By Ashley Sweetman and Jon Davis -
Combining academia, business and government to inform cutting-edge teaching and research is at the core of the Mile End Group (MEG) ethos.
For students of contemporary government and politics there is nothing more useful than meeting the individuals they are studying. And this is exactly how MEG innovates. What better way to learn about New Labour than to be tested against Tony Blair, Ed Balls or Peter Mandelson? Or to learn about the civil service from Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, or Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury? Discussing issues with these individuals in a way akin to conversations expected deep within Whitehall, truly represents practical learning. The students on Queen Mary’s undergraduate ‘Cabinet & Premiership’ and postgraduate ‘New Labour in Government’ courses, taught by MEG Director Dr Jon Davis, experience this first hand.
Being exposed to these individuals during their degree lets students get into the mindset of working in government and the civil service. They gain an understanding of how government really works. These fast-paced and immersive lessons engage students from the outset. And they can often get away with asking questions that others can’t.
Learning in this way seems logical. It makes sense that you should question those who have actually done the jobs that you are studying. Contemporary history of British government is particularly well-suited to this style of teaching, but more generally universities should explore offering students the chance to extend their classroom learning into practical application. This is especially so in history where, as opposed to courses such as medicine, there is no clear employment path aside from the tiny percentage of students who become historians.
Part of running MEG depends on three Masters students per year successfully competing for their degree to be sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, thus benefitting from a close relationship with the company whilst working for the MEG as Assistants. This MEGA program equips these students with the skills required to gain employment following their degree. In previous years MEGAs have helped co-ordinate projects with Number 10 Downing Street and the Treasury, giving them a unique insight into the workings of the machinery of government and the chance to liaise with the individuals working within it.
All of the MEGAs have gained employment following their MA, in part because of their knowledge of the workings of government, but also because of their capacity to communicate clearly. Having been exposed to and required to provide elite-level delivery alongside their study, they understand what is required in any future career. An internship at Hewlett-Packard in Government Relations also forms part of the process, a unique employer partnership for this field of study.
This ‘MEG Apprenticeship’ also serves as a model for combining rigorous academic study with employment. An academic capacity to analyse vast amounts of information and summarise it no longer suffices on its own. Being able to communicate that information in a confident and professional manner are equally, if not more, important. MEG allows students to become rounded individuals who are ready for the professional world when they graduate.
Employers like Hewlett-Packard and BP, along with the Lord Mayor of London, have recognised that MEG graduates leave their degree with a set of skills that allows them to excel. High expectations and the realities of employment during their study ensures that they are equally competent in taking the minutes for a meeting as hosting it or welcoming participants at the door.
This kind of exposure should become the norm in higher education, be it for students of economics, philosophy, business studies, languages or sciences.
Our example is focused on the specific area of Whitehall and Westminster, but the values in the MEG’s approach can be employed throughout academia. As flexible, free, open, online courses continue to entice users by highlighting the possibilities that the internet offers higher education, and the dreaded discussion of tuition fees mainly concerns the prospect of the fee cap being eliminated, universities must respond. Providing an overall learning experience, in contrast to weekly sessions of ‘information dropping’ in the hope that students pick up enough as it falls, is now paramount.
Universities have to face up to the reality that they are failing huge numbers of students. The new norm needs to be an education that stresses the importance of academic study in conjunction with preparation for the world of work through innovative teaching and practical application. A clear ‘result’ of employability must be offered.
Students, more so than ever, want to see a tangible return on their investment. Embarking on a degree is accompanied by an expectation of being equipped with the skills needed to successfully compete for the most sought after jobs in the country.
Elite-level employability skills must be embedded at the core of the university system if certain courses, especially in the humanities, are to survive.
Ashley Sweetman is Technology Co-ordinator for the Mile End Group having previously completed his MA in Modern & Contemporary British History as a Mile End Group Assistant.
Jon Davis is the Director of the Mile End Group and a Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University of London; his courses include ‘Cabinet and Premiership.’
The Mile End Group is Queen Mary University of London’s forum for government and politics. MEG undertakes projects with government departments such as Number 10 Downing Street and HM Treasury as well as hosting a series of events with individuals from politics, the civil service and the media.