Reisebrev fra Birmingham City University

Skrevet Elizabeth Oltedal, 2016

A far cry from little Volda

Birmingham City University, with its 24,000 students from 80 countries, located in the second largest city in UK, is indeed a far cry from Volda University College, which nestles between mountains and fjords and is ‘home’ to just 3,500 students. Nevertheless, VUC has strong traditions for international cooperation, has a high percentage of international students compared with the national norm, and encourages incoming and outgoing student and staff mobility. In addition, both the Norwegian National Research School in Teacher Education (NAFOL), and the University of Bergen, encourage their PhD students to take the opportunity of a research period abroad. As a PhD student combining research and teaching over a period of five years, I was privileged to receive funding from both VUC and NAFOL in order to be able to come to Birmingham to work on my project for 14 weeks in the autumn term.
My PhD is in the field of music assessment and explores aspects of social moderation in the assessment of music performance, at Norwegian upper secondary school. My choice of BCU for this period was linked to the name Martin Fautley, Professor of Education, and his research within music assessment. I wrote an email in Dec 2015 introducing myself to Martin and asking if he would take me on as a student in the autumn term 2016, and received a positive reply. During the following months, I underwent a formal application process involving academic referees, documentation of my solvency, employment and qualifications, before I was accepted and could plan my stay.

Although I was born and grew up in Britain, I have not lived there since I took my bachelor and post-graduate teaching qualification, a great many years back. I really looked forward to this opportunity of ‘re-bonding’ with aspects of British culture and getting to know something more of the academic systems that have changed so much, which I normally only follow from the media. My main expectations were to work in depth on the third of four articles for my PhD, to get input and new knowledge, and to try to find contacts in the field of research.

‘Brum’—the city of a thousand trades

I did not know Birmingham previous to my visit, and I found it a vibrant and delightful city. Known locally as ‘Brum’, the city has a rich artisan history and was one of the most industrialised parts of Britain by the mid-nineteenth century, using a huge network of canals for transport. By the early twentieth century, Birmingham had become a magnet for tradesfolk and had a high level of skilled workers, and low unemployment, earning it the title, ‘the city of a thousand trades’. After 1945, large numbers of immigrants were an important factor for building up industry again, but the recession of the 1970s and 80s hit the city badly, causing high unemployment and racial tensions.

Today, there are signs of new economic growth and numerous ‘makeover’ projects in the city. Many young professionals who find it too expensive and stressful to live in London, come to Birmingham. In the district called the Jewellery Quarter there are lots of buildings that were previously factories, now transformed into smarter living accommodation. A great choice of theatre, museums, galleries, concerts and restaurants make Birmingham an interesting place to be. It is also only an hour’s train journey from central London, so there are ample possibilities for cultural activities. During my 14 weeks, I often took a walk along the canals and was fascinated by the combination of urban life and nature, seen in the graffiti on a canal bridge, or the stork standing sentinel in the long grass.

However, there were a number of frustrations, mainly related to my living accommodation, and I would warn others that not all property agents do what they promise. Problems concerning electricity and water meters, getting an inventory, and a break-in to my car involving police, insurance papers and getting repairs done were all disturbing factors that took a lot of my energy. If I got the chance to have this study period over again, I would go for a less complicated alternative such as Airbnb, even if it turned out more expensive. Nevertheless, one has to take the rough with the smooth – and the benefits of getting into a different academic setting, making comparisons, and seeing new perspectives, does tip the balance.

My stay at BCU

BCU is one of three large universities in the city. The others are Aston University and Birmingham University. BCU has three main campuses and includes what were previously the School of Jewellery and the Conservatoire. The School of Education and Social Work is based at the North Campus, in a poorer part of Birmingham with a higher crime rate. The school is in in the process of moving to new premises in the city, and this is planned to take approximately 1,5 years.

I felt warmly welcomed to the North Campus and into the PhD group, in which there are many interesting ongoing projects. Several of the students embarked on their 3 year project the same week that I arrived, while others were nearing completion. Through everyday conversations it was interesting to note similarities and differences between the systems for funding, assignments and teaching tasks for the two countries.

Martin Fautley is an astute and generous supervisor, and our many interesting talks—whether at his desk or over a curry—were very important for me. Also, as I look back, I am amazed at the number and variety of opportunities I was given to expand my knowledge and contacts in music education contexts. Observation of three classes of students at the Birmingham Conservatoire in a Community Music module; a session at a BCU-directed project helping children with upper limb deficiency to learn a musical instrument; and participation at a BCU Creativity Hub meeting outlining possibilities for arts outreach in a project for refugees, were all exciting and stimulating events for me—and I did not manage to follow up several other invitations. Trips to meet Francesca Christmas/Trinity College London, Jon Newell/IBAC, Peter Morris/Wolverhampton Music Education Hub, and Gary Spruce/Open University, who were all generous in giving time to talk over my project, were very stimulating, as well as meeting up with Jean Murray/UEL, whose excellent teaching our NAFOL cohort were fortunate enough to experience last year. At BCU, supervision sessions with Victoria Kinsella and Amanda French at BCU gave me a lot to think about. Another great bonus was being given the opportunity of reviewing an article for an international journal of which Martin is an editor.

An idea came to me towards the end of my stay, that there might be an opportunity to create a joint workshop between the PhD Education students at BCU and those back in Volda. Ideas of ‘cross-pollination’ and possibilities for future shared research might be far-fetched, but sometimes a chance contact can have momentous consequences. Come what may, Amanda French will be coming to VUC in May this year on an Erasmus staff mobility grant and holding a workshop for our PhD cohort, as well as giving teaching staff from VUC and local schools some insights into the teacher education scene in UK and in Birmingham in particular. We look forward to this and to other future contacts. I also look forward to a return to Birmingham in April to participate in the Sixth International Symposium on Assessment in Music Education, which this year will be hosted by BCU.

Thanks for the opportunity

I would like to sincerely thank all who made it possible for me to have these inspiring weeks at BCU. Without generous funding from NAFOL, VUC and Erasmus, there would have been no trip at all, and I know I am privileged to have had such an opportunity. Thanks to George Turvey, Louise Brand and Tony Armstrong and the PhD cohort at BCU for my warm welcome and administrative help. Thanks to Martin Fautley and colleagues for those interesting talks and sometimes painful questions! Thanks to Anna Synnøve Hovstein and Kari Smith at NAFOL, and to Arne Humberset, Ola Teige, Synnøve Ekremseter, Terese Hole and Aud Folkestad at VUC for all the paperwork, pounds and permissions.

Elizabeth Oltedal