Results and Transfer Gossip

I had to skip the usual trip to the Poet’s Corner last night and go home early because the general state of fatigue I’ve been in suddenly morphed into a fever. I went home at 5, went straight to bed, and it was only Columbo’s frantic pawing that woke me up several hours later. I had not only missed a leaving party for Kate Isaak, who is now off to work for the European Space Agency, but also slept all the way through Newcastle United’s splendid 5-1 hammering of Cardiff City in last night’s Coca Cola Championship match at St James’ Park.

Despite home advantage, and the fact that Newcastle won the corresponding away fixture here in Cardiff, I thought this tie would be pretty difficult for Newcastle so I was overjoyed to see the result when I finally roused myself from feverish slumbers. It seems that Newcastle’s recent signings in the January transfer window actually came good, especially Wayne Routledge who gives the side a much-needed injection of pace down the wing. Cardiff City, on the other hand, didn’t buy any players at all because they need all the cash they’ve got to pay off an outstanding tax bill and thwart various winding-up orders that have been served on them. The turbulence behind the scenes seems to have worked its way onto the pitch: the blues are definitely the most erratic team in the division, winning 6-0 only a week or so ago and then getting thrashed 5-1 yesterday.

And just to make  my allegiances clear, I do have a soft spot for Cardiff City and do want to see them do well – except when they’re playing Newcastle. Once a Geordie, always a Geordie…

Results of a different kind were the topic of discussion around the School of Physics & Astronomy yesterday, as it was the official day for tutors to hand the results of the 1st semester exams to their tutees. It’s always great to see students leaving their tutor’s office with a big smile on their face, which happened rather a lot yesterday.  Some, of course, got more disappointing news, but to them I’d just say that it’s only half way through the year so there’s plenty of time to recover. Stick at it, and don’t let setbacks get you down.  I hope to see even more happy faces in June than I did yesterday….

Football teams like Cardiff City aren’t the only things to be enduring financial uncertainty these days, either. Even the Premiership clubs of the university sector are feeling the pinch. Many institutions around the country are planning departmental closures and redundancies, but you know it’s serious when it hits the big colleges in London. Last week University College (UCL) and Imperial both announced plans for large-scale layoffs, and this week they were joined by King’s College which plans to sack 205 academics, including 30 in the School of Physical Sciences and Engineering.

The background to all this is that the cuts announced by Lord Mandelson in December have now been officially passed on to English universities by HEFCE, but one suspects also that in some cases this is being used as a cover for other management decisions. Imperial, for example, is going ahead with the purchase of new property in Wood Lane for a cool £28 million at the same time as cutting academic positions costing a fraction of that.

Amid all the gloom, however, it is nice to be able to report some good news. Cardiff University was almost declared bankrupt in the 1980s when it failed to get to grips with the cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative  government which were similar in scale to those being implemented by New Labour. It was brought back from the brink, however, and since then has managed its finances with almost excessive caution. Other universities have scored spectacular successes in the League tables by spending money freely on fancy research initiatives and overseas campuses, but in the new reality of austerity Britain these may turn out to have been risky ventures.

By contrast, “Safe and Steady” has long been the motto in Cardiff. We might not have done brilliantly in the RAE but the insitution has an extremely sound financial base that should put it in as good position as any to withstand these difficult times. Moreover, we’ve just heard that the University management has agreed that the School of Physics & Astronomy can go ahead and make  four new academic appointments, and that these will be accompanied by substantial startup packages with which the new appointees can begin to equip their own laboratories. This involves a considerable investment in the School from the University’s central coffers and I think it’s fantastic news. I doubt if many UK universities are going to be investing so heavily in physics at this time, so this is an extremely welcome development. It’s always nice to buck the trend.

The adverts will be going out pretty soon, so the transfer window is about to open.  I look forward to meeting our new signings in due course, and I’m confident that they’ll help us climb up the League.

If only I could say the same for Cardiff City…

11 Responses to “Results and Transfer Gossip”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Perhaps student fees from the silly subjects should subsidise the real subjects? A rough definition of a silly subject is one that didn’t exist as an academic subject before the war (and probably still doesn’t in my view…)
    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      In the current system the government pays more than half the total fee received directly to the University, and the rest comes from the student. Many have argued the case that the government could make its funding do more for the national interest if it focussed only on a subset of subjects perceived to be important but which do not necessarily lead to huge future salaries. Individuals would still be free to pursue other courses, such as golf course management and surfing studies, but would have to pay the full cost themselves.

      The difficulty here is what to do with subjects such as law. This is undoubtedly a tough and intellectually rigorous discipline, but I think people do it so they can earn lots of money as lawyers when their graduate. Since they are the obvious beneficiaries of their training perhaps they should pay all rather than part of the cost too?

      Peter

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, funding folllowing the student is one reason why so many nonsense courses have proliferated, sometimes at the expense of real subjects that aren’t cheap.

    If government told the legal profession that it was ceasing to subsidise students taking law degrees, what do you think would happen? There are alrready dedicated “law schools” that top up law graduates, which are funded by the student or the profession, and I’ll bet that the legal profession would stump up a bit more to extend the scheme.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    The cuts in academic posts at Imperial College, University College London and King’s College London are deeply alarming. People should remember that these institutions scored strongly in the Research Assessment Exercise (which determines the level of government support for research in universities through the higher education budget), and Imperial and UCL achieved the some of the very best R.A.E. performances across the whole United Kingdom. If they have problems, what about the other universities which do not have so much research income?

    An interesting point connected to the Research Assessment Exercise is that many of the staff who will be lost are likely to have been included in the R.A.E., and consequently government funding is being given to university departments in recognition of the quality of the research done by the staff who will be axed. And when they go, the funding will continue. That is slightly odd.

    Cardiff University since it was formed in 2004 has indeed been cautious in its recruitment of staff, as was the old University of Wales College of Cardiff before that, as a consequence of the financial problems of University College Cardiff in the late 1980s. I was a postgraduate student at U.C.C. at that time and witnessed the financial collapse of the institution. The Principal at the time, Cecil Bevan, did not change financial policy to reflect the less generous government funding of the 1980s. He believed that the Thatcher government would not last and would be replaced by a government more generous to universities. That did not happen, and the debts of U.C.C. grew, helped by expenditure on some expensive college-wide telephone system. The financial difficulties worsened until everybody could see the day coming when the institution would not even be able to pay the interest on its debts: bankruptcy appeared to be approaching.

    University College Cardiff was founded in 1883, was one of the three institutions that formed the University of Wales in 1893, and was the largest university institution in Wales. That it came so closure shows the depth of the crisis, the failure of U.C.C. management, and the failure of government to protect universities more widely. I wondered at the time what I might do if my attempts to obtain a PhD failed because of the collapse of the university. I contemplated what kind of demonstration might be mounted on the steps of the Welsh Office next to U.C.C.

    One policy adopted by U.C.C. for a short time was the outright closure of six academic departments, as an emergency response to the crisis. This included the closure of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy. Astronomical research in Cardiff very nearly ended in 1988.

    Fortunately, a delegation from the University of Wales, among others, persuaded the British government to take action, and the University Grants Committee acted. It forced the merger between University College Cardiff and the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, adjacent institutions in Cardiff – a merger had been planned for years but no real progress had occurred. Some money was given to facilitate the merger, and a large loan was made. The subsequent cautious recruitment policy of the new, merged University of Wales College of Cardiff reflected the need to pay off the debts. Most of the astronomers in the Deparment of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy of U.C.C. moved to the Department of Physics of the new U.W.C.C., and the astronomers continue in Peter’s department in Cardiff University today. It is sobering that had the original policy not been reversed, there would be no astronomical research in Cardiff today.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Bryn

    I can’t speak with direct about King’s and Imperial, but what appears to have happened at some institutions is that they spent heavily to secure improvements in their RAE position, and succeeded, but the financial gain wasn’t as much as they expected. On top of that there are now big cuts to the recurrent grants, so they’ve now got severe cash problems.

    But I reiterate my opinion that some institutions also appear to be using these cuts as an excuse to carry out restructuring for their own purposes.

    However, whatever the reason, the job losses are indeed mounting. See this story in the Guardian.

    Incidentally, I have another fascinating snippet I came across in the Times Higher yesterday. British Higher Education recently passed an important milestone: the fraction of staff employed in Universities that are academics has now fallen below 50%. Perhaps the cuts in academic jobs are being made to pay for more managers?

    Peter

  5. “The difficulty here is what to do with subjects such as law. This is undoubtedly a tough and intellectually rigorous discipline, but I think people do it so they can earn lots of money as lawyers when their graduate. Since they are the obvious beneficiaries of their training perhaps they should pay all rather than part of the cost too?”

    There are many reasons not to go with such a system. First, who is to decide whether people choose a subject for money, out of interest or both? Second, if there is a progressive income-tax system, then those who earn more automatically pay more taxes and hence retroactively pay for their university training. Third, even an astronomy professor earns more than the average man in the street, so by this logic he should pay as well. Fourth, there are people who study law and then don’t earn much, working for a charity or whatever. The main reason, though, is that it violates equal opportunity, because in practice rich parents will pay the fees for their children while poor parents can’t afford to. Even if there is some sort of scheme where one pays back the fee a) after one has finished and b) only if one earns above a certain amount, it is still the case that the poor students will be in debt and the rich ones won’t. One of the purposes of state-funded education is equal opportunity. If we do away with that, we might as well go back to feudalism. Might as well start charging school children for fees, since they obviously earn more as a result of finishing school. (Some will say that this is different since school is obligatory, but consider that drivers are required to have liability insurance but still have to pay for it themselves, of course.)

  6. telescoper Says:

    Phillip,

    The counter to your argument is that not everyone who is a higher-rate taxpayer actually went to University. I think it would be farer to have a graduate tax for those who went on to get rich as a consequence of their state-funded education.

    When I went to University the fraction of school-leavers that did so was much smaller than today, but those that did had all their fees paid. Some, like me, were also eligible for maintenance grants too. The current regime requires students to pay a contribution to their fees, which is undoubtedly a deterrent to people from less wealthy backgrounds. However, it seems to me the real problem is the withdrawal of the grant in favour of a loan system, especially one that is run incompetently; many students still haven’t got their loans yet, and we’re 4 months into the academic year!

    I would prefer the re-introduction of full fee waivers and maintenance grants to enable bright students from poorer backgrounds to attend University, as long as they study a bona fide subject (such as physics, of course). It seems to me this would be a much wiser use of a state subsidy than the current system, which is wasting a lot of taxpayers money on Mickey Mouse subjects.

    Peter

  7. Yes, there are other rich people as well, but what is wrong with them financing universities as well?

    Grants for bright students from poor backgrounds is still discriminatory, because the rich get to go even if they are not bright. OK, that’s the case elsewhere as well, but I think that education is a chance society has to provide a measure of equal opportunity.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Nothing wrong with universities being funded out of general taxation, but that’s not the logic of your previous message, viz: “those who earn more automatically pay more taxes and hence retroactively pay for their university training”. Not if they didn’t have any they don’t.

    I’m merely pointing out that not everyone who goes to university gets rich and that not everyone who is rich went to university. Any system that assumes these things is bound to be unfair by one criterion or another.

    Richer students still have to pass their A-levels to get into University, but they have the advantage there because they probably went to private schools. But a fairer system would make them pay the full cost, not just a top-up fee, while those from less advantaged backgrounds got a helping hand. The current system is less favourable to the well-off than the previous one in terms of fees, but the removal of maintenance grants has further disadvantaged the rest.

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, there are too many managers in British universities, although a great many of the “non-academic” staff will be research staff, including post-doctoral researchers, many of whom do some teaching as well their research.

    I would say that there is one thing that universities can do to absorb reductions in government funding. We have too many universities in Britain, and many cities have two or three of them, competing against each other locally. Merging these could save a lot of money by cutting the duplication (or triplication) in management, and some degree of duplication in teaching commitments. It worked with U.C.C. and U.W.I.S.T. in Cardiff in the 1980s. It could work with nearby universities in many British cities today.

  10. telescoper Says:

    Bryn,

    There is one category for academic and research staff (“academic-related”) so postdocs are included in the <50% figure.

    Other than that, I agree with you.

    Peter

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