Archive for education

How Arts Students Subsidise Science

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , on March 26, 2015 by telescoper

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the madness of the current fee regime in UK higher education. Here is a quote from that piece:

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that. A recent report states that the real cost of teaching for Law and Sociology is less than £6000 per student, consistent with the level of funding under the “old” fee regime; teaching in STEM disciplines on the other hand actually costs over £11k. What this means, in effect, is that Arts and Humanities students are cross-subsidising STEM students. That’s neither fair nor transparent.

Now here’s a nice graphic from the Times Higher that demonstrates the extent to which Science students are getting a much better deal than those in the Arts and Humanities.


The problem with charging fees relating to the real cost of studying the subject concerned is that it will deter students from doing STEM disciplines and cause even greater numbers to flock into cheaper subjects (which where much of the growth in the HE sector over the last decade has actually taken place in any case). However, the diagram shows how absurd the current system (of equal fee regardless of subject really is), and it’s actually quite amazing that more Arts students haven’t twigged what is going on. The point is that they are (unwittingly) subsidising their colleagues in STEM subjects. I think it would be much fairer if that subsidy were provided directly from the taxpayer via HEFCE otherwise there’s a clear incentive for universities to rake in cash from students on courses that are cheap to teach, rather than to provide a proper range of courses across the entire curriculum. Where’s the incentive to bother teaching, e.g., Physics at all in the current system?

I re-iterate my argument from a few weeks ago that the Labour Party’s pledge to reduce fees to £6K across all disciplines would result in a much fairer and justifiable system, as long as there was a direct subsidy from the government to make good the shortfall (of around £6K per annum per student in Physics, for example).

Essays in Physics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by telescoper

In the course of a rare episode of tidying-up in my office I came across this. You can click on it to make it bigger if it’s difficult to read. It was the first paper of my finals examination at the University of Cambridge way back in 1985. Yes, that really was thirty years ago…


As you can probably infer from the little circle around number 4, I decided to write an Essay about topic 4. I’ve always been interested in detective stories so this was an easy choice for me, but I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for three hours. Nor do I recall actually ever getting a mark for the essay, so I never really knew whether it really counted for anything. I do remember, however, that I had another 3-hour examination in the afternoon of the same day, two three-hour examinations the following day, and would have had two the day after that had I not elected to do a theory project which let me off one paper at the end.

I survived this rigorous diet of examinations (more-or-less) and later that year moved to Sussex to start my DPhil, returning here couple of years ago as Head of the same School in which I did my graduate studies. To add further proof that the universe is cyclic, this year I’ve taken on the job of being External Examiner for physics at the University of Cambridge, the same place I did my undergraduate studies.

Anyway, to get back to the essay paper, we certainly don’t set essay examinations like that here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex and I suspect they no longer do so in the Department of Physics at Cambridge. I don’t really see the point of making students write such things under examination conditions. On the other hand, I do have an essay as part of the coursework in my 2nd Year Theoretical Physics module. That may seem surprising and I’m not sure the students like the idea, but the reason for having it is that theoretical physics students don’t do experimental work in the second year so they don’t get the chance to develop their writing skills through lab reports. The essay titles I set are much more specific than those listed in the paper above and linked very closely to the topics covered in the lectures, but it’s still an opportunity for physics students to practice writing and getting some feedback on their efforts. Incidentally, some of the submissions last year were outstandingly good and I’m actually quite looking forward to reading this year’s crop!

Helping Blind Physicists

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 4, 2015 by telescoper

The Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has been supporting some fantastic research into the accessibility of science education. Daniel Hajas, a blind second year physics undergraduate student has been working with Dr. Kathy Romer, Reader in Astrophysics, on a research project related to innovative assistive technology.

Daniel came up with the idea of an audio-tactile graphics display (TGD) that should allow representation of graphical information in audio and tactile modalities, mostly focusing on figures used in mathematical sciences such as graphs, geometric shapes etc. The TGD is a device  with approximate dimensions of a tablet that can sit on a table top and can be connected with a PC using either a wired or wireless solution.

During the summer of 2014, Daniel wrote a research proposal, attended an assistive technology oriented conference and since the beginning of this academic year has been searching for partners/funding. Daniel and Kathy recently submitted an application to the Inclusive Technology Price (ITP).

Since October they have made contact with IT and cognitive science experts from the Sussex IT department and are also in contact with an LHC Sound project (CERN) team member to assist with sonification. Daniel and Kathy plan to establish collaboration with experts from various fields, find research partners and funding. Such an interdisciplinary research requires collaboration of various Sussex Departments if not other Universities from across the UK.

Daniel's 3D Vector Board

Daniel’s 3D Vector Board

Daniel has also been busy inventing the ‘3D vector board’, a small plastic board with two flexible rubber stripes perpendicular to each other which can be can moved around such that they show the axes of a coordinate system. The board has a grid on it with 1×1 cm squares. At the junctions four little holes are drilled in the corner of the squares. This allows the vectors (metal sticks of different length) to be fixed on the board. Since there are horizontal, diagonal and vertical sticks i.e. the sticks are either in the plane, perpendicular to or in an angle respect to the plane of the board 3D vector scenarios can be modelled easily.

Although Daniel intended to use the board solely for his own purposes, feedback suggests this relatively simple tool could be used efficiently in education for demonstrational purposes. Both visually impaired and sighted students could benefit from it. Sketches on paper or black boards only allow 2D representations. The 3D vector board might also work well in illustrating aims of the TGD project. Although the main goal is to develop a very advanced high-tech assistive device over a period of years, Daniel and Kathy might also come up with a number of low-tech ideas to improve accessibility of mathematical sciences for visually impaired students.

See Daniel’s project website for further details about his research.

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).


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…

Graphic Display

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , , , on November 29, 2014 by telescoper

Two days ago, on Thursday, I had the pleasure of spending all day at an “Awayday” trying to work out how to implement the University of Sussex Strategic Plan, Making the Future. My main contribution was this beautifully clear diagram summarising a lengthy discussion on research strategy:
Obviously the diagram needs no further explanation, but members of the audience were so impressed with it as a piece of graphic art that the end of the day I was asked to sign it.

Research Strategy

Now, who’s going to nominate me for the Turner Prize?

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.


Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Advice for Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy Students on Clearing!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 14, 2014 by telescoper

Got your A-level results? Not made your first-choice University? My advice is:


We still some have places in the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Whether you’re interested in Physics, Astrophysics, Astronomy or Mathematics (or even a combination of those subjects), why not just take a look at the University’s Clearing Page and give us a ring?

As a matter of fact, I’ll be around myself from 8am this morning to talk to interested students!

Click the relevant link for more information on our courses in Physics & Astronomy or for Mathematics!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,415 other followers