current political and economic conditions, one year after removal of Hosni Mubarak. But when you remind them of his era, they never miss it.
Security crisis, bad economic conditions, and a state-owned media campaign blaming the revolutionaries, their marches and sit-ins for such problems, have seemed to undermine the popularity of the revolution. But the high turnout on the revolution’s anniversary showed otherwise. Hundreds of thousands marched to Tahrir and other squares across Egypt. Marching from the upper-middle class area of Mohandiseen, I saw tens of thousands chanting “down with military rule” and “revolution continues” all the way to Tahrir square, a two-hour walk. When they arrived there was no space for them to enter. The square was full.

Institutional versus Street Politics

But who dominates Egypt’s politics currently? Three entities emerge: street activists, the parliament, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Following the Post Said massacre, in which more than 70 football fans died, the parliament started proceedings to charge the Interior Minister with negligence. It is the first time in the Egyptian parliamentary history. Massive marches and street activists sitting-in in front of the Interior Ministry have emboldened the MPs to embark on these proceedings, and more importantly to ask for a thorough security sector reform and restructuring. Several draft laws and initiatives in that regard have been in progress.

Still, the slow pace of parliamentary proceedings, coupled with the (mis)management of the SCAF, did not meet the expectations of the revolutionaries. Tensions are on the rise between institutional and street politics; revolutionaries who were not elected can still mobilize tens of thousands. And in the absence of a unified leadership and organizational structures for the street activists, tensions are likely to be the rise.

The removal and the trial of Mubarak, his sons and chiefs of the repressive security apparatus have all came as direct results of Tahrir pressures. The same applies to the dates of the presidential elections. To expedite the transition, the SCAF brought the dates from 2013 to June 2012, following Mohamed Mahmoud street clashes and a massive sit-in in Tahrir. After massive marches to Tahrir on the anniversary of the revolution, the date was brought forward again, with the official nominations being on March 10, 2012.

Street politics has therefore proven effective, but quite dangerous. Egyptians paid the price in blood. The parliament, as the only elected institution, will need to address three salient issues on the eve of Mubarak’s removal. The first is the security sector reform and monitoring. The second is the proposed package given to the SCAF to abandon reserved domains of power (legal immunity, economic autonomy and veto in high politics). The third will be dealing with street activists and channelling their energy. Those three inter-related challenges will determine the success or failure of the Egypt’s democratic transition.

This piece first appeared on the Brookings Institution website.

The Children Act is an act of kindness

Liz Trinder, Professor of Socio-legal Studies, says there is no systematic bias against fathers in family courts, so no need for ministers to tinker.

This piece first appeared on the Guardian website on 6 Feb 2012.

Should there be a change in the law on shared parenting after relationship breakdown? The government has now published its long-awaited response to the Family Justice Review chaired by David Norgrove, which spent 18 months considering exactly that. The Children Act 1989 currently requires that the “child’s welfare shall be the paramount consideration” in family court decision-making. The Norgrove review decided against a stronger statement on shared parenting, based mainly on the Australian experience where shared-care legislation had not worked as intended and had shifted the focus from children’s needs to parent’s rights.

Although the report was widely welcomed by those who work within the family justice system, it was not by fathers’ rights groups. And now the government has rejected the recommendation, with ministers to formulate “a legislative statement of the importance of children having an ongoing relationship with both their parents after family separation, where that is safe, and in the child’s best interests”.

In theory that sounds entirely sensible. However, we know from the Australian experience that this type of formulation makes it harder for courts to focus on the needs of an individual child rather than the rights of parents. The Norgrove review understood this. So why is the government not listening?

One powerful driver for the government’s position appears to be an attempt to address public perceptions that the courts don’t recognise the joint nature of parenting. This seems to be based on the repeated claims of fathers’ rights groups like Fathers 4 Justice, frequently repeated in the media, that the courts are biased against men. But there is no evidence to back claims that fathers are disadvantaged in court. Under the Children Act both fathers and mothers have parental responsibility, incorporating rights and responsibilities for their children. Since the mid-1990s courts have bent over backwards to try to ensure contact takes place.

In 2010 the courts refused only 300 of 95,000 such applications. Careful research based on analysis of court records finds that the great majority of fathers get the contact they seek and often do better than mothers. Indeed, the contact presumption is so strong that research studies have found concerns raised by mothers – especially about domestic violence – are not being addressed adequately by the courts.

The research evidence is clear, then, that the claim of systematic bias against fathers is a myth. Indeed the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, said on the Today programme that he does not believe there is any bias. So it is worrying that this entirely unnecessary change is likely to lead to poorer outcomes for children.

Behind much of the debate is a set of unhelpful myths about wicked, vengeful women and innocent, bewildered fathers. While these stereotypes might exist in small numbers, they do not stand up to empirical scrutiny. As Oscar Wilde put it “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”. It is no surprise that lawyers, judges and researchers who hear all sides of the family story – men, women and children — do not support changes to the law.

Only 10% of separated families go to court about contact. They are a highly conflicted group, with multiple problems and where both parents feel unheard. Finding ways to make contact or shared parenting work for these children is not about giving parents more rights but about helping them fulfil their responsibilities, and finding ways to give children a voice. The beauty of the Children Act 1989 and its unadulterated welfare principle is that it focuses on an individual child and their unique needs, preferences and circumstances. That is a principle we must treasure.

What do Egypt’s Generals Want?

Dr Omar Ashour is Lecturer in the Politics of the Modern Arab World

Dr Omar Ashour is Lecturer in the Politics of the Modern Arab World

CAIRO – “Whatever the majority in the People’s Assembly, they are very welcome, because they won’t have the ability to impose anything that the people don’t want.” Thus declared General Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Al-Mulla’s message was that the Islamists’ victory in Egypt’s recent election gives them neither executive power nor control of the framing of a new constitution. But General Sami Anan, Chief of Staff and the SCAF’s deputy head, quickly countered that al-Mulla’s statement does not necessarily represent the official views of the Council.

So, one year after the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who, exactly, will set Egypt’s political direction?

The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and the Salafi parties, which together won more than 70% of the parliamentary seats, will give them strong influence over the transitional period and in drafting the constitution. But they are not alone. Aside from the Islamists, two other powerful actors will have their say: the “Tahrirists” and the generals.

Tahrir Square-based activism has not only brought about social and political change, but also has served as the ultimate tool of pro-democracy pressure on Egypt’s military rulers. Indeed, while the army, the most powerful of the three actors, still officially controls the country, there is little confidence in the generals’ commitment to democracy. “The SCAF are either anti-democratic….or some of their advisers told them that democracy is not in their best interest,” says Hazem Abd al-Azim, a nominee in the first post-Mubarak government.

If the generals do not want democracy, nor do they want direct military rule à la Augusto Pinochet. So, what do they want? Ideally, they would like to combine the Algerian army’s current power and the Turkish army’s legitimacy. This implies a parliament with limited powers, a weak presidency subordinate to the army, and constitutional prerogatives that legitimate the army’s intervention in politics.

The minimum that they insist on is reflected in statements by Generals al-Mulla, Mamdouh Shahim, Ismail Etman, and others. That would mean a veto in high politics, independence for the army’s budget and vast economic empire, legal immunity from prosecution on charges stemming from corruption or repression, and constitutional prerogatives to guarantee these arrangements.

The new parliament and constitutional assembly will have to lead the negotiations with the SCAF. But, given that any successful democratic transition must include meaningful civilian control over the armed forces and the security apparatus, the SCAF’s minimum demands could render the process meaningless.

The veto in high politics would include any issues that touch on national security or sensitive foreign policy, most importantly the relationship with Israel. With an Islamist majority in the parliament promising to “revise” the peace agreement with Israel, tensions over foreign policy are likely to rise.

The independent military-commercial empire, which benefits from preferential customs and exchange rates, no taxation, land-confiscation rights, and an army of almost-free laborers (conscripted soldiers), is another thorny issue. With the Egyptian economy suffering, elected politicians might seek to improve conditions by moving against the military’s civilian assets – namely, by revising the preferential rates and imposing a form of taxation.

Immunity from prosecution is no less salient. “The Field-Marshal should be in jail now,” screamed the elected leftist MP, Abu Ezz al-Hariri, on the second day of the new parliamentary session. When Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson, proposed immunity (known in Egypt as the “safe-exit” option), he faced a wave of harsh criticism.

Pressure from the United States has also influenced the SCAF’s decision-making. “The military establishment receives $1.3 billion from the US….They are very sensitive to US requests,” according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who lobbied the Obama administration to support the revolution in January 2011.

But most of the SCAF’s pro-democracy decisions have come as a result of massive pressure from Tahrir Square. This includes the removal of Mubarak, his trial (and that of other regime figures), and bringing forward the presidential election from 2013 to June 2012.

Two other factors are equally, if not more, influential: the status quo inherited from the Mubarak era and the army’s internal cohesion. With few exceptions, the SCAF’s members benefited significantly from Mubarak’s regime. They will attempt to preserve as much of it as possible.

“The sight of officers in uniform protesting in Tahrir Square and speaking on Al Jazeera really worries the Field Marshal,” a former officer told me. And one way to maintain internal cohesion is to create “demons” – a lesson learned from the “dirty wars” in Algeria in the 1990’s and Argentina in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In particular, Coptic protesters are an easy target against which to rally soldiers and officers. Last October, amid an unnecessary escalation of sectarian violence, state-owned television featured a hospitalized Egyptian soldier screaming, “The Copts killed my colleague!” The systematic demonization of the Tahririst groups, and the violent escalation that followed in November and December, served the same purpose.

Despite everything, democratic Egypt is not a romantic fantasy. A year ago, Saad al-Ketatni, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, would never have dreamed of being Speaker of Parliament. The same applies to the leftists and liberals who now hold around 20% of the parliament’s seats.

If 2011 witnessed the miracle of Mubarak’s removal, a brave parliament’s institutional assertiveness, coupled with non-institutional Tahririst pressure, could force the generals to accept a transfer of power to civilian rule (with some reserved domains for the army establishment) in 2012. What is certain is that this year will not witness a return to the conditions of 2010. Egypt may become stuck in democratization’s slow lane, but there will be no U-turn. The hundreds of thousands who marched to Tahrir Square on the revolution’s anniversary will guarantee that.

Omar Ashour is a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center and Director of Middle East Graduate Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.
www.project-syndicate.org

What is it like to be a poet or artist in residence?

Alyson Hallett, recent Poet in Residence in Geography on the Cornwall Campus and current Artist in Residence in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences Pery Burge share their experiences.

What’s the longest time it has taken between you having a creative idea and finishing the work inspired by it?

Pery: About a month is the longest time.  I like to work quickly and move on to a new idea, or a new expression of the same idea. For me, each piece of work is another element within a long creative process.

Alyson: My book of short stories took nearly three years before I was finished with it.  Sometimes, with a poem, it can be even longer.  There is one particular poem that I’ve working on in one way or another for four years.  It never quite resolves.  And it’s not even that long!  My first book of poems was around seven years in the making.  Four years to write the poems, and then a further three years of waiting for publication after the manuscript had been accepted.  And by then I wanted to take a few out and put a few new ones in.

What makes you decide to call a halt and stop working on something; at what point is it definitely ‘finished’?

Pery: I work as a kind of catalyst for natural processes – when I feel these processes are revealed to their best advantage then it’s time to stop! In this type of work, less is usually more.

Alyson: There comes a point when I can’t do any more to the poem or a story.  And so I put it to one side, or send it out for publication.  However, I never really think of anything as finished.  I have been known to change poems in my books whilst I’m on the train on a way to a reading…. I guess none of my work will be definitely finished until I’m definitely finished too.

'New Blue Planet' by Pery Burge

'New Blue Planet' by Pery Burge

Does your creative work ever take you by surprise after it’s finished, or is it too familiar to you by then to do that?

Pery: It’s hard to be surprised by my own work because I have a consistency of style. Sometimes I look back over old images – some going back to college days – and can see that what I was aiming for then was pretty much in line with what I do now; there’s a continuous thread.

Alyson: I can work on a body of poems for a long time, which makes them very familiar, but there is always an element of surprise when they return to me in book form.  There’s something about seeing them in a different format, with a cover, looking very grown up, as if they come back to meet me with a new air of confidence and maturity.  I love seeing that – the change from a manuscript of scrubby sheets of A4 paper to a pristine book.

Do you have creative blocks? What do you do about them?

Pery: Go for a walk. Nature’s metaphors provide creative solutions every time.

Alyson: Sometimes I just don’t have anything to say.  So I stay quiet for a while and paint or play the piano instead.  And like Pery, walking is probably one of the most important things I do whether I’m engaged in a piece of writing or not.  As the Russian poet Tsvetseyeva once said, “I am not a poet I am a pedestrian.”

Does the Streatham campus inspire your creativity – if so, in what way?

Pery: I love the meandering paths, the glimpses of nature between the buildings, and all the water – the fountains, lakes and water sculptures. I’m hoping to do a photographic piece on the water – a kind of ‘water meander’ soon.

Alyson: I love the trees on this campus, and the buildings.  They inspire me as a person – and no doubt this will feed into my creativity at some point in the future.

When did you first become interested in science?

Pery: When I was small, my parents bought me Finding out magazine which had scientific articles and some great illustrations. One cover featured a picture of a crescent moon, but the whole dark shape of the moon was also just visible – that picture intrigued me!  Science at primary school was integrated with other subjects: we would take a theme – swifts nesting in the school roof, for example, and look at the biology, the maths, the artistic aspects – a great way to study. Science was part of the whole learning process and that approach later on influenced my artistic thinking.

Alyson: When I was eight or nine I went to Kilve Court in Somerset to do a course in ornithology. Finding an owl pellet and then taking it back to the laboratory to dissect it still remains one of the most exciting moments in my life.  There was something magical about being able to see things through a microscope, skulls and other bones, and being able to gain a deeper understanding of the world around me.

A view from 'Six Days in Iceland' by Alyson Hallett

A view from 'Six Days in Iceland'. Photograph by Sam Inglis

What kinds of science are you interested in now?

Pery: Like Alyson, I’m fascinated by physics. I love Jim Al-Khalili’s TV programmes on the atom, the universe, chaos theory, chemistry and electricity. Sometimes I see connections between the theory explained in these programmes, and things which I’ve observed – for example in the rules defining pattern formation. I’ve also been watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, where he makes unexpected connections of every kind between large and small events in our universe.

Alyson: I love to read about physics – even when I can’t understand what’s being written about.  Anything to do with energy, dark matter and other dimensions fascinates me.  I’m also really interested in geology and geography, the sciences that help me to expand my vision of the universe and my sense of awe.  All this in turn contributes to my writing and helps me to keep my vocabulary alive and resonant.

How does a piece of work begin?

Pery: Usually from experimentation – setting things in motion, like putting ink in water in a certain way, or arranging for light to fall on glass in a particular way, and then just watching what happens when nature takes over.

Alyson: I usually hear something, a few words or a line.  Then I get myself to a piece of paper and start writing.  I like to see where the words will take me, in the same way that the artist Paul Klee liked to take a line for a walk.  It’s a process of discovery, and I never quite know what’s going to happen.

What is an artist’s residency and what’s the point of being resident in a science department?

Pery: For me, my current residency, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, is a unique chance for me to share my work with others and to experiment in new areas. I’m able to try out new ideas on specialized equipment, and to talk to scientists about old and new projects. Having worked at home on my own for quite a while, it’s a great pleasure to chat to scientists and everyone else in the department and elsewhere in the University.  I can make use of the scientific aspects of the machinery (e.g. precisely controlled water flow speed) in order to give me better artistic results.  Nothing new in this idea – most artists use some knowledge of science to help them develop reliable techniques.  Beyond that, one of the big attractions is to use the fluids lab equipment in a different way – to produce artistic visualizations from machines which were specifically built for scientific investigation. The results of my experiments so far can be seen at my journal at my website www.chronoscapes.com

Alyson: I was a poet-in-residence in the University of Exeter’s department of geography in Cornwall for a year (2010-11).  This residency was funded by the Leverhulme Trust who specifically support this kind of cross-disciplinary work.  I was in the department for two days a week, and during this time I ran a creative writing group, went on field-trips, attended lectures and wrote poems that I then posted on walls and windows in the department and the library.  I also went on a residential field-trip to Iceland with Professor Chris Caseldine and a group of second year students.  As a result of this we produced a book, Six Days in Iceland, which is a mixture of poetry, photography and scientific text.  In many ways the book encapsulates the aim of the residency, which was to enable conversations to happen between our different disciplines.

What does art and science have in common?

Pery: In a way they have everything in common because they are just different sides of the same coin. The labels of ‘art’ and ‘science’ are useful, but they are only labels. A drop of water doesn’t consider itself to be artistic or scientific; it’s just itself.

Alyson: Scientists and artists are interested in observing the world and learning about it.  We are passionate about what we do, we just happen to record our findings in different ways.  It’s only a fairly recent phenomenon to split science away from art, making it seem as if they have nothing to do with one another.  Consider the work of Leonardo da Vinci – artist, engineer, draughtsman.  We’ve still got a long way to go before we really bridge the divide that’s been created, but these residencies help to engender creative working relationships and an environment where we can share our interests.

Swimming Pool, Reykjavik, 1st April

At a temperature of one degree

we see our breath in air

steam rises from geothermal pools

the water sees its breath too

From ‘Six Days in Iceland’ by Alyson Hallett

Pery Burge is a Cornish artist, living and working in Ottery St. Mary, Devon. She is Artist in Residence in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences this year, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. See her weekly journal at www.chronoscapes.com, and visit her in the Fluids lab, Harrison Building, on a Monday or Wednesday to have a chat and see her work.

Alyson Hallett was the country’s first Poet in Residence in the University of Exeter’s Geography Department, on the Tremough Campus in Cornwall (2010 – 2011). This residency was also funded by the Leverhulme Trust.  The book that arose from this residency, Six Days in Iceland, can be bought from Amazon.  Alyson is currently working as an RLF Fellow on the Streatham Campus.  More details about her work can be found at www.thestonelibrary.com

Improving access to higher education information for prospective students

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Janice Kay talks about UniQs – a new web tool that helps students to make the right choice

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Janice Kay

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Janice Kay

Over the past 18 months, I have been involved in discussions about improving information for students in higher education. A particular sense of urgency was injected when the new funding arrangements were announced and the need to make sure that prospective students make informed decisions based on reliable and unbiased information could not have been more pronounced.

The Key Information Set is a significant achievement. It has moved the sector on from circular discussions about how or whether to present certain information, and put the needs of students first; the KIS is based entirely on what students told us they wanted to know about.

But there is still a long way to go. The KIS meets our obligation as a sector to provide a single, comparable information set. The next step must be to take this information to students and make it relevant to them and their decision making. Research by the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities found that a large quantity of the information that sits behind the KIS is not accessible enough, particularly to those from non-traditional backgrounds. We know this because students have told us.

Experience shows that people tend to be distrustful of information that is ‘supplier led’ and professionally presented. Consumer feedback and social media sites offer endless opportunities to verify information, to hear directly from the ‘punters’ and most importantly for students to receive information at times and in styles that suit them and their needs,

This poses two challenges for universities:

  • Reliability – if prospective students are distrustful of what they see in glossy, marketing material, how do we make sure that what they are reading is trustworthy?
  • Accessibility – with so many web-based sources of information and no way of controlling them, how do we ensure that core information remains visible and easy to find?

We can’t just hope that these challenges go away, if we do not engage with them, they will take on a life of their own, and misinformation could get out of control.

There are exciting possibilities to empower current students to share their experiences directly with prospective students, to talk about the opportunities available at university and the value of a higher education, not just the qualification.

This is why, I am pleased to have been working with the 1994 Group, Push and JISC to develop an innovative and exciting web tool that will seek to bind these sources together; empowering students to make better, more complete and reassuring decisions.

Prospective students will effectively be able to ask UniQs any question about higher education or student life and they will be pointed immediately to the best available content on the web – pre-screened and checked for quality.

As a sector, we cannot wait for prospective students to come to us to find information, we must take the information to them, make sure they find the information in places where they are likely to look. That’s why UniQs will utilise a diverse range of social networking sites and interactive student blogs; and professional services will be identified for students with more acute needs, such as care leavers.

There will be a website for UniQs, but its main home will be wherever students might look for answers: the websites of their school, of universities, of education or careers organisations. We have developed an innovative way of incorporating UniQs into current websites with a widget.

Without a sound and coherent system of information, advice and guidance we will find it difficult to attract, retain and grow a diverse student body in the years ahead. We have the evidence, we hold all the relevant data, it is now our job to make sure that prospective students can find it and make use of it.

Janice Kay is deputy vice-chancellor of the University and chair of the 1994 Group Student Experience Policy Group.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network website. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, sign up for free to become a member of the Higher Education Network.

Recognising excellence: University of Exeter Students’ Guild teaching awards

Academic affairs officer James Eales reveals the positive results the initiative has had on teaching and student-staff feedback.

Awards season: It's time to do more to recognise teaching excellence, says James Eales

Awards season: It's time to do more to recognise teaching excellence, says James Eales

The place of teaching at the centre of academic excellence has never been more assured following the government’s commitment to place students at the heart of the system. Now it’s time to recognise it.

The Higher Education Academy has announced that it is supporting the development of teaching awards across English universities, following their introduction and adoption by Scottish universities.

The Students’ Guild of the University of Exeter decided to hold its first annual teaching awards two years ago, largely because of the vision of my predecessor, Llywelyn Morris, who wanted to highlight teaching excellence by asking the students themselves for their opinion. Teaching has always been a strength of the University of Exeter, with the latest results from the National Student Survey placing it fourth in the UK. While the NSS can provide an indicative idea of comparative satisfaction and institutional strength, the aim of the teaching awards was to delve into and highlight the individual cases of best practice across subjects and courses. This would recognise those members of staff who excelled in enhancing and supporting the learning experience, and this could be any member of staff, not just the lecturers. Furthermore, in identifying this best practice it was hoped it could be spread across departments, improve the quality of teaching, and place Exeter at the forefront of student input into learning.

The nomination and voting process itself is operated by the Guild and student representatives. We have had no lack of students wanting to vote, but the process of selecting the overall winners from across many different subjects needed thought to resolve. Students make individual nominations, and also give the reasons why, allowing us to balance quality with quantity of nominations. There are two stages of identifying the winners, first by department, and second across the whole university. Panels and a final super-panel are comprised of students and staff (not from the departments). This dual process assures the integrity of the results, while having the added benefit of showing the great work that is happening across the university.

Too often the relationship between student organisations and universities is seen as a one-way channel of demands. Our role is to challenge and to hold the university to account to provide the best possible academic experience, including the excellent teaching and support of learning, something that is of paramount importance when students are being asked to pay much higher fees. The teaching awards provide students with the opportunities to give back to the academic community. This is perhaps the most significant message of the teaching awards, a shift in the relationship between academics and students.

My predecessor last year, Bertie Archer, recalls that: “It is too easy to complain and often the only voices that are heard are the negative ones, but these awards give voice to the large number of students who are receiving an excellent education and who are delighted with particular aspects or people.”

The response from the student body has been astonishing and reflected the tremendous amount of enthusiasm for their teachers. In the first year there were 2,000 nominations, an incredible figure for a new event. These nominations were split across seven categories covering feedback, innovative teaching, lecturer, support staff, tutor, subject with best employability and overall subject of the year. These categories have developed as the awards have progressed, but the underpinning philosophy remains. The full list of winners is at the bottom of this article. Some people have featured in both years, a sign that the same people and subjects are continually exceeding expectations. Critically, there is change. People are improving, are learning, and are looking at how they can improve their students’ experience. If nothing else, the awards have encouraged some friendly competition between the staff.

When you read the comments behind nominations, they offer an amazing insight into what students expect and enjoy in their teaching experience. A nomination for best lecturer read “he is an excellent lecturer, an inspiration to his students, excellent at feedback and very supportive”. Another, “his lectures are always well-delivered and hugely detailed, informed by his own knowledge and referenced with critical material. He is a natural at expressing his subject area; there is a sense of complete fluidity in his delivery, and he makes points memorable through his use of humour, which is never forced.”

The additional value lecturers can add to the student experience is commended: “She has come across as a truly inspiring and enthusiastic lecturer who is both engaging and interesting.” This is perhaps indicative of an important underlying element to these awards, it is not just what people teach, but how they engage and interact with their students. Summarising this point, one nomination read: “Not only a distinguished scholar he is also an amazing, engaging lecturer and a lovely person. Always seen with a smile on his face, he is admired and liked by so many students, and is always willing to help.”

It is not just about the winners. It is about feeding student opinion and ideas back to staff. As part of the post-awards process, we send all comments from the nomination process to the relevant staff, letting them know how much they are valued by their students. The impact of this on staff is unquantifiable, one responding: “I am overwhelmed. Thank you very much for sending me these comments – I really shall treasure them. It is lovely to feel appreciated!” Another: “You honestly have no idea how much this kind of response means to me, and how important it has been for me to learn of it.” This provides staff with the recognition they deserve, as well as helping them to improve their teaching. It is perhaps not coincidental that the ‘”Feedback-er” of the Year in 2010 won Lecturer of the Year in 2011.

The teaching awards are about recognising that teaching and learning are not independent activities conducted by academics and students. It is a partnership – and at Exeter, it is blossoming.

Winners 2010

  • Feedback-er of the Year: Dr Alex Thompson, Business School
  • Innovative Teacher of the Year: Dr Karen McAuliffe, Law – Cornwall
  • Lecturer of the Year: Dr Richard Winsley, Health and Sports Science
  • Support Staff of the Year: Jay Pengelly (Humanities and Social Sciences – Cornwall)
  • Tutor of the Year: Dr Avril Mewse, Psychology
  • Subject with the Best Employability Record: Business School
  • Subject of the Year: Drama

Winners 2011

  • Best Subject: Politics
  • Best Overall Lecturer: Alex Thompson, Business School
  • Best Graduate Teaching Assistant: Sam Vine, Sport and Health Science
  • Best Feedback Provider: Gary Abrahams, Business School
  • Innovative Teaching: Victoria Basham, Politics, Tremough
  • Inspiring use of Research in Teaching: Larbi Sadiki, Politics
  • Most Supportive Member of Staff: Jay Pengelly, History, Tremough
  • Subject with the Best Employability Support: The Business School
  • Subject with the Best Research Community: Classics and Ancient History

James Eales is academic affairs officer at University of Exeter Students’ Guild.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network website. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, sign up for free to become a member of the Higher Education Network.

Will we ever create thinking machines?

goldHow close are we to creating an ‘intelligent’ computer? Could a computer ever really be described as ‘thinking’? As a computer scientist, I find these kinds of questions fascinating and it is for that reason that I arranged for the University of Exeter to host this year’s  Loebner Prize on 19 October.

The Loebner Prize is an international contest where the entrants compete to create the first computer program that can be described as ‘intelligent’.  This follows the eponymous test created by Alan Turing over 60 years ago, which was based  on a parlour game known as the ‘imitation game’, and which requires an artificial intelligence computer program to convince a human judge that he is speaking to another human being rather than a machine.   The test has been the subject of much debate over the years with John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room Argument’ being the most prominent argument against the imitation game.  However despite the arguments, and over 60 years of rapid technological development, the Turing Test remains as difficult to pass as it ever has.  

On the face of it the test itself is very simple, 25 minutes of conversation between a human judge, a machine and a human confederate, from which the judge must decide which is which.  If he is not able to distinguish them, or selects incorrectly, then the machine can be said to be ‘thinking’.  However, this simplicity belies an immensely challenging problem at the core of the test which is the ability to hold a conversation with a human for a significant length of time when s/he is free to discuss any aspect of life s/he chooses.  To encode a lifetime’s worth of human experience into a machine is a hugely challenging task and developers are now using the internet to record and digest millions of interactions per day with humans to improve their ability to deal with this problem of scope (Rollo Carpenter’s Cleverbot is a notable example of this – try it for yourself at http://cleverbot.com/).  

An interesting development at this year’s contest  is the introduction of the Junior Loebner Prize, where the adult judges will be replaced with students from a local school.   With less experience to draw from, will the younger judges be less discriminatory than their elder counterparts?  I’m not so sure.  During the selection stage, a number of the student teams were able to distinguish the machine from the human with great accuracy and speed and it will be fascinating to see if a generation that has grown up with daily exposure to computers is able to outperform their more experienced counterparts.

The question as to whether the Turing Test is still the benchmark for intelligent machines after so long is an interesting one, and one that is brought into sharper focus with the celebrations of Turing’s centenary due to take place next year at Bletchley Park.  The (British) Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour (AISB) has held symposia for two years running to consider whether there might be an alternative to the traditional type-written Turing Test, with a number of interesting developments.  Some recent efforts have focussed on testing AI within virtual environments of varying complexity – The BotPrize requires the AI to play the game Unreal Tournament indistinguishably from a human, and MarioAI, as its name suggests, requires the same playing skill but within the Super Mario Brothers game.  A somewhat different approach developed at Exeter, but one that still requires the processing of virtual environment, is the Reference Object Selection Test (again you can try for yourself here – http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20905-take-the-visual-turing-test.html) where the AI must determine the relationships between objects within a scene.  It is clear from these more recent developments  that there is a move towards tests with a more visual component, but these tests are also narrower in scope than the original, examining only a small portion of what we might call intelligent behaviour, as they all operate in heavily constrained  virtual environments.

 For me, as a test for intelligence, broadly considered, the Turing Test remains the benchmark, but the more restricted tests have their role to play too.  As constrained tests they can drive the development of better AI by establishing milestones along the road towards true machine intelligence that might be passed in the near future, even if we are still some way off from reaching the final destination.

Posted by Dr Ed Keedwell (Mathematics and Computer Science)

The Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre – the First 25 Years

girltreadmill_mainAs the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre celebrates its 25th anniversary, its Director Professor Neil Armstrong reflects on what has been achieved – and how much is still to be done if we are to tackle rising levels of child obesity.

The Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre’s  initial studies of 800 11 to 16-year-olds identified for the first time the prevalence of coronary risk factors in British children. Unhealthy levels of cholesterol in the blood and body fat were demonstrated but uniquely the findings characterised the fitness and physical activity patterns of children and adolescents.  It was shown for the first time that many young people in the UK had adopted sedentary lifestyles; boys were generally more active than girls and physical activity declined through adolescence. When the findings were presented on BBC and ITN national television news on the day of publication in the British Medical Journal the media coined the phrase couch potatoes’ to describe the phenomenon.  These data predicted the current paediatric obesity epidemic.

Further studies demonstrated gender differences in physical activity to be present as young as five years of age. A re-visit in 1999 to communities studied 10 years earlier provided the first indication that young people’s physical activity levels had stabilised at a sedentary level. Other research in this health-related area investigated physical activity in relation to diet, body fat, visceral fat, obesity, micro vascular function, psychological well-being, physical education, blindness, diabetes, heart rate variability, and cystic fibrosis. These aspects of the work and its implications for present and future health and wellbeing have been widely disseminated in the national and international press and featured in over 300 television and radio programmes. The increase in public awareness of the issues resulted in the data generating questions in both Houses of Parliament, the presentation of invited seminars to MPs in Westminster, private audiences with Ministers and with Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.

The impact of the research on children’s health and well-being was recognised in 1998 with the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. The Prize was the first to be awarded in paediatric sport and exercise medicine and the team had the honour of going to Buckingham Palace to receive the prize from HM the Queen who had shown great interest in the research when she visited the Centre with Prince Philip three years earlier.

The initial studies in the 1980s raised numerous theoretical and methodological problems regarding the assessment and interpretation of young people’s responses to exercise in relation to age, maturation and gender and the examination of these issues has been a major focus of the Centre’s research programme. The Centre through its research and dissemination has been at the forefront of establishing that children are not mini-adults and the research programme has encompassed sick children, ‘normal’ healthy children and elite young athletes. This week the Centre is hosting for the second time the world’s most prestigious paediatric conference, the International Symposium of the European Group of Pediatric Work Physiology, where the latest world-wide research on many of the lines of enquiry initiated in the Centre will be presented.

25 years on and paediatric exercise medicine has been firmly established as a major research topic around the world and the Centre has helped to keep the issue of children’s health and exercise in the public eye. Our research has time and time again shown that children respond to exercise in a different manner to adults, that physical activity is essential for healthy growth and maturation and that obesity is simply the result of consuming more energy than you burn up.

Looking back as we celebrate our first quarter of a century we must thank the over 5,000 westcountry children who have willingly given their time, blood, sweat and energy to make the research possible and their laughter to make it in enjoyable. Great progress has been made: we now know a great deal about how the young body responds to exercise and understand the importance of physical activity on child and adolescent health. However, child obesity is at an all-time high and society seems unable to find a way to translate the scientific findings into practical solutions. We know that our children need to be more active, but how can we get them away from their televisions, their computers and their smart phones and onto the football pitch or running track or simply out into the playground? The Centre’s challenge for the next 25 years is to embrace new technologies and pursue innovative research programmes in paediatric exercise medicine with the objectives of enhancing further understanding of the exercising child and promoting young people’s health and wellbeing.

Posted by Professor Neil Armstrong (Professor of Paediatric Physiology / Deputy Vice-Chancellor)