Education Social commentary

Overeducation in the UK labour market

Dr Michela Vecchi, Associate Professor of Economics, shares results of her recent research on overeducation in the UK workforce.

A person can be overeducated if they possess more education than required for the job. A recent study I conducted for the ONS, co-authored with Maja Savic and Adama Lewis (Economic Review: April 2019), shows that although education leads to higher wages, returns are lower when workers are overeducated.

Using data from the Annual Population Survey (APS) we estimated the extent of overeducation in the UK labour market, looking at the working population aged 16 to 64, and at the impact of overeducation on wages. In 2017, 16% of workers in the UK aged between 16 and 64 were overeducated.  This proportion has changed over time as shown in Figure 1. The highest number of overeducated male workers was observed in 2007. After the financial crisis, this proportion decreased while the number of overeducated female workers increased. In the last two years, we observe the same incidence of overeducation for both men and women.

Figure1: Percentage of those in employment defined as “Overeducated” by sex, 16 to  64.

UK, 2006 to 2017

Source: Annual Population Survey, Office for National Statistics

Is overeducation a temporary phenomenon?

Overeducation could be a temporary phenomenon as individuals may start on a job which requires a lower level of education to gain some relevant work experience. If this is the case, we should observe overeducation to decline with age. However, the existing empirical evidence is quite mixed. To answer our question, we computed the rate of overeducation for different age groups. Our results show that workers aged 25 to 34 years and 35 to 49 years experience the highest rate of overeducation, and the proportion of overeducated workers in the age group 35 to 49 years has increased since 2013. The finding of higher overeducation in those aged 25 to 34 is consistent with the presence of short-term labour market frictions. However, the high level of overeducation for workers aged 35 to 49 years of age indicates a more persistent phenomenon.

Overeducation in London and the rest of the country

Figure 2 shows that overeducation tends to vary across different regions. In 2017, London had the highest proportion of overeducated workers in the UK. This phenomenon is likely to be driven by the composition of the labour force, characterised by a relatively high proportion of immigrants who are typically overeducated. Many foreign nationals working in the UK come to the country to improve their English, hence they may be willing to take a lower-skilled job. Our data show that on average, non-UK born workers tend to be more overeducated compared with the UK-born. This also implies that companies operating in the London area benefit from having access to a large pool of skilled labour, which can be crucial for their performance.

Figure 2 Percentage of those in employment defined as “Overeducated” by region and country, 16 to 64 years, UK, 2017

Source: Annual Population Survey, Office for National Statistics

Graduate overeducation

Being a graduate increases the likelihood of being overeducated. In 2017, the average overeducation rate for graduates with first degree or equivalent qualification was 30.9% and reached a peak of 50% for recent graduates with Arts degrees. This may look alarming; however, when we assess the impact of overeducation on the wage level, we find that recent graduates have a lower wage penalty compared to non-recent graduates. This suggests that recent graduates have specific skills or unobservable characteristics that are better valued in the labour market compared with non-recent graduates.   Our data does not contain information on individuals’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills (personality traits), but related studies show that these factors are very important for a successful labour market experience (Heckman et al. 2006). The relatively better performance of recent graduates may also indicate that the university sector is becoming better equipped at providing valuable skills. As discussed in Chevalier and Lindley (2009) the fast expansion of the higher education in the UK since the 1980s might have initially compromised quality for quantity. But, over time, universities have been able to adjust to the large influx of graduates.

In this study we have focused exclusively on wages but there are other job characteristics that workers value, such as flexible hours, desirable location and job security. A graduate might accept a lower paid job in exchange for some of these features, in which case there is not a real ‘penalty’ for overeducation.  Related evidence also shows that an increase in education leads to improved social trust, volunteering and political efficacy (Green and Henseke 2016), indicating that the benefits of education go beyond wages and individuals’ preferences and it can increase welfare in our society. A discussion on our work in the Guardian claims that education is for life not just for employment prospects, and that individuals will need to be increasingly adaptable to the challenging conditions of the labour market. Having spent most of my life in education, I certainly agree with these views.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not those of the ONS.

A BBC coverage of this work can be found at:


What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

In response to David Boud’s blog Practice-based learning – starting with practice, Professor Carol Costley outlines her ideas for a truly practice-based curriculum.

A curriculum which takes for granted that lecture courses are the centrepiece is hardly practice-based. Activities in which students are involved in meaningful and substantial tasks must be the focus and this means engaging in practice rather than hearing about practice.

This would involve a whole curriculum approach, with some components taking place in external settings and some on-campus, but all having a strong practice focus and linked to an overall purpose. Courses would need to be coherent and balanced from an individual perspective and have learning outcomes, processes and assessment criteria suitable for the appropriate university level and the nature of the qualification.

There would be structures that enabled agreement about what the learner would do, the support the university and often an employer or other stakeholder would provide and the types of evidence to be produced for assessment. Such a curriculum may be described as post-disciplinary. It would be designed for outcomes such as those that meet the top 10 skills as set out by the World Economic Forum (Gray, 2016).

Components of the curriculum could include:

  • enquiry-based activities with substantive tasks involving working with others
  • reflection and reflexivity on practice
  • simulations and role play
  • part-individual and part-group activities
  • negotiation around learning contracts or agreements
  • recognition of previous learning; to gain credit or the starting-point for reflecting on practice
  • a portfolio of work accompanied by an evaluative narrative
  • course-based and peer-group activities
  • assessments that portray what students can do.

It would be unlikely for there to be the polarity between theory-based and practice-based course modules that is common in existing professional curricula. Such a dichotomy is a heritage from an earlier separation between academic and vocational courses that it would be inappropriate to reify (Boud, 2012).

Moving to a facilitative model

A distinct practice-led pedagogical approach is where the roles of tutors move from teacher/ supervisor to facilitator/mentor/ coach and expert resource. The more recent roles may include guiding and helping learners to:

  • become active in identifying their needs and aspirations and managing the learning process
  • develop abilities of critical reflection and enquiry
  • identify and work with issues concerning workplace values and ethics
  • make effective use of workplace resources
  • develop and use academic skills in the workplace
  • provide specialist expertise
  • inspire and encourage.

Students would be equipped with tools and strategies to interrogate and reflect on practice. They would be partners in the design and development of these tools and strategies to ensure that they met their own needs and those of different practice settings in which they would need to operate. (Boud, 2012).

Assessing active learning

A practice-based curriculum is typically issue-led and driven by learner activities, not formal inputs. In that sense, assessing learners’ progress may be described as assessing ‘map-makers’ rather than confirming their proficiency as ‘map-readers’ i.e. their expertise in propositional knowledge. The focus is typically on learners’ reasoning and critical reflection, how they develop their capability as practitioners and how they make critical judgements in the work context. 

The technicalities of this are commonly supported through generic level statements and criteria at the relevant academic level. It may involve individual learning outcomes and sometimes assessment criteria that are negotiated as part of a learning agreement. A programmatic approach to active practice-based assessment is required. Assessment should reflect the kinds of social, cultural and contextual knowledge and abilities that are used in the workplace (Lester and Costley 2010).

Assessments take whatever form is needed for the outcomes being demonstrated and thus may not necessarily be writing in the conventional form of essays, or responses to tests. Assessment is likely to involve peers and include some elements of self-assessment.

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69.

Lester, S. and Costley, C. (2010) ‘Work-based learning at higher education level:  value, practice and critique’  Studies in Higher Education  Vol 35 No. 5, 561-575

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.


Partnership – Student Engagement or Engaging Students?

Dr Sheila Cunningham is an Associate Professor and Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the Faculty of Professional and Social Sciences at Middlesex. Here, Sheila outlines the benefits and challenges of adopting a partnership approach to teaching in higher education.

Partnership is a process of student engagement, but these terms are not interchangeable (Healy et al, 2014).

Ways of engaging students in higher education as partners in learning and teaching is arguably one of the most important issues facing higher education in the 21st Century, partnership is part of this, but it is a way of doing things, rather than an outcome in itself (Healey, 2017).

The HEA’s focus is on the pedagogic rationale for partnership: how it can lead to increased student engagement with, and success in, their learning as well as supporting the design, delivery and support of engaged student learning.

Much of the literature points to HEA benefits for both staff and students.

Students, it seems:

  • are better engaged with the process of learning in and out of contact-time;
  • develop essential high level knowledge and skills to support their employability; and
  • feel a sense of belonging and community that the ‘What Works?’ programme has shown is key to student retention and success.

Staff experience:

  • renewed engagement with and transformed thinking about their practice, and a
  • deeper understanding of contributions to an academic community.

Whatever the rationale for staff, students, institutions and students’ unions to develop partnerships in learning and teaching, this framework aims to offer an evidence informed and reflective approach to support their development.

One proposed model (see Figure 1) is interesting in that it distinguishes four broad areas in which students can act as partners in learning and teaching:

  • learning, teaching and assessment;
  • subject-based research and inquiry;
  • scholarship of teaching and learning;
  • curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy.

Visually the model is represented as four overlapping circles to emphasise that distinctions between the areas are blurred and inter-relationships are complex and diverse when put into practice. At the centre of the model is the notion of partnership learning communities, which draws attention to the processes by which partnership operates in the four different areas.

Partnership is a relationship in which all participants are actively engaged in and stand to gain from the process of learning and working together. This approach argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach which offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences.

Research has also shown that partnership can engage and empower traditionally marginalized students and lead to sharing authority and responsibility with staff in the development of culturally sustainable pedagogy (Cook-Sather and Agu, 2013; Healey et al., 2014). This appears a panacea for addressing key issues within higher education, however it cannot surely be that straightforward?

Healey et al (2014) advise there is potential for an inherent tension between partnership policy and partnership pedagogy. It appears policy is about determining the direction and shape of work in advance, whereas partnership pedagogy is about being (radically) open to and creating possibilities for discovering and learning something that cannot be known beforehand. They propose suggestions for addressing this tension:

  • remain aware of the tension
  • consider how partnership is (or is not) described in institutional policies and strategies (e.g. learning and teaching strategies, student charters, partnership agreements, marketing materials)
  • consider implementing staff and student engagement surveys for a nuanced picture of the views, priorities and experiences of potential partners to inform local policy
  • use participatory and whole-system approaches to the development of strategy and policy in ways that seek to embody partnership in practice.

That said this is something actively engaged with at all levels within higher education. Middlesex is replete with examples and the Middlesex Teaching Fellows Newsletter will address these to stimulate and encourage experimentation and innovation.

Fig. 1 A conceptual model for students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education (Healey, et al, 2014)

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.

Health & wellbeing

Researching survivor experiences of trauma

Mia Scally, Professor Joanna R Adler & Dr Miranda A H Horvath explore the risks facing researchers working with survivors of trauma, and what can be done preserve the researcher’s emotional safety.

‘Self-care is foundational to our power, our resilience, our creativity, our health and our collective impact. Just as a fire needs breathing space between the logs to burn, we need spaciousness in our days to be impactful and sustainable’Norma Wong

Research with survivors of any traumatic event or series of events can be an incredibly powerful experience. ‘Bearing witness’ to a survivor’s experience should not be undertaken without full consideration of the potential costs and challenges that might arise for both the survivor and the researcher, and the benefits of undertaking such research should be clear and justifiable.  This includes prioritising the emotional safety of the researcher as part of the design of a project and as a prerequisite for ethical approval, as highlighted by the World Health Organisation.

This blog post seeks to explore how a researcher might be affected by research with survivors and how this can be mitigated.

The research project

As part of my doctoral studies (supervised by Dr. Miranda A H Horvath and Prof. Joanna R Adler), I am investigating women’s experiences of child custody in the context of intimate partner violence and abuse (IPVA). This exploratory research will build on knowledge within England and Wales, where literature on this topic is limited. This mixed-methods research project combines secondary research (qualitative analysis of online posts) with both qualitative (interviews with survivors) and quantitative methods (a survey for professionals*) to form three interconnected studies. Study one was completed in 2017 and involved thematic analysis of 68 online public accounts and associated comments threads detailing female survivors’ experiences of the child custody process where IPVA has been present. Study two involves in-depth interviews with survivors of IPVA.

The interviews have been completed and this posting is being written as a reflection whilst embarking upon the analysis process. The interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, resulting in repeated exposure to the content of each interview. Although fewer in number than the 68 online accounts, engaging with women’s narratives first-hand and immersion in their accounts entails more emotional labour.  The interviews included descriptions of violence, deeply personal accounts from women experiencing distress and trauma, and suggestions of poor or limited professional responses that have resulted in feelings of frustration and anger (mostly for the survivors but also for me). ‘Bearing witness’ to these women’s lived experiences and their repercussions involved a great deal of personal navigation and active management.

This is not uncommon and other researchers have discussed various forms of emotional labour throughout trauma-related research. They argue that emotions are part of being human and that qualitative research requires you to view things from the perspective of the participant. Emotional labour in such research can include feeling and showing emotions (e.g. as part of post interview reflection, or during an interview itself), suppressing emotions (particularly in academia, rigour and emotion may be perceived as incompatible), and navigating these emotions as part of the research process (e.g. considering one’s own relationships in a different light).

I found myself experiencing each of these elements: feeling emotionally exhausted by the interviews, then subsequently by the transcription; avoiding writing in my reflective journal because I wanted to suppress these emotions; and finally, reflecting on how my world view might have changed as a result of what I now know. Some of these reactions can be explained as vicarious or secondary trauma and can result from one-off or repeated exposure to survivor trauma. Vicarious trauma (in this context) is defined as a reaction to or an alteration of the inner world of the researcher because of empathising with the survivor and their traumatic experiences (e.g. someone researching child abuse might become more protective of their own child). Secondary trauma can also result from such research and is characterised by a symptomatic response similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. This can include taking on the trauma of the survivor, avoiding the research that is the source of the secondary trauma, and experiencing symptoms such as sleep disturbance or hyperarousal.

Research has explored the impact of working in the field of violence against women on practitioners and clinicians. Vicarious trauma experienced by researchers is less well understood although, there has more recently been acknowledgement that ‘the role of a researcher is different from that of a clinician or counselor and potentially more traumatizing because of an inability to “help” the victim’ (p96). I found this particularly difficult to balance (partly as a result of my previous experiences in supporting survivors of violence and abuse) and I spent time reflecting on my role in this research and what I could do to ensure the women being interviewed were supported. Offering participants a debrief sheet that listed support services was helpful here (and also an ethical requirement). I also chose to send participants a copy of their transcripts prior to commencing analysis. Participants were able to add to these in a different colour so that they could continue their story beyond the time limitations of the interview. This came from one of the women in the study. The participant was frustrated because she had to leave but wanted to finish telling her story. I equally didn’t want to silence her story so this is the solution we arrived at together. Another survivor mentioned how helpful the interview experience had been for her and how much she gained from sharing her story with me. That was powerful and helped me in return because I saw that the research was able to give back. It was able to ‘help’albeit in a different way than that of a clinician or a counsellor.

Protecting the researcher

Through counselling, close supervision and a reflective journal I was able to identify and work through the emotions raised by this project. I am much more able to recognise the impact of research and I ensure that I practice appropriate self-care when this is necessary. I make sure to undertake only one interview or transcription per day for example, and I take the time to read non-academic books so as to recuperate. Some work has been undertaken to help identify what other researchers have found helpful to militate against some of the impact of research with challenging topics and this is briefly summarised below.

Preparation – knowing what to expect from the topic and preparing for the project is seen as key. Planning debrief sessions, regular meetings with the research team, reading around the topic, and considering the risks to researcher wellbeing are all vital. Risk assessments are usually conducted as part an ethics process and emotional wellbeing should be considered as part of this. In addition, when preparing for data collection, it is important to take into account how to schedule the interviews and allow time for reading, processing and engaging with the material generated. The consensus is that too much exposure to challenging content in one day can be overwhelming. Try to ensure that you only undertake one interview in a day and plan your day so that you have minimal work or research related activities for the rest of it. This also applies to transcription of interviews and taking breaks when reading data is particularly important in research in these domains. Participants in previous research also found that limiting exposure to challenging topics in the way of media/books/TV was helpful.

Formal and informal support – Having a range of sources of support is viewed as beneficial by researchers. Clinical supervision, regular meetings with research supervisors, ongoing counselling (don’t wait until you realise you need this to organise it), and debriefing sessions with colleagues are all cited as helpful forms of formal support. Informal support may include discussions with family and friends, colleagues or team members. Making time to process the impact of researching sensitive topics and having open discussions about this is important.  If you are a Middlesex University student undertaking research that explores sensitive or distressing topics, please see the Wellbeing team website to see what support the Counselling & Mental Health service can offer you. If you are a member of staff, you can access the employee assistance programme – Optum.

Know how to support survivors – Coles et al. (2014) highlight this for two reasons: it is important to understand the boundaries of your role as a researcher – you are not typically a counsellor and are unlikely to be able to make professional onward referrals. However, you can signpost sources of support and this may itself provide peace of mind for the researcher. Such signposting can be as simple as developing a debrief sheet for participants with sources of support – required for ethical approval to research with human participants and vital to minimise harm to survivors – and sharing the contact details or location of local support services.

Understand your limitations – Being clear with your supervisors and yourself about whether and how you are coping with challenging content is vital. This can require reflection and may be an ongoing process. Knowing when to stop a task that is causing you harm is important. Evidence around whether having experienced the topic you are researching places you at increased risk of vicarious or secondary trauma is mixed, however keeping a reflective journal can be helpful here. Try to spend ten minutes whenever you can, writing about your experience of doing research and the current task. Take some time to explore how you are feeling about the process, analysis or findings. This serves not only to safeguard your mental wellbeing but also to enable you to develop as a researcher. In qualitative research, reflecting on what you bring to the research is part of the process.

Self-care – Take some time to do something fun or relaxing and schedule this in. Going for a walk in the woods, spending an hour at the gym, reading a book, taking a long bath or going out for a nice meal – this will be different for everyone. For some helpful resources, see this Self-Care Starter Kit developed by the School of Social Work, University of Buffalo.

Research that matters – For some, knowing that the research will make a difference can help them cope with the content. Are you going to publish from the research? Is it going to help develop or evaluate interventions? Will it contribute to the literature or help develop policy? Keeping this in mind may help.

I keep a reflective journal, attend regular supervision, have ongoing counselling and like to watch far too much reality television – what works for you?

*If you are a professional involved in the child custody process and would like to contribute to this important research, please consider taking part in or sharing the following survey exploring beliefs and practice when it comes to custody decisions.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Naomi Graham for kindly taking the time to read, comment on and reduce the word count of the first draft of this blog post (some would say this is the hardest part!)

Law & politics

Puzzling Law

Los Watkins, Lecturer in the Middlesex University School of Law, provides a personal analysis of the pedagogic use of word puzzles in his teaching.

When our students arrive at University, we ask them to approach the study of law in a number of different ways. For instance, we ask them to self-motivate and self-learn to a far greater extent than they have been used to in their school and college education. We also ask them, essentially, to do three things with the law they are taught: to know it, to understand it, and to analyse it.

We ask that they learn cases and statutes, so that they can cite the relevant law; we ask that they understand it in order to choose the apposite case or statute; and we ask that they apply the law to particular issues or scenarios. This, traditionally, has been the accepted route to academic training as a lawyer.

Puzzling Law

However, I would suggest that in addition to these three requirements, we also need to structure our course modules to aid retention of the first two above, knowledge and understanding, in order to aid rapid analysis. This paper will examine, briefly, the theory of academic legal retention through the traditional teaching model, and give an account of my own attempt to aid students in their own personal retention of law.

Modes of learning

If we consider three widely recognised modes of learning, Surface Learning (generally accepted as learning by rote – simply acquiring knowledge without necessarily also acquiring understanding), Deep Learning (the optimum, where the delivery of rich core content to students is in innovative ways that allow them to acquire knowledge, understand and then apply what they have learned) and Strategic Learning (where students strategize their own learning – for instance, ‘question-picking’ for an upcoming exam), then it has been generally accepted that the most effective educative results are gained by the practise of deep learning  (“…knowledge acquired at a deep level of understanding is more likely to be retained than knowledge acquired at a surface level of understanding, and knowledge tested more than once during a course is more likely to be retained than knowledge tested only once.”Bacon and Stewart, 2006.)

Studies have also shown – the most widely disseminated being from the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral (sic) Science in Maine, USA – that the initial learning experience is at its most effective when backed up. In this study, average knowledge retention rates two weeks after a lecture were only 5% of the content accurately retained when no extra retention activities were used, but this percentage rose to 75% when the lecture was followed by reading, discussion groups, demonstration and practice, and to 90% when peer-teaching activities were also added.

Enhancing information retention

Given this data, I decided to see how I could best aid students with their retention in my seminars. It is usual that in seminars and workshops, we discuss, demonstrate and practice, and give students the opportunity to present (“teach”) to their peer group, but in order to try and enhance retention rates, I decided to employ some word puzzle activities in different module groups. Puzzles were chosen as all students, I presumed, would be familiar with some form of this pastime, and would not, therefore, require  training or instruction to add to the complexity of the exercise.

Completing puzzles would also require students to utilise retention and cognitive skills such as application, rather than simply repeating back pure knowledge-based information. My study covered three years in two different universities, with one module group kept as a baseline control to the usual seminar format, and a multiple-choice questionnaire (mcq) completed by all groups, whether participating in the puzzles or not. The study covered Tort, and specifically, Psychiatric Injury.

I decided on three different types of puzzle: the traditional crossword, the word search (where words are secreted within a square of random letters) and missing letters with clues, where some of the word/s are partially completed. The clues and words were designed to be very simple – mostly the names of the most important cases, and none were ‘cryptic’.

The effects of ‘puzzling’ law

The initial results from the exercise were interesting insofar as the students found the last two types of puzzle familiar and easy to understand but, with very few exceptions, the crossword was something they had not attempted before, and they found the concept challenging.

I tested the student retention level of the subject area after a few weeks using a further mcq and taking their verbal feedback on how they had found the exercise. The latter was positive in that they had enjoyed the exercise, with the exception of the crossword, which they generally disliked. The retention through the mcq was also positive, with the average score in every case being higher by 8% in the groups which had done the puzzle exercise. In the end of year exam, the Psychiatric Injury question was attempted by, respectively, 16% and 18% more students than in the previous year, where there had been the usual seminars, and average marks for the question were 7% higher.

Whilst there are, of course, very many variables in these results – for example, standard of student, exact question, comparison with other questions – which may have had an effect outside of the puzzle issue, there does seem to have been an increase in retention and students seem to have felt more comfortable with the area of Tort.

This blog is a personal study, initially concerning my attempt to address the knowledge retention issue in a specific module. In that area, the use of the puzzles as a pedagogical tool did indeed seem to increase students’ retention of information, and (they said) made their seminar and therefore study of that area of law more interesting.  Given the initial encouraging results of the exercise, I therefore intend extending the use of puzzles in my seminars.

For further exploration of academic references, please contact Los via email

Learn more about the MDX School of Law


Middlesex: a pioneer of degree apprenticeships

Dr Darryll Bravenboer, Director of Apprenticeships and SkillsDarryll Bravenboer, Director of Apprenticeships and Skills at Middlesex University, discusses the significance of degree apprenticeships and the need for collaboration to realise their full potential.

Higher and degree apprenticeships have massive transformational potential. They open up opportunities for people from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds to enter professional careers, as they can obtain the same university qualifications as traditional graduates while gaining invaluable on-the-job experience. The advanced upskilling they offer to employers means that degree apprenticeships help to drive the restructuring of job roles required to maximise UK economic productivity. As the government aims for three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and its Apprenticeship Levy on employers is forecast to raise £2.8 billion by 2020, degree apprenticeships should be a major feature of the landscape.

National Apprenticeships Week 2018

Developing skilled workers

Middlesex University, one of only two universities to be awarded higher apprenticeship development project funding in 2011, is hugely excited to be involved in this agenda. The University currently offers a very popular degree apprenticeship programme in construction, in areas such as Construction Site Management, Quantity Surveying and Commercial Management, with big companies such as Vinci and Interserve. The University has been working with employers to establish business to business (B2B) sales as a profession for the first time in the UK, and is working in collaboration with a range of public sector organisations to develop and deliver degree apprenticeships for teachers, nurses, social workers and police constables, planned from September this year. This will play a key role in embedding apprenticeships in the public sector and is just one of the ways in which Middlesex University provides our public services with skilled workers.

There is also huge demand from employers across industry sectors for degree apprenticeships in the areas of digital and management, particularly in London. Middlesex has a longstanding partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) as an accredited CMI Centre and is a major provider of higher-level skills for the digital sector. This means that the University is very well placed to meet the management and digital needs of employers both nationally and regionally.

Collective success

Collaboration between employers, HE providers with degree awarding powers and professional associations has boosted the quality of degree apprenticeships. In the case of B2B Sales, a Trailblazer Group – chaired by Royal Mail and facilitated by the Association of Professional Sales, drawing together employers and three universities (including Middlesex) as members – developed a degree apprenticeship which constitutes B2B Sales as a full profession for the first time. This mark of recognition provides career progression opportunities for thousands of people. Moreover, a collaborative approach to working means that universities, as the providers, have been able to design a degree apprenticeship programme from first principles which aligns with employers’ workforce development needs as well as both professional and academic standards. The added value of this alignment provides evidence of the quality of this apprenticeship.

Surmounting challenges

We stand at the threshold of once-in-a-generation social change, and one of the best opportunities we will have to move beyond the unhelpful ‘academic/vocational’ dichotomy to establish a model of higher education that integrates work and learning, opens doors to a professional career and cracks Britain’s productivity weakness. Universities have a central role to play in delivering higher level skills and for this to happen, the roll out of degree apprenticeships needs to be expedited. A key challenge is the relationship between higher education sector and the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), the body set up to supervise the development of high-quality apprenticeships and advise on the amount of government funding employers can draw on.

To avoid delays and misunderstandings which have held up the approval of apprenticeship programmes, we need universities to be represented on the IfA’s Board and across the organisation to make sure the sector’s critical role in delivering higher-level skills is recognised. This will ensure that, for example, there is understanding of the credit and quality regime that underpins higher education, such as the independent external examiners used by all universities, in order to avoid duplicate systems being set up before apprenticeships are approved. On funding, for which the government has capped the maximum at £27,000 per apprentice, the IfA’s approach to the allocation of funding bands for degree apprenticeships seems to be inappropriately depressing the bands, which acts as a disincentive for providers delivering levy-compliant apprenticeships. If we are to achieve the Government’s target of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020 and enhance social mobility and productivity, it is in the interests of employers, professional groups and providers to work together as effectively as possible. We need collaboration between all stakeholders to ensure degree apprenticeships are designed to meet employers’ needs and have the professional credibility that is conferred through the award of a degree.

While we wait for new apprenticeships standards to be approved by the IfA, Middlesex University is in a unique position to be able to offer degree apprenticeships in construction for which companies can maximise their levy spend. Apprentices will seamlessly transfer to the new standards once approved. Likewise, the 20 apprentices due to start on the new B2B Sales degree apprenticeship will begin their training using the Chartered Manager standard with an additional sales focus, and will transfer to B2B Sales following the approval of the funding band for this apprenticeship. We look forward to working alongside the IfA to help get these and other new standards in place so that we can all start to see the benefits of this ambitious and much-needed apprenticeships programme.

Learn more about degree apprenticeships at Middlesex University


Arts Social commentary

Cultural Democracy

Dr Loraine Leeson, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, explores the idea that art is a vital part of civilised society and should be a method of self-expression for everyone rather than the privileged few.

In November 2017 I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on Cultural Democracy for Suite212 on ResonanceFM. A newly configured Labour Party bringing with it a raft of politicised young people has led to renewed interest in the notion that culture is not, and should no longer be seen as, a domain for the privileged for access by the masses. A counter view is that we are all creative and cultural beings who have a right to individual and group expression, and indeed, that this is one of the factors that constitute a civilised society.

Workshop by The Common, a collective of students studying Art Practice and the Community at Middlesex University. Photo ©Kerri Jefferis

Art of the People

This is not a new idea. In the nineteenth century William Morris initiated an ‘art for the people’ movement, believing that the highest achievements of artistic genius involved the creative engagement of ordinary people. A century later Jennie Lee, arts minister in Harold Wilson’s 1960s Labour government produced the first white paper on the arts, A Policy for the Arts: First Steps, proposing that the arts should occupy a central place in British life and form part of everyday experience for children and adults. The Greater London Council (GLC) picked up on this in the 1980s when Ken Livingstone’s left-leaning government for London moved into County Hall. From a situation where an annual budget of £5 million had previously seen distribution amongst five of London’s ‘centres of excellence’, two of those millions were now re-directed into the newly instituted Community Arts and Ethnic Arts sub-committees. I was privileged to serve on the first of these as part of a panel of community arts practitioners and also to witness at first hand a transformation of the capital through a burgeoning of cultural events. London seemed to come to life with festivals and creative activities in which many who had not previously participated in the arts now played an active part. Sadly, this was short-lived. The policies of the GLC across the board had proved so popular that their success led to a backlash of extreme proportions from the right-wing Thatcher government. In order to stop the work of the GLC a whole tier of regional government was eventually abolished, with the result that, for many years to follow, the UK’s major cities were run by a chaotic collection of government agencies.

In the midst of all this The Shelton Trust published Culture and Democracy: The Manifesto for the 1986 conference Another Standard, organised in Sheffield to bring together community artists from across the world to debate cultural democracy and secure its place on a wider political agenda. This was in fact a central tenet of the community arts movement, which saw the realisation of the creative potential of each individual as a route to social transformation. This right to creative expression was later foregrounded in the Bill of Rights for the 1996 Constitution of South Africa following the abolition of apartheid. In this human rights charter freedom of expression, including artistic creativity, appears no less than eighth on the list following such fundamental issues as equality, freedom from slavery and the right to life.

Policy and Politics

The Conservative government’s Culture White Paper of 2016 nevertheless saw the arts mainly in terms of access, geographical parity, international standing and investment. It succeeded several decades in which the UK Art Council in its various manifestations has increasingly focused on access to the arts, seeing the role of non-specialists as audience, rather than promoting more widespread active participation. The recent reorganisation of the UK Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, has nevertheless proposed placing arts and culture at the heart of government. Its 2017 manifesto for culture A Creative Future For All proposes, for example, an ‘arts pupil premium’ to support cultural activities for schools and measures to support creative industries. However it does not say much more about how the pledge ‘to open up the arts to everyone’ will be fulfilled. To help inform the party’s cultural strategy, members of Momentum and Arts for Labour held workshops at the The World Transformed conference in September 2017. Through two sessions, Cultural Democracy 1 and 2, more than 200 people explored the politics, history and transformative potential of the arts and contributed ideas for a Manifesto for Cultural Democracy. Participants also voted on a set of key values that should underpin this, the three most popular being: democratising the power of arts and culture, the use of arts/culture to create transformational political change, and embedding creativity in society.

Arts for Labour

The first Cultural Democracy session at the conference also served as a re-launch of Arts for Labour, a group originally created in the 1980s by actors and celebrities to improve the wages of cultural workers and support the Labour movement. With an expanding membership that included arts practitioners and trades unions, it later took up the legacy of the GLC’s cultural policies under the leadership of the late Dr. Alan Tomkins. The organisation continued to campaign on cultural issues until the new millennium, after which it concentrated on archiving and reportage. However following a successful fringe meeting at the 2016 Momentum conference, it re-formed as a strategy group to inform, debate and respond to arts and cultural policy, re-launching at The World Transformed the following year. As its new chair I am keen to see how the ideas generated at this and the follow-up events that are planned to take place across the country, can interface with wider policy objectives to lay the groundwork for a radical shift in the way the arts engage with the lives of most people.

Spreading the Word

These ideas formed the basis of the panel discussion at ResonanceFM a few months later. Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper, researcher and writer on new forms of democratic accountability, addressed amongst other things the legacy of socialist ideas about art, particularly those of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, and how these ideas have been re-configured by the New Left. Hassan Mahamdallie, playwright, author and previously an Arts Council Diversity officer, particularly looked at the issues through the lens of Arts Council policy since the 1980s. My own perspective was from the position of a practicing artist and academic with experience of the GLC’s cultural achievements. The full discussion is available online.

The notion of cultural democracy has also entered the world of academia. New research at King’s College London resulted in the 2017 report Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone, with fourteen practical recommendations for how cultural policy can move beyond the ‘deficit model’ of taking art to the people, but rather empowering more individuals in their cultural lives. In higher education Middlesex University has been leading the way with the UK’s first MA Art and Social Practice, which takes creative practice beyond the institution and enables students to engage with people in the wider social sphere. In 2018 the university will also be offering the first BA Fine Art Social Practice exit degree, which will encourage undergraduates to realise their artistic skills in the wider community.


Cultural democracy is not new, but rather an idea that has found a newly conducive context. This is much to do with the growing belief amongst younger generations that change is necessary and that they can and will make it happen. It is also perhaps a confluence between a budding socialist agenda for the UK and the dissatisfaction of so many cultural practitioners over a longstanding retrenchment in public funding for the arts that has sought to control rather than nurture. We should not underestimate what cultural democracy is up against regarding the debilitating effect that increasing privatisation of the arts has been making on this sector. Its ongoing corporate capture indeed seems to be going from bad to worse with the recent appointment of a member of the Murdoch family to Arts Council England’s National Council. It will be up to those who understand that a society stands or falls on the creativity employed by all its citizens to turn this around and enable the democratic values held so dear in societal terms to also enter the sphere of creativity and culture.

Health & wellbeing

Researching the wellbeing of students

Professor Antonia Bifulco, Dr Stephen Nunn, Dr Ruth Spence, Deborah Rodriguez and Dr Lisa Kagan of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University have been using a novel online approach called CLEAR to investigate the mental health and wellbeing of degree students. Here Dr Lisa Kagan gives an overview of the research and its findings so far.

We wanted to understand more about student life events. Our ESRC-funded research project ‘Stress online’, led by Professor Antonia Bifulco, involved designing and testing an online platform called CLEAR (Computerised Life Events Assessment Record).  CLEAR is based on and mimics a widely used interview of life events. The reason for going online rather than using the traditional interview is that it is more private and less time consuming but more personal and detailed than a questionnaire.

CLEAR looks at many different life events which fall under the broad categories of lifestyle, health and relationships. Examples of a life event could be things that are milestones like starting university and graduating, to having your computer hacked, relationship break up, illness etc. Unlike conventional life events questionnaires which would give a generic score for a particular life event, CLEAR helps the participants to think about the surrounding context of the event. The participant is then asked to give a rating of how negative and how positive the event was on a scale of 1-5.  Personalised feedback is provided upon completion about their individual life events and psychological wellbeing.

What did we want to look at?

We also added in a variety of questionnaires looking at depression, wellbeing and health and had access to student’s grades. A final questionnaire we used measures something called attachment style, which looks at how we relate to others – either in a secure, trusting manner or in a more insecure way such as fearing rejection. We know from previous research that having an underlying insecure attachment and then experiencing a severe life event is related to depression. We wanted to see if our new measure would also show this. Over the past year we asked students as well as a previously depressed group and a control group take part in our study to see what CLEAR can tell us about this.

University students - Photo by NEC Corporation of America (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by NEC Corporation of America (Creative Commons 2.0)

Who took part?

Altogether 328 participants completed CLEAR, including 126 Middlesex students. Most were first year psychology students and the vast majority were female. Not surprisingly, almost a third of all student events in the last year were related to education.  Work, health and partner events were also common ones, and along with education events, were more likely to be ones that were rated as very negative. The average number of life events was 2 per student with the highest being 8!

What did we find?

What was interesting was that 35% of students reported feeling depressed at some point over the past year which was much higher than the midlife control group (8%). They also reported lower feelings of general wellbeing and unlike the midlife samples, positive events did not seem to make any difference to feelings of wellbeing. Consistent with our previous studies, students who filled out CLEAR who had an insecure attachment style and a very negative life event were more likely to experience feelings of depression.

With regards to student grades, those who achieved higher grades were less likely to have experienced feelings of depression, were more secure in their attachment and had not experienced traumatic events over the past year. Contrary to what we might have expected, experiencing general negative life events did not have an impact on grades.

What next?

Of particular interest and cause for concern is the general psychological wellbeing of students and how they can be supported in this time of life. Although most of the student sample were female first year psychology students, these levels of depression are consistent with media reports. We are hoping in the future that CLEAR will identify students who may be at risk for depression and other mental health issues due to ongoing life events. They can then be signposted to the appropriate services and receive the support they need.  We also hope it will help people have a better understanding of their stress and its impact on their health through the personalised feedback at the end.

We know anecdotally that some participants felt that the measure helped them to think about their experiences over the past year and how they dealt with them. We are still collecting data as part of a further study looking at student wellbeing. If you are a student interested in having a go at CLEAR please email us at and we will give you a personal login.

Social commentary

Changing the debate about social mobility

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the modern university, Vice-Chancellor Professor Tim Blackman urges policy-makers, business leaders and the media to work with Middlesex ‘to change the world’.

I am incredibly proud of Middlesex University’s rich history because of what it means for the modern university we are today. Our founding institutions are part of a North London story of pioneering industrial innovation, professional practice and the arts, as well as shaping the idea of the polytechnic itself as a ‘people’s university’ serving the needs of its locality.

For us, the creation of modern universities in 1992 was not about polytechnics ‘becoming’ universities, as if the pre-existing old universities were the model to follow, but of modern universities demonstrating the huge contribution of a socially relevant higher education, and especially its neglected capability to drive productivity and social mobility.

“The modern universities are distinctive in having this mission of mass social change.”

At Middlesex, we remain true to our polytechnic origins in our approach to high-quality practice-based learning and the importance of high-level skills as well as expert subject knowledge. At a time when some forecasters predict that the millennial generation will be the first in the country’s history to face living standards lower than the generation before them, our aim is to prove them wrong by our graduates being agents of change, adding tremendous value to the companies where they work, pioneering innovation in the public services and creating the businesses of the future.

Huge potential

This cannot just be a project about young people from already privileged backgrounds going to very selective universities, for whom the transition from school to university is taken for granted. It is also about the huge potential of young people and adult learners who have not enjoyed these advantages, for whom university is a step into a totally new experience full of opportunities their parents could never have imagined for themselves.

The modern universities are distinctive in having this mission of mass social change, but we share with the old institutions their commitment to high standards of scholarship and the outstanding quality for which British higher education is known around the world.

This quality has enabled Middlesex to export our courses and awards abroad, at our campuses in Dubai, Mauritius and Malta, and with partners around the world, as well as attract thousands of international students every year to our London campus. We started out meeting the skills needs of Londoners and are now a global institution running a trade surplus with the rest of the world.

Yet despite this success we face some deep-rooted prejudices, such as that international students are immigrants whose numbers must be controlled, that students coming to university with BTECs rather than ‘A’ levels are not prepared for university study, rather than university study not modernising to a 21st century skills agenda, and that social mobility is about a few bright working class kids getting into Oxford rather than all our universities having diverse student communities.

Changing the world

At Middlesex, we engage children as young as 11 through inspiring campaigns such as ‘Make Your Mark’, encouraging them to start thinking about what they could become and their future career possibilities. Just last year our outreach work with some 80 schools in the London Borough of Barnet – London’s largest borough – and elsewhere in London meant we engaged with 10,000 children who are now thinking about their future lives as teachers, scientists, designers, artists and entrepreneurs.

Recently the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility took evidence from a major accountancy firm who explained that after adopting a university blind recruitment process their intake of graduates from Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities declined considerably in favour of other universities. Unfortunately, discrimination against comprehensive schools and modern universities still pervades many sections of our society, writing off potential and denying opportunity.

Our Middlesex students never cease to amaze me with their spirit and determination. Despite all the obstacles many of them face, the vast majority succeed and find meaningful employment. As a visitor said recently: “Middlesex students are like a mirror of London. They are urban, savvy and real and these are the people who will continue to grow our economy now and into the future.”

As we celebrate 25 years of the modern universities, I urge policy-makers, business leaders and the media to work with us to change the world. It is a job that we cannot do just on our own.

This blog originally appeared on MillionPlus


Construction’s biggest challenge

Neville Webb, the Institute for Work Based Learning’s Director of Construction ProgrammesDuring National Apprenticeships Week, Director of Construction Programmes Neville Webb discusses how construction degree apprenticeships can help reinvigorate collaboration across the industry.

Apart from the obvious large scale challenges like a sluggish pipeline of government-funded projects, an overheating supply chain and a massive skills shortage there is one significant challenge which impacts on the very soul of the construction industry – collaboration.

In the 1970s, Britain’s construction industry suffered at the hands of a highly-unionised labour force and its direct response to an overall lack of empathy by management with the common worker.

Job protection strategies such as job demarcation were born out of fear of job losses and they placed a strangle hold around the construction site. It made the simplest of tasks a convoluted process involving more people and resources than were strictly necessary and prevented efficacious programming.

That was 40 years ago, with old fashioned work cultures on both sides stifling creativity and individualism. But fast forward into the 21st century and we’re facing a similar issue at professional level.

Management is stratified between those in similar roles doing the same kind of work and rarely crossing boundaries between disciplines or functionality. People are separated by the very bonds that tie them together, go into any large construction site and you’ll see it for yourself echoed in the welfare and accommodation arrangements billeting functional groups together rather than the work-face zone or outputs they share.

Education and training in the sector needs radical change. The industry needs to focus on a coherent strategy for collaborative team working at site management level.

The construction industry has always had a reputation as a hard, itinerant, dirty fingernail and very dangerous environment, where the ‘craic’ as some might put it, was strong.  Strong enough to counter the negatives and make the work almost bearable.

The erosion of collaboration threatens to overturn all we consider to be commensurate with smooth and efficient working. It’s one of the key attractions into the industry for many people – the unique site culture. And yet, paradoxically, this culture is being slowly eroded by the ever-increasing lamination of command and control management.

Tier upon tier of subcontractor layers together with columns of specialist professionals forming a matrix of communication confusion. Education and training in the sector needs a radical change.

The industry needs to focus on a coherent strategy for collaborative team working at site management level and a significant contribution to this is the ‘customs, practice and habits’ people bring to their role.

Degree apprenticeships

At Middlesex, we are developing a fully integrated Construction Management Degree Apprenticeship across the key site disciplines where collaborative learning is a fundamental part of the process.

It will help provide a more enriched learning experience and will contribute to a better understanding of how colleagues’ roles combine to create a successful project outcome.

This suite of construction management programmes has been designed to aid transformative change within the industry by acknowledging and promoting:

  • The gradual acceptance of the role of the ‘Construction Manager’ as a significant multi-faceted management role within construction organisations and now a recognised professional destination in its own right
  • The recognition of how the management of the construction process on any site or project can only be successfully achieved if a high level of collaboration between all the parties (particularly the professional team) is achieved
  • The adoption of BIM as a management tool requires a significant culture change to facilitate effective use
  • The deployment of Integrated Project Delivery to ensure a ‘one-team’ approach without unnecessary ‘man-marking’ where duplication and omissions in process are minimised.

Each of the key construction site management team leader roles has a Level 6 Degree Apprenticeship associated with it.

These apprenticeships lead to honours degree qualifications, are work-based and are designed to have an interdependent structure based on common and shared management themes within their specific disciplines.

That is, they all address the constructor’s ‘holy trinity’ of cost, quality and delivery plus other shared themes and they all address the needs of their personal construction businesses. The apprenticeships are also designed to enable apprentices to gain relevant professional body recognition.

An inexperienced practitioner can join the Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship programme and could complete at Technician level and gain a Certificate of Higher Education. Or alternatively, complete at Level 5 and gain a Diploma of Higher Education or go on to complete the Level 6 Degree Apprenticeship in any of the following fields:

  • Construction Site Management
  • Civil Engineering Site Management
  • Construction Quantity Surveyor
  • Building Services Engineering Site Management
  • Construction Design Management

Experienced practitioners with no formal qualifications but over five years’ experience in the role could join the Level 6 top-up degree as a Degree Apprentice or if self-sponsoring, as a mature student.

The new apprenticeship initiative has the potential to transform the construction sector. By developing fully rounded construction professionals that have the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours that the industry requires, we can shape the future of the physical environment we all live and work in for the better.

To discuss the options and how Construction management can apply to yourself email or telephone 02084115050. I will also be attending the MIPIM Convention from 13th-17th March 2017 and will be available for meetings.