Archive for degrees

Accreditation, Validation and Recognition of Physics Degrees

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on September 19, 2022 by telescoper

Last week I gave a couple of talks to new undergraduate students about courses in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics here at Maynooth. As happens from time to time, a student asked me if our programmes are accredited by the Institute of Physics. The short answer to this is ‘no’.

Before going further into this, I should probably explain what accreditation actually means. An accredited degree is one that counts as a professional qualification that enables the holder to pursue a career in a given discipline, usually as a practitioner of some sort. Obvious examples are medical degrees (which Maynooth does not offer), Engineering, Architecture, Law, Accounting and Psychology (for its clinical aspects). Most degree progammes at Maynooth and elsewhere are not accredited

As the Complete University Guide says:

You shouldn’t be concerned about the quality of a course just because it isn’t accredited  not all degree courses are. Accredited courses are only really necessary if there is a professional qualification in the industry you plan to work in  where they can help you to get ahead in your chosen career.

I’ll add for those who weren’t aware that the Institute of Physics covers the UK and Ireland.

Having a physics degree accredited by the IOP is not a professional requirement as it is in, say, Law or Engineering. Indeed, there is no job or career path in physics that requires a degree with IOP accreditation. If there were then nobody with a physics degree from outside the UK or Ireland would be eligible for it. IOP accreditation is also irrelevant for doing a Masters or PhD. Ask any one of a number of our graduates!

We have discussed IOP accreditation a number of times with the unanimous result that we should steer clear of this process. There are two main reasons why.

The first is that the IOP insists on there being a practical laboratory component of any courses it accredits, so it will not accredit a purely theoretical degree programme. There is, for example, a Theoretical Physics degree programme which is accredited, but students on this programme had to do laboratories in the first year. Here in Maynooth the Department of Experimental Physics has accreditation for programmes, including a Double Major in Experimental Physics and Another Subject. Consequently, if you do Experimental Physics and Mathematical Physics that combination is accredited. But if you do Mathematical Physics on its own or with another subject that will not be an accredited programme. So the first reason is that if we applied for IOP accreditation (which we have never done and have no intention of doing), we would not get it unless we required students to take Experimental Physics too, which would reduce the choice available to students.

As an aside I should mention that there is an alternative degree status offered by the IOP, namely recognised rather than accredited. A list of current recognised courses is here (PDF). This includes interdisciplinary programmes involving mathematics and physics. We could apply for this, I suppose, were it not for the second point.

The second point is that we think it would be a huge waste of effort, especially for a very small department like ours. While the accreditation process does provide some external oversight of course content and quality, one has to weigh up the small benefit against the extremely onerous bureaucratic burden it places on departments as well as imposing restrictions on progression rules and forcing an unjustifiable conformity on courses.

We in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University feel these negatives strongly outweigh any positives of accreditation, which we feel are in fact very hard to identify. There is no job or career path in physics that requires a degree with IOP accreditation. If there were then nobody with a physics degree from outside the UK or Ireland would be eligible. IOP accreditation is also irrelevant for doing a Masters or PhD.  I repeat that we have never to my knowledge had any problem with lack of IOP accreditation being a barrier for any of our graduates.

That doesn’t mean there are no quality controls on our programmes. We go through regular institutional quality reviews that undertake a rigorous assessment of our courses, including interviewing students and staff. The panel on our last review included distinguished physicists from institutions outside Ireland and the UK. We obtained very high commendations for our courses through this process as well as some suggestions of things we might consider to improve things still further. I think such processes that validate our programmes are at least as rigorous as IOP accreditation and are significantly less Anglocentric.

As a Fellow of the Institute of Physics who has taught in Physics Departments for over 20 years I have never understood why people think IOP accreditation is at all important. I know many physicists feel otherwise, however, and indeed most physics courses in the UK and Ireland do appear on the list. I would argue that this is largely for fear of appearing to be out of line rather than for any positive reason.

Anyway, feel free to air your own views through the box below!

The Busyness of Examination Time

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by telescoper

Just time this evening for the briefest of brief posts. This is probably the busiest week of the year at the University of Sussex, and it’s not over yet. The main reason for this busyness is the business of examinations, assessment and degree classification.

This morning we had our meeting of the School Progression and Award Board for Years 3 and 4 at which, among other things, we sorted out the classification for honours of our graduating students. This involves distilling the marks gained over several years of assessments down to a final “Grand Mean”. It’s not a trivial process but I’m glad to say it went off very smoothly.

The pass lists have now gone to be officially signed off by the University administration. They will be posted tomorrow at noon, at which time we’ll have a celebratory drink or several ready for those getting their results.

One of my duties as Head of School is to chair this meeting, but I don’t take credit for the successful running of the meeting because all the hard work of preparation was done by our excellent office staff, especially Oonagh and Chrystelle.

That done there was time for a quick sandwich lunch before heading off to Stanmer House for a teaching “away afternoon” for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, at which we discussed ideas for improvements to the way we teach and assess students.


I’m actually in the group sitting under the parasol in the left foreground.

Stanmer House is set in beautiful parkland just a short walk from Sussex University. I took the more strenuous route over the hill, but am glad I did so because the view was so nice in the glorious sunshine and it made be realise I don’t make as much of the opportunity for walking around the campus as I should.

Tomorrow is going to be another busy day but, if you’ll excuse me, I’m now going to have a glass of chilled white wine and a bite to eat.