Archive for HEFCW

Farewell, then, Leighton Andrews…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by telescoper

Although I no longer live in Wales I couldn’t resist commenting on the resignation, announced on Tuesday, of the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews. It seems that Mr Andrews was spotted holding a placard protesting against the planned closure of a school, a closure that results from his own policies. Personally, I think that it’s quite an imaginative move for a Minister to campaign against his own policies. It shows an open-mindedness absent in most politicians.

Leighton Andrews will probably be best remembered as the architect of the policy that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from having to pay large tuition fee rise by a system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the “old”  fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra approx £6K charged by most Universities since the fee cap was raised. This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for study in Welsh universities but wherever they choose to go. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (up to 16,000 × £6000 = £96 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. This has always seemed to me a very strange thing to do when the Welsh Government is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students are paid for by top-slicing the grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So funding cuts for universities in Wales have been  imposed in order to subsidize English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England, but I wonder how many of them realize that if they study England their £9K fee attracts an additional investment of £1.5K from HEFCE whereas there is no equivalent central resource supplied by HEFCW if they study in Wales? To put it another way, each £1 of tuition fee paid by a STEM student is worth £1.16 in England, but just £1 in Wales.

The other drastic implication of this policy is that HEFCW will have no money left to fund research via the QR mechanism that pertains in England (at least for the time being). I blogged about this a couple of days ago so won’t say any more today.

I don’t think any of my former colleagues in Cardiff are terribly upset to see Leighton Andrews go, but there is some nervousness about whether the replacement might be even worse. The new Education Minister is Huw Lewis. I wish him well in his new post, and hope he has the courage to question some of the decisions made by his predecessor that have had such a negative effect on education in Wales.

Anyway, in bidding farewell to Leighton Andrews I thought I’d show him all due respect, and do him the honour of presenting a look-alike. All reference to Muppets purely coincidental…


Open for Clearing in Physics and Astronomy

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by telescoper

It being A-level results day, I thought I’d try a little experiment and use this blog to broadcast an unofficial announcement that, owing to additional government funding for high-achieving subjects, the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University is able to offer extra places on all undergraduate courses starting this September for suitably qualified students.

An institutional review of intake numbers by HEFCW (Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) resulted in the award of extra funded places for undergraduate entry in 2012. Of particular benefit are those STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects seen as strategically important by the UK government. Therefore, the School of Physics and Astronomy is pleased to announce acceptance of late UCAS applications from those candidates expected to achieve our entrance requirements.

Those current applicants who have already applied through the standard UCAS procedure and who have been offered places need not be concerned as these new places are IN ADDITION to those we were expecting to fill.

Applications can be made through Clearing on UCAS after discussions with the Admissions Team.

Course codes (for information)

BSc Physics (F300) and BSc Astrophysics (F511)

MPhys Physics (F303) and MPhys Astrophysics (F510)

BSc Physics with professional placement (F302)

BSc Theoretical and Computational Physics (F340)

BSc Physics with Medical Physics (F350)

Course enquiries can be made to Dr Carole Tucker, Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, via email to or call the admissions teams on 029 2087 4144 / 6457.

Good luck!

Admissions Latest

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by telescoper

Only time for a short post today, so I thought I’d just pass on a link to the latest  Higher Education application  statistics, as reported by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

It’s still several weeks before the UCAS deadline closes in January so it’s too early to see exactly what is happening, but the figures do nevertheless make interesting reading.

The total number of applications nationally  is down by 12.9% on last year, but the number of  applications from UK domiciled students has fallen by 15.1%; an increase in applications from non-EU students is responsible for the difference in these figures.

Non-science subjects seem to be suffering the biggest falls in application numbers; physical sciences are doing better than average, but still face a drop of 7% in numbers. Anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from chatting to Physics & Astronomy colleagues is that some departments are doing very well, even increasing on last year, while others are significantly down. It is, however, far too early to tell how these numbers will translate into bums on seats in lecture theatres.

A particular concern for us here in Wales are the statistics of applications to Welsh universities.  The number of English-domiciled applicants to Welsh universities is down by 17.4% while the number of Welsh applicants to Welsh universities is down by 15.2%. On the other hand, the number of Welsh applicants to English universities is down by just 5.3%.

The pattern of cross-border applications is particularly important for Welsh Higher Education  because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of subsidizing Welsh-domiciled students wherever they study in the United Kingdom, a policy which is generous to students but which is paid for by large cuts in direct university funding.  The more students take the WAG subsidy out of Wales, the larger will be the cuts in grants to Welsh HEIs.

Moreover, in the past, about 40% of the students in Welsh universities come from England.  If the fee income from incoming English students is significantly reduced relative to the subsidy paid to outgoing Welsh students then the consequences for the financial health of Welsh universities are even more dire.

Although it is early days the figures as they stand certainly suggest the possibility that the  number of Welsh students  studying in England will increase both relative to the number staying in Wales and relative to the number of English students coming to study in Wales. Both these factors  will lead to a net transfer of funds from Welsh Higher Education Institutions to their English counterparts.   I think the policy behind this is simply idiotic, but by the time the WAG works this out it may be too late.

Another interesting wrinkle on the WAG’s policy can be found in a piece in last week’s Times Higher. We’re used to the idea that people might relocate to areas where schools or  local services are better or cheaper, but consider the incentives on an English  family who are thinking of the cost of sending their offspring to University. The obvious thing for them  to do is to relocate to Wales in order to collect the WAG subsidy which they can then spend sending their little dears to university in England. That will save them tens of thousands of pounds per student, all taken directly from the Welsh Higher Education budget and paid into to the coffers of an English university.

There are already dark rumours circulating that the WAG subsidy will turn out to be so expensive that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is thinking of cancelling all its research funding. That means that Welsh universities face the prospect of having to take part in the burdensome Research Excellence Framework, in competition with much better funded English and Scottish rivals, but getting precisely no QR funding at the end of it.

And all this is because the Welsh Assembly Government wants to hand a huge chunk of its budget back to England. Is this how devolution is supposed to work? Madness.

A Healthy Increase

Posted in Education with tags , , , on August 25, 2011 by telescoper

Up early again this morning, I thought I’d do a quick post because I just remembered that there’s a bit of a loose end I’ve left dangling for a week or so owing to my recent indisposition.

I posted about 10 days ago about my week as “responsible person” for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University owing to the absence of all the really responsible people on their respective vacations. By sheer coincidence my week in charge spanned the day that A-level results were announced and therefore the period during which we finalised this year’s UCAS admissions process. I had thought this might be quite a stressful time because rather late in the day we were given a significant increase in funded student numbers by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) which made it necessary for us to enter the clearing system to find the extra students.

As it turned out however the prospective students to whom we’d made offers paid back our confidence in them and a large fraction got the necessary grades. We did go into clearing, but only briefly, to pick up a relatively small number of unattached applicants who matched our criteria. I’m happy to report, therefore, that we’ve got a very healthy intake of 120 students this year, up by about 30 on last year. That’s exactly the increase we had planned for and we can cope with it without making drastic changes, such as increasing the size of tutorial groups, that would remove the personal touch that makes this such a pleasant School to work and, I hope, study in.

The hard work done all year round by admissions teams in University departments tends to be drastically undervalued, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Carole Tucker for doing such a great job for the School of Physics & Astronomy, ably supported by Nicola Hunt. Where we’d be without them I don’t know.

Modesty forbids me, of course, from pointing out who was acting Head of School while this all came to fruition, and who therefore really deserves the credit….

Stellar Research?

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , on August 24, 2011 by telescoper

I heard today that  Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Government, John Harries, has called for Welsh universities to be more “predatory” in attracting “star researchers” to Wales. At first sight I thought that sounded like good news for astronomy, but reading the article more closely I realise that’s not what he meant!

The point is that, according to the BBC article,  Welsh universities currently only attract about 3% of the UK’s research funding whereas the famous Barnett formula allocates Wales about 5% of the total in other areas of expenditure.  Nobody involved in research  would argue for funds to be allocated on any other basis than through quality, so there’s no clamour for having research funding allocated formulaically a là Barnett; the only way to improve the success rate is to improve the quality of applications. John Harries suggests that means poaching groups from elsewhere who’ve already got a big portfolio of research grants…

The problem with that strategy is that it’s not very easy to persuade such people to leave their current institutions, especially if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. It’s not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The  financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they are successful.

I agree with Prof. Harries that Welsh universities need to raise their game in research, but I don’t think this “transfer market” approach is likely to provide a solution on its own. I think Wales needs a radical restructuring of research, especially in science, across the whole sector, which I think is unacceptably complacent about the challenges ahead.

For a start, much more needs to be done to identify and nurture  younger researchers, i.e. future research stars  rather than present ones.  Most football clubs nowadays have an “academy” dedicated to the development of promising youngsters, so why can’t we do a similar thing for research? Research groups in different Welsh universities also need to develop closer collaborations, and perhaps even full mergers, in order to compete with larger English institutions.

More controversially I’d say that the problem is not being helped by Welsh universities continuing to be burdened by the monstrous bureaucracy and bizarre practices of the Research Excellent Framework, which allocates “QR” research funds according to priorities set by HEFCE in a way that reflects the thinking of the Westminster parliament. The distribution of QR funding in Wales, which is meant to supplement competitive grant income from UK  funding bodies, should be decided by HEFCW in line with Welsh strategic priorities. Wales would be far better off withdrawing from the REF and doing its own thing under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly Government.

What I’m saying is that I’ve got nothing against Welsh universities trying to entice prominent research leaders here;  we’ve recently tried (unsuccessfully) to do it here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, in fact. But in the current funding climate it’s not easy to persuade their current institutions to let them go. In any case,  I don’t think parachuting in a few high-profile individuals will in itself solve the deep-rooted problems of the Welsh university system. A longer term strategy needs to be found.

Scotland already punches above its weight in terms of research income for its universities and there’s no reason why, in the long run, Wales can’t do likewise.

Acting and Clearing

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from my trip to Copenhagen, it’s going to be back to work with a vengeance. To those of you who think academics have massively long summer breaks, I can tell you that mine ends on Monday when I will be doing a stint as Acting Head of School. That’s not usually a particularly onerous task during the summer months, but next week happens to be the week that A-level results come out and it promises to be a hectic and critical period. It’s obviously a sheer coincidence that all the other senior professors have decided to take their leave at this time…

There are several reasons for this being a particularly stressful time. First the  number of potential students applying to study Physics (and related subjects) this forthcoming academic year (2011/12) in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University was up by a whopping 53% on last year. I blogged about this a few months ago when it became obvious that we were having a bumper year.

The second reason is that Cardiff’s  School of Physics & Astronomy has been given a big increase in funded student numbers  from HEFCW. In fact we’ve been given an extra 60 funded places (over two years), which is a significant uplift in our quota and a much-needed financial boost for the School. This has happened basically because of HECFW‘s desire to bolster STEM subjects as part of a range of measures related to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the regions. Preparations have been made to accommodate the extra students in tutorial groups and we’re even modifying one of our larger lecture rooms to increase capacity.

Unfortunately the extra places were announced after the normal applications cycle was more-or-less completed, so the admissions team had been proceeding on the basis that demand would exceed supply for this year so has set our undergraduate offers rather high. In order to fill the extra places that have been given to us late in the day, even with our vastly increased application numbers, we will  almost certainly have to go into the clearing system to recruit some of the extra students.

In case you didn’t realise,  universities actually get a sneak preview of the A-level results a couple of days before the applicants receive them. This helps us plan our strategy, whether to accept “near-misses”, whether to go into clearing, etc.

On top of these local factors there is the sweeping change in tuition fees coming in next year (2012-13). Anxious to avoid the vastly increased cost of future university education many fewer students will be opting to defer entry than in previous years. Moreover, some English universities have had cuts in funded student places making entry highly competitive. As an article in today’s Observer makes clear, this all means that clearing is likely to be extremely frantic this year.

And once that’s out of the way I’ll be working more-or-less full time until late September on business connected with the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel, a task likely to be just as stressful as UCAS admissions for both panel members and applicants.

Ho hum.

Cardiff News

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about local affairs, but the emergence of three items of news in the past few days has given me an opportunity to remedy that.

First, and hot off the press this morning, is the news that Cardiff University has at last decided who its next Vice-Chancellor will be after the incumbent,  David Grant, retires next year. The lucky winner is Professor Colin Riordan, who is currently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex (which apparently exists). His background is in the humanities, and his speciality post-war German literature. Since his previous institution doesn’t have a Physics Department, we’re probably  safe for a few years until he finds out Cardiff has one and decides to close it.

Anyway, Professor Riordan became a Vice Chancellor for the first time at the age of 48, which is the same age I am now. Maybe I should be climbing aboard the gravy train? I hear there’s a vacancy as Vice Chancellor at the University of Essex. I would apply, but I fear I have all the wrong vices…

That brings me to yesterday’s news that Cardiff University, along with all the proper most other universities in Wales, is to charge annual tuition fees of, you guessed it, £9K. This is despite recent reports that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) was set to refuse permission to set such high fees. I always thought it was inevitable that Welsh universities would want to charge as much as possible to bring funding levels closer to those in England, but it remains to be seen what effect the new regime will have on student recruitment.  The £9K level is substantially higher than the Welsh Assembly Government’s initial estimate of £7K so it also remains to be seen what the implications are for the WAG budget. We live in interesting times…

However, not wishing to end on a down note, I’ll finish by passing on a bit of up-beat news. Apparently – according to the esteemed National Geographic Magazine – Cardiff is one of the top ten places in the world to visit in 2011, coming in at Number 6 in  this rigorously compiled and totally objective league table. I’m usually a bit skeptical about such things, but who could possibly disagree with the ranking?

1. Muskoka Orange County, Ontario, Canada
2. Patagonia, Argentina
3. San Juan Islands, Washington
4. Minneapolis, Minnesota
5. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
6. Cardiff, Wales
7. Stockholm Archipelago Sweden
8. Azores, Portugal
9. Roatan, Honduras
10. Istria, Croatia

Hang on a minute. Minneapolis? At Number 4?