AUB played host to a range of fascinating speakers as part of its annual in-house Creative Learning Symposium, this year focusing on “Perceptions of Excellence”
The afternoon’s busy schedule of talks offered a chance to explore what excellence means from a range of different perspectives including an employer, an external academic and an AUB Governor as well as current and former students and staff.
Giving the welcoming address to a packed lecture theatre, Professor Emma Hunt, AUB’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, told the audience that excellence is “at the forefront of this university’s new Strategic Plan, underpinning AUB’s values to be innovative, collaborative and connected”.
She added: “I am really pleased to welcome our speakers. They will give their own views on perceptions of excellence at a time when I think excellence is in the narrative of the Higher Education sector with such a focus on teaching excellence and research excellence. This symposium will give us a chance to unpick some of that and see what it means, something I think is really important.”
The first speaker was Cherie Federico, the Director of Aesthetica Magazine, as well as being the Director of both the Aesthetica Short Film Festival and the Aesthetica Art Prize.
Her talk looked at what was needed to have a successful career in the creative industries as well as detailing the skills and attributes employers are looking for from creative graduates.
She said: “I believe graduates need a chance to develop personally and professionally using as a backdrop a creative arts education, so for me it’s about self-directed learning, it’s about risk taking and those are really important things.
“As somebody who employs arts graduates, those are attributes that I need people to have, but I don’t know how you teach that. How do you teach someone to be a risk taker?
“How prepared are arts graduates for a career in the creative sector? They are likely to work for an SME so what does this mean for the skillset required? It’s something I think about a lot.
“One thing needed is entrepreneurialism. But what does it mean to be entrepreneurial and how can we teach that because I need people to come into my company who are entrepreneurial, but that doesn’t mean that they’re out there wheeling and dealing.
“Actually it’s about joining the dots, it’s about understanding the business-side of things. As someone who is running a business in the arts, when I do take on new graduates, it’s thinking about how do I encourage them to be entrepreneurial and how can I make that the culture in our organisation?
“That is about having ideas and also having the freedom and courage to run with those ideas. It’s about not self-editing.”
Rob Brannen is head of the School of Visual & Performing Arts at De Montfort University, Leicester, and is also Chair of UK Young Artists (Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation).
His talk reflected upon the current context for the arts in Higher Education and particularly recent attempts to measure teaching excellence.
He said: “There are many good teachers in Higher Education, but those who quest for excellence are vitally ‘wide awake’ to the world around them.
“In our current context, that would mean for example, being ‘wide awake’ to the collapse of creative education in our school and colleges, and, again, for example, recent crucial discussion regarding equality, diversity and inclusion in our institutions and in the UK’s creative industries.”
He added: “For our students we must take very seriously the responsibility of being work-ready and equipped to survive and thrive in the market place, but social mobility also relies on self-sufficiency, self-confidence and communication skills, networking, group working and of course I would argue here, critical consciousness.
“That’s also not forgetting the possibility of being, eventually, entrepreneurial as an educator, entrepreneurial as a community artist, entrepreneurial as a cultural activist or forging a successful career in the creative industries precisely because you have been wide-awake to, and dialoguing with, the world around you upon your ongoing quest for excellence.”
Dr Gerard Moran
Dr Gerard Moran is an Independent Governor on the AUB Board, having joined a year ago.
After an early career teaching in Higher Education, he moved to the regional advisory service for Further Education in the East Midlands before undertaking management roes firstly at Lincolnshire College of Art and Design, and subsequently at De Montfort University, Leicester, including Dean of Art and Design and a Pro Vice Chancellor/Dean role.
His talk reflected on what role governance and the Governors might play in supporting the academic agenda’s drive towards excellence.
He said: “One of the things that Governors can do, and should do, to support the drive for academic excellence is to ensure that the top-down leadership-lead ‘grand plan’ is kept in balance with the institutional culture that nourishes and sustains the type of localised interventions made by staff.
“These innovations might be as simple as business improvement in the professional services area to free up more time for other matters. It might be about tweaking processes in the workshops or studios by technical support staff in the interest of improving the student experience.
“I think a very big part of it, is the constant updating and enhancement of the curriculum at course level, usually in response to the professional or industry sector.”
Nick Skeet is Advance HE’s Global Partnership Manager for AUB, working directly with about 40 Higher Education providers across the South West, South and London.
His talk explored the inequalities in student experiences and considered how transforming the way universities teach through Advance HE’s “embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum programme (EEDC) can help address these issues.
He said: “To address the disengagement that certain students may experience, we should also ensure our teaching and teaching environments foster belonging and engagement.
“Whilst this can be addressed across the educational experience, the curriculum is pivotal. Here the programme supports lecturers to identify where they can provide opportunities for students to relate content and learning methods to their own lived experiences.
“This can be achieved directly, for example by incorporating experiential learning, through simulation or fieldwork, or through encouraging students to reflect on their own experiences connected to the subject matter, or indirectly, through the use of case studies, analogies and comparisons.
“Further, we encourage institutions and lecturers to adopt a ‘students as partners’ approach to learning and teaching. Such activity enables students to shape their own educational experiences.”
Dr Andrew Vallance
Dr Andrew Vallance is Senior Lecturer in BA (Hons) Film (History and Theory) as well as being a filmmaker and curator.
He spoke about how an inclusive culture of developmental curiosity and creative focus is “essential for engaged studentship” but asked how this intention is to be enacted and sustained.
Dr Vallance said: “Excellence to me seems impossible to define unless we’re clear about intention and context, and those factors are relational.
“So excellence for one person is not necessarily excellence for another, and the same goes for organisations and I think this is key to remember.”
He also said: “Ultimately we want to create a culture of quality, and this culture of quality can only occur when everybody involved in it is seen as a partner.
“Too often there is distinct hierarchy, and that hierarchy needs to be challenged because only in challenging it can we achieve excellence.”
Beth Rubery recently finished her year as AUB Students’ Union President after studying for both her Foundation Diploma and then BA (Hons) Commercial Photography here. She now works within the Creative Industries and spoke about perceptions of excellence from her experience and those of other students at AUB.
After asking other students about what they thought excellence meant, she was told the following: “One told me ‘Excellence as a student means to me working to the best of my ability in all areas of study and using my utmost commitment in working towards achieving my potential. Excellence also includes excelling at my potential to achieve something I didn’t think was possible’.
“The second said ‘To me, excellence as a student means setting positive examples and new boundaries to which the world can explore and accentuate to reach greater heights’.
“The last said ‘At AUB they strive for excellence in regards to their facilities. The studios are kitted out with all the top industry-standard equipment, the printing facilities produce exhibition-ready prints. The excellence they strive for definitely helps students strive for that same excellence’.
“Some of these quotes are from students who are now alumni so they do have the added bonus of hindsight, as do I, but in our conversations we all said the same thing: it’s the above and beyond that we remember, that helps us to achieve, to reach our potential, try new things and learn new skills.”
David Lund is a PhD student and Visiting Tutor at AUB, having graduated with a First Class BA (Hons) degree in Modelmaking in 2016. Before retraining as a modelmaking historian, David had a 15-year award-winning career in bookselling.
He spoke about his own perceptions of excellence as both a graduate and current PhD student at AUB as well as touching on his previous career in leadership and management to emphasise the importance of “creating a culture where the quest for excellence is central to everyday behaviour”.
Talking about the expectations of many students, he said: “As an institution, you are asking me to invest in an opportunity to learn how to do my absolute best. Your task then is very simple: to create a culture where to do so is not only possible, not only expected but is irresistible.
“I’ve described this culture as a tide or current, so make this tide so inviting, so compelling, that everyone is gently and safely carried along with it.
“If you set this tide in motion, if everything you do is focused on achieving that culture, we as students cannot help but follow.
“So my perception of excellence then, is it is the river in which we must flow and that everyone, both staff and students, have to contribute to keep it moving in the right direction.
“When this happens it is a remarkable and infectious experience.”