Archive for Cardiff University

Moving On..

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff with tags , , , , on August 22, 2019 by telescoper

After attending my second Repeat Examination Board of the week (this one in the Department of Engineering) it’s now time to begin the task of moving the contents of my office into the new one I’ll be in as Head of Department. Roughly simultaneously, the current Head of Department, Jonivar Skullerud, will be moving his clobber from the Head of Department’s office into my current office. Some coordination may be necessary to avoid collisions and/or other confusion, but I’m confident of a successful outcome…

While I’m on the subject of moving to a new job, though in my case remaining at the same institution, this very afternoon my wonderful former colleague from the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, Dorothy Lamb, is having a leaving do. She will soon be moving to a position at the University of Birmingham (in the Midlands). I’m very sad that I couldn’t be there for her farewell party, but the least I can do is wish Dorothy (aka Miss Lemon) all the best in her new job, and hope that her move from Brighton to Birmingham, after (I think) 25 years, goes as smoothly and as free from stress as possible.

UPDATE: You can read Dorothy’s farewell edition of the MPS Newslettter here.

Dorothy isn’t the only former colleague to be moving on to pastures new. I heard this morning that Ian Harvey and Unai Lopez from the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University are leaving soon. Unai is taking up a Lectureship at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao so Bon Voyage Unai!

 

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Should students be (financially) compensated for strike action by lecturers?

Posted in Cardiff, Education, Politics with tags , , , , on May 22, 2019 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog will know that last year I was still employed part of the time at Cardiff University and during that period I was participating in strike action called by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) over pensions. As a result of that action students on my module on Physics of the Early Universe missed quite a lot of lectures (and I was docked a large fraction of my pay).

I refused to do extra lectures after the strike was over to make up for those lost, as it seemed to me that defeated the point of the strike action, but I did make notes available for the students (which I do anyway). Students were also given access to recordings of the previous year’s lectures on the same module. I know some lecturers also adjusted their examinations and/or other assessments to exclude material that had not been covered.

It seems practice for dealing with this (admittedly difficult) situation has varied from institution to institution, and some students who feel that they missed out as a result of the strike have apparently asked to be compensated by their University. Institutions could of course pay compensation to students out of the money saved by not paying lecturers, but that wouldn’t go very far because only a small part of the £9000+ students pay in fees goes to the salaries of teaching staff. Another issue is that I recall one or two students didn’t come to lectures even before the strike started. Should they be compensated too?

Anyway I thought this might be an interesting topic for a poll, so here goes:

As always views are welcome through the comments box too!

The New IOP Physics Technician Award

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 8, 2019 by telescoper

Picture Credit: Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy

I remember a few years ago one of my colleagues when I worked in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, Steven Baker, won an award for being the best STEM Technician in the category of Physical Sciences in the whole country! At the time this was a new award set up by the Higher Education Academy, so Steven was the inaugural winner of it.

Now there’s another new award, this time from the Institute of Physics and dedicated to Physics technicians (not necessarily in universities). I quote:

The IOP Technician Award enables the community to recognise and celebrate the skills and experience of technicians and their contribution to physics.

You can find full details of how to nominate an awardee here. The deadline is 14th June 2019. The prize is worth £1000, but more importantly it serves to encourage Physics departments to reflect on the vital role played by technicians. I feel very strongly that the contribution made by support staff in university departments is drastically undervalued.  No Physics department can run without a dedicated technical support team who apply their skills and expertise in both teaching and research laboratories. Even a department like mine dedicated purely to Theoretical Physics needs computing support, and there are many more people – including clerical staff, library staff, etc – without whom many of our activities would grind to a halt. None of these support staff gets the recognition they deserve; they are often poorly paid and lack an appropriate career structure that reflects the importance of the work they do.

As well as being a nice award this is an opportunity to remind us academics that we couldn’t do what we do without others doing all the difficult stuff!

So please get your nominations in!

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?

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.