Archive for Cardiff University

Widening Participation Matters

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2017 by telescoper

Time for a mini-rant about the failure of many universities to make any real attempt to make higher education more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented social groups.

I found this item on Twitter the other day. It’s from a local newspaper in York, and it was accompanied by an article that applauded the University of York (rightly) for being in the top three Russell Group universities for widening participation.

The list shows all 24 universities in the Russell Group, along with the fraction of their students that come from state schools and the fraction that come from geographical areas where participation in higher education is low; ‘POLAR3’ is the latest iteration of the Participation of Local Areas survey carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

I’m very pleased that my current employer, Cardiff University, leads the Russell Group by this measure, followed by the Universities of Liverpool and York, respectively.

What doesn’t please me is that so many of these institutions have such low participation rates from this group, and also such a small fraction of students who were educated at state schools. Over 90% of the total number of students at UK universities were educated at state schools, but the only Russell Group member to exceed 90% is Queens University, Belfast. However, the school system in Northern Ireland is very different from the rest of the UK, with relatively few private schools, so the situation there is not really comparable.

When tuition fees were increased in 2012, Universities were only allowed the charge the maximum (£9K per annum) if they produced an `Access Agreement‘  outlining measures to be introduced that would `improve access, student success and progression among people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups‘. The evidence of the last five years is that participation rates at many of the Russell Group institutions listed above have not changed at all. The reason for this is simple: the members of senior management at these institutions simply do not careabout widening participation.

I emphasize that it’s the members of senior management who don’t care because I honestly believe that the majority of academic staff in these institutions (and indeed the rest of the higher education sector) do care a very great deal. Nowadays however the gulf between academics and managers is greater than ever

Some time ago I was interviewed for a job in senior management at one of the institutions in the table above. During the course of the interview I was asked, among many other things, what I thought the University needed to do better. Without hesitation I said `widening participation’. The members of the panel stared at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. The institution concerned was doing in well in league tables and recruiting students and saw no reason to try to make itself more open. When asked why I thought it was so important, I said I thought it was a moral responsibility. What I meant was that I think universities should be run for the public good, not just for the good of people who went to a posh school. That received even more uncomprehending stares than my original statement.

I didn’t get that job. I’m not saying it was because of the way I answered that question. I’m sure there were plenty of other reasons not to employ me, but that is the part of the interview I remember most vividly. I had prepared a list of ideas (including foundation programmes, measures to boost graduate employability, work placements, schools liaison, etc), some of which I’d borrowed from my (then) employer, the University of Sussex (which was – and is – very good at widening participation), but I had wasted my time. They weren’t interested.

The current system of ‘Access Agreements’ clearly isn’t working for these institutions and there is no effective sanction to force them even to try to broaden participation. Until there is, they will continue not to care.

Parliament has recently enacted the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). This presented a great chance to tackle the failures described above but, as far as I can see, none of the new arrangements is likely to do anything to widen participation in the so-called `elite’ universities, so it’s been a wasted opportunity.




Easter Fatigue 

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on April 4, 2017 by telescoper

This is Week 11, which is the last week of teaching here at Cardiff University before the Easter break. In the early hours of this morning I finished marking my last set of coursework for the term and later on delivered my last (2-hour) lecture on the Physics of the Early Universe.

I’ve booked two weeks of annual leave from Friday and am really looking forward to a bit of rest, though I will have quite a few private matters to deal with while I’m away from work.

Such is the topsy-turvy world we live in that I note that this month’s meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society is  on this Friday, 7th April. This is contrary to the settled order of Nature, as these meetings are always on the second Friday of the month. This year, however, the 2nd Friday of April is Good Friday. This, after all, is Eastertide, when Christians celebrate the invention of the chocolate egg by doing arms deals with despotic middle-eastern governments. 

I’m only joking. Of course. Chocolate eggs have nothing to do with the true message of Easter, which is depicted in the following.

Anyway, it’s the fact that Easter moves about in the calendar that is the reason this term has been so long and I am tired and grumpy. I don’t like chocolate either.

On the bright side I did receive two pieces of good news today in between the other stuff. I hope to be able to pass them on tomorrow, or at any rate before I go off on my hols…

Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on March 27, 2017 by telescoper

One of the jobs I’ve got in my current position (which is divided between the School of Physics & Astronomy and the Data Innovation Research Institute) is to develop new teaching activities, focussing on interdisciplinary courses involving a Data Science component. Despite the fact that I only started work developing them in September last year the first two such courses have been formally approved and are now open for admission of new students to begin their courses in September 2017. That represents a very fast-track for such things as there are many hurdles to get over in preparing new courses. Meeting the deadlines hasn’t been easy, which is largely why I’ve been whingeing on here about workload issues, but we’re finally there!

The two new courses are both at Masters (MSc) level and are called Data-Intensive Physics and Data-Intensive Astrophysics and they are both taught jointly by staff in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Computer Science and Informatics in a kind of major/minor combination.

The aim of these courses is twofold.

One is to provide specialist postgraduate training for students wishing to go into academic research in a ‘data-intensive’ area of physics or astrophysics, by which I mean a field which involves the analysis and manipulation of very large or complex data sets and/or the use of high-performance computing for, e.g., simulation work. There is a shortage of postgraduates with the necessary combination of skills to being PhD programmes in such areas, and we plan to try to fill the gap with these courses.

The other aim is to cater for students who may not have made up their mind whether to go into academic research, but wish to keep their options open while pursuing a postgraduate course. The unique combination of physics/astrophysics and computer science will give those with these qualifications the option of either continuing or going into another sphere of data-intensive research in the wider world of Big Data.

We’ll be putting out some official promotional materials for these courses very soon, but I thought I’d mention them here partly because it might help with recruitment and partly because I’m so relieved that they’ve actually made it into the prospectus.


Four Years On…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on January 31, 2017 by telescoper

After the annual last-minute rush to file my tax return by the  deadline (which is midnight today, 31st January),  I can now relax not only because the job is finished, but also because it confirms that I am due a rebate (as indeed I was last year).

Anyway, thinking about the 31st January deadline made me remember that it was precisely four years ago, on 31st January 2013, that I left Cardiff University to take up a post at the University of Sussex. On that occasion I had to rush to finish marking a big stack of exams and finish packing the books in my office before signing the work of art I had left on my whiteboard and heading off.

I started at Sussex the following day.

I didn’t think then that in four years I would be back in Cardiff, but then I didn’t think a lot of things would happen that have happened in that time. I don’t regret my decision to resign, but I do find myself from time to time wondering how things are going back at Sussex and how things might be now had I decided to stay there. I’ve been so busy I’ve only been back once to Brighton since I left last summer. I must put that right. Perhaps I’ll have a holiday there in the spring.

Back to the (Early) Universe

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 24, 2017 by telescoper

After what seems like ages away from the lecture theatre, today I resuming teaching duties with the first session of my module on The Physics of the Early Universe; the link there gives Enzo Pascale as being in charge of the module, but he has left BrExit Britain for his native Italy so I’ve taken his place. I actually wrote the syllabus for this module about five years ago when I worked in Cardiff previously, and was scheduled to deliver it in 2013, but I left for Sussex before it started and never actually lectured it. It’s nice to be able to teach this material at long last – at least it’s stuff that I should know something about.

This lectures are attended by students on the 4th year of the integrated Masters programme (MPhys) and also on stand-alone MSc courses in Physics or Astrophysics. I have about 25 students enrolled, which is not bad for a specialist module.

In fact Enzo recommended the book I wrote with Francesco Lucchin when he taught the module, and I’m happy to use it as the main text. I won’t cover all the material in the book – there isn’t time, and some of the book is out of date (written in 2002) – but at least almost everything I do in the lectures has a counterpart in the book.

Chapter 3 of Coles \& Lucchin has a chapter that may prove particularly popular in this era of ‘Alternative Facts’:


I did however resist the temptation to hire a group of people to sit at the front of my first lecture cheering and clapping wildly.

I’ve asked to have my lectures timetabled in two-hour chunks. That’s partly because I only work part-time and I wanted to be able to maximize the flexibility with which I can use the rest of the time by concentrating my teaching commitments. The other reason is that I like the extended format. I don’t talk continuously for the whole time, of course. That would be unbearable for me and for the students. We have a ten-minute break in the middle. However, the two-hour block allows a wider range of activities – lecturing, discussion and worked examples – which is harder to do in the usual (50-minute) slot without being excessively rushed. When I taught postgraduates at Queen Mary we used two-hour blocks, which worked out quite well. The only problem is that I’m now a lot older, and having finished my first double-lecture I think it’s fair to say I’m more than a little knackered.

Another innovation is the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded this morning’s lecture in toto and at some point when I get a moment I’ll do a quick edit and put it on Learning Central for the students to view at their leisure. I’m not sure how useful my ramblings will prove to be, but it’s fun to try these things. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and I’m also lucky to be in a nice, clean and recently refurbished lecture theatre…

Anyway, this gives me the excuse to refloat an old opinion poll about lecture capture. Such facilities are of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access recorded lecture material. Some faculty are apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact the available evidence indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly.

I like the idea of lecture capture a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem to be the case however that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll:

If you don’t like the idea I’d welcome a comment explaining why. I’d also be interested in comments from colleagues in other institutions as to the extent to which lecture capture technology is used elsewhere..


Studying Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on January 9, 2017 by telescoper

I just came across this video (featuring, among others, my colleagues Haley Gomez, Carole Tucker and Chris North) advertising the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. Since the annual recruitment cycle gets properly under way at this time of year I thought I’d share this here for the benefit of prospective students. We had a record intake last year, for both undergraduates and postgraduates. With outstanding successes in research over the past year (including the discovery of gravitational waves and the opening of a new venture in compound semiconductors) there’ll hopefully be a lot of interest again this year! We’re a friendly lot here, and Cardiff is a great city to live in, so why not get in touch?

Back to Work…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 3, 2017 by telescoper

Well, the Christmas break is over at Cardiff University and I’m back in the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute. To be honest, it’s rather quiet around here. Most staff seem to be still on holiday. There are a few students around, mainly international ones. This is actually a revision week at Cardiff University in advance of the mid-year examinations which start next week and go on for a fortnight. After that we’ll be back into teaching. I’ll be doing a Masters-level module on The Physics of the Early Universe in the forthcoming term, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The outcomes of the annual round of consolidated grants administered by the Astronomy Grants Panel of Science and Technology Facilities Council were announced just before Christmas, with success for some and disappointment for others. I only have anecdotal evidence from personal contacts but it seems to have been a tough round, which wouldn’t surprise me because the funding for basic scientific research in the UK has been flat in cash terms for many years now, and is gradually being eroded by inflation. It’s a tough climate but when, in a couple of years, we lose access to all forms of EU funding things will get even tougher…

Anyway, as new grants are announced and old ones terminated, this is a busy time of year for postdocs (who are largely funded by research grants) seeking new positions. I’ve spent most of the day so far writing references for applicants and will return to that task for a couple of hours after lunch. It’s particularly tough on those whose positions lapse at the end of March who only got notice just before Christmas that their existing funding is not going to be renewed. There’s little time in such a position to get a new job sorted, but on the other hand, new grants are starting from 1st April so there are opportunities out there. It’s not easy to respond if you have a family or other commitments, though.

Another thing that happened just before Christmas was that the Data Innovation Research Institute here at Cardiff University announced its first tranche of “seedcorn” grants to foster interdisciplinary research. These grants are quite small in cash terms but it is hoped that at least some of them will help develop substantial projects by bringing together parts of the University that don’t previously collaborate enough. Congratulations to those whose proposals were selected, and commiserations to those who were unsuccessful.

I was pleased that my proposal – together with Professor Nikolai Leonenko of the School of Mathematics – was one of the successful bids. That means that, probably in the spring, we will be organizing a short workshop relating to the analysis and modelling of astrophysical data defined on the sphere, a topic which has interesting mathematical aspects as well as very practical implications for astronomy and cosmology. We’ll be starting to organize that soon, which adds another item to my to-do list, but it should be a fun conference when it happens.

Before you ask: yes, I do work for the Data Innovation Research Institute but because I was an applicant I recused myself from judging the applications in case there was any perception of a conflict of interest. So there.

Most of my work between now and the start of teaching term is going to be devoted to a couple of MSc courses we’re planning to launch this year, but I’ll write more about them – and plug them shamelessly – when they’re all formally announced and ready to go!

And with that I’d better get back to work again.