How I almost quit as a student

A bit less than a year ago, I wrote about how I had taken on a PGCert with the AUA. Last week, I almost decided to end that pursuit. To get it out of the way first – yes, in principle I’m all in favour of quitting: if something just won’t come together, it’s worth giving it up.

So why was I close to giving this qualification up? My first motivation for the qualification was to ‘unstick’ my career. I saw that securing knowledge (especially in the ‘dark arts’ of quality assurance) would help me break the ‘careers/placements guy’ label that I have acquired over the years. For this, I thought, I needed some UK qualification letters behind my name. People in higher education love letters behind their names – I have worked with colleagues who almost needed a second line on their business cards. I did find out that this could be more trouble than it is worth: seeking professional development, signing up for what is essentially an academic qualification was probably the wrong step.And it shows so far in my performance: the more I try to conform

And it shows so far in my performance: the more I try to conform with the requirements of ‘level seven-ness’ (yes, someone actually used that term at a residential — for those who don’t live in the world of academic jargon, the terms is supposed to denote master’s level thinking), the less I achieve. That does remind me a bit of school, if I’m honest – and I really didn’t like school. I wrote three assignments, the first one rightly criticised for a lack of critical thinking but passing; the second one failing on this criterion – so I secured myself some extra tutoring and especially focused on that very point – only to fail the third assignment, for mostly the same reason (which was quite frustrating). Also, I was told, I showed a lack of knowledge in the subject area – which is again a fair criticism, as I focused so much on ‘how’ to answer than ‘what’ to answer.

In essence – I am struggling to fulfil what the course wants me to do, and the more I try to conform, the more uninterested I am becoming – and the less I perform. That’s not a good dynamic – and it does indeed remind me of every structured learning experience I’ve joined in before – did I mention I didn’t like school? I succeeded in university because I ditched the prescribed pathway and self-taught myself the required knowledge – I guess this would count as self-directed study, but it also shows that I’m not necessarily built for being a good (in the sense of compliant) student.

About the usefulness of the course to my career as a manager – let’s be clear: decision making in complex organisations often requires very little critical thinking in the academic sense. It’s not the better argument that wins, it’s the politically more savvy one that does. Currently, it feels like investing into repairing my struggling academic performance wouldn’t be worth it – and that’s why I almost pulled out. I already have a higher qualification than this, and the value I can gain from that perspective is limited – it was worth finding out, but not worth putting ever more effort into, to conform to a standard that is professionally only of limited relevance. I have learnt a lot from this experience so far, but may soon reach the limits of what I would want to get out of it, any more effort might become be a waste of time. I discussed this with the programme manager, and have to say that that was a very constructive discussion. I have decided to continue, as the repair job should be manageable, and I can progress to what might the more interesting part (no essays, but personal development planning and a portfolio). So for the time being, I’m sticking with it.

In the meantime, my career has developed rather nicely without the PGCert – I am now an elected staff trustee on the board of my university. Here I see, and help with decisions that affect a multi-million pound organisation. I gain insight into institutional strategy, management and politics, as well as gain knowledge in areas other than my own. I feel that spending time on this makes more sense than trying to conform with academic learning outcomes so that I get better grades – which is what the PGCert currently feels like. Maybe I will be able to change my perspective, as my journey as a student further develops.

Which leads me to the next point: The third thing that I wanted to experience on the programme was ‘the student experience’ in the post-1992 UK degree system. Now that, I do, and it is a mixed one: being a fairly self-motivated worker, putting in the required time is not a big problem. But whenever I interact with the programme itself, I feel frustrated: the virtual learning environment is usable, but dated (to be fair, they are addressing this). I still succeeded so far in studying pretty much on electronic devices, using no paper – but the use of technology is behind the standards set by other online learning experiences I’ve engaged with. A MOOC would probably have serve me better in that regard. The two presence days were problematic though – getting online at the chosen venue was a struggle every time which is really bad when you are working in the cloud as I do. When organising the annual PlaceNet conference, we secure free online access for all delegates in advance. Teaching materials (paper, and lots of it), and presentation styles tend to be quite old school – true, this represents working practises in higher education, but I don’t need to pursue a degree in order to learn that. To be fair, I am not a friend of outcomes based learning approaches since I think they lead towards performance trending towards the lowest common denominator – which was palpable when questions and instructions at the days moved towards how to get the best grades. This, I clearly disconnected from, given that my grades got worse the longer I’ve been working on this.

So, what have I learnt? A lot, in fact. From a work perspective, I have learnt about how higher education administration thinks about itself, and how it affects organisations so far. I am getting my student experience – a frustrating one – not uncommon for any struggling student. I can’t blame the course – it’s me who’s not performing to the required standards – but I am more aware of its limitations and usefulness to my career. So, as mid-term reports go, this is mine. Let’s see if the second half will be more – or any for that matter – fun.

March 11th, 2015 by