Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice

Leave a comment

Talking Careers in the Faroe Islands

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to deliver a keynote speech at a conference on careers guidance policy and practice which took place the Faroe Islands. The conference was titled ”Vegleiðing – nær og fjar” and it was supported by the Nordiskt nätverk för vuxnas lärande (NVL). You can see full details of the conference including copies of the presentations on the NVL website.  I took the family too and we made a bit of a holiday out of it – and what a fantastic time we had!


If memory serves me this is Norðdepil in the North of the islands.

Of course it was wonderful to be able to explore the islands, they are truly very beautiful, and if we hadn’t been slightly encumbered with a small child who just wanted to jump in puddles (!) we would have loved to walk in the hills too… But it was also great to speak at the conference and meet people involved in careers guidance policy and practice in the islands and to compare notes with our experience in the Scottish islands.

My presentation at the conference focused on islands and career development. I broadly structured the presentation by considering some of the key features of small islands (drawing on the island studies literature) and then by considering the impact of these features on the career pathways of islanders (drawing on some of the work of Ronald Sultana on guidance in small states particularly as well as my own research). Throughout the presentation I was concerned to challenge some of the deficit model of islands – the idea that islands are limited (in space, in people, in job opportunities) and that therefore there is a lack in terms of career (and life) pathways. Instead I focused on how islands present particular contexts and as such are marked by perhaps different career  pathways but these are not necessarily “worse” . This is something I’ve increasingly been thinking about.

faroes 3

Small islands, limited opportunities? Maybe not… this is Nólsoy.

It was a total pleasure to present my thoughts, but the best part of the conference was definitely meeting people and comparing notes about our various contexts. The conference didn’t just include people from the Faroes, but also Åland and Greenland (as other self-governing regions) so it was a fantastic opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other. It was also great to be able to explore the islands over the coming days, to take part in Culture Night in Tórshavn by presenting a shortened version of my keynote (I felt very honoured!) and really to take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about a community that in some ways was so familiar to me and also so different.

faroes 2.jpg

Looking back at Tórshavn from the boat. The maritime context is a key feature of similarity for island communities.

During our time in the Faroes I was struck by how many people had Scottish connections, and  had visited Scotland – in fact our flight to the Faroes from Edinburgh was precisely the same duration as the flight from Edinburgh to Orkney so in some ways the islands are as close as we are to mainland Scotland (in time at least!). And then of course the Norröna used to call in Shetland as it sailed from the Faroes to Denmark so quite a few people had visited Shetland too. There were other links as well, and my favourite moment was probably visiting a print studio where the artist showed our rather grumpy child (not an art fan, at least not yet!) a stuffed oystercatcher to distract her. He told us the Faroese name for the bird ‘tjaldur’ which I had to get him to say again because it sounded exactly the same as the Orkney word ‘chalder’ (or ‘shalder’). The Orcadian word, like many Orcadian words comes from old Norse, so it is no surprise really that the words are the same, but hearing it spoken really brought home to me how our shared Atlantic history can still be traced in the present. It also made me think about lots of other research that I have come across exploring links in the North Atlantic region – talks on things like knitting patterns (by Liz Lovick), archaeology, even the tuning of the St Magnus Cathedral bells (by Gemma McGregor). And there again is another link… St Magnus churches seem to be all over the Faroes! It was lovely (if a little strange) to visit the ‘other’ St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkjubøur while we were in the islands.

faroes 4.jpg

Oystercatcher eggs outside the church door at Saksun… In Orkney we have an oystercatcher nesting on a roundabout. They choose the strangest places.

Of course there are differences too, and one really significant difference I think is that the Faroes have a great deal more autonomy than Orkney and Shetland. In practical terms they are self-governing, having their own parliament, and setting their own laws. They also still have their own language, whereas Norn died out in the Northern Isles many years ago. Then there is the fact they are so much further from Denmark (they are still technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark) than Orkney and Shetland are to the Scottish mainland. Being a self-governing region in particular makes for a really interesting context in terms of careers guidance because of the need to define their own guidance agenda including policy, training and research. And it was a pleasure for me to be part of conversations during the week about the future for careers guidance in the islands. In comparison policy and practice in Orkney and Shetland are very much determined by Scottish policy and practice – although perhaps the recent Islands Bill might start to impact in this area.

In terms of career development in the islands again what I heard was in some ways so familiar to me, and yet also had some differences… Of course I heard about problems of youth out-migration for higher education, I heard about gendered patterns of migration which are perhaps even more acute than in Orkney and Shetland, and I heard about occupational plurality and people pursuing “chameleon careers” (Sultana, 2006). I also enjoyed speaking with the University of the Faroes, which shares something of a similar purpose and mission to the University of the Highlands and Islands. However I also heard about some differences – I heard for example of instances where young people didn’t want to leave the islands because they were competing at an international level in Faroese sports teams – of course Orkney and Shetland don’t compete internationally* so that same appeal just isn’t there! Also seeing the range of prospectuses in one of the guidance departments in the school I realised just how international some student pathways are, and although most students study in Denmark many do study elsewhere – in Orkney and Shetland in comparison almost all students study in Scotland, with very few going to England and even fewer (I’m not sure if there are any?) going abroad, at least not for undergraduate studies.


Truly international prospectuses at a school in the Faroes….

We had such a great time in the Faroes, and professionally it was a really productive visit too. I left the islands reminded about how much we can learn from each other as island communities that share many similarities but also, because of the particularities of islands, have differences too. And this is what I think is potentially so fruitful, when island communities work together – in our similarities we find common ground, and yet our differences help us to think outside of our contexts, potentially helping us to understand ourselves better and find areas for innovation and development.



*that is unless you count the Island Games which are currently being held in Gotland. Incidentally I see the Faroe Islands and Åland both beat Orkney and Shetland, but at least Orkney’s in good company next to Greenland in the medals table…


Time and Place (and careers)

A week or so ago I gave a presentation at The University of London as part of The Careers Group‘s “Festival of Research”. I was talking about geography and career development and I started the presentation with this point:

Geography of Career Development

What I pointed out was that when speaking about careers we often use metaphors of ‘pathways’ or ‘journeys’ (Inkson, 2007). Now, the metaphor of a journey or a pathway is both a spatial and temporal metaphor – journeys take place in time and space. However, my challenge to the audience was: how far as careers professionals and in our body of career theory, do we prioritise the temporal elements of careers over the spatial?

The relative neglect of space in recent years has been something that has been raised as an issue across the social sciences, writers like Massey (2005) and Gieryn (2000) concerned to make the case for the continuing importance of geographical space. Soja (2010) makes an important point for careers professionals:

The larger significance of the spatial turn and the resurgence of interest in critical spatial thinking arise from the belief that we are just as much spatial as temporal beings, that our existential spatiality and temporality are essentially or ontologically coequal, equivalent in explanatory power and behavioral significance, interwoven in a mutually formative relation’ (p.16)

Soja suggests that in the tradition of Western thought we have experienced something of an intellectual distortion – prioritising time over space, history over geography. This is interesting because I suspect as careers professionals we may also have experienced such a distortion. On a theoretical basis for example developmental theories of careers are common – which encourage us to think about careers in terms of life-stage. But do we have theories which place spatial characteristics of careers at centre stage?  Perhaps some structural approaches help to focus us on issues of space (in terms of the labour market), although I would suggest that these have tended to focus on social structures rather than a broader consideration of geography. On a purely practical basis, as careers advisers how often do we gloss over geography and focus on temporal aspects of career development? And when we ask questions like ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ how likely are we to actually be seeking an answer that focuses on a geographical where?

Whatever else I covered in my presentation in London I hope I raised a few questions about how far we conceive careers as both temporal and spatial phenomena.



International vs Internal Student Mobilities

One of my colleagues at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Dr Philomena De Lima is doing some work at the moment to bring together scholarship on international migration and internal migration. Thinking about her work, I read the paper “Internal and International Migration: Bridging the Theoretical Divide”  (King, Skeldon and Vullnetari, 2008). Now, in my PhD I think about internal migration the whole time – how students and graduates move from their island locations, mostly to the Scottish Mainland. Most of my reading has been about internal migration and rural-urban migration specifically. Sometimes in conversations with others I am asked about how my work fits with current international interests in migration (say, for example, when I was last in Greece and the refugee crisis there was very visible). However I haven’t really thought a great deal about it, as most of the research into international migration doesn’t seem that relevant to me. I guess in many ways I have been stuck on the ‘internal’ side of the migration divide!


Refugee camp at Mytilini, Lesvos Island where I was at a conference last year (photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Reading King et al’s paper was very interesting though, because they highlight how the traditions of researching international and internal migration have indeed been quite separate (it’s not just me who has focused on one and not the other…). In their paper they suggest that we should be ‘bridging the theoretical divide’- partly to address the imbalance in scholarship (most scholarship is on the topic of international migration, but most migration is internal) and also because the boundaries between internal and international migration in practice can be very blurred. In particular they discuss the systems approach to migration as being a possible paradigm that can encompass both internal and international migration. Reading their paper has inspired me to not think so narrowly about migration but to consider how international and internal migration might be part of the same spectrum. In fact when reading their paper I was struck by reflecting on how often international migration came up in my interviews with participants as a future possibility (and an actual lived experience in a couple of cases).

What it also got me thinking about is practical implications from my research. So within the UK higher education setting a key emphasis in recent years in terms of graduate employment has been on internationalisation of students and graduates to enable them to access a global workplace (Diamond et al, 2011). However what has received a great deal less attention are issues around internal mobility of students and graduates. My research is showing that this is an important issue for students especially given that graduate jobs are not equally geographically distributed, with a strong centralisation in city regions, and in the UK particularly the South East (Ball, 2012).

What occurs to me is that perhaps universities and higher education policy has been particularly focused on international mobility without necessarily seeing a link to internal mobility. But, I would suggest, perhaps these two could be thought of as part of the same spectrum? And if universities are serious about increasing graduate choice, and increasing graduate access to employment then consideration should be given to internal mobility as well as international mobility.

It would be really interesting to explore further some of the approaches to internationalisation within Higher Education (not an area of specialism for me) and to identify whether similar approaches could be used in terms of internal mobility of students. Considering the mobilities of students generally (internal and international) may be beneficial for students and graduates from very rural and remote communities, but equally given increasing trends for students to study from home, mobility more generally may be an important issue for students all over the country.


Ball, C. (2012) ‘Regional Overview of Graduate Employment’, in HECSU, What do Graduates Do? Manchester; HECSU p.4

Diamond, Walkley, Forbes, Hughes and Sheen (2011) ‘Global Graduates: Global Graduates into Global Leaders’ Association of Graduate Recuiters

King, Skeldon and Vullnetari (2008) “Internal and International Migration: Bridging the Theoretical Divide”



Nordic Egalitarianism….?

I’ve just been reading a paper by Agnete Wiborg (2001) about the experience of students from rural Norway in their transition to higher education. A recurrent theme in the paper is about the egalitarian nature of Norwegian society and how this is a challenge for students who progress to higher education, because they feel that they have very little in common with those they leave behind, but find it difficult to talk in terms of these social differences – becoming as a result quite ambivalent about their transition to higher education.

One of the students in this research refers to the ‘Law of Jante’, which I hadn’t heard of before but which is summarised by Wiborg like this:

“The ‘Law of Jante’ formulated in a book by the Danish author Axel Sandemose, concerns social regulations in a small town, and says that ‘You should not think you are anybody’, ‘You should not think you know more than us’, and ‘You should not think you are better than us’. In a way this can be seen as a formulation of aspects of Norwegian egalitarian ideology.”                                               (Wiborg, 2001: 29)

I thought this was really interesting because in my first piece of research in Orkney (for my masters) I found evidence of a similar cultural egalitarianism meaning that recent graduates living in Orkney tended to downplay their higher education experiences. At the time I linked this with some evidence from rural studies that smaller rural communities tend to be characterised by certain values – with egalitarianism being one (Alexander, 2013).


One of our ferries – the Hjaltland – with its viking livery. Picture courtesy of Ronnie Robertson

However, I am increasingly wondering whether this rural tendency to egalitarianism may be accentuated in the communities of Orkney and Shetland because of a potential Norwegian cultural inheritance? After all Orkney and Shetland were actually annexed by the Norwegian Crown from the 10th century and only became part of Scotland in 1468 (as part of a dowry). Even after that date remnants of Norn language remained right into the 18th and possibly 19th centuries in the islands, and a great deal of the material culture of Orkney and Shetland dates back to viking times – such as the runic inscriptions in the tomb of Maeshowe in Orkney, the St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland (to name but a few). Even in recent times the link with Norway is strong – with the “Shetland bus” a key communication channel between the UK and Norway during the Second World War, and with industries such as oil and gas and fishing based in the North Sea attracting islanders and Norwegians alike. Indeed there are ‘friendship associations’ in both island groups with Norway, and exchange programmes have been regularly available for young people from the islands to visit communities such as Voss and Hordaland. On top of all of this the world famous “Up Helly Aa” festival in Shetland is a celebration of the islands’ viking inheritance, and even the ferries to the mainland of Scotland have a viking painted on the side of them!

The Norse cultural inheritances of the Northern Isles is something I think about relatively often – especially as I have colleagues working at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands for whom this is a main concern (they even offer an MLitt in Viking Studies!). However, I haven’t really seen any direct links into my work (on the contemporary societies of the islands and how they influence the choices of young people in the islands) until now… Now I’m beginning to wonder if there is scope in considering not just historical links, but the contemporary social context of the Nordic countries in terms of a potentially similar social context in the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Thinking about this makes me quite excited to follow the work of colleagues researching careers guidance and career development in Norway and other Nordic countries. In particular reading a recent blog by Ingrid Bardsdatter Bakke I was struck by the potential similarities in some of her findings working with a community in a relatively remote part of Norway and some of my work…


Alexander, Rosie (2013) ‘Here you have to be a bit more fluid and willing to do different things’: Graduate career development in rural communities’ Journal of the National Institute of Career Education and Counselling, Issue 31, pp.36-42

Wiborg, Agnete (2001) ‘Education, mobility and ambivalence. Rural students in higher education’ YOUNG 9 (1) pp. 23-40


Migration, education and employment: socio-cultural factors in shaping individual decisions in Orkney and Shetland

So, my latest paper has just been published in the Island Studies Journal. The paper is titled: Migration, education and employment: socio-cultural factors in shaping individual
decisions and economic outcomes in Orkney and Shetland. The paper unpacks some of the theoretical background to my research and discusses some of the initial findings from the first interviews in the project. I have summarised some of the key points from my paper below.
Island studies journal

Front cover of the Island Studies Journal Vol. 11 No.1

So in terms of the background to the project I start by discussing the potential role of place in shaping individual decisions. In order to do this I draw on the theoretical framework of Bourdieu, who broadly looks at the way that our social environment can become internalised and influence the decisions that we make (the internalised social environment is our ‘habitus’). Through this use of Bourdieu I challenge rational models of decision making which tend to assume that career and migration decisions are made on a purely economic basis, and suggest that social and cultural aspects of our environment also impact on our decisions.
Looking at the findings of the research project so far I cover two areas: higher education destinations and graduate destinations. Analysing the interviews with higher education students from Orkney and Shetland, these are the main findings I discuss:
HE destinations
  • “Proximity” is important in deciding where to study for university. This proximity is, however constructed in terms of social and cultural familiarity as well as simply geographical distance.
  • Personal challenge is an important part of going to university. Students typically chose locations which had an element of challenge but which were ‘close enough’ to remain manageable.
Graduate destinations
  • Graduates have typically developed more geographical confidence through being at university and at the point of graduation describe being able to live anywhere
  • However graduates still lack professional confidence, and typically see the first years after graduation as a key period to build up their professional experience. For many graduates it is felt that this may be best done away from their home communities.
  • There is a strong theme of wishing to return to the islands at some point in the future, this is often associated with having children and settling down, with the islands being identified in terms of familiarity, homeliness and comfort.
  • Some graduates do return home immediately, either viewing this in terms of ‘settling down’ or in terms of having a break from their studies and recuperating at home before moving away again. However even the graduates who return home more permanently  typically do not rule out perhaps ‘going south’ again in the future.
I finish the paper with further discussion and indicate a few areas for further research. In particular I note that there is a potential interrelation of place-based habitus with other forms of habitus – including occupational and class habitus. Class in particular is something I’m becoming increasingly interested in (as you will have seen from my previous blog) so you can probably expect to see more from me on that particular topic in the not too distant future!
I hope you enjoy the paper and as always if you’d like to comment to let me know what you think that would be fabulous – your comments are fantastic for pushing my thinking on these issues!



Social Class, Rurality and Access to Higher Education

I’ve recently been reading about research into working class students and their experience of Higher Education. Wolfgang Lehmann has written quite extensively about the topic, and describes the challenges working class students may find when entering higher education, experiencing “a ‘‘foreign’’ environment in which they feel like cultural outsiders” (2013:2). The higher education environment is, Lehmann suggests, classed, and as working class students come into contact with higher education they develop new forms of social and cultural capital in keeping with their environment – such as changing tastes in music, dress sense and so on. This process is one of ‘transformation’ which can be a painful and difficult process for students, and may involve a distancing from their working class roots.

So initially this really interested me because it got me thinking about my own experience of leaving home for university, which I found very difficult. Thinking back to my first weeks at university two conversations stand out for me. One was being in a group of students where the conversation was about ‘which international airport has the best shopping?’ and the other was being in another group where a student (from London) said he had no patience for tourists to “his city” who didn’t know how to use the underground. Now these for me were quite profoundly alienating experiences. At the age of 18 I had only ever lived in rural North Cornwall,  flown on one domestic flight (from Aberdeen to Shetland), and I had only been to London once (for an event that I was invited to, where I was accompanied by my mum and we had got lost on the underground….). In the case of both conversations I felt what Lehmann would probably describe as a ‘dislocation’ – these were not people ‘like me’ and I felt alienated from the social context in which I found myself.

Bude beach

Bude: the town I grew up in (or at least the nearest town to the village I grew up in) – image courtesy of: scottcawley CC BY-NC 2.0


Now, to a certain extent you could say that these experiences were class related – although I would consider myself middle class (my father was a headteacher, my mother was a writer, and we had enough money to live relatively comfortably) I was studying at Oxford University and so many of my fellow students were significantly more privileged than me. However, I think the other aspect in these experiences relates to place  – we hadn’t flown very much as children partly because of the cost, but also partly because the closest international airport would have been almost a day’s drive away and similarly I was so unfamiliar with London because it was  a significant distance from North Cornwall. Indeed in my first few weeks at university while others were complaining about Oxford being ‘small’ I was confronted with a much larger place than I had ever lived, and was already feeling a physical ‘dislocation’ from the things I knew. In Oxford, for example, I  was confronted by lots of unfamiliar things about city living: using town bus services (how do people know when to get off the bus? our country bus just went from one village to another), using taxi ranks and ‘flagging down’ taxis (I still don’t really understand this, I have always booked taxis in the country), and using mainline train services (I grew up about an hour by car from the nearest train station, and that station was Bodmin – not exactly the hub of everything!). I was also getting used to having city shops on the doorstep (and not having to make a special ‘day trip’ to a city), having galleries and museums a short walk away (which I loved), and being able to go out to city pubs and clubs (I was convinced going out was much more dangerous than at home).

oxford flickr

Oxford: where I went to university –  Image courtesy of das_sabrinchen CC BY-ND 2.0

Of course there were lots of parts of my experience which were exciting and enjoyable, but they were also profoundly challenging. Looking back now I can see that moving to a city was partly challenging because of physically being in a different place and having to manage new and unfamiliar experiences (thinking about it, mostly transport related!) but also about a different social and cultural context (managing city pubs and clubs, and going to museums). It was also about being in a place full of ‘city people’ who knew how to ‘be’ and what to ‘do’ in this unfamiliar place.

So, although I have written before about rurality being a widening access issue, reading about the experience of working class students has started to crystalise my thinking. Perhaps it is possible to think about the experience of rurality in a similar way to class – is rurality a similar challenge to entering higher education? And where for working class students, university can be a ‘transformation’ into a middle class milieu, is university a way for rural students to ‘transform’ and adapt to a more urban environment? Perhaps higher education as a predominantly urban, middle class experience 1 is about producing urban middle class graduates? These are big questions, but in the meantime as it is a topic that I don’t think has received enough attention, I would be interested to hear other people’s stories of going to university from a rural place…. What was your experience? What are the things that stand out for you about your first few weeks at university?


1. I say ‘predominantly’ because of course increasingly there are higher education options in rural areas, through for example the University of the Highlands and Islands (in Scotland) and the Combined Universities in Cornwall (in Cornwall). The non-traditional experience of students studying in rural areas is also an area that I think deserves more attention but is outside the scope of this blog!


Lehmann, W. (2013) ‘Habitus Transformation and Hidden Injuries: Successful Working-class University Students’ Sociology of Education 87(1) 1–15


Widening Access in Rural Areas

The Scottish Government has just published “A Blueprint for Fairness: The Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access”. 


The report concerns widening access generally, but makes a few interesting points with regards to rurality and widening access:

  1. The report recognises that the continued use of the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) is ‘less likely to identify those from disadvantaged backgrounds in more rural areas’ because it identifies geographical concentrations of deprivation, and in rural areas the population is generally more geographically dispersed. However, in the absence of any strong alternatives, the report recommends the continued use of SIMD as a marker of deprivation. This is disappointing for those of us working in rural areas, and with individuals who may experience significant deprivation – however in the absence of any strong alternatives the recommendation is understandable, and it is good to see that, at least, the issues with use of SIMD are being foregrounded.
  2. Recommendation 18 specifically mentions rural areas: “Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them.” In contrast to the first point, this is a really welcome recommendation – it is absolutely true that students in small rural schools may have less choice over their subjects than in other larger schools. In my experience this can lead to students either feeling unable to undertake certain training routes, or having to take a less-than-ideal training route e.g. undertaking a crash-Higher course in order to access their preferred training.
  3. Finally it is good to see that at the end of the report there is recognition that the authors have had to focus their findings on one specific area: access to the core provision of higher education for those from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds or those with care experience. As they note, to their regret they have not been able to focus on a number of areas, including ‘Access to HE for those from rural areas’. Again it’s great to see that access to HE from rural areas is noted as an area of interest, even if the report does not address this to any significant extent.

Overall although it is disappointing that we have retained the SIMD as a marker of deprivation, it is good to see that rural issues are being noted by the authors of the report, and it is great to see that increased flexibility in education pathways is being identified as important for rural communities and rural people.

If you’re interested in this blog you may also be interested in my previous blog on Social Mobility in Rural Areas. It is also maybe useful to note that there is some research on access to HE from rural areas specifically – for example the research coming from St Andrews about Access to HE for rural communities  As ever I would be interested to hear your thoughts too!