Tuesday, 26 September 2017
Initial thoughts on Royal Holloway University and postgraduate study
Over the summer this blog largely transitioned itself into a campaigning tool for a more orderly and much softer withdrawal from the European Union. The idea was that by narrowing the scope of my writing I would develop something close to authority and be (even slightly) more likely to influence the Brexit debate. I can't decide for myself how worthwhile it has been so far.
I am frustrated at present because I don't know how best to proceed. I know I can have some influence because I have a modest, but precious, connection to Westminster, and so exposure is never too far away, and because a large number of journalists read and share my work. There is only so much I can hope for but writing is what I do best (certainly, recent shaky performances on television have for now confirmed this) and it's better than doing nothing.
We can't have the Norway option and we can't have the Canada option. The former is apparently domestically unacceptable and the latter will not work because it is infeasible for the UK to untangle itself from every EU mechanism and initiative, many of which are in the national interest to participate in (and therefore fund), and continue life with the obligations of our Anglospheric partners. So, what am I going to campaign for? What then will the purpose of this blog be? I'll ponder the question in the coming days and weeks.
At least writing about other things will for now feel fairly refreshing. My academic interests once again occupy my immediate attention, having been away from university life for five months. After weeks of induction events, enrolment stages and tying up bureaucratic loose ends I have officially started my Masters degree. It's a part-time MSc in Elections, Campaigns and Democracy - and I'll be studying Quantitative Research Methods and Analysing Public Opinion on top, as well as three additional modules and a dissertation next academic year. I gather there will also be an opportunity for me to work for my professor, Chris Hanretty, when we provide various polling companies with research and political consultancy next year.
I'm studying at Royal Holloway University, which was opened by Queen Victoria in 1879. It's a very good university by most practical measures and, importantly, scores well across Europe for quality of political research. Usually, though, I don't pay attention to league tables as I am somebody who believes that we make our education what we make of it. Tables don't influence my decision to study somewhere. Growing up poor meant I was able to avoid displaying all sorts of snobbery, and this remains my attitude towards academia. I know plenty of smart individuals who do not attend so-called Russell Group universities and plenty of fools who do. It is here worth mentioning to readers unaware that Russell Group was initially set up as a consortium of universities with the most research funding, a system unfairly weighted in favour of institutions which had medical schools. I do the best with what I have and I don't focus on others.
Royal Holloway's main campus can be found poked just outside of the M25, in quite a quaint little town called Egham, east Surrey. Signs of life in the area mostly take the form of small crowds of bustling students and a flurry of aircraft taking off from Heathrow, which I suspected from the low altitude is based somewhere nearby. The town is lacking in certain features that I am used to. In my hometown, in the Bexleyheath and Crayford constituency, you don't drive for more than two minutes before reaching a major supermarket or restaurant. They're dotted around very close to one another and it can be a bit overwhelming. Certainly smaller shops have felt the pressure in recent years. Egham is far less busy and residents must put up with reduced choice in eating, drinking and shopping outlets.
The town is quite noticeably a university town. The station sign even makes it clear that it is the home of Royal Holloway. There is no pretending that it is not its main attraction, and attractive it is. Royal Holloway's main building, known internally as Founders, is a beautiful exhibition of architecture. It's an eight-shaped masterpiece built mostly on four floors and complimented by a north-facing clock tower. When I first gave it a tour it reminded me quite distinctly of Hogwarts. Walking around it brings a certain museum vibe, with each department separated by walls of stunning paintings, including many originals, and quite old-fashioned looking stone staircases. It's a shame that Founders itself is not located more centrally in and amongst other university buildings instead of out the way, though it does espouse a reassuring majesty to students and visitors of all kinds.
Monday brought my first lecture and seminar, which I maintain need to be interesting in order for me to justify a two-hour commute. I don't live on campus. During my first term I'll be exploring 'Elections and Campaigns', with two 3,000 word essays due for early November and December. I'm glad the work has come in thick and instantly because my boredom over the past couple of months has needed addressing. It will make a welcome change from sitting in my bedroom in my dressing gown reading European treaties. Now at least I'll be ploughing through journal articles covering election data, like this one related to this year's poll. I've a presentation to give classmates on populists and populism in a few weeks too, which is a topic I have become quite interested in of late.
On top of this is a course in Quantitative Research Methods, which I am told involves a large amount of statistical analysis and using computers, which I am not especially excited about. SPSS is the software we'll be using and I have absolutely no experience of it, so I'll need time to adjust. I'm not a tech savvy guy and I can learn quite slowly. I am, though, determined to strengthen my ability to research and understand research as I want to continue in academic circles by doing a PhD. Masters degrees aren't always necessary in order to qualify for a PhD, but my undergraduate degree is not relevant enough to my current interests for it alone to be sufficient.
Next term I'll be doing a module on Analysing Public Opinion, in which we'll investigate phenomena like opinion shopping and confirmation bias, as well as why objectivity of perception is thrown out of the window when such polls as 'What do you think of the state of the British economy?' is asked of both Leave and Remain voters. The economy is what it is, but the results understandably diverge. I am interested in human nature as it relates to assessment and the desire to substantiate personal opinion. Third term is up in the air at present as I am a part-time student (for personal and financial reasons). As such, my timetable is stretched out and I will not be completing my dissertation until the summer of 2019.
Aside from working my way towards a PhD, which I must keep in the back of my head for now in order to focus on the present, I wanted to do a Masters because I felt that my political knowledge and wherewithal needed some kind of specialised grounding. I think I have a reasonable grasp of quite a few issues but I recognise the advantage to be found in having some kind of enclave of expertise. I don't think it will have a restricting effect, either. A large number of people have degrees, even MAs or MScs, in topics unrelated to their career. I also think having a Masters at my disposal will give me a competitive edge when job seeking in related fields.
Last year was largely a period of independent study as I was doing my undergrad dissertation. Returning to the classroom is nice because it feels like I'm getting back to normality, especially after a few recent spots of publicity. It is also nice because it makes me feel slightly younger again, perhaps even school age, which I consider a blessing as time moves so quickly. I'll be 22 in November and I have a persistent fear of getting old. I want to do as much as I possibly can as a young man and not waste time and opportunities. And this degree is a great opportunity for me to showcase my academic skills, feed my intellectual curiosities and carve out a particular political proficiency. I'm ready.