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04 Dec 2020

Three Questions to a NORRAG Member: Dr William C. Smith

As part of our series “Three Questions to a NORRAG Member,” we spoke to William C. Smith, Senior Lecturer in Education and International Development at the University of Edinburgh, about his move in 2018 to the Scottish university, how his work was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and his focus for 2021.

As a regular contributor to NORRAG activities, such as a recent blog post on the link between university rankings tables and quality education co-authored with Antonia Voigt (University of Edinburgh), it is always great to hear from Will, read below his answers to our questions.

1)  Will, you moved at the end of 2018 to the University of Edinburgh after working for the Global Education Monitoring Report, tell us more about your move (from a UN agency), what decided you to go back to academia?

The move was made for both family health and professional reasons. First, I should just mention that I loved my time at UNESCO and the GEM Report. The Report team is a top level group of researchers and connecting with and communicating with different audiences was quite a learning experience. UNESCO opens up doors that most academics cannot dream of. Still, we were never planning for our time at the GEM Report to be long term. One of the appeals of the Report for me was the regular churn of academics on the report team, bringing in new ideas and a critical lens. I had the privilege of contributing in part to the 2016, 2017/18, 2019, and 2020 report on meaningful topics in a way that helps shape global discourse – yet it was time to move on.

The University of Edinburgh provided me with an interesting opportunity. They were looking for someone to teach in their Comparative Education and International Development (CEID) pathway for masters students. The unique subject combination drew me in and fit my experience and research interests perfectly. In September 2019, I took over as lead of the pathway and have been working to make the University of Edinburgh a recognized leader in the field since. One thing that I did learn on my meandering path from my PhD at Penn State University through civil society and international organizations, is that we need to work collaboratively across sectors if we want to see real change. Too often academic research gets stuck in a bubble, where we echo ideas off each other. Civil society, international organizations, academics – we are often all working toward a similar aim but never clearly communicating with each other. One of my hopes as an academic, and part of the value added by NORRAG, is to maintain connections with like-minded, stakeholders in different sectors.

2) What is your focus this year and what’s in store for 2021.

2021 has lots of exciting change and opportunity in store. As part of a longer term plan I’ll be working to strengthen the CEID Community at the University of Edinburgh. Since September 2019 we’ve successfully launched a CEID Student Society – ensuring interested students at all levels and across the university have the space to shape their own student-led experience – and a CEID Research Group – bringing together over 50 members from across the university to share their work and search out collaborative opportunities. The next major change is the creation of a separate MSc CEID programme. Currently a pathway within the MSc Education programme, we hope to launch a separate MSc CEID programme in Fall 2022 – but there is lots of work to be done (shout out to my colleagues helping me put all of this together).

I’ll also continue in my role as Academic Lead for the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF. The Collaborative is a multi-year, multi-million pound project that brings together the University of Edinburgh, the Scottish Government, and UNICEF to creatively address the needs of children through data science. It uses an innovative impact collaborative approach that mirrors my desire to do co-constructive work across sectors. I’ve benefited from working on projects in the Collaborative and in this more advisory role. We just celebrated the first year of the Collaborative and the team is working nonstop to refine our process and get the word out about the Collaborative. If you work as a researcher, implementer, or donor in education, health (including mental health, COVID, HIV), nutrition, poverty, population, or climate change we’d love to be connected.

Finally, my own research focuses on barriers to education for the most marginalized. High-stakes testing often shapes systems to label and exclude some learners. I plan on continuing my work on  the global testing culture and how it limits our understanding of quality and establishes normative expectations for those in and outside the education system. In addition, I’ll be working with colleagues at UNESCO Bangkok, the Asia Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education, the Mongolia Education Alliance, the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, and our CEID Research Group on scoping research to examine the challenges to universal secondary education in the Asia Pacific region. With just 10 years left for the world to reach the SDGs, it is important to identify and attempt to remedy structures and policies that prevent individuals from realizing the promise of a holistic, quality education.

3) Covid-19 has impacted a lot of our Network members, how do you see your work moving forward. Bonus question: what can NORRAG as a network bring to a situation such as Covid-19?

Covid-19 has created a range of challenges and noticeably widened the gaps in attendance and achievement across groups. I think it has illustrated that we live in a globalized, interdependent world. We need to be aware of and learn from each other. For someone that works with partners around the globe I’ve been missing out on getting together with colleagues and experiencing the context and culture in which they work. Yet, the pandemic has also increased the use and utility of online collaborative platforms – so I am quite thankful that we can stay connected and continue to work together (at least for some aspects).

The interconnected world highlights the work of NORRAG. Bringing together stakeholders, sharing diverse experiences, and breaking down sector siloes is needed now more than ever. Regardless of what my current position is (be it in civil society, IOs, or academia) I’ve always felt welcomed and encouraged by NORRAG events and activities.

If you wish to contribute to the series “Three Questions to a NORRAG Member”, reach out to us. In this series we feature NORRAG Members, investigating on their latest big achievements and what’s in stock for them in the coming month. We also aim to keep a good balance between gender, geography and member type (academia, civil society, NGO etc), reflecting the diversity of our membership. 

Previous entries in the series:
Three Questions to a NORRAG Member: Dr. Will Brehm

Three questions to a NORRAG Member: Dr Felicitas Acosta Awarded 2019 Margaret Sutherland Prize

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