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Jetting off on another flying faculty visit: what have we learned?

Val Poultney

The increased demand for education as a tradable commodity has seen a growing number of international students seeking UK qualifications over the past decade (OECD, 2009). It is becoming commonplace for universities to have their programmes delivered ‘off-site’ by a teaching team of academics who make regular trips abroad, often at great distance, to teach international cohorts for intensive periods of time. This is commonly known as ‘flying faculty’, and research into this phenomenon has revealed that it is anything but a holiday in the sun. Smith (2014) found that there were four areas UK academics needed to consider when preparing to undertake such work.

  1. Issues around quality assurance of the programme.
  2. The teaching and learning practices of the department/faculty.
  3. The professional development of the academics.
  4. The challenges of undertaking this type of work.

From my own experience of undertaking flying faculty visits abroad over a number of years, I would add to a fifth point to Smith’s list: the quality of support given by the university to the academics. I joined a team of academics working abroad with Israeli doctoral students, but I was unprepared for a number of issues related to pre-visit preparation, travel, work intensity and risk factors. Later, as the course leader of the same programme, organising these visits (sometimes five in one year) would occupy more of my time – not only preparing teaching sessions and organising the teaching team, but negotiating flights, transfers and hotels with university administration.

Research into ‘flying faculty’ – the delivery of university programmes ‘off-site’ by a teaching team of academics making regular trips abroad to intensively teach international cohorts – reveals that it is anything but a holiday in the sun.

The intensity of the work included long hours of travel: it was not unusual for us to be on the go for 21 hours at a stretch so that we could personally welcome the students when they arrived at the hotel. Sessions began at 9am and often went on until after 7pm. Students would join us for dinner in the evening, so there was little ‘down-time’. On weeks when we met students for intensive supervision, days were even longer – at the end of one trip we began work early in the morning, finished with our last student at 11.30pm and set off for the airport at 2am, arriving back in the UK at midday and finally home late afternoon. On many occasions I would then be teaching again at 9am Monday morning in the UK.

There was no requirement for staff to teach in Israel, given the ongoing historical and political upheaval. There were risks related to travel: in early 2000, Israeli students refused to fly because of fears of ground-to-air missiles. During another visit, a nightclub in Jaffa half a mile from our hotel was blown up, sadly killing some clubbers. There were certain parts of Israel that we were advised against visiting, not that we had much spare time for that.

Quality assurance around parity of provision for UK and international cohorts, especially when one cohort was taught ‘off-site’, was less straightforward. Matters relating to interviewing students, conducting the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and working with the Israeli tutor who was not familiar with UK assessment processes took additional time to resolve.

My university continues to source international opportunities, but they need to learn more from previous flying faculty experiences. It is not good enough to rely on more experienced academics to acculturate less experienced staff, or to expect tutors to work so intensively coupled with long hours of travel. There are many challenges associated with teaching students for whom English is perhaps not only a second language but a third or fourth one.

At institutional level, the validation of the programme is the point at which the university needs to agree its role in supporting flying faculty ventures in terms of resourcing, support for academics and key administrative tasks. At a programme level, some agreed ‘operational rules of engagement’ detailing roles and responsibilities, including opportunities for international cohorts to regularly visit and be taught at the home institution, are necessary.

Despite the many challenges involved in flying faculty work, it can be immensely rewarding – especially when students successfully graduate after many years of hard work.

Author’s note

More information on ‘flying faculty’ can be found in Val’s article in the latest edition of Management in Education, ‘Leading the flying faculty: What do leaders of doctoral programmes need to know?’.)

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] (2009) Education at a glance: OECD indicators 2009, Paris: OECD Publishing

Smith K (2014) ‘Exploring flying faculty teaching experiences: motivations, challenges and opportunities’, Studies in Higher Education 39(1): 117–134