Outside with eyes looking in.


I’ve not blogged for a while. I think my feelings are cyclical and run in long waves fuelled by intense spells of work activity that either lead to phases of excitement when I actually achieve something, or depression when I do not. I’ve always had very acute ‘gut instincts’, and this might be because  I am a gut physiologist and understand the beauty and power of the intestinal enteric nervous system being far more sophisticated than that knot of fibres in our heads that we call our brains. (Our ‘little brains’ are far more interesting than that great big lump we carry around on our shoulders). Animals are totally powered by their instincts and their sensory systems, and if anyone has ever thrown a ball for a springer spaniel, they will watch the animal run and find the toy not by using their eyes at all, but entirely by the power of smell. We humans are useless at that.

The enteric nervous system is entirely ill-understood, and that is mainly because it is so well hidden. People don’t really understand the full structure of it, or how it works. What we do know is the gut is one of the few parts of the body that completely has its own control unit and can fully work when severed from the brain. There are no electrophysiological, imaging or scanning techniques that can look at gut electrical waves / functions or activities as there is in the brain. Science always studies the bits of the body it can most easily test or retrieve, and certainly will always study those that attract the funding. Unfortunately the gut, apart from stomach ulcers, has never been very trendy. And very, very unfortunately, this means that probably the most common ailments to mankind, and certainly still one of the biggest killers of children as it was when I wrote my PhD thesis 20 years ago, that is diarrhoeal disease, still go reasonably unexplored.

So yes, it worries me when I have a hugely positive day surrounded by national teaching fellows in the afternoon who personify dedication to young people, passion and creativity in learning and teaching, and yet I arrive home totally depressed. As usual, my brain is several hours behind what my gut has already felt. Come on. Hurry up and decipher. This is wrong. But what?

What IS wrong?

I work with amazing people – my third university now in around ten years. I met more amazing people today. I think my realisation today is that in universities, anyone achieving the cool stuff, the innovative stuff, they do it in their own time? It has culturally acceptable for many years to dedicate time to research interests outside of work, ‘oh, I don’t do that at work’, ‘oh, I’m a kitchen table researcher’. I think what struck me today more than ever, is that academics are now dedicating time to their TEACHING OUTSIDE OF WORK!

TEACHING OUTSIDE OF WORK. Not just in terms of their time commitment and their willingness to give up their spare time, but in terms of the technology they are using and the support they are getting from global communities. OK I know I still feel like a newbie to the sector because I spent a fair chunk of time in industry. I always feel like I don’t entirely belong, and I am standing on the outside looking in, but WHAAAT? WHAAAAAT?

I am not just mildly annoyed by colleagues for years saying, ‘oh we daren’t involve the XXXX department in this’, or ‘oh we are doing it anyway’. I am getting absolutely sick to the stomach about it. Do parents and prospective students fully understand the fact that universities spend vast amounts of money on the administration and infrastructure to support the organisation, but not on what goes on in terms of delivering the education within it?

Crimson Permanent Assurance


The Crimson Corporate University of Snerterton-Upon-Snerterton

I can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python’s Crimson Permanent Assurance – ‘people are not wearing enough hats’ – and a dead organisation that started to regain its own mind and set sail in a different direction. In my experience,  if not careful, a poorly run organisation becomes an organism that takes on its own slime-like life form – the processes and systems become its lifeline, nourished by the bureaucracy and energised by the acronym-filled emails. (Yes I really did have an email yesterday containing 19 of the buggers). The organisation starts to evolve no purpose other than to support itself. I think this for me, with the easy eyes of an outsider new to academia, is what I have observed over the last decade. Academics and administrative teams become increasingly busy with the ‘business’ of making the organisation work. Staff are now completely bamboozled with targets, surveys and key performance indicators. But I’m not sure all is lost, because the amazing thing is that when ‘enrolment’ week began last week, the buzz of excitement within the university was immense. Staff were absolutely thrilled to be meeting new students once more. Yes, well yes, because that is what we WANT an SHOULD be doing.

The future?










You can never find a futurologist when you need one, although the last time I met a futurologist he had entirely read the first paragraph on Wikipedia on the subject. Well, my crystal ball tells me that I can now see the sector fragmenting. I see the private sector jumping ahead of the game providing online content and accrediting learning. I see a university elitist group separating off from the main who attract the research funding and the high-end applicants. I see polytechnics returning to provide ‘real-life’ training for those wanting a vocational option.

National Student Survey Q22

UK National Student Survey Data Question 22 – Student Satisfaction. (HEFCE, benchmarked, registered data, available: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/lt/publicinfo/nss/data/2010/ – onward).

Many people are therefore going to be very busy. But I see everyone else contributing to OPEN ONLINE LEARNING for the purpose of simply imparting their passion about various subjects to students, and for free.

So those are my gut instincts and my brain’s interpretation of the day. Although reading this now, I don’t think this IS the future. THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING NOW.

2 thoughts on “Outside with eyes looking in.

  1. Totally recognise these thoughts Viv. I’ve worked in polytechnics for nearly 18 years, a Maori tertiary provider for three, been self-employed researching for years and teaching staff in universities for five years in two countries. I recognise, and have taught staff about, students’ brains not working well when their stomachs are in a knot about something. I’ve just written a book review and critiqued a book proposal for two different authors who are investigating neuroscience and its impact on learning. And don’t get me started on trying to change cultures in academia – did my PhD on that.
    Just wanted you to know what your “whaaat?” resonated
    with an occasional “silent screamer” in the blogosphere!

    • Thank you Pip – I shall look up some of your work. Yes, it was just one of those days when it hit me all. All working cultures fascinate me and how institutions can be like completely different living beasts. But yes, don’t start me on that either!

      Thank you for your comment 🙂

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