Linda Nasr interviewed for our series “Going abroad” Sabine Benoit, who moved from Germany to the UK.
Tell us about your background, when did you come to the UK?
In academic publications, the limitations are the last part, here I would like to start with them mentioning that my perspective on working in the UK higher education sector comes with a bias and that is, that I have spent most of my academic career in continental Europe in Germany to be more precise. I started working in the UK in 2013 and have spent the last five years here having seen two different institutions and worked under six different (interim) Deans. In what follows allow me to focus on the particularities and it is probably much easier to see the particularities of a system when one has not spent most of the career in the middle of it.
How is the academic community in the UK?
One thing that came as a total surprise to me, was that in Germany pretty much all good researchers are US focussed: they aim to publish in the US top journals and going to the US conference, e.g. AMA, ACR, AMS or of course our international conference the ServSIG, Frontiers and QUIS. I thought because of the commonality in language the British academics would do the same, but only a fraction of them actually do, amongst them many foreigners like me. British academics have their own well regarded eco-system of institutions, journals and conferences, probably like every other country, but here in the UK they actually have a high relevance for the academic discourse. In Germany and others might disagree, they don’t. Back in the days before coming to the UK I would be more likely to see some German colleagues at a US conference rather than at some event within Germany. In the UK on average if you want to meet UK academics, you need to go to UK events.
Now let’s talk about teaching, how is this in the UK?
First of all, I was blown away by how international the environment in the UK is with regards to the students, but also with regards to staff members. Sometimes I only have a handful of UK students in my class and in meetings we have all sorts of nationalities around the table. This is very interesting and enriching, I have learned a lot about others cultures. Second, what is different to many continental European Universities is that in the UK some Universities have so called teaching fellows, these are non-research active staff members often former practitioners, that don’t do research and usually completely identify with teaching and students. When I said above that researchers with a good research profile have a lower teaching load, the teaching fellows are the ones that carry that load and research active staff members are thankful for their contribution and I think a lot of the teaching fellow are thankful they don’t have to publish.
Do they also have some kind of teaching evaluation system in the UK like for research?
Indeed, they have, this is called NSS – National Student Survey, which is a nationwide and annual satisfaction survey with Undergraduate Students (UG). There is something similar for Postgraduate Students (PG) as well, but the UG one is way more important since it heavily impacts student recruitment in the following year(s). Also, many rankings are based on NSS results and they are picked up by media quite extensively. Beyond that the government is working on a TEF, which is the equivalent of the REF just for teaching. For now, they have made some preliminary judgments and it’s not at all clear how this is going to be implemented.
What about tenure or the promotion system?
In the research-active track people start off with a job as Lecturer (L), followed by Senior Lecturer (SL), Reader and Professor. In contrast to the German system which is an up or out system, in the UK someone can stay e.g. an SL all his or her life or move over to the teaching track and no one would take any notice. In Germany, there are practically no lifetime academic jobs at Universities that do not have the Professor rank, so if you do not make it to Professor by mid 30 or latest 40 you have to leave the academic system or move country. Thus, in the UK there is no tenure system, you simply move the ranks or you don’t, no need to change jobs or alike. When I came to the UK I was already a full professor, so I have no personal experience of promotion, but it seems the processes are fair and quite staff-friendly. What I can judge it the hiring process and that was very welcoming. Maybe that’s why academics move institutions quite often in the UK.
If someone wanted to apply for a UK job, what would you recommend?
First of all, more of less all the job ads can be found here: http://www.jobs.ac.uk and in my view, there is no actual hiring “season”. The website has a newsletter that is sent every Sunday morning and you’ll find jobs all year round. Second, don’t go to the interview thinking your knowledge from other countries is transferrable, they won’t talk about A-Hits, they won’t talk about tenure or Associate Professors and when they mention the Academy or Marketing they mean the British not the American version of it. And when they say what to me sounded like bum, they talk about the annual British Academy of Management conference, in short BAM. Third, if you are a research superstar, i.e. have 4* publications, they will probably still offer you a job, even if you do not know any of the above.
Overall, do you see yourself in the UK long-term?
Well overall, I really like working in the UK and at the University of Surrey in the Department for Marketing and Retail Management. My colleagues are great and I have a lot of time for research. However, and I’m not intending to make any political statements here, but as a European citizen, Brexit really bothers me, so at the moment I cannot predict whether I’ll still be here in 5-10 years. The one thing I know is that I’ll still be part of this truly international, open and welcoming Service Research Community!