Pathways to a sustainable future #vitae

I’ve been invited to speak at a Vitae event about the sustainability of the Roberts agenda. What I’m mainly going to be doing is running a facilitated brainstorm about what the future may hold, so I don’t pretend to have any great insights here. However I thought it might be useful to throw a few thoughts up onto the blog for those that want to discuss further.


Firstly for those who don’t know it might be worth explaining what the “Roberts agenda” is. A long time ago there was a government report which said that the supply of people and skills in STEM subjects wasn’t working as well as it could do. The right people weren’t getting to the right subjects and therefore industry was experiencing a deficit. A small but important part of this skills supply line was the production of enough very highly skilled people suitable to contribute to the nation’s research and development activity.


One of the problems that was identified was around the kind of skills which were possessed by those who were graduating with doctoral qualifications. These skills it were argued were not fit for purpose and much of the potential of people with doctoral qualifications was not being maximised because the training was too narrow and correspondingly people’s career aspirations were too limited. For those of us with doctoral qualifications this rang some bells and thankfully the research councils agreed and put up some money to develop a programme of researcher development across higher education.


Flash forward a few years and most universities have staff, or even departments, that are dedicated to training and developing both doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. While the establishment of the agenda hasn’t been completely smooth, by and large universities have recognised that they need to provide a better environment within which researchers can develop their skills and that they generally need to pay a bit more attention to the human capital that is being invested in through research grants. However it is likely that the dedicated stream of funding that has made this rapid growth of the researcher development agenda is likely to become less “dedicated”. What is more this change is happening in an environment where universities are both under financial pressure and re-examining their core rationales. So the question remains what next for the Roberts agenda?


It seems to me that there are a number of possible pathways that the sector or individual HEIs could take. The first and most dramatic would simply be to issue redundancy notices to all researcher development professionals, close down the programmes and go back to the way things used to be. This seems very unlikely to me. Universities have probably accepted some of the rationale of the Roberts agenda and would on the whole seek to maintain some kind programme of researcher development.


A second option would be a long slow decline. While universities have probably accepted the rationale for researcher development how effectively it will be able to jostle for resources in a competitive environment remains to be seen. It would be very easy to gradually reduce the amount of resource that is invested in this agenda without really making a frontal assault on it. As people leave, get promoted etc. it would be very easy to not replace them and to gradually diminish the level of provision offered. This would be relatively painless for individuals but would mean that the agenda as a whole would have failed.


A third option would be to recognise the value of the agenda and the staff who have been part of it and to stretch the skills and resources across a wider range of functions. For the last few years researchers have had an extraordinary level of training and support in comparison to other staff and student groups. It would be very easy to stretch existing resources across other groups that are currently undersupported e.g. taught postgraduates, technicians, other academic staff. One possibly appealing element of this would be that it might help embed researchers into a broader academic career path, rather than being seen as a special case aside from the main swim of institutional life. This might enable much of the spirit of the agenda and the expertise assembled around it to survive, but it would be likely to result in a reduction in the service level that is currently offered to researchers.


A fourth option would be to reinvigorate the Roberts agenda around the unique value that is offered by researchers. This approach might draw in related issues like knowledge transfer and public communication of research. This is what I’m really going to be focusing on at the Vitae event that I’m talking at. If the agenda is going to pull this one off it is going to have to find a policy relevant rationale for its existence and this is likely to mean that there is a need to re-imagine the agenda around some different concepts. I’ve pulled together a quick list of recent research and policy which people might want to think about in relation to this re-imagining. I’ll list these at the end of this post.


However it might be worth trying to summarise what I think some of the main trends are likely to be.


The first policy context that everything is going to have to engage with is the idea of austerity. We are constantly told that public finance is stretched and so everything that money is spent on has got to make strong economic sense.


The next policy context that everything has got to relate to is what is sometimes called “the gospel of skills”. Despite some peripheral critiquing, the Conservative government have largely bought into the idea that training=skills=economic growth. This is contestable as Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter argues, but from the governments point of vi
ew this idea is likely to continue to hold sway.


An idea that is also likely to have some importance is “the BIG society”. How much the Big Society forms a part of policy rather than rhetoric remains to be seen. However for now there is some interest in community and voluntary approaches to service delivery that might chime with existing practice. Researcher development has already been exploring issues about sustainability, volunteering, social enterprise and researcher led activities. These could be easily contextualised as part of the Big Society idea.


Finally I think that idea of the individual responsibility is likely to be a very important context for training and development. Much of the governments thinking emphasises the idea of individuals taking responsibility for their own professional development, education, training and careers. Central to this is the importance of having access to good quality impartial information, advice and guidance. The Roberts Agenda has always been, in part, a careers agenda so some of these ideas should provide a fairly comfortable context for the work that is being done.


So what do you think? How should the Roberts Agenda realign itself in relation to the current policy environment?


Some policies that may have a relevance to the future of researcher development


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