Interview with Chris Rust on his (flexible) retirement

From 1 October 2011 Chris Rust will be working two days a week in a new position in the Senior Management Team as Associate Dean (Academic Policy) reporting to Professor John Raftery, PVC (Student Experience) managing a number of cross-university projects.

Professor Chris Rust has been at Oxford Brookes University for 23 years, joining what was then Oxford Polytechnic as the second full-time member of the Educational Methods Unit. Chris was first based at Wheatley with a remit to look after the audio-visual service across the university. Since then Chris has been instrumental in the growth of staff and education development in the institution, spending the last 10 years as Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development. In this interview with Rhona Sharpe, Chris reflects on his time at Oxford Brookes.

What’s changed in OCSLD this time?

The most significant change is the size of the remit and the size of the team, which has grown incrementally and in spurts throughout this time.  What when I arrived was essentially a team of two in the Educational Methods Unit (David Jaques and Chris Rust, with a fractional contribution from Graham Gibbs) became the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development in 1996, taking on the additional remit of staff development for support staff and running events for external audiences. It has been home to developers who have been influential in the sector including David Jaques, Graham Gibbs, Alan Jenkins and Carole Baume. We’ve continued to expand, and now have a team of 18 offering staff development for academic staff, support staff, managers and work based qualifications for all staff.

As well as expanding our offer, our work has changed to become more involved in policy and strategy development, and pedagogic research. We are now being recognised as a place where we can carry out evaluations, and that we have something to contribute when it comes to policy. The current mission statement, the current priorities of the institution show the value placed on the student experience.

What makes OCSLD special in the sector?

We are still fairly unusual in the combined staff and educational development portfolio and that is one of our great strengths. The fact that we no longer have that division, we don’t have things falling through the cracks, and developers can move between those things and support each other.

Even in a time when there is a plethora of information and evidence about teaching and learning, you still need someone to discuss it with. We bring an expertise that will help people to make sense of all that. We’ve got a pretty unbeatable team, where else in the UK would you go to get that?

What are you most proud of?

There are all sorts of individual highlights, from my first success in getting televisions into every teaching room (before that technicians used to wheel these machines around, people had to book them, they could arrive late and there weren’t always enough) and being involved in the Teaching More Students Project (1991-2), distributing its outputs to every Polytechnic and many Universities in the country.

But overall, what I’m most proud of is that without anyone in senior management pushing us, we were the ones who pushed vocational qualifications, and development for support staff, and managers. Now we have the NVQs, the CMLP (Core Management and Leadership Programme) and the SSDP (Senior Staff Development Programmes). The support staff were hugely unrepresented in terms of money that was going into staff development and what was available for them. We’ve also turned appraisal from something that people resisted and were hugely sceptical of, into the PDR (Personal Development and Review) system that staff are increasingly appreciating. The fact that we do have a fairly successful PDR system is fairly special to Brookes and was highlighted in last year’s Institutional Audit Report. I’m very proud of the fact that none of these initiatives were reactive, we were the ones constantly pushing for them and now they have been accepted and are appreciated.

What’s your lasting legacy?

The most lasting might be the Simon Williams building, which with three others (Prof. Margaret Price, Berry O’Donovan and Jude Carroll), we brought in the funding for about 80% of that through the ASKe CETL. And the reputation of the institution has also certainly been enhanced by ASKe. We can also look at the Assessment Compact, and Brookes commitment to the Graduate Attributes. There’s a number of things now that I can say, I and OCSLD played a part in that and they seem to be there in the direction of the institution and I hope they will continue and be successfully embedded.

If I gave you a magic wand, what would you change in the past 23 years?

I was very happy initially with the proposed move to semesters if they were to be 15 week semesters, but we’ve really ended up with two terms instead of two semesters. I wish we’d adopted what in discussions at the time became known as ‘The Big Idea’. The Big Idea would have got us to an interestingly radical, distinctively different place to other institutions in terms of assessment. The Big Idea was that we could take out the significant summative assessment from each of the two short semesters, and put it into a third and shorter block (say five to six weeks), which you would call the ‘assessment block’. There you would have integrative assessment assessing the learning from all the modules of the year. This would get us back to the 30 study weeks in the year. It’s sound educationally, it would have improved the validity of the assessment, and students would have had to be more mature in terms of their attitudes towards learning, feedback and assessment.

What do you see as the challenges for the future?

Clearly one of the challenges is going to be the even greater notion of the student as consumer, and seeing themselves as a buyer of a degree. And also the pressure on the sector to become even more of a market.  We don’t know what this market is going to be like yet. However, we do know we will need to be even more student focussed, such as through more accreditation of learning through work experience, the Future Leaders programme and the importance of developing students’ critical self-awareness. (The InStePP project is trying to kick start this – Ed).

My biggest regret is that we are still light years away from putting right all the problems with assessment. I have now given keynotes in numerous different places and I say the same things about what is wrong with current practices in assessment, and, at no discernable point do people disagree. By and large nobody says this is nonsense. But still, nobody does anything! How can we be so anti-intellectual, un-evidence-based, – there is all this evidence saying X and yet we still do Y.

But this is a healthy time for the institution, with staff in new roles which emphasise the student experience, such as the Associate Deans and Principal Lecturers (Student Experience). OCSLD will be working together with these staff, within the context of the mission of the university and its emphasis on the student experience. Educational development first and foremost has a priority to the student. Without wanting to sound too pompous, OCSLD should be the guardians of, the moral compass of, what the student experience is at Oxford Brookes and the quality of the learning and teaching.

Posted in Interview

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