Thursday, 6 August 2015

End of an era: stepping down as Product Design Programme Manager

This is my first blog post of the 2015/16 academic year, and my first as ex-Programme Manager for the MDes, BSc Product Design course here in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds. This is less dramatic than it sounds: I haven't changed jobs, I'm still teaching the same modules and the same tutorial groups, and the same dissertation projects. In fact, the students who aren't Student Reps won't notice a lot of difference. But it's a big deal for me, so I wanted to pause and reflect on what it means, what I've learned, and where I (and Product Design) go next.

My First Big Commission

Being a Lecturer in the School of Mechanical Engineering is the only job I've ever had (if you don't count an industrial placement year and summer work at Knoll Pharmaceuticals in my pre-doctorate days). I started the post in September 2005 at the tender age of 26, before I'd even completed my PhD: the first lecturer appointed uniquely to the Product Design course. There had already been a Professor (Pat Jordan) and teaching fellows appointed: but still, I was the first lecturer. Product Design (affectionately known as PDES after its course code) was still young: it had started in 2003, and wouldn't graduate its first students until the end of my first year in post. It was a faculty-wide initiative, involved staff from all the in the Faculty of Engineering, and staff from other faculties to boot. It was an unusual mix of art and engineering - most design courses are either engineering-focused with some art, or art-focused with some engineering. Our USP was to aim straight down the middle - an even balance of both, and an investigation of the links between them. The goal wasn't to drawn in engineers, but to address the shortage of technical skills by providing a route for those from a more creative background to acquire them. We were feeling our way in the early days - rapidly iterating, finding out what worked and what didn't. Getting new resources. I was almost immediately given the job of looking after PDES admissions, running open days, reading UCAS forms, making decisions on borderline cases. Just less than two years later, in August 2007, I was made Programme Manager for Product Design, stepping in to fill the shoes of Alison McKay, who had steered the course through its inception and its first full round of graduates. The course was bedding in, the rapid evolution slowing down, and the time had come to rotate the leadership, and the job fell to me. In two years, I'd gone from an inexperienced and unqualified teacher to leading the Programme. It was the most responsibility I'd ever been given - and in my professional capacity, it still is.

Times of Change

My greatest fear was that I would somehow shipwreck the course. I didn't - it's still here, it's topped the Guardian League table for Product Design, and I've seen more than 250 students right through from recruitment to graduation in my time as Programme Manager, with a student satisfaction rate of over 90%, and student employment rates that are on a par with our engineering courses. I reckon I've done okay and while managing a degree programme is never easy, it's fascinating how things I once found daunting (chairing a theme team, managing a budget, responding to student feedback) are now things I take fro granted.
   It hasn't all been plain sailing though, and the course has had to evolve a lot in that time. When we had our tenth anniversary celebration, bringing in graduates new and old to talk about their time on the course and beyond, I reflected on how the course we taught in 2013 was very different from the one set up in 2003. I think there are only about five modules on the whole programme that have stayed the same during my tenure as Programme Manager. Then again in 2023, the course will look different again. It has to: times change, and academia is all about adaptation.
   My time in charge has been characterised by the need to adapt. You might recall that 2007 was just before the world economy fell off a cliff, and budgets had to be cut - in 2010, the University shed 10% of its staff, and 20% of its non-staff budgets. That meant a lot of rationalisation. What do we really, really need to teach? Not what's cheap - what's the best use of our money? Then £9k fees arrived, core and margin recruitment, the need to tighten entry standards, and run a smaller course of high-calibre students.
   Most significantly, as I came into the role, the course was moved from being one that was Faculty wide, to one housed within Mechanical Engineering. The difference to the students was cosmetic, but administratively, it meant aligning budgets, software needs, teaching practices, the staff student forum, exam boards - we've gradually aligned modules, shifted from buying in modules elsewhere to delivering them ourselves, so we could ensure their suitability for our students.
   If I have one achievement of which I'm most proud, it's that I've moved the course from being an anomaly, an outsider, to an integrated part of the department, without losing its distinctive feel. That's not been easy, and the credit can't go to me alone - we're a good team, and we've been blessed with some good managers during the transition. Martin Levesley, as Director of Student Education during most of my run and the biggest period of change; Dave Barton as Head of School; Mark Wilson as the admissions tutor during the turbulent recruitment changes; and Victoria Price as our marketing director - all were hugely supportive in keeping PDES as a design course, rather than trying to water the vision down into "engineering with a bit of design".

 Goodbye Yellow Brick

So why go now? There are a few good reasons. One of them is that eight years is a long time to do a single role. It provides continuity, and I don't think I could have stepped down sooner without leaving a lot of loose ends in the whole integration. But that's done now, and there's a danger of getting too wedded to your own changes. Also, a fresh perspective is always helpful, and the challenges facing the course are changing. Its no longer about stability, and rationalisation, and integration - it's about how we move forwards, and how we engage with the new opportunities presented by university initiatives such as the Discovery Themes (the new approach we take to deliver electives). Lots of exciting opportunities, but I think we'll benefit from having a fresh pair of eyes looking at them. Also, the programme has been run by an engineer for the last eight years, and we've sorted out the engineering side of it - the opportunities now are about the creative side, and someone from a design background is far better place than I to do that. So the course feels like its at a natural turning point, a good time to transition, rather than starting new initiatives.
   Then, of course, there's FATKAT (the Finger and Thumb Kinetic Assessment Tool, in case you don't keep tabs on what I'm doing) and all the grip and posture research. I had exactly one Phd student when I started as Programme Manager. Now I have seven, in varies stages of their degrees. I have a commercialisation project under way - that takes time. Links with Born in Bradford, with JCM seating - they all need to be cultivated. We have models that need to be developed and explored if we're to publish them in time for the next REF. And FATKAT needs nurturing at the moment - it's ready to use, but funders want to see results, and more development before they'll put money into it. We have to speculate to accumulate, as it were, and I can't give FATKAT and PDES the attention they both deserve. So, again, it's a natural time for me to shift gears, so while it's not off to pastures new, it's the end of one era, and the dawn of another.
   I'm excited. Strangely, I'm not sure I'll miss running PDES - I feel like I achieved what I set out to do with it, and now is a time to end on a high note, rather than set myself new goals for the course. It's a natural time to go, and with the inestimable Dan Trowsdale taking over, I know the course is in good hands.

The Best Laid Plans

Of course, I didn't get quite the end I'd hoped for. My recent illness meant that for the last three months of my tenure, Dan was already de facto manager for PDES. So, my hopes for a stirring speech at our exhibition or graduation, didn't come to pass. Indeed, looking back through my emails, I see that my final official pronouncement as programme leader was "Yup, looks good to me!". Ah well, such is the way of things. And of course, I haven't actually gone anywhere - it's not like I've changed jobs. I have just one regret; that I didn't finish steering PDES through the accreditation process. There's a raft of documentation that's been sat on my desk for six months, as ill-health chipped into my time, and higher priority matters took up the time I had left. Still, you can't do everything: I'm better, I'm steadily ramping up my hours (75% of full time and counting!), and my focus for the immediate future is everything grip related. Product Design is in safe hands, so here's to a FATKAT future!

No comments:

Post a Comment