Welcoming professionals in the sector: integrating vocational training into higher education

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Before becoming a lecturer, I worked as a professional freelance theater director for 15 years. On occasion, I have been invited to work in higher education institutions as a visiting practitioner.

I remember once I had minimal support or supervision to coordinate the 40 master’s students I had just met. The students had received little context about who I was, what we would be working on during our collaborative week, or what benefits could be gained from their participation.

This opportunity had been presented to me as a chance to undertake the research and development of a new traveling theater show with the support of the students, but it was not explained to the students. There was no institutional framework for the event and student expectations were not managed in advance which meant a difficult journey for me to make sure the benefits of learning were clear.

With effective facilitation, collaborations between students, teachers and industry professionals have significant benefits. Inviting guests or companies to work with students through intensive practice can be a great way to cultivate the soft skills essential for employability. Personal experience has taught me that there are also pitfalls when hosting industry professionals in universities, but many are negotiable or avoidable.

Here, I identify three common pitfalls and three key tips for tutors who want to welcome industry professionals and integrate professional skills building into an academic setting:

Common pitfalls of industry-student collaborations

1. Asymmetric advantages

The desire to respond to institutional “employability” programs by organizing meetings between industry professionals and students can lead students to feel exploited for their work. This can happen when the meeting is not designed and managed with the care necessary to clarify in advance the benefits for all stakeholders involved. Be explicit about the potential learning gains for students who engage in the project.

2. Professionals invited as pedagogical next generation

Visiting practitioners can sometimes be seen as a relief for permanent staff, who can already handle heavy teaching workloads. But the lack of support for an external practitioner from an internal point of contact who knows the culture of an institution can leave them ill-equipped to deal with complex issues, ranging from ethical policies and procedures, such as protocols around the staging of intimacy in the performance, to the particular educational needs of each student.

3. Calls to contribute without context

Invited contributors often do not have the full context of how their specific contribution might interact with the broader learning outcomes of a course or module as a whole. So how could they be supported and placed in the right context to make their contribution more meaningful?

Key tips for those coordinating collaboration with industry

1. Define a clear brief for the two industry professionals and students

Approaching the design of collaborative learning activities can be an effective way to establish clear direction and structure when external practitioners are at the heart of their delivery. Careful curation and setting clear goals for a visiting professional are important, especially if their contribution fits within the context of a specific module.

I have found it useful as a host to help ensure that learning activities align constructively with the learning outcomes of a module. PPreparatory meetings with a practitioner prior to engagement were essential in discussing overall goals. This planning time should be reflected in the practitioner’s fees.

I have also created mini-manuals and guides to introduce the biography of the visiting practitioner, to clarify the reason for their participation, to describe the learning outcomes and rubrics, to define preparatory tasks and to set expectations of their participation. This includes clarifying what they are not responsible for; for example, student inquiries that require detailed institutional knowledge, such as signage of pastoral support, should always remain the responsibility of internal tutors and supervisors.

2. Share learning widely

Designing, organizing and managing learning events involving external partners can be a lot of work, so telling the story of what happened is crucial. In my teaching practice, the dissemination of the process and its results when students collaborate with theater companies or directors has taken various forms. These included articles who collect testimonies from multiple perspectives and interviews or blogs to share unique student ideas.

When resources allowed and participants agreed, we created mini-documentaries which invite all stakeholders to reflect on their experiences and share what they see as the main benefits of learning with our wider learning community in public forums.

3. Recognize and respond to the needs of external freelancers

A common complaint I see on social media is about late payments from freelance creative industry professionals who have taken on assignments at universities. There can often be tension between HR mechanisms for paying non-permanent staff, who can be cumbersome and slow, and freelancers who rely on timely payment for services rendered. Liaising closely with HR and administration staff and being transparent with external practitioners from the start as to when payment can be expected is essential to building trust and maintaining good relationships.

Feedback from my students has shown that engaging industry professionals can have a huge impact. Efficient accommodation and careful facilitation to remove the types of barriers I encountered early in my working life can help build strong relationships between students, staff and industry professionals and ensure that the full potential of these meetings is realized.

Liam Jarvis is Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Center for Theater Research in the Literature, Film and Theater Studies Department of the University of Essex.

He was shortlisted for Innovative Teacher of the Year at THE 2021 Trophies. A complete list of shortlisted candidates can be found here with the winners to be announced at a ceremony on November 25.

Scholars and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in London.


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