Archive for the Education Category

Essays in Physics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by telescoper

In the course of a rare episode of tidying-up in my office I came across this. You can click on it to make it bigger if it’s difficult to read. It was the first paper of my finals examination at the University of Cambridge way back in 1985. Yes, that really was thirty years ago…

wpid-wp-1425648226410.jpeg

As you can probably infer from the little circle around number 4, I decided to write an Essay about topic 4. I’ve always been interested in detective stories so this was an easy choice for me, but I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for three hours. Nor do I recall actually ever getting a mark for the essay, so I never really knew whether it really counted for anything. I do remember, however, that I had another 3-hour examination in the afternoon of the same day, two three-hour examinations the following day, and would have had two the day after that had I not elected to do a theory project which let me off one paper at the end.

I survived this rigorous diet of examinations (more-or-less) and later that year moved to Sussex to start my DPhil, returning here couple of years ago as Head of the same School in which I did my graduate studies. To add further proof that the universe is cyclic, this year I’ve taken on the job of being External Examiner for physics at the University of Cambridge, the same place I did my undergraduate studies.

Anyway, to get back to the essay paper, we certainly don’t set essay examinations like that here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex and I suspect they no longer do so in the Department of Physics at Cambridge. I don’t really see the point of making students write such things under examination conditions. On the other hand, I do have an essay as part of the coursework in my 2nd Year Theoretical Physics module. That may seem surprising and I’m not sure the students like the idea, but the reason for having it is that theoretical physics students don’t do experimental work in the second year so they don’t get the chance to develop their writing skills through lab reports. The essay titles I set are much more specific than those listed in the paper above and linked very closely to the topics covered in the lectures, but it’s still an opportunity for physics students to practice writing and getting some feedback on their efforts. Incidentally, some of the submissions last year were outstandingly good and I’m actually quite looking forward to reading this year’s crop!

How Labour’s Tuition Fee Proposals Should Be Implemented

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by telescoper

The big news today is Ed Milliband’s announcement that, if elected, the Labour Party would cut the maximum tuition fee payable by students in English universities from £9K to £6K. That will of course be broadly welcomed by prospective students (and indeed current ones, whose fees will be reduced from 2016 onwards). There is however considerable nervousness around the university sector about whether and how the cut of 33% in fee income will be made good. The proposal seems to be that the shortfall of around £3bn will be made up by grants from government to universities, funded by a reduction in tax relief on pension contributions made by high earners.  I have yet to see any concrete proposals on how these grants would be allocated.

I would like here to make a proposal on how this allocation should be done, in such a way that it corrects a serious anomaly in how the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) affect Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For the record, I’ll declare my interest in this: I work in a STEM area and am therefore biased.

I’ll explain my reasoning by going back a few years. Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees in 2012  (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:

Budgets

In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that. A recent report states that the real cost of teaching for Law and Sociology is less than £6000 per student, consistent with the level of funding under the “old” fee regime; teaching in STEM disciplines on the other hand actually costs over £11k. What this means, in effect, is that Arts and Humanities students are cross-subsidising STEM students. That’s neither fair nor transparent.

In my School, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483, a percentage difference of just 16.4%. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated. In most universities, though gladly not mine, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the higher  fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%.

Now there’s a chance to reverse this bias and provide an incentive for universities to support STEM subjects. My proposal is simple: the government grants proposed to offset the loss of tuition fee income should be focussed on STEM disciplines. Income to universities from students in, especially laboratory-based subjects, could then be raised to about £12K, adequate to cover the real cost of teaching, whereas that in the less onerous Arts and Humanities could be fixed at about about £6K, again sufficient to cover the actual cost of teaching but funded by fees only.

I want to make it very clear that I am not saying that non-STEM subjects are of lower value, just that they cost less to teach.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a totally unscientific poll to see what readers of this blog make of the Labour proposals:

The Welsh University Funding Debacle Continues…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on February 24, 2015 by telescoper

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. I noticed yet another news item on the BBC a week or so ago as a kind of update to another one published a few years ago about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border the fee subsidy costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

According to the latest news story on this, the initial estimate of £50M estimate grew first to £77M and is now put at a figure closer to £90M.

I did in fact make exactly the same point about five years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming clearer. The Chief Executive of Welsh university funding agency HEFCW, Dr David Blaney, is quoted as saying

“…in England, English students have to get a loan, so the top universities there have £9,000 coming from each student and also funding from the funding council.

In Wales, a lot of the funding council funding is now spent on the tuition fee grant and that means there’s less money available to invest in the Welsh sector than is the case in England,” he told BBC Wales in an exclusive interview.”

This also mirrors a concern I’ve also discussed in a blog post, which is that the Welsh Government policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy, though whether an imminent General Election makes that more or less likely is hard to say.

Funding for Masters in Science

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2015 by telescoper

My recent post about postgraduate scholarships at the University of Sussex has generated quite a lot of interest so I thought I’d spend a few moments today trying to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked recently, by current and prospective students (or parents thereof).

I’ll start by explaining what the difference is between the different forms of Masters degrees in science that you can get in the United Kingdom, chiefly the distinction between an MSc  and one of the variations on the MPhys or MMath we have here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex. I have to admit that it’s all very confusing so here’s my attempt to explain.

The main distinction is that the MSc “Master of Science” is a (taught) postgraduate (PG) degree, usually of one (calendar) year’s duration, whereas the MPhys etc are undergraduate (UG) degrees usually lasting 4 years. This means that students wanting to do an MSc must already have completed a degree programme (and usually have been awarded at least Second Class Honours)  before starting an MSc whereas those doing the MPhys do not.

Undergraduate students wanting to do Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, for example, can opt for either the 3-year BSc or the 4-year MPhys programmes. However, choosing the 4-year option does not lead to the award of a BSc degree and then a subsequent Masters qualification;  graduating students get a single qualification usually termed an “integrated Masters”.

It is possible for a student to take a BSc and then do a taught MSc programme afterwards, perhaps at a different university, but there are relatively few MSC programmes for Physics  in the UK because the vast majority of students who are interested in postgraduate study will already have registered for 4-year undergraduate programmes. That’s not to say there are none, however. There are notable MSc programmes dotted around, but they tend to be rather specialist; examples related to my own area include Astronomy and Cosmology at Sussex and Astrophysics at Queen Mary. Our own MSc in Frontiers in Quantum Technology is the only such course in the United Kingdom.

To a large extent these courses survive by recruiting students from outside the UK because the market from home students is so small. No department can afford to put on an entire MSc programme for the benefit of just one or two students. Often these stand-alone courses share modules with the final year of the undergraduate Masters, which also helps keep them afloat.

So why does it matter whether one Masters is PG while the other is UG? One difference is that the MSc lasts a calendar year (rather than an academic year). In terms of material covered, this means it contains 180 credits compared to the 120 credits of an undergraduate programme. Typically the MSc will have 120 credits of taught courses, examined in June as with UG programmes, followed by 60 credits worth of project work over the summer, handed in in September, though at Sussex some of our programmes are split 90 credits coursework and 90 credits of project.

The reason why this question comes up so frequently nowadays is that the current generation of applicants to university (and their parents) are facing fees of £9K per annum. The cost of doing a 3-year BSc is then about £27K compared to £36K for an MPhys. When rushing through the legislation to allow universities to charge this amount, the Powers That Be completely forgot about PG programmes, which have accordingly maintained their fees at a relatively low level, despite the fact that these are not controlled by government. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £6K for home students and £17K for overseas students. These levels are roughly consistent with the UG fees paid by  home students on the previous fee regime (approx £3.5K per annum, bearing in mind that you get 1.5 times as much teaching on an MSc compared to a year of an MPhys).

Being intelligent people, prospective physicists look at the extra £9K they have to pay for the 4th year of an MPhys and compare it with the current rate for an entire MSc and come to the conclusion that they should just do a BSc then switch. This seems to be not an unreasonable calculation to make.

However, there are some important things to bear in mind. Firstly, unlike UG programmes, the fee for PG programmes is basically unregulated. Universities can charge whatever they like and can increase them in the future if they decide to. See, for example, the list at Sussex University which shows that MSc fees already vary by more than a factor of four from one school to another. Incidentally, that in itself shows the absurdity of charging the same fee for UG degrees regardless of subject…

Now the point is that if one academic year of UG teaching costs £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. at least 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for less than half the  income per student. Moreover undergraduate courses in laboratory-based sciences attract an additional contribution of around £1.4K (“the unit of resource”) paid by the government to the University concerned via HEFCE.  The logical fee level for MSc programmes is mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, plus the unit of resource applied to full calendar year, which is a whopping £15.6K (similar to the current whopping amount already paid by overseas students for these programmes). It’s therefore clear that you cannot take the current MSc fee levels as a guide to what they will be in three years’ time, when you will qualify to enter a taught PG programme. Prices will certainly have risen by then. I doubt if there will be a sudden step-change, but they will rise.

The picture has changed significantly since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Autumn Statement last year that loans of up to £10,000 would be made available to students on postgraduate (Masters) courses from 2016/17 onwards.  Welcome though this scheme may be it does not apply to students wanting to start a Masters programme this September (i.e. for Academic Year 2015/16).

I’d say that, contrary to what many people seem to think,  if you take into the full up-front fee and the lack of student loans etc, the cost of a BSc + MSc is  already significantly greater than doing an MPhys, and in future the cost of the former route will inevitably increase. I therefore don’t think this is a wise path for most Physics undergraduates to take, assuming that they want their MSc to qualify them for a career in Physics research, either in a university or a commercial organization, perhaps via the PhD degree, and they’re not so immensely rich that money is no consideration.

The exception to this conclusion is for the student who wishes to switch to another field at Masters level,  to do a specialist MSc in a more applied discipline such as medical physics or engineering. Then it might make sense, as long as you can find a way to deal with the need to pay up-front for such courses.

Now comes the plug for Sussex. Last week the University of Sussex unveiled a huge  boost to the University’s flagship Chancellor’s Masters Scholarships means that 100 students graduating this summer with a first-class degree from any UK university will be eligible to receive a £10,000 package (non-repayable)  to study for a Masters degree at Sussex. There are also specific schemes to support students who are already at Sussex; see here.

I’m drawing this to the attention of readers of this blog primarily to point out that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex is one of relatively few UK universities to have a significant and well-established programme of Masters (MSc) courses, including courses in Physics, Particle Physics,  Cosmology, and Astronomy. In particular, as I mentioned above, we are the only Department in the United Kingdom to have an MSc in Quantum Technology, an area which has just benefitted from a substantial cash investment from the UK government.

Wisely, the University of Sussex has introduced special measures to encourage current Integrated Masters students to stay on their degree rather than bailing out into a BSc and taking a Masters. However, this scheme is a great opportunity for high-flying physics graduates from other universities to get a funded place on any of our MSc programmes to start later this year. Indeed, the deal that is being offered is so good that I would recommend students who are currently in the third year of 4-year MPhys or MSci integrated Masters programmes, perhaps at a dreary University in the Midlands, to consider ditching  your current course, switching to a BSc and graduating in June in order to take up this opportunity. The last year of an integrated Masters consists of 120 credits of material for which you will have to be a further £9K of fees; a standalone Masters at Sussex would involve 180 credits and be essentially free if you get a scholarship.

Think about it, especially if you are interested in specializing in Quantum Technology. Sussex is the only university in the UK where you can take an MSc in this subject! This is a one-off opportunity, since (a) this scheme will be replaced by loans from 2016/17 and (b) the fees will almost certainly have risen by next year for the reasons I outlined above.

In conclusion, though, I have to say that, like many other aspects of Higher Education in the Disunited Kingdom, this system is a mess. I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of continental Europe.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out an even worse anomaly. I did a 3-year Honours degree in Natural Science at Cambridge University for which I was awarded not a BSc but a BA (Bachelor of Arts). A year or so later this – miraculously and with no effort on my part – turned into an MA. Work that one out if you can.

Prison and Academia

Posted in Education, Literature with tags , , on February 7, 2015 by telescoper

I looked for this quotation last week when I heard a reference to it on Radio 3 in connection with some incidental music written by Dmitry Shostakovich for a film of King Lear. Reading the full text it struck me that academic life has many of the advantages of being in prison…

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

(King Lear, Act V Scene 3)

Helping Blind Physicists

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 4, 2015 by telescoper

The Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has been supporting some fantastic research into the accessibility of science education. Daniel Hajas, a blind second year physics undergraduate student has been working with Dr. Kathy Romer, Reader in Astrophysics, on a research project related to innovative assistive technology.

Daniel came up with the idea of an audio-tactile graphics display (TGD) that should allow representation of graphical information in audio and tactile modalities, mostly focusing on figures used in mathematical sciences such as graphs, geometric shapes etc. The TGD is a device  with approximate dimensions of a tablet that can sit on a table top and can be connected with a PC using either a wired or wireless solution.

During the summer of 2014, Daniel wrote a research proposal, attended an assistive technology oriented conference and since the beginning of this academic year has been searching for partners/funding. Daniel and Kathy recently submitted an application to the Inclusive Technology Price (ITP).

Since October they have made contact with IT and cognitive science experts from the Sussex IT department and are also in contact with an LHC Sound project (CERN) team member to assist with sonification. Daniel and Kathy plan to establish collaboration with experts from various fields, find research partners and funding. Such an interdisciplinary research requires collaboration of various Sussex Departments if not other Universities from across the UK.

Daniel's 3D Vector Board

Daniel’s 3D Vector Board

Daniel has also been busy inventing the ‘3D vector board’, a small plastic board with two flexible rubber stripes perpendicular to each other which can be can moved around such that they show the axes of a coordinate system. The board has a grid on it with 1×1 cm squares. At the junctions four little holes are drilled in the corner of the squares. This allows the vectors (metal sticks of different length) to be fixed on the board. Since there are horizontal, diagonal and vertical sticks i.e. the sticks are either in the plane, perpendicular to or in an angle respect to the plane of the board 3D vector scenarios can be modelled easily.

Although Daniel intended to use the board solely for his own purposes, feedback suggests this relatively simple tool could be used efficiently in education for demonstrational purposes. Both visually impaired and sighted students could benefit from it. Sketches on paper or black boards only allow 2D representations. The 3D vector board might also work well in illustrating aims of the TGD project. Although the main goal is to develop a very advanced high-tech assistive device over a period of years, Daniel and Kathy might also come up with a number of low-tech ideas to improve accessibility of mathematical sciences for visually impaired students.

See Daniel’s project website for further details about his research.

Scholarships for Masters in Physics, Astronomy and Quantum Technology at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 3, 2015 by telescoper

Although I’m in the middle of a very busy day (with no time for a lunch break) I thought I’d take a few minutes to advertise a very special one-off opportunity. As many of you will be aware, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Autumn Statement last year that loans of up to £10,000 would be made available to students on postgraduate (Masters) courses from 2016/17 onwards.  Welcome though this scheme may be it does not apply to students wanting to start a Masters programme this September (i.e. for Academic Year 2015/16).

But fear not. The University of Sussex has come to the rescue! Last week the University unveiled a generous new funding scheme to bridge the gap. In particular, a huge  boost to the University’s flagship Chancellor’s Masters Scholarships means that 100 students graduating this summer with a first-class degree from any UK university will be eligible to receive a £10,000 package (non-repayable)  to study for a Masters degree at Sussex. There are also specific schemes to support students who are already at Sussex; see here.

I’m drawing this to the attention of readers of this blog primarily to point out that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex is one of relatively few UK universities to have a significant and well-established programme of Masters (MSc) courses, including courses in Physics, Particle Physics, Cosmology, and Astronomy. In particular we are the only Department in the United Kingdom to have an MSc in Quantum Technology, an area which has just benefitted from a substantial cash investment from the UK government.

This is a huge opportunity for high-flying physics graduates to get a funded place on any of our MSc programmes to start later this year. Indeed, the deal that is being offered is so good that I would recommend students who are currently in the third year of 4-year MPhys or MSci integrated Masters programmes, perhaps at a dreary University in the Midlands, to consider switching to a BSc bailing out of your current course, and graduating in June in order to take up this opportunity. The last year of an integrated Masters consists of 120 credits of material for which you will have to be a further £9K of fees; a standalone Masters at Sussex would involve 180 credits and be essentially free if you get a scholarship.

Think about it, especially if you are interested in specializing in Quantum Technology. Sussex is the only university in the UK where you can take an MSc in this subject!

Note for Sussex students: if you’re on the 3rd year of an MPhys here at Sussex the situation is a bit more complicated and the incentive to move to MSc is much weaker because we have additional Scholarships to offset the £9K fee for the 4th year. Please feel free to discuss this with me if you want some more information.

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