It’s been a week since I had the pleasure of serving on the judging panel for this year’s Posters in Parliament competition organised by the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR). The competition aims to showcase the high quality of undergraduate research taking place in universities across the country, giving MPs and Peers the opportunity to see how our undergraduates are working to address some of biggest policy challenges facing society. As a judge at the event, impressed by the high calibre of research represented, it struck me the initiative may hold some vital lessons for the wider UK higher education sector.
- Undergraduate research is not second-rate research
Often dismissed in favour of postgraduate work or publications from established academics, undergraduate research remains, by and large, an unspoken feature of early academic life. The undergraduate dissertation, for example, has come to be considered part and parcel of the student experience in the UK, but is not generally something that universities look to make headline news about. Partly victim to the notion that anything created by as-yet-unqualified twenty-somethings cannot be worthy of real academic vigour – or, indeed, that anything that cannot be counted towards the Reasearch Excellence Framework is without influence and institutional value – undergraduate research and its impacts are often left unnoticed by the wider world.
What this year’s Posters in Parliament competition revealed, however, is that undergraduates are sometimes no less qualified to conduct first-rate research than more established academics. After all, not all undergraduates are young students fresh from school: a sizeable cohort enters (or re-enters) higher education later in life after being inspired by events or lived experiences. The winners of this year’s competition were no exception, for they draw on cultural awareness and language skills gained in previous army careers to interact with migrant communities and make recommendations to Government about how best to integrate newcomers. This is not the kind of scholarship that can solely be learnt from textbooks; such experiences come from years of social interaction and dialogue. Lessons from the ‘university of life’ can be just as pivotal to quality research than previous academic qualifications.
- Diverse student bodies unlock new research areas
For many people, especially part-time and mature learners, the most appealing institution is the most local one that lets them fit their studies around the ongoing demands of their working and family lives. Further education colleges and newer universities can lay claim to very rich and innovative undergraduate populations, who often mix lived experience and academic knowledge together to create outstanding research outputs. This year’s second prize winner, a part-time student from Hull College, drew on her ongoing work in the mental health sector to examine the role of art for patients recovering from mental health issues. It was this student’s proximity to the issue, which gave rise to a high-quality project born of both personal experience and professional insights. It was clear proof that allowing mature undergraduates to combine their scholarly and professional interests can lead to outstanding results.
- Undergraduates can use scholarship to benefit society
Undergraduate research can help to dispel the notion that academic research remains isolated and detached from real life, but it can also inspire others to enrol in HE and FE courses as a means to nurturing ideas and making a real difference to our society in the future. Without exception, every research project showcased at the Posters in Parliament event had the potential to change the way we think about science, society, the press and politics – either by paving the way for future study or presenting convincing evidence for policy change in the present. If more people were aware of the range and reach of undergraduate research, then it would help universities across the UK cement themselves as anchor institutions transforming lives, fostering innovation and encouraging social mobility.
The horrific events close to Parliament a few days after the competition show how much more progress we need to make in building a cohesive society, and this competiton went a small way to showing how universities and their researchers at all stages of their careers can continue helping with that.
Photo by Kirsten Holst. Posters in Parliament is a British Conference of Undergraduate Research event hosted this year by University College London. For more information on BCUR and its activities, see www.bcur.org.