You are here:

Academic Dr Jill Stuart

The award-winning LSE academic talks about how the International Foundation Programme connects theory to the 'real world'.

Written by Peter Quinn |

Dr Jill Stuart
"I think it's brilliant when students can apply their learning and analysis to their own experiences": Dr Jill Stuart

The IFP provides the academic background of specific subjects such as politics and secondly enables students to work, study and succeed strategically within the UK Higher Education system.

US-born, London-based academic Dr Jill Stuart has taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science since 2004. Having studied for both an MSc and PhD at the School, she received an LSE Teaching Excellence Award in 2007.

Since March 2013, she has been Editor in Chief of the journal Space Policy published by Elsevier, the pre-eminent academic journal on the topic. A recipient of the prestigious 2015 British Science Association Margaret Mead Award Lecture, in recognition of her cutting-edge research, she was recently announced as a member of the Board of Directors for METI International.

Dr Stuart’s research focuses primarily on the politics, law, theory and governance of outer space, about which she regularly comments for the media (print, radio, television) and gives public lectures around the world.

Dr Stuart is the course leader for the ‘Politics’ foundation course, part of the International Foundation Programme (IFP) offered through the University of London. The IFP provides students with the skills and knowledge to prepare them for undergraduate study.

Dr Stuart talks to London Connection about nation states, interacting with students around the world, and being an ‘ET Alien’.

What are the main aims and objectives of the ‘Politics’ foundation course?
We want students to have a good foundation going into a potential undergraduate degree within the UK, or remotely through the University of London International Programmes. For this, we want them to have learned the core principles of political theory and be able to apply that theory to the real world, and also to have the language, terminology and confidence to be able to go into an undergraduate programme and be successful.

In addition to the course guide, we've been adding some additional resources to the International Foundation Programme’s ‘virtual learning environment’, to which all IFP students have access, in the form of videos, news articles, documentary clips and that sort of thing. For me, it's really important that what students are learning in their course guide is connected to contemporary, up to date political analysis that is embedded in ‘primary’ sources such as news articles and reports. We also regularly record a lot of short lectures to complement the subject guide.

International foundation programme group of people
"Connecting the theory the IFP provides to the ‘real world’ is something that is important, for a student’s academic and also personal development."

What are some of the real-world examples that you cover in the course?
In one unit of the IFP politics course, we discuss States, nations and regimes. This includes interrogating 'Nations and nationalism', and the evolution of the state in history. We may take for granted today that ‘countries’ exist as they are now, but organising communities and politics according to the modern ‘national state’ is actually less than 500 years old – and the existence of states that are increasingly defined in the literature as ‘failed’, such as Somalia or even Syria, indicate how it may be worth thinking about the complexity of what ‘countries’ are.

So we need to ask: What are the origins of the nation state as we know it? Where does nationalism come from and what makes people feel loyal to their country – is it something ‘primordial’, or something ‘contrived’ by politicians to build solidarity? Might the nation-state as we know it today eventually erode or evolve to give way to different forms of political identity and organisation?

There is no right or wrong answer, and the nuance and complexity is what makes the question even more interesting.

Some researchers see that communities are increasingly pushing ‘up’ in an era of globalisation: where people can relate through technology across boundaries in a way that is irrelevant to ‘country’ boundaries. But there is a converse where communities push ‘down’: retreating into more closed communities against the threat of integration and multiculturalism – for example, Britain voting to leave the European Union.

The role of religious radicalisation and terrorism is an example of a contemporary issue that students on the IFP politics course are encouraged to consider. The course encourages students to go into intellectual depth on questions about how to deal with terrorism and what may be its root causes – but also things like ‘how do we define terrorism?’ These sorts of questions build solid foundations for students on the course as they learn to think both empirically but also critically about politics and international relations.

Can institutions teaching the programme tailor the content to be country-specific?
When I have an opportunity to interact with students who are on the International Foundation Programme, I think it's brilliant when I can see them applying their learning and analysis to their own experiences. This may mean their own experiences within their country, local community, or culture. I think it's great, because these students have a unique knowledge and experience, which I hope they can connect and apply to the theory of politics that they learn on the course to ‘real life political events’.

For me, it’s important to encourage IFP students to analyse the political setting that they are within, as well as the wider international political setting. Connecting the theory the IFP provides to the ‘real world’ is something that is important, for a student’s academic and also personal development. 

You've been involved in training sessions for teachers. What other interactions do you have with teaching institutions?
I personally have had the privilege of being able to interact with and train some of the teachers that deliver the IFP around the world. I've also had the opportunity to teach directly some of our own students who are on the IFP, both here in London and remotely.

international foundation programme booklet
"When I get to engage with International Foundation Programme students, I find their quality and enthusiasm to be very high and contagious."

How do you find hosting the revision sessions with students around the world, both in person and via Skype?
I absolutely love it. Most of my teaching time, I interact with students doing undergraduate, masters and PhD degrees at University of London institutions. When I get to engage with International Foundation Programme students, I find their quality and enthusiasm to be very high and contagious. They come at learning politics from a slightly different perspective, I think, than most undergraduate students that I encounter. They are motivated and open to learning not only about politics, but also about how to study politics and International Relations. Part of the challenge is to get them to channel their background knowledge and intelligence towards starting to also ‘think’ as undergraduate students, and that poses slightly different teaching challenges for us. But I personally enjoy that and that's part of the fun – challenging intelligent but younger students (younger than undergraduates) to not only memorise the material but also engage with it critically. Also, just getting to know students who are from all over the world who have chosen to take on this programme is a joy.

How well do you think the IFP prepares students for undergraduate study?
The IFP, I believe, prepares students for potential success in undergraduate study in two ways: firstly it provides the academic background of specific subjects such as politics and secondly it enables students to work, study and succeed strategically within the UK Higher Education system.

At the end [of the IFP], students should understand what is expected of them within an undergraduate degree at most UK institutions – not just what information needs to be demonstrated, but what knowledge and how.

I myself only came to the UK higher education system at the age of 20. Approaches to Higher Education differ all over the world, and I personally experienced the confusion of knowing information about my subject of politics, whilst still lacking in some ways the understanding of what was expected of me in terms of how to apply them, or the right tools of how to apply that knowledge in the UK system. The IFP provides not only an empirical taught component, but also a strategic learning and analysis component. That is, at the end of it, students should understand what is expected of them within an undergraduate degree at most UK institutions – not just what information needs to be demonstrated, but what knowledge and how.

The IFP is important in preparing students for undergraduate study in the UK, to my mind, for two reasons: it teaches students ‘information’ to memorise, for example about ‘politics’, but It's not just learning the information, it's learning how the system works. And there's no shame in that, it's just a learning process, and so I think it's really important that we provide the opportunity for students all over the world to figure that out in order to equip them to be successful in the UK higher education system. That's part of what this programme does as well – not just provide them with the empirical material, but provide them with the learning strategy in order to be successful. The numbers have been very good going on, and we've had students go on to almost all Russell Group universities.

I think it's worth noting that some students will go on to continue studying through the University of London International Programmes, and I think the IFP is excellent preparation for that. For those who aspire to study Higher Education in the UK and other countries, and particularly at institutions linked to the IFP, I think that the programme does an excellent job. We aim to provide students with the opportunity to do that sort of transition, and the content and delivery of the courses are directed towards that. There's a wide range of capabilities that are apparent on BSc examinations. The IFP quite clearly provides a skill set that is sometimes lacking in students that haven’t undertaken the IFP.

International foundation programme students
"I was, and remain, intrigued by the way in which outer space as a political and philosophical realm seems to occupy the extremes of the human imagination."

What's the most enjoyable aspect of being involved with the IFP?
Working with people, and that ranges from my colleagues here at the University of London, to the teachers that we work with who deliver the IFP, to the students who take it. 

In terms of your own research, you're an expert in the politics of outer space. How did you get into this area of research?
I stumbled across outer space law when I was aged 19 as an undergraduate student studying political science in North America. I found a book in the library on outer space law and thought 'I didn't even know this existed'. I was intrigued that there had been a collective political effort to establish governance over ‘outer space’, as far back as the 1950s. What was this system of governance, and how did it come about? I was, and remain, intrigued by the way in which outer space as a political and philosophical realm seems to occupy the extremes of the human imagination: is it our shared humanity, collective future, noble scientific endeavours? Or the ultimate military high-ground, and political arena for prestige and power?

I started focusing on outer space law and that evolved through my master's and my PhD, to me being interested in why and how different entities come to coordinate for outer space, in particular looking at regimes – which is something that we teach on the IFP – and why countries have developed governance over celestial bodies. Now I've moved into also being interested in the ethics of colonisation and things like how we potentially represent ourselves in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Is there the possibility of future competition over the Moon’s resources?
Quite possibly, although I don't think that we should automatically assume that's the case. The international legal infrastructure is such that, technically, outer space is neutral territory – no nation state may lay sovereign claim to a celestial body. However, the United States in particular is driving a discussion about allowing the extraction of resources, most likely not for bringing back down to earth but for use in situ for further exploration. So I think it is likely to happen, but I personally think we should continue to push for this conversation to be discussed through the United Nations. 

The UK has so many amazing researchers, and I was just incredibly honoured that my application had been chosen amongst all of the others.

You were last year’s Margaret Mead Award Lecture winner for social sciences. What did it mean to you, professionally, to receive the award?
I knew that the LSE had nominated me for the Award, but to be honest when I won it I had a period of ‘fraud syndrome’: I felt the British Science Association had made a mistake of some sort in choosing me, or had mis-sent an email or something! The UK has so many amazing researchers, and I was just incredibly (and incredulously) honoured that my application had been chosen amongst all of the others.

However, once I got my head around it, I was thrilled. The Award was related specifically to my ability to communicate my research to the wider public. The focus of my Award Lecture, ‘Who Owns Outer Space’, became a proxy for communicating to public audiences about space politics and ethics. Conversely, I have used the subsequent public lectures as an opportunity to ask the wider public what they think about space exploration? I still crave that feedback from the wider public, and receiving the Margaret Mead Award has bolstered my interest and desire to continue with public engagement.

When I was granted this visa, friends found it amusing that, as an ‘Exceptional Talent Migrant’ I was an ‘ET Alien’. 

You're one of an elite number of people endorsed by the Home Office as an ‘Exceptionally Talented Migrant and World Leader’. What does that mean exactly?
I am no longer an ‘exceptional talent migrant’, given that as of February 2016 I have been upgraded to Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. This was granted after I proved that I have lived in the UK for ten years, and after I passed the UK citizenship test. (Sample question: how many jurors are on a Scottish jury?)

The visa in my passport however actually says ‘Exceptional Talent migrant’. When I was granted this visa, friends found it amusing that, as an ‘Exceptional Talent Migrant’ I was an ‘ET Alien’. In order to secure this visa, I had to show that I have a PhD; have held a fellowship at a UK research institution (the LSE, in my case); and was approved by my academic peers as a leader in my field of research.

Thumbnail
Watch a clip of Dr Stuart talking about 'The politics of outer space'.