Loughborough Alumni

Our alumni

Matthew Flinders

Professor of Politics: University of Sheffield and Founding Director: Sir Bernard Crick Centre

Matthew graduated in 1994 with a BA in Modern European Studies. He now is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, and is also a political adviser to the House of Commons.

Why did you choose to study at Loughborough University?

I’m afraid it was for a very simple reason – I asked my college tutor which university had the best sporting reputation and facilities. He replied, "Loughborough", and that was that!

How has Loughborough University inspired and helped you to progress in your skills or career?

It provided a brilliant academic environment and a real sense of community. I enjoyed my studies, met lots of great people and had lots of fun in a safe and stimulating environment.

I still look back on my Loughborough years with great affection.

Would there be one piece of advice that you would give to current or prospective students looking to study the same course that you did?

I would suggest that learning a second language really is vital. I’d also recommend participating in as many placements and secondments as reasonably possible. 

The world has changed since I was an undergraduate and just getting a good degree is no longer enough to impress potential employers or even to go on to Graduate School.I’m also far more aware now of the ways in which embracing non-academic professional opportunities can feed into and support academic work.

Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities during your studies? If so, how did this impact upon your Loughborough experience?

I played a lot of rugby for the university and participated in lots of sports for my hall. To be honest, it was the fun and camaraderie that I gained from the sporting activities that really made the Loughborough experience for me.

I won’t miss the Wednesday afternoon coach trips all over the country, but I do miss the wonderful post-match nights in the Students' Union.

Can you tell us about your career journey so far?

After Loughborough I completed a PhD in political science at the University of Sheffield and was appointed to a permanent lectureship in 1999. Ten years later I was promoted to a full professorship and I’ve also been lucky enough to work for parliaments and governments all over the world.

I also do a lot of media work and have written and presented a number of documentaries for BBC Radio 4. I was Chairman of the Political Studies Association between 2014-2017 and before that was on the board of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

In 2018 I was appointed to the board of the Economic and Social Research Council and enjoy being able to play a role in shaping the research funding landscape and promoting the social sciences.

I’ve worked as a special adviser in both the House of Commons and House of Lords and currently serve as special adviser to the Restoration and Renewal Programme for the Palace of Westminster.

Can you tell us more about working on documentaries for the BBC?

The first documentary I wrote and presented for the BBC was a three-part series in 2012 called ‘In Defence of Politics’. The programme generated quite a lively debate and reached audiences all over the world. As an academic who had until then focused on writing for and communicating with a relatively narrow professional community it was really refreshing to be able to work in a more engaging and free-flowing manner.

The BBC sent me to elocution lessons which was quite funny but a complete waste of time! But overall I can’t have been too bad as I’ve done several more since, including one that focused on the relationship between comedy and politics and a quite recent one that focused on the lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education (unsurprisingly, this sparked quite a debate within universities in the UK and beyond).

At the moment I am working on my biggest-ever commission – a documentary on the tenth anniversary of the MPs expenses scandal. This will be broadcast on the 7 May 2019 and I’m busy whizzing all over the place to interview people.

The good thing about the BBC is that they have access to people that I could simply never get to meet as a solitary scholar; the challenging element is working to incredibly tight and stressful timescales – the media world really is very difficult for those in the academic sphere!

What does your role as a Political Adviser in the House of Commons involve?

It can depend on the nature of the specific role or task. If I am working as a special adviser to a select committee, then my role is generally to act as a facilitator so that the committee can access the very best available research on a given topic. I might also help arrange committee visits, offer my thoughts on a range of potential recommendations and even assist with writing-up the final report.

Working in the House of Commons demands a rather fleet-of-foot approach and the ability to adapt and respond at short notice. You also have to understand that as a special adviser you will also suddenly become the target of groups and organisations that think you may have some special influence as one of the ‘gatekeepers’ to the committee.

In reality, specials advisers are there to keep their heads below the parapet and to support committee members and committee staff in whatever ways they can.

Working in the House of Lords is a slightly different as peers often gravitate towards the membership of specific committees because they are recognised experts or leaders in that profession. As a result, serving as a special advisor to a committee in the Lords can be a really challenging but incredibly positive experience.

In my current role I am not working for a specific committee but am in fact supporting a programme of work that is developing the multi-billion pound plans for restoring and renewing the building in which parliament is currently based. My role is to act as a critical friend for the project and specifically to feed relevant research into the design phase of the project.

What does the future hold for you?

I’m not too sure.

So far, I have been able to develop a successful academic career while also forging a reputation in parliament and the media. Straddling professions like this is getting harder as the expectations and pressures on academics increases but at the same time I have no doubt that working beyond academe strengthens the standard of both my research and teaching, so we’ll have to see what happens.

I’m really enjoying my work as an ESRC Leadership Fellow within the newly established framework of UKRI and have a particular passion in relation to promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

The achievement I take most pleasure from is that I have supervised over 20 PhD students to completion. It is really rewarding to see the next generation of scholars coming through.

Find out more about Matthew's work

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