Nottingham ESRC Doctoral Training Centre

DTC student Alison Milner shares success with U21 scheme

Milner U21

Members of the U21 Forum for International Networking in Education

I have always been fascinated by ‘the Other’. From reading modern languages at university to careers in international relations and teaching overseas, taking the opportunity to live, study and work with people from different cultural backgrounds has been a distinctive part of my personal and professional narrative. In fact, it was no coincidence that I chose to pursue a doctorate in the field of comparative educational research, analysing the ‘sameness’ and ‘otherness’ of two distinct European policymaking cultures.

But my link with the international has not stopped there. Since I began my doctoral studies at the University of Nottingham, I have been able to expand my horizons even further through Universitas 21 (U21). Established in Melbourne in 1997, this global network of twenty-seven research-intensive universities defines global citizenship, institutional innovation and the internationalisation of higher education as its core values. With member institutions in seventeen different countries, including seven in Europe, these principles are achieved through international mobility, research-inspired teaching, and student and staff collaboration on areas of common interest.

My first encounter with the work of Universitas 21 was in June 2015, when I was invited to participate in an academic exchange to Lund University with senior colleagues from the University of Nottingham School of Education. The aim of the visit to Lund (or, more specifically, Campus Helsingborg) was to explore opportunities for future collaboration between staff and students of the two Schools of Education. Although Lund is currently celebrating its 350th anniversary, at that time, the doctoral research programme in Educational Sciences was only in its infancy. In fact, we were privileged to meet the first PhD cohort and Lund academics were particularly keen to learn from the experiences of colleagues at the School of Education and look for ways in which their students might collaborate with ours.

As my PhD research focuses on England and Sweden, I was delighted to be able to make connections with academics and PhD students at a Swedish university. Just over one year later, I was fortunate enough to be able to take these initial conversations to another level when, with the support of my supervisor, I applied successfully for a U21 Graduate Research Project Grant. Now renamed Graduate Research Collaborative Awards, this scheme enables doctoral researchers to develop their own unique research collaborations within the U21 network. My project would be a collaboration with doctoral students from Lund University and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and a second colleague from the UoN School of Education. It was only natural that I returned to Lund to take this partnership further, but there were also significant cultural similarities in the education systems of Sweden, Chile and England, which made our work together empirically interesting. Ultimately, we sought to conduct a critical, comparative analysis of our various methodological approaches to researching teachers’ work in privatised contexts. This focus was as much practical as it was purposeful. Since the project was funded after we had already determined our own PhD proposals, it was important that the U21 work complemented our individual research aims rather than distracted from them. Additionally, given the geographical distance between our institutions and the increasing importance of writing and social media to the work of academics, digital technologies were included in the research design.

Our project began with a two-day social media workshop with Christine Garrington of Research Podcasts at the University of Nottingham in April 2017. During this meeting, we found that the concept of ‘voice’ was common to all our educational research: voice in policymaking, voice in the classroom, voice in the wider school community. More critically, we noted how the voices of academics, teachers, parents and students were differentially marginalized according to their social context. Following these discussions, we decided to create a collaborative research blog entitled Raising Voices in Education. This is still very much in its early stages of development while we become more comfortable in raising our own voices in the public domain as emerging scholars. Following ethical review, however, we hope that the blog will include ‘real’ voices in the form of research podcasts. Finally, we aim to conduct a comparative analysis of our national and individual research findings.

Interestingly, the Graduate Research Project has led on to other opportunities. Approximately one year ago, I was invited to be a member of the U21 Forum for International Networking in Education leadership team. A group of five postgraduate and emerging career researchers from the University of Nottingham, University of Edinburgh, University of Melbourne, University of Auckland and University of Connecticut, we organise personal and professional development networking and training opportunities for PGR and ECR of the U21 Schools of Education. Our main forum for networking takes place annually at the conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) but, this year, we held our first networking seminar at the European Conference for Educational Research (ECER). In addition, the team have put together a book proposal on the theme of establishing a global academic career and, recently, we received confirmation of our successful application for a U21 Graduate Collaborative Award to study doctoral researchers’ motivation for, engagement with and perceptions of international networking for personal and professional development.

Outside Universitas 21, there are many ways in which we can engage in international work at the University of Nottingham. Connections can be made within our own faculties where international students can bring a wealth of knowledge and perspectives to our research experience. Beyond this, our supervisors have well-established contacts in the global academic community, who will no doubt have postgraduate students keen to communicate with peers in a different cultural context, and there are visiting scholars who are often only too happy to get to know someone within their host institution. We can go on overseas institutional visits, attend international conferences and even engage with like-minded international scholars on Twitter. And whilst our PhD projects might be local or national in their focus, there is always the potential for international impact in publications, whether through peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters or blogs. Some of these connections might only be temporary, whereas others will take time to develop and I won’t pretend that the U21 work I have done has not required a high level of energy, commitment and determination. But it is worth it. For the experience of cross-cultural teamwork, for the insights that it gives you into another research community and for the professional friendships that you make. And as I approach the final year of my doctorate, I look forward to seeing how these connections develop further.

Alison Milner


Posted on Tuesday 26th September 2017

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