Small is beautiful: the case for working in a small, specialist institution

 

The dominant conversation around HE tends to take the position that providers are large, research-intensive institutions. Here, Gillian Hipp and Mia Gordon, Performing Arts Course Leaders at Hereford College of Arts argue the case that working for a small, specialist institution has particular advantages, including academic freedoms and a lack of disconnect between practice and scholarship. This argument makes the point that working in a small, specialist institution:

  • Allows you to be a practitioner, as well as an academic
  • Enables you and your students to be flexible and collaborative between disciplines
  • Has an integration with community which larger institutions may lack

When working for a small organisation it is easy to consider bigger HEI’s from a ‘grass is greener’ perspective. However, we feel incredibly fortunate to be working at Hereford College of Arts. The smaller institution enables an ethos of placing emphasis on the individual students that allows for their learning journey to develop into the direction that reflects their ambition. This mirrors the way in which staff are seen as individuals; each having their own ambitions and career journey. Emphasis is placed on us as teaching staff to engage with academia and being academic, but equally we are asked to be practitioners in our own right and in our own discipline. It can be argued that in some larger HEIs there is a perceived disconnect between ‘academic’ and ‘wider community’ .Academics may feel a separation and division between themselves as academics within academic establishments and the non-academic world – the non-academic world even being sometimes referred to as the ‘real world’.

As ‘academics’ ourselves (if a label is necessary) we find this notion of being divided and separate from the real world difficult to comprehend, but is this because we have engagement with our practice on a regular basis?

We are encouraged by the fact that HCA provides a place that combines academia and practice. As members of staff we are given the opportunity and encouragement to research, engage with academia, write papers and speak at conferences. We are equally encouraged to connect with our discipline as practitioners. This allows us to be creative and have an embodied sense of the discipline that we share with our students.

Working for a larger institution might have certain merits,  however conference experiences suggest, firstly, dissatisfaction within HE staff from larger institutions can feel at wanting to set up internal collaborative projects, but unable to find a way to do this. secondly, wanting to give students meaningful ‘real world’ experiences, yet struggling to collaborate with external agencies. This is, of course, not always the case, and some very good and inspiring examples of external collaborations are clearly taking place in some institutions across a range of departments and disciplines.

At HCA we do not have a problem in finding local and regional employers who want to collaborate with us; nor do we have any problem in facilitating cross-discipline collaboration at course level.  In fact, we find ourselves collaborating with multiple courses at the same time on the same project, that allow students to have an ‘in house’ real-world experience…although, of course, it is questionable what the term ‘real world’ actually means.

Our recent conference conversations have suggested that, if anything, collaborations which appear par for the course for HCA are considered fairly radical by staff from larger HEIs.  Such conversations have also caused us to reflect on our students behaviours – our experience at HCA suggests that the students themselves feel empowered and motivated to engage in collaborative projects without staff ‘introductions’ outside their curriculum-based work and within their first year of study. Therefore, whereas some larger HEIs feel that they are not preparing their students for the ‘next step’ of being independent (and perhaps entrepreneurial) individuals, we are giving them a head start with the skills and mind-set that will equip them for this so called ‘real world.’

And, let us critically question this idea of the ‘real world’ anyway. Is this something detached, apart from the institution? We would argue that we already have an integrated ‘real world’ within HCA and  we are proud to be part of this creative, innovative and inspiring environment in which students are given the space to develop their personal creative identity within an academic course and hone their employability skills through engagement.  On a personal level, that same ethos allows us as staff to grow and be who we are, without any labels to limit our academic practice.

One particularly  positive feature of our environment is our close relations with the wider Herefordshire community. In some larger establishments, there appears to be a clear feeling that division exists between ‘town and gown’. Beginning as an FE institution, part of HCA’s identity and close connection with Herefordshire comes from our institution’s roots. The FE provision allows there to be a clear sense of community from locally and regionally recruited students, as well as giving the college a clear value within the community through student success, live briefs and collaborations.  The college is firmly part of a wider community of shared interests, ambitions and aspirations.

Whilst there are clearly many tangible benefits of working within a bigger HEI we feel that there are also many (maybe less tangible) benefits from working within a small institution. HCA certainly allows us to work in a dynamic and responsive way, adapting to the ever shifting ‘real world’ we find ourselves in, which is creative and inspiring most working days. Therefore, we feel that in this instance small is beautiful.

by Dr. Mia Gordon & Gillian Hipp

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