Archive for the Education Category

Luqman Onikosi

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , on January 27, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday my attention was drawn to the case of Luqman Onikosi, a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex, who is originally from Nigeria. Luqman has been granted temporary permission to reside in the United Kingdom based on his medical circumstances; he is suffering from Hepatitis B, for which far better treatment is available in the UK than in his home country. His immigration status is yet to be definitely resolved and in the meantime he is being treated, entirely according to established policy and practice, as an Overseas Student. He is therefore  liable to pay full Overseas Fees if he is to continue on his course, an MA in Global Political Economy, and currently can not afford to pay them.

It would be inappropriate for me to comment in further detail on Luqman’s case – not least because I don’t have much in the way of further detail to comment on – but I am happy to use the medium of this personal blog to draw the attention of readers to a crowdsourcing appeal that has started with the aim of collecting sufficient funds to enable him to continue his studies. You can find the website where you can find more information about the issues surrounding his case, and instructions on how to make a donation, here.

Graduation Engagement

Posted in Education with tags , , on January 23, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in the Winter Graduation ceremony for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex; as Head of School it was my very pleasant duty to read out the names of the graduands as they passed across the stage at the Brighton Dome, where the ceremony takes place.

Let me first of all congratulate again all those who graduated yesterday!

The Winter ceremony is largely devoted to students graduating from postgraduate programmes, either taught (MSc or MA)  or research-based (PhD). We don’t have huge numbers of such students in MPS so I had relatively few names to read out yesterday. Most of our students graduate in the summer ceremony. Sharing the ceremony with us this time was the School of Business, Management and Economics which, by contrast, has huge taught postgraduate programmes so the acting Head of School for BMEC (as it is called) had a lot of work to do!

It was nice to have Sanjeev Bhaskar back in place as Chancellor (he was absent on filming duty for last year’s summer ceremonies), who is charming and friendly as well as frequently hilarious.

Anyway, getting to the point, graduation is a special moment for all students involved, but there was an extra extra special moment for two students in particular yesterday.

I was sitting in the front of the platform party very near Sanjeev when a male student from BMEC graduated. As well as shaking the Chancellor’s hand he had a fairly long discussion with him and slipped him what appeared to be a small box in such a way that the audience couldn’t see it. Then, after walking across the stage, the student waited at the far side instead of returning to the auditorium by going down the stairs.

Funny, I thought, but at that point I had no idea what was going on.

The next graduand was a female student. When she got to Sanjeev he shook her hand as usual but then called back the previous one, still standing on the stage, and gave the box back to him. Of course it contained an engagement ring. And so it came to pass that Jing Liu (kneeling) proposed to Qin Me (standing).

proposals

It was a wonderful moment, although it struck me as a high-risk strategy and it wasn’t at all obvious at first sight how it would turn out. She doesn’t look that sure in the picture, actually! She did, however, say “yes” and the couple are now engaged to be married. I wish them every happiness. I’m sure I speak for everyone at the ceremony when I say that it brought an extra dimension of joy to what was already a wonderfully joyous occasion.

Our lives seem to revolve around rituals of one sort or another. Graduation is one, marriage is another. This is definitely the first time I’ve seen this particular combination.

I love graduation ceremonies. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the ceremony. The big event happens about from 44:48…

At a Lecture

Posted in Education, Poetry with tags , , , on November 27, 2014 by telescoper

Since mistakes are inevitable, I can easily be taken
for a man standing before you in this room filled
with yourselves. Yet in about an hour
this will be corrected, at your and at my expense,
and the place will be reclaimed by elemental particles
free from the rigidity of a particular human shape
or type of assembly. Some particles are still free. It’s not all dust.

So my unwillingness to admit it’s I
facing you now, or the other way around,
has less to do with my modesty or solipsism
than with my respect for the premises’ instant future,
for those afore-mentioned free-floating particles
settling upon the shining surface
of my brain. Inaccessible to a wet cloth eager to wipe them off.

The most interesting thing about emptiness
is that it is preceded by fullness.
The first to understand this were, I believe, the Greek
gods, whose forte indeed was absence.
Regard, then, yourselves as rehearsing perhaps for the divine encore,
with me playing obviously to the gallery.
We all act out of vanity. But I am in a hurry.

Once you know the future, you can make it come
earlier. The way it’s done by statues or by one’s furniture.
Self-effacement is not a virtue
but a necessity, recognised most often
toward evening. Though numerically it is easier
not to be me than not to be you. As the swan confessed
to the lake: I don’t like myself. But you are welcome to my reflection.

by Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

 

 

Working for Different Masters

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by telescoper

Quite a few times recently, current and prospective students (or parents thereof) have asked me what the difference is between the different forms of Masters degrees 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.  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 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 up to 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 similar level. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £5K for home students and about £15K 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 is going to cost £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for less than half the  income per student. The logical fee level for MSc programmes must rise to a mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, which is a whopping £13.5K (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.

Moreover, it’s much harder to get financial support for postgraduate than undergraduate study.  MSc students do not qualify for student loans as undergraduates do, for example. Also the MSc fee usually has to be paid in full, up front, not collected later when your income exceeds some level. Some PG courses do run their own bursary schemes, such as many of those at Sussex, for example, but generally speaking students on taught PG programmes have to find their own funding. On the other hand,  undergraduate students often qualify for generous packages, including fee waivers and reduction in accommodation, especially if they qualify for support for widening participation, such as the “First Generation Scholar” scheme at Sussex.

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 sensible 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.

There are indications that the government might be planning to introduce student loans for postgraduate degrees similar to those currently offered for undergraduates, but for me that would only make sense if the fees were to increase as described above, so this would not be an entirely positive move (to say the least).

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. To colleagues there, the system of two types of Masters degree looks like a complete mess.  Which it is. In fact some countries do not accept out integrated Masters as preparation for a PhD at all.

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.

What’s the point of conferences?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am back in the office making a start on my extensive to-do list. Writing it, I mean. Not actually doing any of it.

It was nice to get away for a couple of weeks, to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen for a while and also to catch up on some of the developments in my own field and other related areas. We do have pretty good seminar series here at Sussex which should in principle allow me to keep up to date with developments in my own research area, but unfortunately the timing of these events often clashes with other meetings  that I’m obliged to attend as Head of School. Escaping to a conference is a way of focussing on research for a while without interruption. At least that’s the idea.

While at the meeting, however, I was struck by a couple of things. First was that during the morning plenary lectures given by invited speakers almost everyone in the audience was spending much more time working on their laptops than listening to the talk.  This has been pretty standard at every meeting I’ve been to for the last several years. Now that everyone uses powerpoint (or equivalent) for such presentations nobody in the audience feels the need to take notes so to occupy themselves they spend the time answering emails or pottering about on Facebook. That behaviour does not depend on the quality of the talk, either. Since nobody seems to listen very much the question naturally arises as to whether the presentations have any intrinsic value at all. It often seems to me that the conference talk has turned into a kind of ritual that persists despite nobody really knowing what it’s for or how it originated. An hour is too long to talk if you really want people to listen, but we go on doing it.

The part of a conference session that’s more interesting is the discussion after each talk. Sometimes there’s a genuine discussion from which you learn something quite significant or get an idea for a new study.  There’s often also a considerable amount of posturing, preening and point-scoring which is less agreeable but in its own way I suppose fairly interesting.

At the meeting I was attending the afternoons were devoted to discussion sessions for which we split into groups. I was allocated to “Gravitation and Cosmology”; others were on “Cosmic Rays”, “Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics”, and so on. The group I was, of about 25 people, was a nice size for discussion. These sessions were generally planned around short “informal” presentations intended to stimulate discussion, but generally these presentations were about the same length as the plenary talks and also given in Powerpoint. There was discussion, but the format turned out to be less different from the morning sessions than I’d hoped for. I’m even more convinced than ever that Powerpoint presentations used in this way stifle rather than stimulate discussion and debate. The pre-prepared presentation is often used as a crutch by a speaker reluctant to adopt a more improvisatory approach that would probably be less polished but arguably more likely to generate new thoughts.

I don’t know whether the rise of Powerpoint is itself to blame for our collective unwillingness inability to find other ways of talking about science, but I’d love to try organizing a workshop or conference along lines radically different from the usual “I talk, you listen” format in which the presenter is active and the audience passive for far too long.

All this convinced me that the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal  programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner. Perhaps I should try arranging a conference that has nothing but dinner and coffee breaks on the schedule?

Mathematical and Physical Sciences Open Day at Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on October 4, 2014 by telescoper

It’s another open day at the University of Sussex so I’m on campus again to help out as best I can, although I have to admit that all the hard work is being done by others! It’s been extremely busy so far; in fact, I’m told that about 6000 visitors are on campus today. This a good sign for the forthcoming admissions round, probably buoyed by the improved position of the University of Sussex in the latest set of league tables and in excellent employment prospects for graduates.

Anyway the good folks of  the Department of Physics & Astronomy  and Department of Mathematics were here bright and early to get things ready:

IMG-20141004-00413

IMG-20141004-00414

All morning we’ve had a steady stream of visitors to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (which comprises both Departments mentioned above). While I’m at it let me just give a special mention to Darren Baskill’s Outreach Team (seen in the team photograph below).
outreachThey have had absolutely amazing year, running a huge range of events and activities that have reached a staggering 14,000 people of all ages (including 12,000 of school age).

Anyway, I think I’ll toddle off and see if I can sit in on one of today’s lectures. It’s about time I learned something.

 

UPDATE: Here is Mark Hindmarsh about to get started on his lecture.

IMG-20141004-00415

You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that he had included a quote from this blog in his talk:

I’ve worked in some good physics departments in my time, but the Department of Sussex is completely unique both for the level of support it offers students and the fact that so many of the undergraduates are so highly motivated.

And, yes, I did mean every word of that.

The Curse of Assessment-led Teaching

Posted in Education with tags , , on October 2, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in a University Teaching and Learning Strategy meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and representatives of the Students Union, that generated quite a few useful ideas. Looking through my back catalogue I realise that around this time year I was at a similar event based in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex of which I am Head.

Positive though yesterday’s discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. One part of the discussion was about trying to pin down essentially what is meant by “Research-led Teaching” which is what we’re supposed to be doing at universities. In my view too much teaching is not really led by research at all, but mainly driven by assessment. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning and certainly nothing like the way research is done.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, as many seem to want to encourage students to behave like robots, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,988 other followers