Notes from Maynooth

A few people have asked me to comment a little bit on difference between Higher Education Institutes in the United Kingdom and here in Ireland from the point of view of teaching and learning. I can’t do that systematically of course because I’ve only ever been at one University in Ireland, Maynooth, and that for only a year. I have however held positions that involved teaching in several UK universities (Queen Mary, Nottingham, Cardiff and Sussex) so perhaps some comments based on my own experiences might be useful. And of course I’m just talking about Theoretical Physics here, so I won’t discuss labs. It’s a very big selling point for our Theoretical Physics courses here that students don’t have to do labs (apart from Computational Physics labs, of course).

To start with something rather trivial, the `load’ for a student in most UK universities is usually 120 credits while here in Ireland it is 60. The actual workload expected of a student is the same so this just means there’s an exchange rate of 2:1 between the UK and Ireland. In the UK the load is usually split into two equal semesters with examinations in January and May after each. In the UK the 60 credits of each semester is usually split into modules. In my experience in physics these can be either 10 or 20 credits (e.g. Cardiff) or 15 credits (e.g. Sussex). The standard size here in Maynooth is 5 credits (equivalent to 10 in the UK), so most comparisons will be with a standard 10-credit module based on the Cardiff model (which I think is more common than the Sussex model).

What goes into these standard modules differs slightly. Here in Maynooth there are twelve teaching weeks per semester plus a `Study Week’ half way through, so each is 13 weeks long. For a 5-credit module there are usually two lectures per week (so 24 in total, as there are no lectures in Study Week). On top of this there are weekly tutorials (usually done by PhD students). In Cardiff there are also 2 lectures a week for the directly comparable 10 credit module, though not all modules have tutorials associated with them. There is no mid-term Study Week in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff and teaching term is only 11 weeks, so students typically have 22 lectures in a `standard’ module.

Continually-assessed coursework at Maynooth typically counts for 20% of a module mark (as it does in Cardiff), with 80% on an examination. In both Cardiff and Maynooth a `standard’ module has a two-hour examination at the end, but there’s a big difference in style: most of the papers in Maynooth require students to answer all the questions for full marks, whereas in Cardiff it’s two out of three or three out of four (usually). The Maynooth style makes it much harder for students to question-spot.

In summary, then, the amount of contact time for a student in Maynooth is greater than in Cardiff. The student-staff ratio in the Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth is about 15, which is a little higher than most UK physics departments (see Table here). There are only 7 full-time academic staff with full curriculum to deliver, means that teaching loads here are quite heavy compared to the UK.
Four modules per year is typical.

That might seem a lot to some people, but I actually enjoy teaching so don’t mind at all. In fact, with the mountain of administrative stuff I had to do at Sussex, it was only the fact that I taught a full module (on Theoretical Physics) that kept me (partially) sane. This year I shall be teaching, in the Autumn Semester, a 4th-year module on Astrophysics & Cosmology and a 2nd-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series and, in the Spring Semest, 3rd-year Computational Physics 1 (again) and Engineering Mathematics (for First-year engineers). I’m not sure what to expect of that last one, but I’m not going to think about it until the New Year.

Most of our students do a four-year Bachelors programme in Science (as discussed briefly here) with a very general first year. Some, however, come directly into a programme called Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (TP&M, for short) which is three-year fast-track degree. It’s harder to get into TP&M than the `Omnibus’ Science course, but it does attract some very capable students.

I should mention that the really big difference between Ireland and the UK is that the system of teaching and learning here is much less centralized and much less rigid that UK universities. The small size of the Department means that it is possible to know all the students by name and students with difficulties can always find someone to talk to. That is increasingly not the case in UK universities, which are rapidly turning into teaching factories and are subject to the pressure to do well in league tables (often with a negative impact on teaching quality).

Subject to some conditions, first-time full-time undergraduate students in `Third-level’ education in Ireland do not pay tuition fees as such, and neither do students from other EU or EEA countries. There is however an annual ‘student contribution’ of €3000 which all students pay (unless they have a grant that covers it). As far as I can see, that is effectively a fee, though it is supposed to cover student services (e.g. libraries) and examinations rather than tuition. Students taking repeat examinations generally have to pay extra for them. If you consider the `student contribution’ to be a fee (which is effectively what it is) then the Irish funding system is similar to the pre-2012 UK system, i.e. before the introduction of the current £9K fee.

Finally, one of the most striking differences between Ireland and the UK is that here a much higher proportion of students live at home with their parents while studying and commute into campus daily (some of them from quite a distance). That is quite unusual in the UK, but is fairly typical in other EU countries (e.g. Italy). The cost of accommodation is undoubtedly a factor, but I think it’s also a more general cultural thing. I’ve also noticed something here that I’ve never seen in the UK, which is that some student accommodation is let on a Monday-Friday basis, the tenant being expected to go back to the parental home at the weekends. On Fridays in term-time, you can see quite a lot of students with their bags waiting for coaches or trains to take them away for the weekend…

In a future post I might comment on non-academic differences between Ireland and the UK (e.g. tax, public services, cost of living, etc) but I think that will do for now.

20 Responses to “Notes from Maynooth”

  1. A lack of lab is not a good thing in a physics education. Theoretical physicist still benefit from understanding experiments, and lab adds a lot to employability. Students seem to be afraid of lab but that is itself not a good reason to leave it out. Labs are expensive and it is easier for departments not to have one. But the absence of a lab component should be seen as a weakness, not a strength.

    Many of the lab experiments are rather old fashioned (outdated?). But perhaps that s true of some theoretical physics as well.

    • telescoper Says:

      Students at Maynooth can choose Experimental Physics as a separate subject or in combination with Theoretical Physics. There are labs in the curriculum for that subject choice.
      Until relatively recently Theoretical Physics at Maynooth was called
      Mathematical Physics and was essentially part of the Mathematics Department. Although we’re now in the same building as Experimental Physics, there relatively little interaction between the two departments. I hope that changes.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    How’s OJA coming along now you are running it from Maynooth? I wish it every success.

    • As it happens I’ve spent most of this week working on this. There have been a few false dawns already so I am not going to make a big announcement until it is relaunched, but I can say that Maynooth University is enthusiastically behind this project and has provided a lot of support, especially from the digital publications team at the Library. They want to run similar overlay journals sitting on institutional repositories rather the arXiv and see this is as a useful pilot. Officially the publisher of OJA will be the newly created Maynooth University Press.

      Well be moving onto a new version of the platform soon and should be able to relaunch on a timescale of weeks (although the start of teaching term might interfere a bit).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Good luck. it’s a fine thing you are doing.

      • Maynooth’s `Research Week’ is the week beginning 8th October, and we’re going to try to launch the journal fully then. I’m scheduled to give a public talk during that week.

      • So OJA will still be an arXiv-overlay journal?

        We need a poll: Who works at an institution which discourages or even forbids posting stuff to arXiv before acceptance? At least for those people, the OJA will need at least an alternative submission scheme, or it will exclude some people (most of whom have no say in said policy).

        What about editors, board members, etc? Where will they publish? If they publish in OJA, this could be seen as vanity publishing. If not, it seems like they don’t support it. Perhaps a compromise would be that they publish only in places where access is at least as open as at OJA, both for readers (access credentials and/or fees) and authors (fees).

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, it’s an arXiv overlay journal. I’m not aware of any institution that has a policy on arXiv submissions. It’s left to individual researchers or collaborations to determine their policy.

        Editors can publish in OJA if they wish, just like editors of any other journal can. Editors can not oversee their own papers, of course. Papers tend to have more than one author, of course, so the choice of journal has to be decided by the authors collectively.

      • When I was at Jodrell Bank—admittedly 20 years ago—the policy was that stuff went to arXiv only after acceptance; special dispensation could be granted by the Director if one could make a good case. I actually think that this is a good idea, at least in some cases. Yes, sometimes people like comments before submission. But sometimes it can be a disadvantage to put something on arXiv before it has been accepted.

        This was even though Jodrell Bank had (still has?) an internal refereeing system, i.e. every paper had to go through two internal referees, one of whom was selected at random from the academic staff and the other was Graham Smith (a.k.a. former Astronomer Royal, former RGO director, former NRAL director, book author, noted humanist, former RI Christmas lecturer, and all-round nice chap Sir Francis Graham-Smith, FRS).

        Although not representative, a poll might reveal similar policies elsewhere.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip, I respect your freedom to differ but you have consistently been mildly negative about OJA here, and I think that Peter’s attempt to put words into action about getting out from under the academic publishing ripoff now that the internet offers a means is something that should strongly be supported.

      • Negative? I’ve wondered from time to time when it will finally be properly launched, but I think that that is a legitimate question. Like practical fusion power, it’s been “real soon now” for a long time. Yes, I realize that Hofstadter’s Law probably applies here, and Peter mentioned that he wanted to keep it under wraps until it really takes off, while still noting that it is still alive, which is fine.

        I think I even offered to host it once.

        But negative? I would really like it to succeed. I think the only point of disagreement is the total reliance on arXiv. Yes, I think arXiv is stable enough, but a) as I mentioned at least one institute did have a policy of waiting for acceptance before going to arXiv, which means that people adhering to that couldn’t use OJA, and b) it is not straightforward for people to submit to arXiv for the first time. Yes, there is the endorsement system, but this works only with friends of friends and so on. Also, c) in some cases, arXiv agrees to accepting something only after a respectable journal has accepted it.

        All of these problems could be solved by having an additional submission mechanism, which means that arXiv could still be the default. The number of papers submitted by this alternate channel would be very small, probably not worth the trouble to set up some web interface or whatever: just an email address where a PDF file can be sent. I’ll even volunteer to screen such papers, rejecting obvious crackpot stuff, and passing the others on to a referee (alas, I don’t have time at the moment to referee all such submissions, and perhaps not the knowledge to do so, depending on the subject).

        Since arXiv will presumably be the sole distribution mechanism, perhaps an agreement could be reached that any paper accepted by the OJA would automatically be allowed on arXiv (without any commitment to allow other arXiv submissions by the same author(s).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Perhaps your caveats sounded louder than your enthusiasm in the past; I’m very glad that you are pro it!

  3. You say: `Third-level’ education in Ireland do not pay fees
    Let’s call a duck a duck: the fees are 3000 euros per annum in Ireland

    • Yes, I added that paragraph as an afterthought and somehow it didn’t get fully updated before publication.

      Officually the `student contribution’ is not a `tuition fee’ as such but I agree that to all intents and purposes that’s really what it is.

      • It’s true, but a significant number of students are awarded a grant to cover the ‘fee’ costs and/or maintenance. In Galway that’s over 40% of the student population.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes the biggest disaster in the UK was not, in my opinion, the introduction of fees but the withdrawal of maintenance grants.

      • If a significant fraction of the students get grants to pay their fees, why not just do away with the fees, cut out the middleman, since the money comes from the state anyway? There is a lot of administrative work, which is essentially with no benefit in such a case, for the universities, for the sources of grants, and for the students.

        I’ve never heard a good argument in favour of fees. Any problems which fees allegedly solved can be solved better by other means.

  4. Peter: request to keep OJA an arxiv overlay journal and not to change it from original model

    • It will definitely remain an arXiv overlay journal.

      • I agree that this is the best system, but I think that some additional, alternative submission route is needed. At least try to find out who would submit to OJA but, for whatever reason, would prefer not to see his paper (or, rather, prefer that no-one else sees it) on arXiv before acceptance.

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