Local Matters

I think I’ve caught up with most of the signficant things that happened during my travels, so I thought I’d end this series of updates with some local news from Cardiff (and Wales generally).

First, I can pass on some information relating to the  number of potential students applying to study Physics (and related subjects) this forthcoming academic year (2011/12) in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.  I blogged about this a few months ago when it became obvious that we were having a bumper year. As it turns out, we finished with applications up by a whopping 53% on last year.

Second, and related to the first item, the detailed allocations of university funding in Wales have finally filtered down all the way from HEFCW, through the Cardiff University management, and onto individual schools.  As it happens, this has also turned out not too badly for us here in Physics & Astronomy. For various reasons we’ve finally been given the increase in student numbers that we have been requesting for some time without success. In fact we’ve been given an extra 60 funded places, which is a significant uplift in our quota and a much-needed financial boost for the School. This has happened basically because of HECFW‘s desire to bolster STEM subjects as part of a range of measures related to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the regions.

Unfortunately the admissions team have so far been proceeding on the basis that demand would exceed supply for this year so has set our undergraduate offers rather high. In order to fill the extra places that have been given to us late in the day, even with our vastly increased application numbers we may have to go into the clearing system to recruit some of the extra bodies. We’ll have to wait until the A-level results come out in August, however, before we know what the situation really is.

It would have been a lot easier if we’d known the rules at the start of the game, rather than near the end, but that’s the way it goes when politicians start tinkering with things…

We will have to lay on extra tutorials and laboratory sessions to cope with the anticipated increase in student numbers, which will be a bit of a struggle, but the extra money they bring in should keep the wolf from the door for a while.

Another thing worth mentioning concerns research in Wales. In the run-up to the Welsh Assembly elections, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) produced a couple of interesting documents. One was about science policy in the devolved nations and the other was a comparison of STEM subjects across the UK.

These documents make it clear that Wales lags far beyond England and (particularly) Scotland in terms of investment in, and productivity of, its scientific research.  In its  recommendations for Wales, CASE included

    • The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales must increase its investment in research – as well as improving the research base directly, this investment should bring more success in winning competitive, UK-wide funding. The indirect costs of charitably funded research should continue to be covered.
    • Policies should continue to build up the critical mass of research through collaboration, including with overseas researchers or businesses.

As I reported recently, we (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have tried to persuade HECFW to fund a Welsh physics initiative, intended to achieve precisely what CASE suggests. Unfortunately HECFW turned our bid down. At least for the short term, additional investment in physics research is clearly not on the agenda for HEFCW.  There’s not much sign of it happening in the future either, but we will have to wait and see…

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3 Responses to “Local Matters”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    It is encouraging that applications for physics-based courses are healthy in some British universities.

    It is also good that physics-based courses at Cardiff University have had their quota of students increased.

    My initial response to the CASE report on science funding across the nations of the United Kingdom was one of surprise that Wales performs so poorly in attracting competitive funding compared to England and Scotland. I had been aware of a lag for years, but the large size of that lag was surprising. The main solution to that is for university departments in Wales to improve the quality of their applications for United Kingdom government grants, but that is a very tough task. It is particularly difficult when research activity is spread over a number of different, independent universities, most lacking a critical mass as research centres.

    It is very disappointing that HEFCW did not support the joint bid for funds from Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Swansea for a collaborative physics initiative. A critical weakness within the Welsh university sector is that research activities are spread too thinly. My own view is that it is a tragedy that the University of Wales has been weakened over the past decade because it could have provided a means to coordinate research across diverse institutions.

  2. Firstly, great blog.

    I guess I should comment here seeing as I have accepted a conditonal place to study physics at Cardiff.

    This is clearly great news, depsite the delightful city of Cardiff and the small and friendly physics department which I loved when visiting, one main caveat to firming a physics place at Cardiff (and indeed, this applies to Wales as a whole) was the apparent lack of funding from the HEFCW which left the Welsh physics departments lingering near the bottom of most league tables.

    However, I do find this news somewhat concerning, in that, one of the main benefits to studying Physics at Cardiff was, what seemed like, an almost family like department. I worry that, if the year group is increased by such a number without a meaningful increase in lecturers. The department will lose some of its charm and be crucified by the league table system (student/staff ratio). I also dropped out of university previously due to an impersonal atmosphere (there were alomst 300 in my year group!)

    Now I am no pro-vice-chancellor, and fairly ignorant when it comes to university funding, but would a better idea not be to, keep student numbers the same, or similar, keeping standards high and keeping the department small and friendly. While using the extra cash to fund better facilities, improve spend per student, improve student/staff ratio, offer more scholarships to under-privaledged/ very intelligent students etc etc.

    Cardiff as a university city is fantastic, as are the facilities and atmosphere at the department of Physics. It is quite puzzling why all this does lead to a better perfomance in national league tables.

    • telescoper Says:

      Will,

      The increase in student numbers is large – and very welcome to us – but it’s actually only about a 20% increase and will be phased in over two years. We’re talking about next year’s first year increasing to around 100. I don’t think it will change the student experience greatly. Incidentally, we’ve also just appointed four new lecturers too which will ensure we have ample extra staff to cope with the increased intake.

      The league tables are a constant mystery to us here in Cardiff, not least because the numbers don’t tally with our own figures and we don’t know how the newspapers get theirs! The Guardian table, for example, puts us low primarily because of something called “value added” which is calculated using an unfathomable formula that might as well just be a random number (which is what it probably is). Fortunately, most students are bright enough to realise that the league tables don’t really contain much useful information and that it’s best to check the place out for yourself.

      Peter

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