Student chronicle: Studying the field you work in

Elisabeth Josefine Lackner (Hedda master programme and

Elisabeth Josefine Lackner
(Hedda master programme and Student Information and Communications Office at the University of Oslo)

Have you ever wondered in what ways knowing more about higher education research adds value to working as a practitioner in higher education administration? This entry is written by Elisabeth Josefine Lackner who is a student in the Hedda master programme and at the same time working as an administrative manager at Student Information and Communications Office at the University of Oslo. 

What is the added value of added theory on your work? I have asked myself that question many times the last six months, after enrolling into the Higher Education Master Programme at University of Oslo last autumn. And although added theoretical knowledge on the field I work in sometimes frankly complicates my daily doings in the work sphere, it does provide insight, thoughts, opinions and methods that add a valuable X-factor to my work.

And vice versa.

Although it is hard to mentally liberate oneself from the rightfully applied and experience based work sphere, the touch with reality that work experience gives, makes the literature we read, the discussions in class and assignments ever so much more richer and many-faceted.

First and foremost I am a higher education professional. But I write this post as a student of higher education. I have worked within or along the borders of the field since I graduated from university, in both the public and private sectors and presently as a communications manager working centrally at the University of Oslo. Yet, last summer I decided – after long-lasting considerations on what to pursue in a long longed for master’s degree – to add academic knowledge to my professional self and additionally study a field which I have learned is so fascinating and nevertheless vital to individuals and society.

Yet, studying the field within which you work and vice-versa enriches and frankly complicates your daily business and perspectives.

Let’s start with enrichment. After attending lectures and seminars I stroll back to my daily business of meetings, emails and phone calls, presentations, contracts and hiring– normal business in many office jobs. If not the academic knowledge I have achieved through the curriculum can guide me in my daily operative tasks, it does provide a richer and more interesting context for the even work-day. For instance, I do perceive that I am more able to read changes in the applied field through other lenses. For instance, after over six months of studying higher education, it is hard for me not to couple the ongoing present expansion of NOKUT (Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education) with the roll out of New Public Management in Norwegian public sector and higher education field.

Another example is the, perhaps for some surprisingly broad and vivid, engagement among important editorial staff in important Norwegian media (for instance the Morgenbladet or Aftenposten) in what principles should be dominant in the future development of Norwegian higher education; more applied and focused on utility or safely placed within the tradition of Bildung. Being a student in higher education makes it easier as a professional to identify the different perspectives and normative basis of arguments in the debate around higher education.

Yet, at job as a manager in Norwegian public service does not open for analytical deliberations or prolonged elaborations on the normative basis of for instance this or that alternative tone-of-voice when marketing our study programs, or on the potential centralization or decentralization of a special field in our information service. Yet, all the literature we have read and the discussions in- and outside of class does stimulate a certain room for reflection when standing in the midst of a decision. Potentially adding to the slowness of bureaucracy, but also – hopefully – to more weighty and balanced decisions. Yet, one of the most valuable effects of being a working student is the closeness to academia, to relevant literature and a brush-up on methods. It might sound like a cliché, but studying the field you work in does make you seek for more knowledge-based decisions in your daily job. And for believers in knowledge – either students or professional – that is a good thing.

But it’s also hard to study the field you work in. This situation does leave you with professional and scholarly dilemma when contemplating on where your normative loyalty lies – are you are critical student of an increasingly governed work field, or a loyal patriot of the solid public bureaucracy? A question that deserves some more elaboration.

Last week in class, we discussed Bovens, Hart and Peters’ allegory on Candide and Cassandra sitting in a pub, arguing on whether public policy is to our benefit or not. Candide is so cheerfully positive about the benefits of public policy making and Cassandra – the truth teller – as usual sees the downsides. And you might guess what I’m getting at. Working within the higher education field, you of course find your job meaningful and rewarding, you start out as Candide in a way – believing and hoping that your managerial efforts does lead to a modest, yet positive contribution to the development of the sector. Yet, during and after lectures, often being exposed to more critical literature on the direction in which the field is heading, you tend to think more like Cassandra: that your work is a small part of a major shift in public higher education from the indisputable priority of faculty and discipline to a closely governed enterprise – all of this said without claiming any kind of prophecy! In short, studying the field you work in endangers the innate naivety and belief in the value of ones efforts which you carry with you to the office every day.

Through work you have the experience of knowing your field, yet studying higher education makes you understand more of how the systems of higher education work. Although it can be challenging to study the field you work in, the added value of doing so is far larger that the meta-meta dilemmas you might encounter being a student working within the higher education field.

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
― Albert Einstein