Archive for November, 2011

Everybody Knows…

Posted in Music, Politics with tags , on November 30, 2011 by telescoper


For all the Saints who from their Labours Rest

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , on November 30, 2011 by telescoper

This morning’s hymn is Sine Nomine, No. 641 from the English Hymnal, and is chosen in honour of all those participating in today’s public sector pension strikes.

Yancey Stomp

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on November 29, 2011 by telescoper

A bastard of a busy day has turned into a wild and windswept night with not infrequent drenching downpours for good measure.  I’m too tired for a proper blog so I thought I’d share a little bit of classic piano jazz with you to warm the cockles of your heart, if you have any. This is by the great blues player Jimmy Yancey who had his own unique style of boogie-woogie, specialising in sort of habanera (or tango) rhythms at slow tempo  and in lop-sidedly limping, but extremely propulsive, left-hand figures on upbeat numbers like this one, called Yancey Stomp, which goes like the clappers. Stay warm!


Admissions Latest

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by telescoper

Only time for a short post today, so I thought I’d just pass on a link to the latest  Higher Education application  statistics, as reported by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

It’s still several weeks before the UCAS deadline closes in January so it’s too early to see exactly what is happening, but the figures do nevertheless make interesting reading.

The total number of applications nationally  is down by 12.9% on last year, but the number of  applications from UK domiciled students has fallen by 15.1%; an increase in applications from non-EU students is responsible for the difference in these figures.

Non-science subjects seem to be suffering the biggest falls in application numbers; physical sciences are doing better than average, but still face a drop of 7% in numbers. Anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from chatting to Physics & Astronomy colleagues is that some departments are doing very well, even increasing on last year, while others are significantly down. It is, however, far too early to tell how these numbers will translate into bums on seats in lecture theatres.

A particular concern for us here in Wales are the statistics of applications to Welsh universities.  The number of English-domiciled applicants to Welsh universities is down by 17.4% while the number of Welsh applicants to Welsh universities is down by 15.2%. On the other hand, the number of Welsh applicants to English universities is down by just 5.3%.

The pattern of cross-border applications is particularly important for Welsh Higher Education  because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of subsidizing Welsh-domiciled students wherever they study in the United Kingdom, a policy which is generous to students but which is paid for by large cuts in direct university funding.  The more students take the WAG subsidy out of Wales, the larger will be the cuts in grants to Welsh HEIs.

Moreover, in the past, about 40% of the students in Welsh universities come from England.  If the fee income from incoming English students is significantly reduced relative to the subsidy paid to outgoing Welsh students then the consequences for the financial health of Welsh universities are even more dire.

Although it is early days the figures as they stand certainly suggest the possibility that the  number of Welsh students  studying in England will increase both relative to the number staying in Wales and relative to the number of English students coming to study in Wales. Both these factors  will lead to a net transfer of funds from Welsh Higher Education Institutions to their English counterparts.   I think the policy behind this is simply idiotic, but by the time the WAG works this out it may be too late.

Another interesting wrinkle on the WAG’s policy can be found in a piece in last week’s Times Higher. We’re used to the idea that people might relocate to areas where schools or  local services are better or cheaper, but consider the incentives on an English  family who are thinking of the cost of sending their offspring to University. The obvious thing for them  to do is to relocate to Wales in order to collect the WAG subsidy which they can then spend sending their little dears to university in England. That will save them tens of thousands of pounds per student, all taken directly from the Welsh Higher Education budget and paid into to the coffers of an English university.

There are already dark rumours circulating that the WAG subsidy will turn out to be so expensive that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is thinking of cancelling all its research funding. That means that Welsh universities face the prospect of having to take part in the burdensome Research Excellence Framework, in competition with much better funded English and Scottish rivals, but getting precisely no QR funding at the end of it.

And all this is because the Welsh Assembly Government wants to hand a huge chunk of its budget back to England. Is this how devolution is supposed to work? Madness.

R.I.P. Gary Speed

Posted in Football with tags , , , , on November 27, 2011 by telescoper

I’m overwhelmed with sadness at the news that Wales football manager Gary Speed has died at the age of only 42, having apparently taken his own life. This news is all the more devastating because it was so unexpected, at least to those of us who don’t know the circumstances of his private life. This is neither the time nor the place to speculate about what might have driven him to suicide, but it is time to pay tribute to an extremely talented player who, in the results of recent months, was beginning to show what great potential he had as a manager of the Welsh National Team. More importantly, and however feeble a gesture it must be at such a time, I’d like to express my deep condolences to his family and close friends. I can’t imagine what a terrible ordeal they must be going through. I only hope that time will bring them consolation, and some form of peace.

It is as a player for the club I follow, Newcastle United, that I will remember Gary Speed best. He joined the club in 1998 and was a mainstay of Bobby Robson’s team until he left in 2004. Rarely troubled by injury,  he was a fine attacking midfielder, especially strong in the air,  with a good goalscoring record, and was a firm favourite with the fans on Tyneside for his skill and commitment.

Rest in Peace, Gary Speed (1969-2011).

All You Who Sleep Tonight

Posted in Poetry with tags , on November 26, 2011 by telescoper

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –

Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

by Vikram Seth.


The Unprofessional Professors

Posted in Education with tags , , , on November 26, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been so preoccupied with other things over the past week or so that I haven’t had time until now to comment on an article I saw in last week’s  Times Higher about the role of a Professor in a modern university; there’s also an accompanying editorial in the same issue although, as is usual for editorials in the Times Higher, it doesn’t actually say anything that adds to the original piece.

People outside academia probably wonder what makes a Professor different from a Lecturer or Reader, apart from being older and getting paid a bit more. Undergraduate students probably wonder even more because they don’t see any obvious evidence that Prof. X is any better at teaching than plain Dr. Y. Quite possibly the reverse, in fact.

If you look at the contract of a Professor you won’t find that helps much either. Mine just says words to the effect that I should do whatever the Head of School asks me to do. In my case I have no complaints. I do teaching (lecturing, project supervision, tutorials, exercise classes), administration (various committees, and Director of Postgraduate Studies) and research (including supervising PhD students and a PDRA, publishing papers, etc) and I also do a few things outside the University such as STFC panels. I’m not complaining at all about this workload, for which  consider myself to be quite well paid. What I find difficult is swapping between so many different tasks even during the course of a single day, and I am all too aware that things  do sometimes fall through the cracks.

The criteria for promotion to the rank of Professor (i.e. to a “Chair”)  operated by most universities generally state that a professor must excel at teaching, administration and research. This provides for even greater mystification when you look around the average department because you’ll find many – probably even a majority – who couldn’t administer the skin on a rice pudding, and who make only derisory attempts to teach. These are the ones who have done it all on research, which in reality easily trumps the other two. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: there are teaching, administration and research but the greatest of these is research. In fact the others don’t matter much at all.

The point is, at least in physics, that current levels of funding for undergraduate teaching mean that departments are financially unviable if they rely on undergraduate teaching as their primary source of income. It’s therefore inevitable that the primary criterion for appointing and retaining staff is their ability to win research grants and be a star performer in the REF. Indeed, many promotions to Chair happen when a member of staff threatens to leave, and take  their research grants and publication statistics with them. Furious negotiations then take place, a promotion to Chair ensues, and more likely than not a reduced teaching and administration load for the newly minted Prof.  Of course this means the load for someone  else has to go up. And if they are given management tasks to do, the Prof will manage the workload by simply not doing it, letting everything fall to bits until the job is allocated to someone else. Likewise with teaching: if you do it so badly that the students fail their exams or complain that you’re useless, you’ll just find your courses are given to someone else and you have more time to indulge your research interests. Studied incompetence is the ally of selfishness. It actually pays to be bad.

This is such a successful strategy that many departments now have as many professors as other teaching staff, if not more, a significant fraction of whom shirk their adminstrative duties and make little effort to teach well. Why should they? They know that as long as they hold onto their research grants they are indispensible, no matter how much strain they put on their colleagues. You might argue that this is unprofessional conduct, but there’s no question that it works.

Given this state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that junior staff complain that their professors don’t show sufficient leadership and don’t take an active role in mentoring younger staff.  Selfishness pays. How many leaders can a department sustain anyway? If 2/3 of the staff are professors can they all be leaders? Who will follow?

I’ll get into trouble if I name individuals in my department – they know who they are – but I’m sure people in other universities recognize the same thing in their own departments. The situation won’t change until a funding regime is put in place that requires departments to prove commitment to excellence in teaching in the same way that they do for research. Then promotions panels might actually start to follow  their own published criteria instead of doing what they do now, which is nothing short of systematic hypocrisy.