Academics in the Real World

In this blog Dr. Ian C. Elliott, Senior Lecturer at Queen Margaret University, looks at working with industry and in the 'real world'.

I’m often asked if I have any real world experience. Sometimes I even get, ‘what would you know about the real world?’ There are so many flaws in these standpoints (and much has been written about this previously) but I think there is another important point to consider. What is happening here, is that there is a perception that universities, and by extension those who work in them, are somehow different from everyone else. That we are not ‘real’.

The fact that, in Scotland over 56% of the population attend university has seemed to have been ignored. University education is for all – all ages, all backgrounds, anyone with a thirst for learning. It’s not some distant or exclusive ivory tower. We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns – even academics.

But more than that, I believe that everything we do in universities, has some form of practical focus and thus some basis in ‘reality’. One of my favourite quotes is by Kurt Lewin (1951):

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory”.

To develop any theory we may conduct experiments, collect surveys or observe communities. Then, when we then want our research to have an impact, again we are drawn to working with external organisations and professionals. Whatever the methodology, whatever the subject matter and whatever the impact there is always an external motivation and focus to our work.

For me this is absolutely critical – and the idea that ‘practical’ and ‘theory’ are diametrically opposed is utter nonsense. Yes, theory may not always work out the way we had hoped or anticipated, but that is not to say that it doesn’t matter. One of our students, who is Head of Policy, Performance and Development at Anytown Council, summed it up by saying about our postgraduate programme that,

“[This course] covers very contemporary and relevant issues – which aids the application of learning into the practical work environment. A good level of engagement with academic literature and research enhances this further. In a very time-constrained work life there is value in this course and I have not regretted my investment of time (which isn’t always the case!!)”.

In other words, theory enhances practice! In my own work I have been fortunate to work with many external organisations. I have delivered a PgCert to public servants on behalf of Academi Wales and I’m currently supporting delivery of an MSc Public Services Leadership to City of Edinburgh Council, Dundee City Council and Orkney Islands Council.

Recently, I have been involved in developing a new MPA programme. Again we wanted to make sure there were strong links with appropriate external organisations. As a result we have set up a partnership with the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations (ACOSVO) to enable all students on our MPA to take part in some form of work experience while studying. This is a fantastic opportunity for students to see the links between theory and practice first hand.

We are offering this MPA to individuals and to organisations. And we are always keen to work with external organisations to support employees and to inform the delivery of excellent public services. What’s more, we have arranged a special discounted fee level for this programme for its first year. But does the ‘real world’ want to work with us? Well, assuming that’s where you are right now – let me know!