Archive for fees

Teaching (about) Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by telescoper

So the academic year nears its end. This week we have the dreaded meetings of the Examination Boards, complete with External Examiners, ordeal by viva voce for selected students, and finally the lists go up announcing success (or otherwise) for this year’s finalists. It’s all a lot of work – and I’m sure also extremely stressful for the students waiting for their results.

If it’s any consolation for any students reading this post, I can assure you that there’s no lack of stress on this side of the fence either. I always feel a sense of dread opening the packets of examination scripts, and this year was no different. Have I set the exam too hard? Will the marks be a fair reflection of the students’ ability? Have they learned anything at all from the hours I spent droning on? These questions are all the more apt for a third-year class, since these are the papers that really count in determining the final outcome of their course. When the lists go up later this week, one’s delight at the sight of happy (or relieved) faces is always tempered by sadness when things have obviously gone wrong.

Coincidentally, I noticed the other day that a former student from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University posted an item on her blog giving her view of her degree. It’s a very frank assessment of her own opinion of the course she took, including a list of her  three favourite courses. None of the ones I lectured are amongst them, by the way, in case you think I’m mentioning it for egocentric reasons. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that I’m one of the lecturers she didn’t like at all!

The main thing is that, for better or worse, our course involves an enormous amount of contact time with academic staff.  In the new fee regime students will pay the same £9K for a science course as they would for the Arts and Humanities:

See, doing a Physics and Astronomy degree, I had about 20 contact hours. With lab time. so in one month I had out stripped the BA people for an entire academic year. So in the 12 weeks of one semester, I have had more contact time than they will get in their entire degree. Worth it?

As for whether we make the best use of the time we devote to teaching, that’s a different matter. We have in fact recently overhauled the entire curriculum so we’ll see whether that has the desired effect. One can’t please all of the people all of the time, so we’ve tried to introduce new teaching methods – e.g. fewer lectures, more problems classes – to try to engage better with more students. Only time will tell whether it works.

Anyway, although it’s not one of the topics of her post, Harriet’s blog brought something from the back of my mind where it usually lurks ready to trouble me when I start to think about teaching physics. The point is that most of us involved in teaching physics at University level think that what we should be doing is training people to be professional physicists. That means teaching them to do physics the way it is actually done by people who do research. That means that, especially in Astronomy, students have to grapple with strange unit systems, peculiar terminology and quite a lot of maths. Those aren’t put into our courses in order to torment students – they’re there in the curriculum because they’re there in the world of (astro)physics research. It would be dishonest for us to pretend we were training physicists if we made out that it was all easier than it actually is.

What I mean to say is that I don’t think it should be our job to present physics in a way that’s different from (specifically easier than) the way it is  done at the coalface, in the world of scientific research.  What we should be doing is giving students the skills and confidence to solve the difficult problems a scientist can expect to confront in that situation. To be honest I don’t think we do that particularly well either, but that’s the aim. And that’s why our courses are mainly taught by people who actually do physics and why we claim our teaching is research-led.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. Especially in earlier years, much of the undergraduate curriculum – Newtonian Mechanics, Electromagnetism, Quantum Mechanics, etc  – is not “frontier” stuff so probably doesn’t require an active researcher to teach it. On the other hand, none of that is exactly easy so anyone who is going to teach it competently needs to have mastered it themselves. And in later years, the more specialist material and projects certainly require an active research environment.

Anyway, the point is that  in the new fee regime science courses will attract the same level of funding as courses in, e.g. English Literature. But a course in Physics requires physicists to teach it, while a course in literature does not require a team of successful novelists. Given the fact that the way we teach physics is more expensive by a very large margin, should we be rethinking our approach to the basic physics degree, and leave all the fancy research-led stuff to Masters courses?

Should we really be trying to teach all our students how to do physics? Or should we just be teaching them about physics?

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Fee Summary – England versus Wales

Posted in Education with tags , , , on December 1, 2011 by telescoper

We’ve just had our first UCAS visit day of the year, for which those involved were given a handout showing the different fee arrangements for Welsh and English students applying to study at Cardiff University.

On the off-chance that some potential students might come across this blog and also for wider information – since there still seems to be quite a lot of confusion about the financial aspects of study in Wales – I thought I’d share the following useful summary here.

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Cardiff University will charge a tuition fee of £9,000 per annum to new undergraduate students beginning their studies from September 2012 onwards.

I currently live in Wales

Cardiff University will charge an annual fee of £9,000 per annum.  However, if you live in Wales and studying towards your first degree you will not have to pay your tuition fee upfront. You will be eligible for:

• a non-repayable tuition fee grant of £5,535 from the Welsh Government, subject to terms and conditions.
• a repayable tuition fee loan of £3,465 which you only start to pay back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000pa.
• support towards your living costs – a loan is available to help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. Like the tuition fee loan, you only start to pay this back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000 a year.

You may also be eligible for an Assembly Learning Grant to provide additional help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. This grant does not have to be paid back and the amount you receive depends on your household income:

• If your household income is £18,370 a year or less you will be entitled to a full grant of £5,000 a year.
• If your household income is between £18,370 and £50,020 a year you would be entitled to a grant of between £5,000 and £50 a year.

I currently live in England (or elsewhere in the UK)

Cardiff University will charge an annual fee of £9,000 per annum.  However, if you live in England and studying towards your first degree you will not have to pay your tuition fee upfront. You will be eligible for:

• a repayable tuition fee loan of £9,000 which you only start to pay back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000pa.
• support towards your living costs – a loan is available to help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. Like the tuition fee loan, you only start to pay this back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000 a year.

If you are from England, you may also be eligible for a Maintenance Grant to provide additional help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. This grant does not have to be paid back and the amount you receive depends on your household income:

• If your household income is £25,000 a year or less you will be entitled to a full grant of £3,250 a year.
• If your household income is between £25,001 and £42,600 a year you will be entitled to a partial grant.

Please note that the student support arrangements in England are subject to final ratification by Parliament.

I currently live outside the UK but inside the EU

Cardiff University will charge an annual fee of £9,000 per annum.  However, if you are from a country within the EU and studying towards your first degree at Cardiff University, you will not have to pay your tuition fee upfront. You will be eligible for:

• a non-repayable tuition fee grant of £5,535 from the Welsh Government, subject to terms and conditions.
• a repayable tuition fee loan of £3,465 which you only start to pay back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000pa.

University Admissions in Uncharted Territory

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2011 by telescoper

It turns out I have a few minutes spare before going to our staff Away (half) Day this afternoon, so I thought I’d pass on another interesting bit of news that came out this week.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, known to all and sundry as UCAS, has released some interesting statistical information on numbers of applicants to UK universities and how this compares with the corresponding stage in the admissions timetable last year.

We’re still very early on in the process so it would be unwise to read too much into the figures available so far. The big question, however, is whether the ConDem government’s decision to raise fees for university students to £9K per annum has had any effect on the number of students applying. In fact the headline figure is that after several years of growth in overall applicant numbers, the figures for 2012 entry are down 9% on last year. Still early days, of course, but it does look like the new fee levels may be having the deterrent effect we all expected.

Another interesting thing that struck me, from Table 6 of the UCAS analysis, is that the number of students applying to study courses in the physical sciences (including Physics & Astronomy) is down by just 1.6% on the same stage last year, compared to an average of 7.9% across all subjects. (Note that this is not the same as the 9% mentioned above, because students get more than one choice of course..).

Of particular interest to us in Wales is the breakdown of applicants by domicile and choice of institution.  From Table 4 we see that the number of English students applying to Welsh Universities is down 13.4%, while the number of Welsh-domiciled students applying to study in England is down by only 4.3%. If this differential persists then it will have a big impact on the Welsh Higher Education sector, because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision to cut funding for Welsh Universities in order to pay for its  subsidy for  Welsh students wanting to study in England.

It’s too early to predict what will happen to overall student numbers for 2012/13, but I’m sure planning officers in universities all around the UK will be looking at the interim figures with a considerable degree of anxiety.

Welsh fee plans up in the air…

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by telescoper

I had just finished the exciting job of marking my examinations and collating all the results with coursework when I noticed a rumour circulating on twitter about the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) having rejected plans by all Welsh universities to charge higher fees than the basic £4K laid down by the Welsh Assembly Government. The rumour later developed into a story on the NUS website and then on the local BBC News, Wales Online and the Times Higher.

In case you’re not up with the intricacies of Welsh Higher Education policy, universities here in the Principality will, from 2012, be allowed to charge fees of up to £9K per annum (as in England) if and only if they have approval from HEFCW for plans relating “to widening access and to improving the student experience.” Note there’s apparently no requirement of providing a better education in that. As a mere university teacher I have no idea at all what has gone into Cardiff University’s plan nor do I know why it is deemed satisfactory. Such things are done by our lords and masters in the University administration.

It does seem strange, though, that the process works this way, i.e. that HEIs have to produce plans that they hope will be accepted by HEFCW. Why doesn’t HEFCW simply tell the HEIs what they have to do to be able to charge the fees? I wonder how the clear the guidance from HEFCW was. It might be a case of “Read my mind to see what I want, and if you don’t give it to me I’ll shoot you”.

Universities wishing to charge £9K (which is, predictably, nearly all of them) had to submit their plans to HEFCW by the end of May. Several universities did so, including Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Bangor, and even Glamorgan, who all want to charge the maximum £9K. HEFCW has now announced that none of them meet the standard needed to charge more than £4k. There’s still quite a bit of time for universities to amend their plans before the deadline of 11th July, so this is by no means the end of the story, but it has certainly set alarm bells ringing where I work!

The point is that the Welsh Assembly Government is heavily cutting the funds it allocates to Welsh Universities from 2012, so if institutions are not allowed to charge sufficiently high fees to recoup that loss then many departments are going to be in really big trouble, especially those teaching expensive subjects.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews is quoted as saying

I asked for Hefcw to be thorough and robust when scrutinising the fee plans submitted by our higher education and further education institutions. It is clear that they have been and I heartily endorse this.

There are a number of ways of reading the lie of the land here. One is that it’s actually a sensible process of consultation between individual institutions and HEFCW. Since this is uncharted territory for both there may well be things that need to be clarified on both sides, and HEFCW may therefore be engaging in a sensible process of consultation and iteration in order to help institutions produce acceptable plans. It could also represent an element brinkmanship, so the Minister and HEFCW can be seen to be flexing a bit of muscle, in contrast to the situation in England, where it appears the government has no power to prevent institutions charging higher fees. I always felt it was inevitable that Cardiff, as a Russell Group University, would want to charge £9K, but I can imagine Leighton Andrews being irritated by places like Glamorgan wanting to charge the same.

Whatever game is being played, it’s a very dangerous one and the stakes are very high. The Welsh Assembly Government has already indicated it will pay the fees of any Welsh domiciled students wherever they study in the UK. For the most part that will mean £9K per student per year for Welsh students wanting to study in England. If Welsh universities can only charge £4K per year for students coming from England to Wales then there will be a huge imbalance in funds flowing in and out of the higher education sector. In effect, the Welsh Assembly Government will be subsidising English universities at the expense of Welsh ones.

Currently the number of English students coming to Wales exceeds the number of Welsh students studying in England. The WAG’s plan relies on a net influx of funds to offset the cuts in central funding needed to pay student bursaries. However, English students do not come in equal numbers to all Welsh institutions. More come to Cardiff University than, say, Bangor. So how will this extra income from England benefit the Welsh HE sector generally? Is the proposal to cut HEFCW funds to Universities who succeed in attracting English cash cows students and redistribute the dosh among those institutions that don’t? That hardly seems equitable to me.

I’m certainly not in a panic about this news, although I may be on July 11th when we find out the final outcome. In the meantime, as a humble academic at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to such matters, I’ll get on with my teaching and research and pray that those in charge actually know what they’re doing…