Open University enrolments fell again in 2015/16

It’s the time of year when HESA – The Higher Education Statistics Agency – issue their statistical first release covering student enrolments and qualifications obtained. Against a background of a small annual rise in all enrolments at UK HE providers (up 1%) and a slight fall in part-time ones (down 1%) on the previous year, Open University enrolments fell a little over 4% (*). This marks the sixth straight year of decline from a peak of 209,705 in 2009/10 to 126,620 in 2015/16. Postgraduate enrolments are around half of what they used to be.

Part-timers now account for 24% of undergraduate and postgraduate students. In the years preceding significant changes to HE finances (the abolition of ELQ funding under Labour and the tuition fee reforms under the coalition) this figure was closer to 40%.

Open University enrolments 2008/09 to 2015/16 However, the drop is nothing like as dramatic as in previous years. As a graduate of the OU, I hope that this signals it has managed to identify a new ‘core’ market and has a sustainable future. After all, in an increasingly competitive and uncertain world, top class HE providers offering accessible second chances will become ever more important.

 

 

(*) Source: Table 3 of the SFR. Numbers obtained by adding together the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments at the Open University in England (which includes overseas domiciled students), Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

(Probably) the end

Hello! *Blows away the cobwebs and dusts furiously* I bet you thought that I’d forgotten about you all as I haven’t written anything here since May. Well, after my excellent attempts at procrastination earlier on in the year, I finally decided to buckle down and sort my dissertation out. It’s been quite a journey, which is why I’ve been so uncharacteristically quiet – both here, and on my own blog.

I’m glad to report that after many, many more hours of work than I’d originally estimated, resulting in the production of 22 drafts for the research paper and 7 for the executive summary, I successfully submitted the dissertation last month. I’m now basking in the knowledge that I’ve passed not only the dissertation component of the MSc, but the MSc itself.

Naturally, I have a number of pieces of advice to pass onto future part-time, distance learners undertaking the Occupational Psychology MSc at Leicester in future. The most important of these naturally relate to the dissertation.

Firstly, don’t undertake a piece of qualitative research simply because you’re not keen on statistics. Only do it if you’re really committed to your research question and a qualitative methodology is the only way you’ll be able to answer it. Qualitative research is definitely not an easy option, particularly if you’re looking to demonstrate it’s been performed rigorously and transparently. And you should be, of course.

Secondly, make good use of your dissertation supervisor. Keep them updated with your progress, tell them what you’re thinking about doing … and when they question you, listen to their advice and act on it. They know what they’re talking about! For example, I would have had a much worse question schedule had I not listened carefully to my supervisor’s advice at the start of the process. The quality of the questions that I eventually came up with resulted (I believe) in a far more coherent set of data when it came to analysis than I otherwise would have had. Good data certainly makes analysis more enjoyable, and it made generating evidence-based conclusions easier too.

Thirdly, find ways to enjoy the process. If you’re a distance learner, feelings of isolation and self-doubt seem to haunt most of us at some stage. Talk about your concerns to others – a Facebook group of fellow students in my first year and an email list in my delayed second year certainly helped me when I needed to sound off. The other way I found to enjoy myself was to deliberately argue for controversial positions that I didn’t necessarily hold (backed by evidence, naturally) in the assessments we were set. I seem to remember the ergonomics module being a particularly fruitful one for this approach. In occupational psychology, as in life, there are no completely right or wrong answers – simply positions you can justify based on evidence.

This is probably the end of my academic adventures at Leicester (or anywhere else for that matter). I’m looking forward to presenting my dissertation findings at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference as well as my graduation ceremony in January. I certainly hope to stay in touch with many of my fellow students and the academic staff who have encouraged me over the last three years. Your efforts have been hugely appreciated.

 

This article was originally published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 30th October 2016.

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Discursive strategies used by sales leaders in value co-creation

Today, this amazing thing happened.
DOP Conference 2017 Programme

A short paper based on my MSc research into the discursive strategies used by sales leaders has been included in the programme for the 2017 BPS division of occupational psychology conference. It’s being held in Liverpool between 4th – 6th January. I have a 9am slot on the morning after the gala dinner. I can see that I may need to find innovative ways of encouraging people to attend …

Anyway, I’m absolutely thrilled, excited, chuffed … you get the picture … to be able to speak at the conference. I really hope to see some of you who have read this blog over the years there too.

10,000 steps a day – day 11 – dissertation done!

My dissertation is officially finished. Yay! Well, almost: I will proof read it again tomorrow before submitting all 9,000 lovingly crafted words. But, done. Which brings me to the end of my MSc, too. Here it is in all of its front cover glory.

Dissertation front coverMy advice to future students is simple. No matter how tempting it seems, if you’re going to do a qualitative study purely because you’re scared of statistics, think again. Qualitative research is far more time-consuming and the analysis process far more onerous than anything SPSS can throw at you. Trust me – I’ve done both now. Only do a qualitative piece of research if the question you devise demands it, you have masochistic tendencies and are completely committed to your ontological approach. Otherwise you’ll hate it. And even if you meet all of these criteria, you’ll still hate it at some point during the process. I know I did, but I got through it. There is hope for us all.

I believe that I deserve a beer, before I return my final library book.

BeerNaturally, I walked several thousand steps more than I needed to before I bought the beer. Day 11 and still on track. Only 19 left to go.

 

If you’d like to sponsor me to walk all over cancer during September, my donations page is here. Thank you to all of my sponsors who have helped me to raise £280 so far. Please join them if you can. It will make me feel like my dissertation has some real value (don’t groan).

A distinction in procrastination

Hello all – and please accept my apologies for being away from here for a little while. “No problem”, I can hear you all saying, “we understand that you’ve been working hard on your dissertation, reading research papers, collecting data and transcribing interviews, analysing it all and making astounding discoveries.”

Hmmm.

Well, the truth is rather more prosaic I’m afraid.

Yes, I have been getting on with my dissertation and doing all of those good things, but possibly not with quite the vigour I really should be. That’s for this month I’ve been promising myself. Instead, I’ve been finding lots of ways to procrastinate, while telling myself that a bit of physical exertion is good for the analysis process, especially as I’m undertaking a qualitative (and largely inductive) approach to it.

My car has never been cleaner.

Clean carThe garage has never been tidier.

Empty garageI demolished a rotten shed that had stood by the side of my house for more than twenty years …

Shed site… and built a new one twice its size. I’ve named it Sheddy McShedface …

Sheddy McShedface… and filled it with all of the things that were in the garage that should have been in the old shed but wouldn’t fit.

Shed interiorI’ve even cut the grass (the elephant is called ‘Steve’ by the way).

Steve the elephantI think these are pretty impressive lengths to go to as far as procrastination is concerned. I’ve awarded myself a distinction, but you may be able to do better perhaps? Do let me know – it will help keep me away from Seale’s book on qualitative research for another evening if you do.

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th May 2016.

6 things my pilot research interview taught me

I’ve now completed my pilot research interview, transcribed the resulting audio and conducted a very brief analysis of the data. These are six of the more important things the pilot has taught me.

  • I was accurate at estimating how long the interview would take. I recorded just over 46 minutes of audio, having initially estimated 45-60 minutes. This is good as, if the interview had gone on for longer, it would have become too difficult for me and the interviewee to concentrate.
  • When listening back to the audio, it became apparent that some of the questions I asked were too long, too rambling, and in some cases were confusing, because I was asking for 2 or 3 things at the same time. A bit like that last sentence really. I’ve gone back through my interview schedule and revised the questions into what I hope are shorter, pithier and better phrased questions that will be easier for my participants to answer.
  • I was reasonably accurate at predicting how long an interview takes to transcribe. My original expectation was around an hour’s effort to transcribe between 5 and 7 minutes of speech. That turned out to be about right. Just as importantly, I’ve now discovered that it’s much easier to transcribe an interview if I don’t interrupt too often and try not to speak over my interviewee.
  • I was able to gather data that suggests I’ll be able to answer my research question. Hurrah! However, I’ve also realised that some of the questions I asked can be replaced by ones which more closely align to it. My supervisor agrees, so I’ve submitted a revised interview schedule that I believe will work better.
  • I have no shortage of willing participants. However, scheduling an interview is a little trickier than I first anticipated. Having a ‘plan B’ is useful when real life means that a participant can’t make it at short notice.
  • Qualitative studies produce lots of rich data and there isn’t enough time in the day to be able to analyse it from every possible angle. Having a well-defined set of methodological tools to start the analysis from is definitely useful, but to get the best out of the data you need to go beyond them – or at least, I need to use them in more depth than I did on the pilot interview data.

Oh, and number seven – never do a piece of qualitative research without piloting it! I’m certain that without the pilot session I would have ended up with poorer data to analyse in respect of my research question and the job of transcribing it would have become much harder. My golden rule (and note) from last time therefore still applies:

Ssshhh!If you’ve conducted a research interview, what’s your formula for success?

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 6th April 2016.

Six things needed for a research interview

On Monday I will start to feel like a ‘proper’ researcher. That’s because I’ve reached the stage in my dissertation when I can conduct a pilot interview. The aim of piloting the interview is to make sure that the questions I’m asking can be understood by the actual group of participants I’ll be working with in April and that the answers to the questions generate data which can be analysed in such a way that it helps me to address my research question.

Interview KitThe picture shows the things that I’ll be taking along to the pilot interview session I’ve arranged. The items are:

  • A participant consent form. This is vital, as without it being signed by the participant to signal that they’re giving me their informed consent to take part in the research, I’d be breaking the ethical code of conduct of both the university and the British Psychological Society.
  • Briefing notes and my interview question guide. Before I start the interview, I need to let my participants know a little of what I’ll be asking them about. So that the interview doesn’t turn into some kind of unstructured chat, I have the key questions linked to the research models that I’m trying to test, written in a table form for me to refer to throughout the session.
  • A participant information sheet. This is so that my interviewees will be able to understand what will happen next in the research process (transcription, checking and analysis), how they can get in contact with me again if they have concerns, and to remind them of their right to withdraw their data up until the point at which I’ve conducted the analysis.
  • Pens to write some brief notes with during the interview. These notes will help me to quickly find parts of the interview that strike me as being particularly important, as well as being able to record other aspects of what happens during each session that can’t be retrieved from an audio recording alone.
  • My trusty digital voice recorder. This is purpose-built for the job and produces extremely good quality audio – essential for the transcription process. It’s also easy to transfer recordings from it onto my encrypted laptop and then wipe its entire memory – essential for protecting participant privacy. I’ve tested it again this morning, making sure that the batteries are up to scratch and that I also have spares – just in case, you understand.

The hardest part for me during the interviews will be to do more listening than talking. I’m expected to talk a lot (some would say far too much) for my day job, so I’m going to be taking this little note along with me too.

Ssshhh!A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 19th March 2016.

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MSc occupational psychology modules review

Last night I submitted the final module assignment for my MSc occupational psychology qualification at the University of Leicester – hurrah!

It’s now just the small matter of restarting the dissertation process (which I’m ashamed to admit that I almost entirely neglected during February), working out the questions I need to ask my participants when I interview them, having them approved by my supervisor before I start to ask them and then, well, getting on with it I suppose. September 15th seems very close all of a sudden.

But before I finally knuckle down, I thought I’d look back at a blog post that I wrote in August 2013, just before I started the course and see how each of the six modules has lived up (or not!) to my expectations.

Research Methods: This looks like a sensible start to the course and I hope it’s going to be relatively straightforward. I doubt if there are any statistical techniques it will throw at me that I won’t be able to get my head around having wrestled with the “fish” book and SPSS on the OU psychology degree. There’s also coverage of qualitative methods – I wonder if Q will get a mention?

It was a good start to the course. Q doesn’t get a mention, the stats weren’t any more difficult than those I was already used to and there was a qualitative method – interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) that I hadn’t used before. There was also an ‘early assignment’ of 1,000 words that we had to submit within a few (I think it was 4) weeks of starting, which was good for blowing the academic cobwebs away after taking a couple of years out after finishing my BSc.

Personnel Selection and Assessment: I’ve been involved in this aspect of work, on and off, for about the last 20 years. I’d like to think that I’m a better interviewer and selector than most, but who knows. Psychometrics rears its ugly little head in this module, so I’m looking forward to unleashing some critical arguments from DD307(*)!

All kinds of selection techniques were covered, including some that I hadn’t come across (for example, situational judgement tests). Psychometrics do rear their head and while I’m still far from convinced of their utility, I at least now understand why other people are.

Ergonomics: Looks interesting. I wonder whether the vogue for open plan offices and hot desks is more to do with the desire to exert power over subordinates by senior management than as a way of ensuring a productive workforce or reducing overhead costs?

Though I had no way of knowing it at the time, the words that I wrote in August 2013 were more or less how I concluded the second module assignment (but with a cost-benefit analysis accompanying it to demonstrate my point). The first module assignment was great fun and involved me spending a Sunday morning taking photographs (like the one below) inside my car. This was probably the module that I’ve enjoyed the most.

Ergonomics assignment - inside my car!

The Psychology of Organising: I really hope this isn’t going to be an attempt to fit most of an MBA into 12 weeks – but the description of the module makes it potentially seem like the most interesting of the course. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one.

It wasn’t an MBA in 12 weeks (thank goodness!), but it was interesting. The two module assignments were interesting too – one broadly covering the area of change management & resistance to change (very useful in providing me with material that I now use to support my ‘proper’ job) with the other introducing me to the positive psychology concept of authentic leadership, which I greatly enjoyed critiquing!

Psychology of Occupational Training and Learning: I’m definitely not sure about this module. It sounds a little dull to be honest.

Definitely not my favourite module, but not dull either. It does what it says on the tin!

The Individual at Work: The module description makes it sound all lovely and fluffy (work-life balance, diversity, workplace counselling and the like) – but I have this nagging feeling that it’s aimed squarely at HR professionals who want to know how far they can push people before they start to fight back. I’m hoping that the module hasn’t been written by Catbert – but if it is, at least I should end up with a better understanding of what motivates people to become HR managers.

The module description is correct, rather than my paranoid interpretation of it from August 2013. It’s too close to me having finished it for me to review it entirely dispassionately, but I struggled with the assignment and, all in all, found it to be the least interesting of the six modules. However, I suspect that this might be because I came to view it as an annoyance – something that was standing in the way of me getting on with my dissertation.

Talking of which, I guess I have no more excuses left not to get on with it. Now, where did I put my copy of Seale’s “The Quality of Qualitative Research” again … ?

 

 

(*) DD307 was the Open University’s critical social psychology module (now discontinued), which gave me nightmares at the time, but made far more of a lasting impact on the way I think about psychological issues than any other module I took at undergraduate level.

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 2nd March 2016.

Why education shouldn’t be a treadmill

I can understand why some people say that education is a treadmill that you get on as soon as you’re born and eventually fall off, presumably when the speed of the belt goes beyond your capacity to keep up. There’s a brilliantly amusing and thought-provoking post over at Jo Sandelson’s Heir Raising blog which makes this point.

I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Jo writes. Play is important and we need to make time for it. Hot-housing students does no-one any good. Much of the over-testing that successive governments have introduced in schools is counterproductive. All of us (children and adults alike) need to be free to explore and follow our passions, whether that’s racing cars, looking after pigs or becoming a priest. Working for a software company is perhaps an even weirder choice, but that’s a different blog post.

But (and there’s always a but) some of us rather like the challenge that formal education provides. When I was young (a long, long time ago) nothing horrified me more than being forced outside to play, especially if team games were involved. The more academic stuff I could do, the better. In sixth form I willingly gave up my Wednesday afternoons on the football pitch to spend a few more hours in the strange little storeroom between the physics labs. There were four or five of us in there, working towards getting an additional qualification in electronics.

An education system without examinations or assessment seems utterly pointless to me. They need to be viewed positively as the chance to get recognition for all of the work that goes into study. We have to encourage children and adults to think of examinations and assessments like that. Tackling the fear that assessments are a nasty, stressful hurdle to get over with negative consequences if you fail is therefore really important. It’s up to all of us to change that discourse, to take the pressure off, one child, one subject, one assessment at a time. (Now, I’m well aware that the former education secretary, Michael ‘loose lips’ Gove, did much to set this more enlightened view back several decades when he removed resits at the same time as denigrating vocational subjects, piling yet more unwanted pressure on students. Hopefully however, after his alleged leaking and misreporting of a conversation he heard someone else having with the Queen, he’ll be off to the tower soon).

If you want to be happy in life with a comfortable standard of living, education is essential. A good education, with the certificates and grades to prove it remains the most important enabler of social mobility. While we should encourage everyone to follow their dreams – I have two amazingly talented daughters doing exactly that in the precarious world of writing and acting – it’s much easier to do that if you have qualifications to fall back on. I see very few happy people who have none at all … they’re probably even rarer than people like me who have always enjoyed study.

So how can we help to alleviate some of the pressure that children feel and make education seem less like a treadmill? In my view, education is so important that there needs to be a way for people to take second, third, fourth … or any number of chances to succeed. Sadly, recent governments have unthinkingly dismantled much of the support for ‘second’ chances by slashing further education budgets and forcing up the price of higher education – putting many mature and part-timers off.

Providing ways to ensure that adults can access FE and HE at any point during their lives is needed to break the tyranny of the treadmill. However, it’s only if people value education (academic and vocational), focus on the positive joys of learning and the benefits that a good education brings longer-term (socially and financially) that this type of provision will become a political spending priority again. It isn’t at the moment, and a sea-change in attitudes is required.

Education, examinations and assessments – not a treadmill, but a gateway to a happier future.

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