Archive for the Education Category

Freshers’ Week Reminiscences

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on September 13, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am again, on campus, on a Saturday, this time to attend some receptions for new students (“Freshers”) who have just arrived at the University of Sussex to start their courses. I always enjoy meeting the new intake at this time of year; we sometimes call them “The Autumn Collection”, although it’s only mid-September and definitely not autumn yet. In fact it’s very warm and sunny and summery on Falmer campus today. The  downside of these annual events is that the students look much younger every year, so every one makes me feel a lot older than the one before!

Looking through my back catalogue of blog posts I realize that this blog is six years old next week. One of my first blog posts was about  memories of my own first day at University and it seems appropriate to repeat some of it here. I notice actually that virtually all Freshers’ weeks I’ve written about over the past six years have been accompanied by fine weather. I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn. I did it 32 years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit” (whatever that is).

Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, for some time before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realized that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve had that feeling ever since, but after 32 years I think I’m used to it.

Newcastle Joins the Resurgence of UK Physics

Posted in Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 17, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve posted a couple of times about how Physics seems to undergoing a considerable resurgence in popularity at undergraduate level across the United Kingdom, with e.g. Lincoln University setting up a new programme. Now there’s further evidence in that Newcastle University has now decided to re-open its Physics course for 2015 entry.

The University of Newcastle had an undergraduate course in Physics until 2004 when it decided to close it down, apparently owing to lack of demand. They did carry on doing some physics research (in nanoscience, biophysics, optics and astronomy) but not within a standalone physics department. The mid-2000s were tough for UK physics,  and many departments were on the brink at that time. Reading, for example, closed its Physics department in 2006; there is talk that they might be starting again too.

The background to the Newcastle decision is that admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, a fact that could not have been imagined just ten years ago. Times were tough here at Sussex until relatively recently, but now we’re expanding on the back of increased student numbers and research successes. Indeed having just been through a very busy clearing and confirmation period at Sussex University, it is notable that its the science Schools that have generally done best.  Sussex has traditionally been viewed as basically a Liberal Arts College with some science departments; over 70% of the students here at present are not studying science subjects. With Mathematics this year overtaking English as the most popular A-level choice, this may well change the complexion of Sussex University relatively rapidly.

I’ve always felt that it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK “universities” with physics departments Call me old-fashioned, but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all; it’s particularly strange that a Russell Group university such as Newcastle should not offer a physics degree. I believe in the value of physics for its own sake as well as for the numerous wider benefits it offers society in terms of new technologies and skills. Although the opening of a new physics department will create more competition for the rest of us, I think it’s a very good thing for the subject and for the Higher Education sector general.

That said, it won’t be an easy task to restart an undergraduate physics programme in Newcastle, especially if it is intended to have as large an intake as most successful existing departments (i.e. well over 100 each year). Students will be applying in late 2014 or early 2015 for entry in September 2015. The problem is that the new course won’t figure in any of the league tables on which most potential students based their choice of university. They won’t have an NSS score either. Also their courses  will probably need some time before it can be accredited by the Institute of Physics (as most UK physics courses are).

There’s a lot of ground to make up, and my guess is that it will take some years to built up a significant intake.The University bosses will therefore have to be patient and be prepared to invest heavily in this initiative until it can break even. The decision a decade ago to cut physics doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they will be prepared to do this, but times have changed and so have the people at the helm so maybe that’s an unfair comment.

There are also difficulties on the research side (which is also vital for a proper undergraduate teaching programme), there are also difficulties. Grant funding is already spread very thin, and there is little sign of any improvement for the foreseeable future  in the “flat cash” situation we’re currently in. There’s also the stifling effect of theResearch Excellence Framework I’ve blogged about before. I don’t know whether Newcastle University intends to expand its staff numbers in Physics or just to rearrange existing staff into a new department, but if they do the former they will have to succeed against well-established competitors in an increasingly tight funding regime. A great deal of thought will have to go into deciding which areas of research to develop, especially as their main regional competitor, Durham University, is very strong in physics.

On the other hand, there are some positives, not least of which is that Newcastle is and has always been a very popular city for students (being of course the finest city in the whole world). These days funding follows students, so that could be a very powerful card if played wisely.

Anyway, these are all problems for other people to deal with. What I really wanted to do was to wish this new venture well and to congratulate Newcastle on rejoining the ranks of proper universities (i.e. ones with physics departments). Any others thinking of joining the club?

Sussex and the World Premier League of Physics

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2014 by telescoper

In the office again busy finishing off a few things before flying off for another conference (of which more anon).

Anyway, I thought I’d take a short break for a cup of tea and a go on the blog.

Today is the first day of the new Premiership season and , coincidentally, last week saw some good news about the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex in a different kind of league table.

The latest (2014) Academic Rankings of World Universities (often called the “Shanghai Rankings”) are out so, as I suspect many of my colleagues also did, I drilled down to look at the rankings of Physics departments.

Not surprisingly the top six (Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Caltech, & Stanford) are all based in the USA. The top British university is, also not surprisingly, Cambridge in 9th place. That’s the only UK university in the top ten for Physics. The other leading UK physics departments are: Manchester (13th), Imperial (15th), Edinburgh (20th), Durham (28th), Oxford (39th) and UCL (47th). I don’t think there will be any surprise that these all made it into the top 50 departments worldwide.

Just outside the top 50 in joint 51st place in the world is the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. For a relatively small department in a relatively small university this is a truly outstanding result. It puts the Department  clear in 8th place in the UK, ahead of Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester, Queen Mary, Nottingham, Southampton,  St Andrews, Lancaster, Glasgow, Sheffield and Warwick, all of whom made the top 200 in the world.

Incidentally, two of the other departments tied in 51st place are at Nagoya University in Japan (where I visited in January) and Copenhagen University in Denmark (where I’m going next week).

Although I have deep reservations about the usefulness of league tables, I’m not at all averse to using them as an excuse for a celebration and to help raise the profile of Physics and Astronomy at Sussex generally.  I’d therefore like to take the opportunity to offer hearty congratulations to the wonderful staff of the Department of Physics & Astronomy on their achievement. 

With the recent investments we’ve had and further plans for growth I hope over the next few years we can move even further up the rankings. Unless of course the methodology changes or we’re subect to a “random” (ie downward) fluctuation…

 

 

 

Do-It-Yourself Supernova Explosion

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 15, 2014 by telescoper

Visitors to the office of the Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex often remark upon the presence of these two objects and inquire as to their purpose:

Supernova

Since I don’t play golf and am a bit long in the tooth to be a fan of Peppa Pig, most assume that it must be for some strange astrophysical reason. I tried asking on Twitter what people think I use them for, and the most common answer was to demonstrate the relative size of the Earth and Moon. As Roy Walker would have said, “That’s a good answer, but it’s wrong”.

In fact I use the objects concerned to demonstrate what goes on when a star goes supernova.

The point is that a supernova explosion begins with gravitational collapse of the progenitor star, so why does that manifest itself as an explosion? The point is that the outer layers are blown off while the core collapses into a compact object such as a neutron star or, perhaps, a black hole.

The way to demonstrate this is first to balance the golf ball (representing the outer layers) on top of the beach ball; the air hole in the latter is a useful place to do this. You then lift the conjoined objects to a reasonable height and drop them onto the table or bench provided for such a purpose in a lecture theatre. The objects fall together under gravity until the beach ball hits the surface. You will find that the beach ball (representing the core) stops still while the golf ball (representing the outer shells) shoots upwards as most of the kinetic energy of the system is transferred to it during the bounce.

I think this is quite an effective demonstration, but I’d encourage inexperienced lecturers to note that there is a Health and Safety Issue, so it is necessary to carry out a risk assessment before attempting it. When I first did this during a lecture many years ago, I used a ball bearing rather than a golf ball and a fully-inflated and much larger beach ball instead of the more manageable (and slightly deflated) Peppa Pig one I now use. I told the students in the audience to watch carefully what happened and then dropped them as described above…

What happened in that case was that the ball bearing rocketed up so fast that it reached the ceiling and smashed into the lights above the lecturer’s bench, whereupon there was a very loud bang and I was showered with broken glass and other debris. I have to say that got the loudest round of applause I’ve ever had while lecturing, but it wasn’t exactly the effect I’d been hoping for.

But the real reason for posting today is to wish a very happy 65th birthday to supernova expert extraordinaire and occasional reader of this blog, Robert Kirshner of Harvard University, who has celebrating along with a number of my astro-chums at a conference in Australia.

Many happy returns, Bob!

Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Students on Clearing!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 14, 2014 by telescoper

Got your A-level results? Not made your first-choice University? My advice is:

1-dont-panic

We still some have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring?

As a matter of fact, I’ll be around myself from 8am this morning to talk to interested students!

Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!

Mathematics at Sussex: the videos!

Posted in Education on August 13, 2014 by telescoper

I recently posted a couple of videos illustrating some aspects of our undergraduate teaching in the Department of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex. Since I’m Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, which encompasses Mathematics and Statistics as well as Physics & Astronomy, I thought I’d redress the balance with a couple of similar clips featuring mathematicians to give an idea of what students in the Department of Mathematics get up to.

First up is George Simpson, who graduated from Sussex this year with a (4-year) MMath and who is going to start a PhD here at the end of the summer:

And this is Hayley Wragg, a current MMath student, who is talking about her work as a Junior Research Associate in Mathematics:

Incidentally there is a vibrant and active Mathematics Society at Sussex, the University of Sussex Mathematics Society (SUMS). I’m not sure what the acronym is for Brighton University Mathematics Society…

Higher Education Funding: A Modest Proposal

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2014 by telescoper

With next year’s general election already looming there are signs that the higher education funding system is likely to be a hot topic. The Conservatives, for example, are reportedly considering removing the cap on tuition fees (currently set at £9K per annum) while Labour is talking about reducing the figure to £6K. Labour’s idea is likely to prove popular among potential students, it will result in a reduction of fee income to English universities of a third, potentially leading to wholesale redundancies and closures unless it is offset by an increased contribution from the taxpayer to offset this cut. Responsibility for higher education funding in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is devolved, so Westminster policy does not apply directly there although the knock-on effect of changes in England would be considerable given the number of students who choose to study away from home.

The backdrop to these suggested policy changes is the obvious fact that the current system is unsustainable. Although there has not been a marked reduction in numbers of students applying to university since the introduction of tuition fees, it has become increasingly clear that the system of loans and deferred fees is actually costing the Exchequer more in terms of short-term borrowing than the old system. Moreover, there is a growing realization that the fraction of this cost that will actually be recouped in future is going to be much smaller than its advocates would like to admit. Recent estimates, likely to be revised upwards, suggest that 45% of student loans will never be repaid.

On top of this there is the problem that the so-called “elite” universities have not succeeded in “widening participation” (as the phrase goes). Oxford and Cambridge both continue to take about 40% of their pupils from private schools; many other institutions. My own institution, the University of Sussex, takes about 86% of its intake from state schools, which is about the average across the sector.

Although only a small fraction of pupils (about 7%) attend (private) independent schools, about 65% of those go on to University; only 24% from the state sector do. In my opinion, not all universities take widening participation seriously but even if they do (like we do at Sussex) it is difficult for higher education institutions to repair the divisions that arise much earlier in the education system.

The average fee per term for a day pupil at a private school in the UK is about £3400; this rises to about £7800 per term for boarding schools. Since there are three school terms per year this means that the average cost per year for day pupils is £10,200, well above the £9000 per year maximum fee for university tuition. That says a lot for how poorly funded UK universities really are, even with increased tuition fees, especially in STEM subjects which require expensive laboratories and other facilities. Moreover, private school fees are payable upfront while tuition fees for students in higher education are funded by heavily subsidized loans which do not need to be repaid until the student is earning more than a certain minimum salary (currently £21K pa).

When funding is tight it is particularly important that it should be targetted where it is needed most. For me that means to encourage more students from state schools to go to university. The principle I’d adopt here (and indeed in many other contexts) is encapsulated in the phrase “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability”.

Parents who have decided to send their offspring to private schools have, in my view, already demonstrated that they can afford to contribute to their education at a level considerably higher than the current tuition fee for university students. In such cases there is no need for a means test to determine whether they need support from the taxpayer; they have already done that calculation for themselves.

My proposal, therefore, is that students whose parents have decided to take their children out of the state school system should be deemed to be ineligible for state support for higher education. They should therefore pay the full fees upfront. I think there’s a case even for making such students pay for the full cost of their education which is not the £9K fee payable by Home/EU but the much higher fee charged to students from outside the EU, which is currently £17K at the University of Sussex. The money saved in this way should be used to provide better fee waivers and and maintenance grants for students from the state school system (on a means-tested basis). This could be accomplished by, e.g., a system of vouchers available to students from state schools in England; the rest of the UK could adopt a similar system if they wish. This would also be a step towards reducing the incentive for families to increase social divisions by taking their children out of the state system.

As well as driving greater equality and stimulating social mobility, my suggestion would also correct a number of anomalies in the existing system. One is that students attending English universities who went to Schools elsewhere in Europe (including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are entitled to the same financial support as English students. However, most students from outside the UK will return home after graduation and there is no effective means of making them pay back their fees and loans because these are currently recovered through the UK tax system. In effect, therefore, the taxpayer is providing free higher education for these students and it is one of the reason why the default rate on student loans is likely to be very high. In my proposal this loophole would be sealed; unless a student went to an English state school they would not have the means to access HEFCE support.

I have heard it said that this idea would remove choice. I don’t agree. Parents will still have the choice of sending their sons and daughters to private school if they wish. What it will do is remove part of the incentive for them to do that.

Across the UK over 80% of university students are from state schools, so the measure I suggest will not on its own solve the University funding crisis. On the other hand, I think it would at least be fairer than the current system. On the other hand, I’m not sure fairness counts for very much these days…

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