Archive for the Education Category

Science vs Marketing

Posted in Astrohype, Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 20, 2022 by telescoper

I saw a paper some months ago by former Sussex colleague Xavier Calmet and collaborators that attracted quite a lot of press coverage largely based on a press release from the University of Sussex that claimed:

Stephen Hawking’s famous black hole paradox solved after hair-raising discovery

(If you want to learn more about the black hole information paradox you could start here.)

The press release is pure unadulterated hype. The paper in Physical Review Letters is actually rather good in my opinion but it says next to nothing about the black hole information paradox. Unfortunately the Sussex press release was picked up by the BBC’s science editor Pallab Ghosh who turned it into a very garbled article. Unfortunately Ghosh has quite a lot of form when it comes to producing nonsensical takes on science results. See, for example, this piece claiming that recent results from the Dark Energy Survey cast doubt on Einstein’s general theory of relativity when they do nothing of the sort.

Fortunately in the case of the black hole paper David Whitehouse has done a good job at demolishing the “BBC’s black hole baloney” here so I don’t need to repeat the arguments.

What I will mention however is that there is an increasing tendency for university press offices to see themselves entirely as marketing agencies instead of informing and/or educating the public. Press releases about scientific research nowadays rarely make any attempt at accuracy – they are just designed to get the institution concerned into the headlines. In other words, research is just a marketing tool.

This isn’t the only aspect of the marketisation of universities. If an academic tries to organize a public engagement event or do some schools outreach activity, the chances are their institution will hijack it and turn it into a marketing exercise, aimed exclusively at student recruitment. Universities are increasingly unconcerned with education and research and obsessed with income.

Forget the phony controversies about woke politics and free speech manufactured by right-wing press. The real culture war in modern universities is between those who believe in the intrinsic value of higher education and those who see it simply as a means of generating profit by whatever means possible. As in any war, truth is the first casualty.

Research Excellence in Physics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education, Science Politics on May 16, 2022 by telescoper

For no other reason that I was a bit bored watching the FA Cup Final on Saturday I decided to construct an alternative to the Research Excellence Framework rankings for Physics produced by the Times Higher last week.

The table below shows for each Unit of Assessment (UoA):  the Times Higher rank;  the number of Full-Time Equivalent staff submitted;  the overall percentage of the submission rated  4*;  and the number of FTE’s worth of 4* stuff (final column), by which the institutions are sorted. The logic for this – insofar as there is any – is that the amount of money allocated is probably going to be more strongly weighted to 4* (though not perhaps the 100% I am effectively assuming) than the GPA used in the Times Higher.

1. University of Oxford 9= 171.3 57 97.6
2. University of Cambridge 3 148.2 64 94.8
3. Imperial College 18= 130.1 49 63.7
4. University of Edinburgh 13= 118.0 51 60.2
5. University of Manchester 2 87 66 57.4
6. University College London 24= 112.5 42 47.3
7. University of Durham 23 84.2 45 37.9
8. University of Nottingham 7 63.9 59 37.7
9. University of Warwick 20 79.2 47 37.2
10. University of Birmingham 4 55.2 66 36.4
11. University of Bristol 5 54.1 61 33.0
12. University of Glasgow 12 58.2 53 30.8
13. University of York 13= 59.9 51 30.5
14. University of Lancaster 21 56.1 46 25.8
15. University of Strathclyde 13= 46.7 52 24.3
16. Cardiff University 18= 52.2 46 24.0
17. University of Exeter 22 49.4 48 23.7
18. University of Sheffield 1 34.7 65 22.5
19. University of St Andrews 8 40.8 55 22.4
20. University of Liverpool 16 44.4 49 21.7
21. University of Leeds 9= 34 53 18.0
22. University of Sussex 26 42.7 42 17.9
23. The University of Bath 24= 38.8 42 16.3
24. Queen’s University of Belfast 31 49.7 32 15.9
25. Queen Mary University of London 28= 48 33 15.8
26, University of Southampton 27 41.7 38 15.8
27. The Open University 32= 41.8 36 15.0
28. University of Hertfordshire 38 42 32 13.4
29. Liverpool John Moores University 17 25.8 50 12.9
30. Heriot-Watt University 9= 21 55 11.6
31. King’s College London 28= 33.9 34 11.5
32. University of Portsmouth 6 19.8 58 11.5
33. University of Leicester 35= 34.3 28 9.6
34. University of Surrey 35= 30.6 31 9.5
35. Swansea University 32= 25.2 32 8.0
36. Royal Holloway and Bedford New College 35= 19.1 36 6.9
37. University of Central Lancashire 39 19.3 25 4.8
38. Loughborough University 40 19.8 22 4.4
39. University of Keele 32= 9 38 3.4
40. The University of Hull 30 11 28 3.1
41. University of Lincoln 43 15.2 16 2.4
42.The University of Kent 41 19 12 2.3
43. Aberystwyth University 44 18.2 7 1.3
44. University of the West of Scotland 42 8 11 0.9

Using this method to order institutions produces a list which clearly correlates with the Times Higher ordering – the Spearman rank correlation coefficient is + 0.75 – but there are also some big differences. For example, Oxford (=9th in the Times Higher) and Cambridge (3rd) come out 1st and 2nd with Imperial (=18th in the Times Higher) moving up to 3rd place. Edinburgh moves up from =13th to 4th. The top ranked UoA in the Times Higher table is Sheffield, which drops to 18th in this table. Portsmouth (6th in the Times Higher) drops to 32nd in this version. And so on.

Of course you shouldn’t take this seriously at all. The lesson -if there is one – is that the use of the Research Excellence Framework results to produce rankings is a bit arbitrary, to say the least…

Mental Health and the Reasons for Burnout

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , , , on May 10, 2022 by telescoper

It is now European Health Week as well as “Employee Wellbeing Month” here at Maynooth University. I’m reminded that ten years ago that I was heading for a breakdown and a subsequent spell in a psychiatric institution so I always try to use this opportunity to encourage friends colleagues and students to do what I didn’t back then, and ask for help sooner rather than later.

Today my colleague from, and former Head of, the Psychology Department at Maynooth shared a piece on twitter that provided me with a new theme, burnout, which is usually described in these terms:

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

I’d be surprised if any of my friends and colleagues in the University have not felt at least some of the signs of burnout at some point over the last two years during the which the pandemic drastically exacerbated existing conditions of overwork. I know there’s a tendency among staff to blame themselves for struggling and I know that there’s a even stronger tendency for Management to want staff to blame themselves: “you need to be more resilient” is the catchphrase.

As a counter to this attitude I suggest you read this piece which explains that burnout is not the fault of employees but of the environment created by management. In particular, here are the five main causes of burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Do any of these look familiar to you? They certainly do to me! I would add a sixth: “6. management determination to make 1-5 even worse in future”. Academic staff on proper contracts are much more expensive than low-paid temporary lecturers on insecure contracts. If you care more about making a profit than providing a quality third level education, why not let the former burn out and replace them with the latter?

My biggest fear is that having seen the lengths to which staff have been prepared to go voluntarily to keep things going during the pandemic, all that has been achieved is to establish in the minds of Management an expectation that this is the way things will be for the indefinite future.

It’s not so bad for me. I’ll be 60 next year and I can see the prospect of retirement on the horizon, but I do worry about what this means for the careers of younger staff.

How to do Physics Exam Questions

Posted in Education on May 9, 2022 by telescoper


It’s now Study Week in Maynooth, with the summer examination period starting on Friday. For many of our students this will be the first exam they have ever taken on campus and for others there will have been a gap of two years since their last one.

Bearing this in mind I thought I would share again this video from my YouTube channel (which has several subscribers) which related to a post I did a few years ago about how to solve Physics problems.

These are intended for the type of problems students might encounter at high school or undergraduate level in examinations. I’ve tried to keep the advice as general as possible though so hopefully students in other fields might find this useful too.


Last Day of Term!

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on May 6, 2022 by telescoper

So at last we’ve arrived at the last day of teaching for Semester 2 at Maynooth University. My final session – a revision lecture – was actually yesterday. Today I’m on tenterhooks as the students are submitting their Computational Physics project reports ahead of the deadline of 4pm this afternoon and I’m on hand to help with last minute problems. Some have already appeared on Moodle, bucking the fine academic tradition of only submitting things at the very last minute. Students on this module have to do the project in order to pass the module, so I hope they all manage to submit something by the deadline. I saw a few in the lab yesterday afternoon and they seemed to have good results. I just hope they left enough time to write everything up! No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing next week: marking project reports (and coursework I didn’t have time to correct earlier).

Next week is a study week for the students, so the powers be must think academic staff are going to be sitting around twiddling their thumbs until the exam period begins (on Friday 13th). That’s the only explanation I can think of for the proliferation of meetings in my calendar for next week.

After that of course my colleagues and I will be marking examinations. I have papers on Tuesday 17th May and Friday 20th May. I may be able to get the first set of scripts marked before the second set arrives, but maybe not. At any rate we have to get all the marks up on the system well before the Exam Boards take place in early June. That should be easy for me, but not so much for those staff who have exams much later in the cycle.

This term has been marked by low attendances at lectures and tutorials, for a number of Covid-related reasons. We’ve done our lectures in person on campus, but only around a third of the students have been attending. Neither I nor anyone else knows what that will mean for the results of the forthcoming examinations. We’ll just have to wait and see…

At least our Exam Board will take place in person this time as the Covid-19 situation here in Ireland looks reasonably positive which will make it a bit easier to discuss any important matters that may arise.

This has been a tough year, with half our lecturing staff being temporary replacements after one departure, one retirement and one on sabbatical. One member of staff will be returning from sabbatical in September, and we have one permanent position under advertisement (application deadline: 22nd May) but we’re going to be forced employ temporary lecturers again next academic year as it seems unlikely the permanent replacement will be in post by September and in any case we will be a post down even if that post is filled. I don’t like this at all, but I have no choice.

Words about Higher Education in Ireland

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Politics on May 5, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science”, Simon Harris announced a “funding and reform framework” for Ireland which you can find here (PDF).

It’s a typical neoliberal trick to tie “funding” to “reform” because that immediately sends a message that Ireland’s universities are somehow underperforming in some way other than the fact that they are grossly underfunded. The document however admits that there is a huge funding shortfall caused by lack of Government investment over many years, leading among other things to huge student-staff ratios. Perhaps it’s primarily the Government that need reform rather than universities?

That said, I do agree that if extra money is going to be sent to universities, there should be some guarantee that it is spent on the right things: not only academic staff but also, where appropriate, laboratory facilities and so on. Based on my experience in several institutions, typically over half of  university’s budget is spent on central services, some of which are excellent but others of which are expensive and not fit for any purpose at all other than wasting money and causing frustration.

As for the proposals themselves, I’d just say that it is good to have a Minister who recognizes at least some of the problems and is prepared to make positive noises about addressing them. However, the document itself is extremely vague. Look at this, for example, from the
Government’s Press Release announcing the new “landmark policy on funding higher education and reducing the cost of education for families”:

That’s it.

Since the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, Ireland’s fees for undergraduate study are the highest in the EU and with the current cost of living crisis (including exorbitant rents) this is in need of reform.  The response however is that the Minister is “committed” only to reviewing (i.e. not necessarily reducing) the fee over some unspecified but probably lengthy timescale.

As with the other items in the “framework” there is no commitment to anything that will halt the immediate crisis currently afflicting students who are struggling to engage and academic staff whose workloads are skyrocketing. In fact I don’t foresee any prospect of material changes before I retire.

Another thing I’ll mention with deep frustration is that there is nothing in the policy about postgraduate education for which there is no framework at all in Ireland and very little funding. It seems Irish Governments just don’t think this is important aspect of what universities do.

Anyway, back to the “policy”, I know that what will actually happen depends on Mr Harris’s success in winning over cabinet colleagues so at this stage he can’t be very specific, but the media somehow dress all this nebulosity up as a policy, which it isn’t: it’s a collection of aspirations.

Warm words, perhaps, but just words nevertheless. We won’t find our for a while whether they actually mean anything.

A Dress Code for Physics?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on May 2, 2022 by telescoper

This image has been doing the rounds on Physics Twitter recently, accompanied by a mixture of incredulous, amused and angry comments. It’s from the instructions from the 13th International Particle Accelerator Conference (IPAC2022) which takes place in Thailand next month.

To be fair I think this dress code is only for delegates wishing to attend a special event at which the Thai Royal Family will be present, but that it is strange that it should be so “Westernized”. It seems nobody wearing more traditional formal clothing from African or Asian countries, or even Thailand itself would be allowed.

Aside from that, the highly gendered instructions would make many attendees uncomfortable. Women must wear skirts, not trousers for example. Why? I wonder if they’d allow a Scotsman wearing a kilt? It’s all very silly and not at all inclusive. I suspect this nonsense has put off a number of potential attendees.

Speaking for myself, I don’t mind dressing up a bit for special social occasions that have a dress code. At the RAS Club Dinners at the Athenaeum the dress code for men is, amusingly, “jacket and tie”. Trousers are apparently not allowed and there’s no restriction that I know of on female dress. As a matter of fact I find it a relief when the dress code for a function is formal (e.g. “black tie”) because a male person such as me then doesn’t have to think about what to put on. IG wouldn’t like to have a dress code imposed on me at work, though.

The instruction that clothing must be “crisp, neat, pressed and never wrinkled” would represent an impossible standard for most of my colleagues in physics who for the most part dress in a manner that’s more “scruffy academic” than “business professional”. I have however worked with physicists who dress at work in a wide variety of ways. One I remember always wore a three-piece suit (even at the height of summer) and another was full Goth, neither style made any difference to their ability to do research.

I have sometimes been asked by junior researchers about how to dress for things like interviews or conference talks. I wrote about this before, here.

In brief the idea of of dressing up for job interviews in academia has always seemed rather odd to me. The default style of dress for academics is “scruffy”, so it’s a bit odd that we all seem to pretend that it’s otherwise for interviews. I suppose it’s just to emphasize that it’s a formal occasion from the point of view of the interview panel, and to show that the candidates are taking it seriously. I don’t really pay much attention to what interviewees wear, other than that if they look like they’ve just been dragged through a hedge one might infer that they’re  a bit too disorganized even to be a member of the academic staff at a University or that they’re not really putting enough effort into the whole thing.

On the other hand, some people feel so uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and a T-shirt that putting on a suit would either be an unbearable ordeal for them or conflict with their self-image in some fundamental way. Neither of these are intended, so if that’s going to be the case for you, just dress as you normally do (but preferably with something reasonably clean).

I sometimes get asked whether a (male) candidate for a PhD place should wear a suit and tie forsuch an interview. Having conducted interview days for many years at a number of different institutions, my experience is that a smaller proportion do dress formally for PhD interviews than for job interviews. My advice to students asking about this is just to say that they should try to look reasonably presentable, but suit–and-tie are definitely not compulsory. I would say “smart casual” is a good guide, though I have to say I don’t really know what that is. In any case it’s unlikely the staff interviewing you will be dressed formally…

Anyway, in writing this I started to think that the world would be a better place if “business professionals” were made to dress like academics, rather than the other way round.

Lá Bealtaine

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education on May 1, 2022 by telescoper

Today, 1st May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish) is an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. The month of May is called Bealtaine in Irish and May Day is called Lá Bealtaine. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. These ancient festivals take place earlier in the modern calendar than the astronomical events that represent their origin: for example, the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice is actually next week.

A consequence of all this is that Monday is a Bank Holiday and, in keeping with tradition, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and it is pouring with rain. Nevertheless  Lá Bealtaine shona daoibh go leir!

On the corresponding days last year and the year before I was wondering about how the pandemic would pan out. Back on May 1st 2020 I didn’t think it would last until May 2021 and back in 2021 I did not forecast that we would still have over a thousand new infections every day in May 2022.  The vaccination programme seems to have done its job though and although case numbers remain high, the number of hospitalizations, ICU admissions and fatalities have not increased as in previous waves.

The Department of Health no longer gives Covid-19 updates at weekends (or on holidays) so here is the chart up to Friday 29th April:

May 1st 2021 was around 410 on the time-axis, with cases and deaths falling:

I hadn’t expected the subsequent increase to much higher levels of infection, but the ratio of deaths to cases is much lower now than it was a year ago despite the lower level of testing now.

It was announced on Friday that the Department of Health is to stop giving daily updates. I don’t know if they’re still going to put daily figures on the data hub (which is where I get them from) but if they don’t I’ll discontinue putting data on my Covid-19 page.

Anyway, yesterday’s open day went ahead without physical distancing though some staff and visitors were wearing masks. It was so busy in the Iontas Building that the hubbub made it difficult to be heard while talking with a mask on so I just dispensed with mine for the duration. Some visitors were wearing theirs though.

After tomorrow’s holiday we have four days left of teaching term then there’s a study week for the students – duyring which I’ll be marking computational projects and other assessments – and then the exams begin. For many students this will be their first on-campus examinations and we’re all a bit nervous about how they will go, but we’ll find out soon enough…

Open Day on Campus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on April 30, 2022 by telescoper

Today was an Undergraduate Open Day at Maynooth University and contrary to my pessimistic expectations it was extremely busy, probably the busiest I have ever attended in Maynooth. I was told that there were 4,500 people on campus for this event which compares to a more normal figure of 3,000ish. I gather one of the reasons it was so busy was that few (if any) other Irish universities are having open days on campus this year.

Busy foyer stands in the Iontas Building

The stand in Iontas was quite busy all morning and my subject talk on Theoretical and Mathematical Physics was so well attended that the room was full and people were standing at the back. I was in the last slot of the day (as usual) so nobody else was in the lecture room after my group so I invited people to stay and ask questions if they wanted to. It ended up with 45 minutes of very interesting discussion.

This is the first of these sessions we’ve done since November 2019. Since then the entire admissions process has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is more than a little uncertainty about entrance requirement for September 2022, but I gave the best advice I could. Talking face-to-face with real people made a very pleasant change from the webinars and pre-recorded videos we’ve been doing recently.

Anyway, I think today has been a success, though a very tiring one. It’s very exhausting trying to be nice to people. I think I’ll need the rest of the holiday weekend to recover!

Girls, Physics and “Hard Maths”

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 28, 2022 by telescoper

There was an appropriately hostile reaction from people who know things yesterday to bizarre comments by Katharine Birbalsingh, who is apparently a UK Government commissioner for something or other, but who seems to know very little. Birbalsingh is in charge of a school in which only 16% of the students taking physics A-level are female, whereas the national average is about 23%. She tried to explain this by saying that girls don’t like doing “hard maths” and as a consequence…

..physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it.

There is an easy rebuttal of this line of “reasoning”. First, there is no “hard maths” in Physics A-level. Most of the mathematical content (especially calculus) was removed years ago. Second, the percentage of students taking actual A-level Mathematics in the UK who are female is more like 40% than 20%. The argument that girls are put off Physics because it includes Maths is therefore demonstrably bogus.

An alternative explanation for the figures is that schools (especially the one led by Katharine Birbalsingh, where the take-up is even worse than the national average) provide an environment that actively discourages girls from being interested in Physics by reinforcing gender stereotypes even in schools that offer Physics A-level in the first place. The attitudes of teachers and school principals undoubtedly have a big influence on the life choices of students, which is why it is so depressing to hear lazy stereotypes repeated once again.

There is no evidence whatsoever that women aren’t as good at Maths and Physics as men once they get into the subject, but plenty of evidence that the system dissuades then early on from considering Physics as a discipline they want to pursue. Indeed, at University female students generally out-perform male students in Physics when it comes to final results; it’s just that there are few of them to start with.

Anyway, I thought of a way of addressing gender inequality in physics admissions about 8 years ago. The idea was to bring together two threads. I’ll repeat the arguments here.

The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at around 20% for at least two decades. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within the school system.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language on which university physics depends. In other words it not only avoids “hard maths” but virtually all mathematics and, worse, is really very boring. As a consequence, most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics, which is a far better indicator of their ability to study Physics at University than the Physics A-level.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all UK universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been very successful.

I believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists, bypassing the bottleneck at one stroke.

I suggested this idea when I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex, but it was firmly rejected by Senior Management because we would be out of line with other Physics departments. I took the view that in this context being out of line was a positive thing but that wasn’t the view of my bosses so the idea sank.

In case you think such a radical step is unworkable, I give you the example of our Physics programmes in Maynooth. We have a variety of these, including Theoretical Physics & Mathematics, Physics with Astrophysics, and Mathematical Physics and/or Experimental Physics through our omnibus science programme. Not one of these courses requires students to have taken Physics in their Leaving Certificate (roughly the equivalent of A-level).