Archive for Cardiff University

Surrey, another unsustainable UK University

Posted in Education with tags , , , on March 4, 2019 by telescoper

A couple of weeks ago I posted an item about planned job losses at Cardiff University during which I remarked that it seemed that a number of other universities are suffering financial problems.

I quote:

There are cold winds blowing through the sector. Many institutions (including Cardiff) have committed to ambitious building programs funded by a combination of borrowing and on optimistic assumptions about growth in student numbers and consequent increases in fee income. Although I no longer work in the UK Higher Education system, I do worry greatly about its sustainability. Even from across the Irish Sea the situation looks extremely precarious: the recent boom could easily end in some institutions going bust. I don’t think that will include Cardiff, by the way. I don’t think the Welsh Government would ever allow that to happen. But I think the English Government wouldn’t act if an English university went bankrupt.

Now the University of Surrey is ringing alarm bells, making £15M cuts and opening up a redundancy scheme `to all staff’. I wonder if that includes the Vice Chancellor, Max Lu, who is quoted on the BBC website:

Mr Lu said: “Some of the main financial challenges include reduced income due to Brexit and an ever more competitive student recruitment environment, significantly increasing pension costs and a national review of tuition fee levels.”

Mr Lu added: “Our university also faces the not inconsiderable impact of a fall in our national league table positions.”

The latter shows the ruinously real effect meaningless league tables can have on an institution and, more importantly, the livelihoods of the staff that work there. The whole higher education sector is suffering because of the ideologically-driven attempt to turn it into some sort of market. A crash seems inevitable unless the dangers are recognized and dealt with.

One thing I want to know, though, is: if the University of Surrey’s redundancy scheme is open `to all staff’, what happens if they all take it?

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Cardiff Blues: Sustainability and UK Universities

Posted in Cardiff, Education with tags , , , on February 20, 2019 by telescoper

Just before I left on my travels last week I saw a rather depressing news item about Cardiff University. It seems that, after posting a deficit of £22.8 M last year, the University is planning to cut about 380 staff positions. According to the news item:

“The university plans to reduce current staff levels by 7%, or 380 full-time equivalent over five years,” said vice chancellor Colin Riordan in an email to staff.

Since I left Cardiff University in the summer I didn’t get the email from which this is quoted and I don’t know the wider picture. (If anyone would like to forward the V-C’s email to me I’d be very interested.)

The news item also says

Its aim is to get back into surplus by 2019-20 and it wants to cut staffing costs from 59.6% of total income to no more than 56% of income by 2022-23.

Between you and me I was quite surprised that a University can be spending less than 60% of its income on staff, since staff are by far its most valuable resource. Bear in mind also that academic staff will be responsible for only a fraction of this expenditure. In some universities this fraction is only about half. Cutting this still further seems a very retrograde step to me, as it means that student-staff ratios will inevitably rise, making the institution less attractive to prospective students, as well as increasing the workload on existing staff to intolerable levels.

I sincerely hope none of my former colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy is affected by the deterioration of the University’s finances. At least the news item I referred to does mention new investments in Data Science, so that is presumably a positive development for the Data Innovation Research Institute with which I was formerly associated.

Incidentally, best wishes to anyone at Cardiff who is reading this, and good luck against England in the Six Nations on Saturday!

I’ve mentioned Cardiff here just because I noticed a specific news item (and I used to work there) but it seems a number of other universities are suffering financial problems. There are cold winds blowing through the sector. Many institutions (including Cardiff) have committed to ambitious building programs funded by a combination of borrowing and on optimistic assumptions about growth in student numbers and consequent increases in fee income. Although I no longer work in the UK Higher Education system, I do worry greatly about its sustainability. Even from across the Irish Sea the situation looks extremely precarious: the recent boom could easily end in some institutions going bust. I don’t think that will include Cardiff, by the way. I don’t think the Welsh Government would ever allow that to happen. But I think the English Government wouldn’t act if an English university went bankrupt.

Notes from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

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.

Long and Short Goodbyes

Posted in Biographical with tags , on August 2, 2018 by telescoper

This morning I discovered that my email account at Cardiff University has been disabled. Obviously the IT Services folk there don’t hang about when somebody leaves! I did get a couple of warnings that this was going to happen, but didn’t expect it quite so soon.

The withdrawal of access to IT services at Cardiff seems a bit abrupt, but I suppose that’s just the policy these days. My employment there has terminated so I don’t think it’s unreasonable that they shut down my email.I guess they just don’t go in for long goodbyes!

Anyway, I know I haven’t always been very good at replying to email recently, but if you email me at Cardiff from now on then I really can’t reply. I can’t even read your message!

This also reminds me that it’s been two years since I left my job as Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University. I’ve only been back to Brighton once since I left that position. I thought I might have a bit more time to visit there after moving onto a part-time contract at Cardiff, but that didn’t happen.

I was very tearful on my last day at Sussex, and can remember vividly how I felt walking down the steps from the Pevensey building for the last time. Still, it’s not a good idea to look back too often.The old School is in good hands, and I’m sure is going from strength to strength.

One great thing that has happened since I left Sussex is that the University has become an official partner of Brighton & Hove Pride, which is taking place this weekend. Best wishes to everyone taking part in the parade and associated festivities!

The two years since then have not turned out at all the way I planned when I left MPS: I had a three-year part-time contract at Cardiff, after which I planned to retire (in Cardiff). Now, two years on, I’m not retired nor am I in Cardiff, but living and working in another country.

Life is weird.

After Graduation

Posted in Biographical with tags , on July 20, 2018 by telescoper

I didn’t get time to blog yesterday as I was involved with various festivities to with the graduation of students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University who, for some reason, shared a ceremony with students from the School of History, Archaeology and Religion. The ceremony was more-or-less my last official duty here at Cardiff. This morning I backed up my computer, returned my keys and removed my boxes of books and other stuff from the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute back to my house. This afternoon I gather there’ll be a small event to celebrate my departure, after which there’s a staff trip to see the cricket at Sophia Gardens (Glamorgan versus Somerset in the Vitality Blast).

Yesterday’s ceremony started at 12 noon and, as usual, was in St David’s Hall in Cardiff. When it was over we adjourned to the Main Building for a reception at which we were informed there would be `unlimited Prosecco’. This turned out to be untrue, as the Prosecco ran out by about 5pm, at which point we moved to a local pub and thence for a late-night curry. It was all a bit excessive and I had a not inconsiderable hangover this morning. I suspect that was the case for many of the graduands too!

It was a very hot with all the graduation clobber, which is no doubt why such a large volume of liquid refreshment was consumed. The drinks were dispensed in a marquee which was sweltering inside. Anyway, here’s a pic of some of those students who received their degrees yesterday. I was actually there, but just out of shot to the right.

Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they even seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way. I love graduation ceremonies, actually. 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.

I always find graduation a bittersweet occasion. There’s joy and celebration, of course, but tempered by the realisation that many of the young people who you’ve seen around for three or for years, and whose faces you have grown accustomed to, will disappear into the big wide world never to be seen again.

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognising academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying congratulations once more to everyone who graduated yesterday, and I wish you all the very best for the future!

International LGBT+ in STEM Day

Posted in Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , on June 27, 2018 by telescoper

Tired by the heat and by watching Glamorgan losing at cricket, and despite being on annual leave, I popped in to the relative cool of the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University to tidy up a few things. I noticed the above poster on the main entrance to the School of Physics & Astronomy, which reminded me to post a quick plug for the first ever LGBTSTEM Day, which takes place next Thursday (5th July). I agreed some time ago to give a short talk at the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University about this and am looking forward to returning from Maynooth next week to do so.

Many universities and other organizations (including the Royal Astronomical Society) are involved in supporting events on 5th July. If you want to keep up with what’s happening try having a look a the twitter hashtag #LGBTSTEMDay.

It’s not too late to put your own event together either! You can find a handy toolkit to help you do it here.

Revisionist (Thermal) History of the Universe

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 10, 2018 by telescoper

Well, today saw my last teaching session on my Cardiff University module Physics of the Early Universe. It was actually an optional revision lecture, during which I went through questions on last year’s examination paper, some matters arising therefrom and some general tips on `examination technique’. The latter included advice that seems obvious – such as `read the question carefully’ and `check your numerical answers’ – but that surprisingly many students seem not to have heard before or, if they have, choose not to follow!

Anyway, I hope the students who came today found it useful and I hope that they (and indeed everyone else taking examinations over the next few weeks) do themselves proper justice and get the results they need for whatever comes next in their plans.

The Physics of the Early Universe paper is a couple of weeks ago so no doubt I’ll get a few more queries to deal with before then.

I thought I’d give an idea of the stuff I’ve been teaching here by including one of the questions from last year’s paper. I thought this was quite an easy one, actually, but the students seemed to find it tricky while they mostly coped well with the other questions, which I thought were harder. One of the challenges of teaching is that it’s often hard to see what other people find difficult! See what you think. You don’t really need to know much cosmology to do this:

Anyway, today was not only the last teaching session for this particular module – it’s also the last teaching session I’ll ever conduct in the UK university system. Best wishes to whoever it is that teaches this module next year when I’m in Ireland.