Deputy Viewpoint Editor Jamie Locke-Jones offers his perspective of Vertically Integrated Projects (VIPs). Seeing VIPs as one of the ways the University takes advantage of its smaller size, he encourages students to get involved in this initiative.
Whenever St Andrews manages to beat Oxford in the university rankings (ha), a great deal of fuss is made about how such a tiny university can beat one of the biggest intellectual institutions on the planet. While that gratifies a bitter and jaded Oxbridge reject like me, it also makes me think about what exactly St Andrews does to compensate for its small size. My answer is that the University makes its smallness into an advantage rather than a limitation. You can find one example, and a way forward for the university, in its adoption of VIPs.
No, not that kind of VIP: legend has it that Hugh Grant sadly remains banned from University ground. I’m talking about Vertically Integrated Projects, a new initiative which St Andrews has boldly adopted a mere 20 years after its initial conception. OK, that’s not entirely fair – St Andrews is only the second UK university to adopt the program, the first being Strathclyde.
My initial impression was that the VIP would be like an undergraduate research assistant position without the money, and I was essentially correct. I chose to apply anyway, partly because one of the projects caught my eye, and partly because I had decided that last semester’s psychology module was almost diametrically opposite from my idea of a good time. It turned out to be an extremely good decision, and if I manage to convince some of you to apply for a VIP then this article will have done better than some of my previous efforts.
So why are VIPs such a good idea? Partly because they’re so different. There aren’t any lectures, no tutorials in the traditional sense and no exam, just a poster and a presentation along with some graded self-reflection. The Scottish university system is meant to encourage diversity of study, so why not choose to study something genuinely different? A lot of the projects are based around real-life research being done by staff, and it can often feel less like a traditional class and more like a research post. As a result, you can find yourself studying things that don’t fit into the traditional mould of a module. I came to St Andrews partly to get out of Wales – I never expected to find myself researching my home country’s early book trade, but it’s turned into an unlikely source of joy for me.
There are larger reasons to support the VIPs during their infancy. With only eight teams running in the first year, not many students have the opportunity to try what is a genuinely different way of learning at the moment – the more interest is shown, the bigger the scheme, and others like it, should grow. Even if you don’t care about VIPs, you should care about smaller-scale learning. It would make everyone’s experience at the University better: here’s why.
VIPs are different because they are smaller and more individual. If there were 300 people in each project, then there would be no posters, no close collaboration and no meaningful progression, because there simply aren’t enough staff members to go around. However, focusing on the minority will always mean excluding the majority, which is why this method of teaching is less popular than the traditional approach. The trick is to create enough different opportunities for small-scale learning that everyone who wants to can experience it. In tying the learning to faculty research, the VIP shows a way to do just that without overburdening staff. In fact, the opposite might be true – I can’t imagine many research teams at the university would be hostile to the offer of what is effectively a small team of unpaid interns.
I know that taking something which thrives because it is small and trying to expand it sounds like a bad idea, but the fact that the University has added another avenue of small-scale teaching is encouraging. A larger university would find it nearly impossible to reach all its students with high quality, small-scale teaching of the type VIPs offer, but St Andrews is small enough that, with enough initiatives like the VIP, it might. The University has another opportunity to make its small size an asset, rather than a limitation.