Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Déjà Vue – a clashing experience

Posted by Jock Coats on September 4th, 2012

Nearly thirty years ago I left school for summer after my O Levels (yes, I am that old) with a programme of A levels options for my return into the sixth form that I was very happy with.  I had elected to do what some thought was a strange mix: Maths, Physics, English and German, partly because at 16 I resented having to make a choice that would determine at least my academic future for a long time ahead (by going down the streams of arts or sciences subjects exclusively).  I had done well in all of those O levels, with A’s in the first three, a B in the German and a B in the AO maths exam we had done as my set had done the O level in our fourth form (year 10).

Toward the end of the summer holidays the school wrote to me and said they had changed around the option lists and it would no longer be possible for me to do that combination.  They thought it unwise to try for four, or to mix arts and sciences, and had I believe, gone out of their way to make that impossible.  It was to be two full A Level terms before I was eventually settled with a replacement set of subjects, English, Latin and History, the last of which I had not even done to O level and wasn’t terribly interested in, but my housemaster was head of department and had persuaded me, after trying to fit Maths, German and Music variously into a timetable that History would be a good thing to do.  I can’t heap all the blame for my academic failure on this situation, but losing one third of your A levels and ending up doing some of your worst subjects certainly did not help, and when it came to applying to university (I had been an Oxbridge hopeful for years) my choices were restricted.

So last September I finally started an undergraduate degree.  26 years late (and no, I don’t care for platitudes that it’s “never too late” or some such – the people I might have been at Oxford with are now running the country so I don’t believe that – I will never actually catch up, even if that doesn’t matter so much).  In March 2012 we were asked to select a programme of modules for our second and third years, and mine was finalised on time, with one small change I made in May because a reorganisation of modules by the Politics department had meant I could now do one I had wanted to do but couldn’t put in earlier because of a clash.

Over the intervening months I’ve been checking quite regularly on my programme web page, firstly for results of last semester’s modules, then several times to see if I had a timetable for the new year yet so as to organise which days I would not be in the office.  Nothing had changed.  All was well.  And I was starting to prepare for my new semester modules in my choice of summer reading.

Then on 9th August, just three weeks ago now, with five weeks to go before the deadline for changes, and what, 18 or so weeks after we had been told to get our programmes sorted, what do I see, but that there’s now a clash between a compulsory Microeconomics module and what I consider to be the most important of my second year politics modules, Political Thought – the first time on my degree so far I would have to study the philosophy underlying political thought rather than just the various schools of thought of actually existing workaday politics and international relations history.  To say I was appalled is an understatement.  It has truly screwed up my programme and the past few weeks of my summer with the worry of it.  We had no notification, which would have been a simple courtesy for a paying customer I’d have thought (at least my school had had that courtesy 30 years ago).  We had to discover it for ourselves.  And for many that might even have been in the next week or so with very little time to do anything about it.

Of course, I immediately wrote to my fellow students on my programme to alert them (it appears to affect six others, most of whom feel about as strongly as I do about it, it would appear), and fired off emails to both Economics and Politics department tutors, the respective module leaders and my academic advisor.  Only the Politics people have come back, and they, in general, appear to agree that Political Thought is an important module.  Indeed were I doing the Politics and International Relations programme the two Political Thought modules, this semester and next, would have been compulsory.  But because my course involves economics as well, and whilst we are supposed to choose either the Politics and the International Relations modules as if they were separate pathways but which have not been defined with rules in the system, they are not compulsory for us.

So the message we got back from central university administrators was that nothing would be changed as there were other “alternative compulsory” modules we could choose from and that was that.

So far, nobody from Economics has contacted me back, neither programme lead, module leaders nor academic advisor.  And three weeks has passed.  It was the Microeconomics module that has been moved and caused the clash.  I would personally go so far as to say that both Micro II and Political Thought are so important to get under my belt that I would take a year off and go into second year next year if we could get rid of the clash.  But the university has us over a barrel there – first it’s probably not an option for most of the others, and I don’t want to leave them in the lurch, second there’s no guarantee even if we did that the clash would be resolved for next year (there’s another one looming with Political Thought II and Macro II next semester and again nobody has responded to my concerns about that one) and third, if we did that our fees would treble because we’d be counted on the new system starting back next year.

To top it all, we all got an email yesterday from the Faculty of Business exhorting us to ensure there were no clashes in our programmes and to fix any before the end of next week, that it is our responsibility to do so and that we cannot graduate with clashes in our programme.  Clashes created by the university after we had all selected perfectly acceptable, at the time, programmes and gone away (most of us) for summer.

Our responsibility?  To sort out something the university has done TO us?  There are some possibilities for me, such as swapping a year three module already on my programme with one of these two and doing it next year.  But nobody seems to want to allow us to do level six modules in second year because someone somewhere said that programmes should demonstrate “progression” of increasing difficulty through all three years.  And it would probably mean some kind of special dispensation on taking pre-requisites after the modules that are dependent on them.  And again, these solutions for me would not resolve the problem for the other six students.

So, thank you Brookes.  Nearly thirty years after a similar situation screwed up my A levels, I feel the same thing being done to me again.  This time, I for one don’t expect to have another thirty years in which to come back and have another go.

I have one other possible option that I am willing to put on the table both to ensure I can do this combination, and to show how important I regard it that I do do this combination (I feel the entire idea of a programme designed around political economy without political thought is a hollow one).  The new module leader for Microeconomics is someone I know quite well, as a fellow long standing hall warden.  I believe he’s now semi-retired and is back on an hourly paid contract.  So maybe he could do with some extra hours.  Paid for by me, directly.  On top of the fees that are paid anyway that should allow me to do the programme I signed up for.  I suspect though that the ominous tone of today’s email that we cannot graduate with clashes in our timetable will mean that the bureaucracy will not allow this to happen because it would be an informal arrangement and the clash would still technically remain, even if we were able to study at a different time.

It looks like I will have little choice but to institute a formal Student Complaint Procedure.  Hopefully with the others of us affected (but I fully understand if they don’t want to take it that far and would prefer to settle for what will always then be for them a second best set of modules).  I’d rather not.  I work, and live, at the university’s pleasure.  And whilst the Student Complaint Procedure is not meant to affect relationships with the university with my involvement wider and deeper than most other people’s in the entire institution, I suspect it will.

So if anyone reading this (and congratulations if you have got this far through this rant) has any ideas, I’d love to hear from them.  Because it feels like hope is fading as each day goes by.  So far the much praised modular system has proven a nightmare for me.  I’m sure it’s no better for most of the academics that have to deal with the accompanying bureaucracy and administration.  But that’s cold comfort to me whose degree may be trashed by it.