Da Capo

Last week was a most momentous week, a milestone in the continuing advance of my professional career. I have tasted power. Capo di Tutti Capi!

But only for three days.

Actually it wasn’t that great. All I had to do one sign one form, with the costings for a search grant for one of our physics professors. There was nothing to it. I didn’t even have to read it, and a pen was provided too.

The point is that almost everyone was away last week and, although I was off Monday and Tuesday touring with my folks, for the latter part of the week I was designated Head of School (in the absence of the actual Head, the Deputy Head, the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and the School Manager..). I’m clearly quite a long way down the line of inheritance.

One of the reasons everyone is taking their leave now is that the A-level results are due in next week and quite a few folks will have to be back for that, to deal with next academic year’s undergraduate admissions procedures. I’m not involved directly in this process but it’s very important for the School of course.

I always think the admissions system for Universities (UCAS) is very strange. If you were going to set up a system from scratch you certainly wouldn’t have made it the way it is. Universities are given quotas of students by the government (via the funding Councils) and this is passed on to each department as a recruitment target. The departments organize interviews, open days, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of admissions practice. They then make offers to selected students in terms of A-level grades. The students, for their part, do this for several universities, getting several offers, from which they accept one as their first-choice “Firm” offer and another, usually lower, as a second-choice  “Insurance”  offer. The students then wait for their A-level results to see if they get into either of their selected departments.

Although each department has a fixed target number to recruit, it is impossible to know exactly how many will make the grades that are offered. Departments generally make more offers than they have places because some will not make the grades. However, if the success rate is higher than expected (or, as the government would put it,  if educational standards continue to rise) the department has to take too many students in. If not enough students make their grades, near- misses might be accepted but generally it’s difficult to make up a shortfall at this late stage except by going into Clearing, a pool of applicants who didn’t make it into either of their two choices.

According to today’s Guardian, the government’s recent decision to put the brakes on university expansion, combined with an increased number of applicants for university places generated by the economic recession, means that many students are unlikely to get a place at all this year.

In physics nationally there has been a substantial increase in the number of applicants over the past few years, and my own department at Cardiff University is set to meet its quota quite comfortably and is unlikely to take any students from clearing. Applications are buoyant here, at least partly because Cardiff is such an interesting place to live and offers such a vibrant social scene for students. We’re also in a special position because we get many applications from prospective students inside Wales who want to remain here to study. Cardiff University is one of only three insitutions in Wales that offer physics degrees (Aberystwyth and Swansea being the other two).

We would like to be able to increase the number of students we recruit in order to finance expansion of our staff numbers, but given the freeze on funded places from the government we would have to take quota from other departments to do so. Whether the University will allow us to do this is not at all clear, although there are departments that struggle to fill their existing quotas. Whatever happens in future years, I hope there aren’t too many disappointments in store for prospective students next week when their A-level results land on their doormat.

Anyway, the fact that we’ve reached this time of year reminds me that the start of the new academic year is not far off, and the cycle of academic life is soon to start again.  Once more, from the top!

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