Archive for Higher Education

Ninth Level Ireland

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2018 by telescoper

Today I’ve been trying to finish off a couple of things before making a short trip back to Cardiff to sort out of a few personal matters. Next week the new intake of students starts to arrive in Maynooth. Officially Welcome Week begins on 17th September but in the second half of next week there are `Orientation Talks’ aimed at guiding new students through all the options they have in the first year. The flexibility of the degree programmes here really makes these talks essential.

Yesterday I blogged about some of the differences between the Higher Education systems in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Another couple came up today. The first is that `Orientation’ over here is what UK universities usually call `Induction’. One thing is common to both systems, though. When I made my annual `joke’ about `induction’ involving passing the students through a magnetic field in order to establish their potential, it fell just as flat here as it always has done on the UK.

Another difference is that over here we don’t have graduation ceremonies; they are called conferring ceremonies. On University Challenge there is no conferring. Moreover, the ceremonies are not in July (as graduation ceremonies usually are in the UK). In fact there are three sets of ceremonies, in mid-September, late October/November, and March. The first set is next week actually. That means I won’t be able to bore my readership with explanations of the Latin grammatical origins of the words graduand and graduate as I have done in the past.

Finally, I just wanted to mention that there is a site called Ninth Level Ireland which aggregates news items, blogs and other online items about Higher Education in Ireland. That site started reblogging my posts long before I moved to Ireland, actually. I know quite a few Irish academics follow Ninth Level Ireland , and if you’re interested in matters academical then it’s well worth looking at. As you can see, it even uses the same WordPress theme as this blog.

I don’t know whether it is automated (like a `bot’) or whether items are selected by hand, but if it’s the former I suspect this post might well end up the site!

Advertisements

Problems with two-year degrees

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2017 by telescoper

I see that the Minister responsible for UK universities, Jo Johnson, has decided that universities should offer two-year degrees, claiming that this will somehow attract more students into higher education.

The idea seems to be that students will get the same `amount’ of teaching, but concentrated in two full calendar years rather than spread over three academic years. This fast-track degree will be offered at a lower level of fee than a normal three-year Bachelors programme.

I can just about accept that this will work in some disciplines and at some universities. The (private) University of Buckingham, for example, already offers such programmes. On the other hand, the University of Buckingham did not participate in the latest Research Excellence Framework, no doubt for the reason that teaching all-year round leaves its academic staff no time to do research or even attend conferences, which (I find) these days is only possible during the summer recess.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think an institution that does not combine teaching and research – and indeed one in which the teaching is not led by research – does not merit the name of `University’. The old polytechnics offered a range of valuable opportunities that complemented the traditional honours degree, but that capacity was basically eliminated in 1992 when all such institutions became universities.

Though my main objection to two-year degrees is their impact on research, there are problems from the teaching side too. One is that keeping up the intensity of full-time study throughout a whole year will, in my opinion, exacerbate the difficulty many students have managing their workload without stress or other mental health difficulties. Moreover, many students currently use the long summer vacation either to work, either to earn money to help offset the cost of study, or to participate in placements, internships or other activities to help make them more employable after graduation.

It would be particularly difficult to manage two-year degrees in STEM disciplines, as the teaching laboratories need maintenance and installation of new equipment, for which the proposed system allows no time. And how would project work fit into the fast-track system? On top of all that there’s the fact that the current fee level does not cover the cost of teaching in STEM disciplines, so having to do it faster and for less money is not going to be possible. Incidentally, many STEM students currently pursue undergraduate programmes that last four years, not three…

These points have no doubt been made before, but there is another point that is less widely understood. The fact is that a two-year Bachelors degree may not be a recognised qualification outside the UK. This is, in fact, already a problem with the four-year undergraduate programmes we call, e.g., MPhys, and regard as Masters level in this country: these are not regarded as Masters qualifications in many European countries. Perhaps this is part of some cunning plan to stop graduates leaving the UK after Brexit?

In the light of these difficulties it is no surprise to me that not a single undergraduate I’ve spoken to thinks that a two-year degree is a sensible option. If the government wants to make studying cheaper, said one Physics student I was chatting to, why don’t they just cut the fees for normal degree programmes?

The impression one gets from all this `thinking’ is that the Government increasingly regards universities as businesses that trade in a commodity called `education’, where the word ‘education’ is narrowly construed as `training’ in the skills needed for future employment. I believe a University education is (or should be) far more about developing critical thinking, problem-solving ability, intellectual curiosity than it is about teaching them, e.g., programming skills. Skills are important, of course, but we also need to educate students in what to use them for.

Module Evaluation

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on May 31, 2017 by telescoper

It’s always with a measure of trepidation that I look at the feedback that students give on a module that I’ve been teaching, and this nervousness is considerably enhanced when it’s the first time I’ve lectured that material. This morning I grasped the nettle and clicked on the link to take me to my questionnaire results for my module Physics of the Early Universe. I was relieved that it was all fairly positive.

In the old days these things were done on paper, which meant quite a big job collecting and collating the results. Nowadays it’s all done online, which means not receiving any drawings or other artistic contributions that some students were wont to scribble on the questionnaires. Past experience has been that the response rate is lower for on-line surveys, but the response rate I got this time was pretty high – over 80%. Perhaps students are getting more accustomed to doing everything on line?

I never find the numerical scores particularly useful as one has no idea how to calibrate them, but the textual comments made by students are often interesting and helpful. They’re all anonymous, of course, to encourage students to be frank.

One thing that clearly went down very well was the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded all my lectures and exercise classes in toto and put them up on our Virtual Learning Environment (called Learning Central) for the students to view at their leisure. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible lecture capture system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and the questionnaire responses showed that the students really appreciated the availability of the recordings; a representative comment can be found below.

Not all my colleagues are keen on the idea of lecture capture, but I like it a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll thatr I’ve been running on this for a few years:

It’s always difficult when you give a new set of lectures judging the pace appropriately. I spent more time on introductory material than I should perhaps have done, and also – as a number of students made clear in the module evaluation – should have done some more worked examples. I’ll try do better next time, and I am very grateful to those who took the time to complete the survey pointing out how I might improve. I always take constructive criticism very seriously.

It is of course the negative comments that are the most helpful in a practical sense, but it is always nice to find comments like these:

The lecturer is very passionate about the subject and that really helps as you can ask any question and he’ll be able to answer it. Furthermore, his enthusiasm helps to keep you engaged. I also found it helpful that the lectures were recorded, so I could look over them while working on coursework.

Before you accuse me of doing so, I admit that I have cherry-picked one of the good ones to show myself in a good light.

I’m less sure how to interpret this one:

The lectures were incredible.

Anyway, the students on this module have now finished the exam and will be waiting for the results which come out in a couple of weeks. If any happen to be reading this blog then thanks for your comments and

The Higher Education Green Paper – Expert Commentary

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on November 6, 2015 by telescoper

Hot news in Higher Education today is that the long-awaited Higher Education Green Paper is now published. A summary of this discussion document which is called Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice can be found here. I haven’t got time to provide a detailed response this morning, so I will defer to an acknowledged expert on the subject of “fulfilling potential”, Dylan Moran:

Research Funding – A Modest Proposal

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on September 9, 2015 by telescoper

This morning, the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, made a speech in which, among other things, he called for research funding to be made simpler. Under the current “dual funding” system, university researchers receive money through two main routes: one is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which leads to so-called “QR” funding allocations made via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and the other is through research grants which have to be applied for competitively from various sources, including the Seven Research Councils.

Part of the argument why this system needs to be simplified is the enormous expense and administrative burden of the Research Excellence Framework.  Many people have commented to me that although they hate the REF and accept that it’s ridiculously expensive and time-consuming, they didn’t see any alternative. I’ve been thinking about it and thought I’d make a suggestion. Feel free to shoot it down in flames through the box at the end, but I’ll begin with a short introduction.

Those of you old enough to remember will know that before 1992 (when the old `polytechnics’ were given the go-ahead to call themselves `universities’) the University Funding Council – the forerunner of HEFCE – allocated research funding to universities by a simple formula related to the number of undergraduate students. When the number of universities suddenly increased this was no longer sustainable, so the funding agency began a series of Research Assessment Exercises to assign research funds (now called QR funding) based on the outcome. This prevented research money going to departments that weren’t active in research, most (but not all) of which were in the ex-Polytechnics. Over the years the apparatus of research assessment has become larger, more burdensome, and incomprehensibly obsessed with short-term impact of the research. Like most bureaucracies it has lost sight of its original purpose and has now become something that exists purely for its own sake.

It is especially indefensible at this time of deep cuts to university core funding that we are being forced to waste an increasingly large fraction of our decreasing budgets on staff-time that accomplishes nothing useful except pandering to the bean counters.

My proposal is to abandon the latest manifestation of research assessment mania, i.e. the REF, and return to a simple formula, much like the pre-1992 system,  except that QR funding should be based on research student (i.e. PhD student) rather than undergraduate numbers. There’s an obvious risk of game-playing, and this idea would only stand a chance of working at all if the formula involved the number of successfully completed research degrees over a given period .

I can also see an argument  that four-year undergraduate students (e.g. MPhys or MSci students) also be included in the formula, as most of these involve a project that requires a strong research environment.

Among the advantages of this scheme are that it’s simple, easy to administer, would not spread QR funding in non-research departments, and would not waste hundreds of millions of pounds on bureaucracy that would be better spent actually doing research. It would also maintain the current “dual support” system for research, if that’s  a benefit.

I’m sure you’ll point out disadvantages through the comments box!


The Renewed Threat to STEM

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by telescoper

A couple of years ago, soon after taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at the University of Sussex, I wrote a blog post called The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies about how the funding policies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) were extremely biased against STEM disciplines. The main complaint I raised then was that the income per student for science subjects does not adequately reflect the huge expense of teaching these subjects compared to disciplines in the arts and humanities. The point is that universities now charge the same tuition fee for all subjects (usually £9K per annum) while the cost varies hugely across disciplines: science disciplines can cost as much as £16K per annum per student whereas arts subjects can cost as little as £6K. HEFCE makes a small gesture towards addressing this imbalance by providing an additional grant for “high cost” subjects, but that is only just over £1K per annum per student, not enough to make such courses financially viable on their own. And even that paltry contribution has been steadily dwindling.  In effect, fees paid by arts students are heavily subsidising the sciences across the Higher Education sector.

The situation was bad enough before last week’s announcement of an immediate £150M cut in HEFCE’s budget. Once again the axe has fallen hardest on STEM disciplines. Worst of all, a large part of the savings will be made retrospectively, i.e. by clawing back money that had already been allocated and which institutions had assumed in order to plan their budgets. To be fair, HEFCE had warned institutions that cuts were coming in 2015/16:

This means that any subsequent changes to the funding available to us from Government for 2015-16, or that we have assumed for 2016-17, are likely to affect the funding we are able to distribute to institutions in the 2015-16 academic year. This may include revising allocations after they have already been announced. Accordingly, institutions should plan their budgets prudently.

However, this warning does not mention the possibility of cuts to the current year (i.e. 2014-15). No amount of prudent planning of budgets will help when funding is taken away retrospectively, as it is now to the case. I should perhaps explain that funding allocations are made by HEFCE in a lagged fashion, based on actual student numbers, so that income for the academic year 2014-15 is received by institutions during 15/16. In fact my institution, in common with most others, operates a financial year that runs from August 1st to July 31st and I’ve just been through a lengthy process of setting the budget from August 1st 2015 onward; budgets are what I do most of the time these days, if I’m honest. I thought I had finished that job for the time being, but look:

In October 2015, we will notify institutions of changes to the adjusted 2014-15 teaching grants we announced in March 20158. These revised grant tables will incorporate the pro rata reduction of 2.4 per cent. This reduction, and any other changes for individual institutions to 2014-15 grant, will be implemented through our grant payments from November 2015. We do not intend to reissue 2014-15 grant tables to institutions before October 2015, but institutions will need to reflect any changes relating to 2014-15 in their accounts for that year (i.e. the current academic year). Any cash repayments due will be confirmed as part of the October announcements.

On top of this, any extra students recruited as as  result of the government scrapping student number controls won’t attract any support at all from HEFCE, so we wll only get the tuition fee.And the government says it wants the number of STEM students to increase? Someone tell me how that makes sense.

What a mess! It’s going to be back to the drawing board for me and my budget. And if a 2.4 per cent cut doesn’t sound much to you then you need to understand it in terms of how University budgets work. It is my job – as the budget holder for MPS – to ensure that the funding that comes in to my School is spent as efficiently and effectively on what the School is meant to do, i.e. teaching and research. To that end I have to match income and expenditure as closely as possible. It is emphatically not the job of the School to make a profit: the target I am given is to return a small surplus (actually 4 per cent of our turnover) to contribute to longer-term investments. I’ve set a budget that does this, but now I’ll have to wait until October to find out how much I have to find in terms of savings to absorb the grant cut. It’s exasperating when people keep moving the goalposts like this. One would almost think the government doesn’t care about the consequences of its decisions, as long as it satisfies its fixation with cuts.

And it’s not only teaching that is going to suffer. Another big slice of savings (£52M) is coming from scrapping the so-called “transitional relief” for STEM departments who lost out as a result of the last Research Excellence Framework. This again is a policy that singles out STEM disciplines for cuts. You can find the previous allocations of transitional relief in an excel spreadsheet here. The cash cuts are largest in large universities with big activities in STEM disciplines – e.g. Imperial College will lose £10.9M previous allocated, UCL about £4.3M, and Cambridge about £4M. These are quite wealthy institutions of course, and they will no doubt cope, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable for HEFCE to break a promise.

This cut in fact won’t alter my School’s budget either. Although we were disappointed with the REF outcome in terms of league table position, we actually increased our QR income. As an institution the University of Sussex only attracted £237,174 in transitional relief so this cut is small potatoes for us, but that doesn’t make this clawback any more palatable from the point of view of the general state of health of STEM disciplines in the United Kingdom.

These cuts are also directly contrary to the claim that the UK research budget is “ring-fenced”. It clearly isn’t, and with a Comprehensive Spending Review coming up many of us are nervous that these cuts are just a foretaste of much worse things to come. Research Councils are being asked to come up with plans based on a 40% cut in cash.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

How Labour’s Tuition Fee Proposals Should Be Implemented

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by telescoper

The big news today is Ed Milliband’s announcement that, if elected, the Labour Party would cut the maximum tuition fee payable by students in English universities from £9K to £6K. That will of course be broadly welcomed by prospective students (and indeed current ones, whose fees will be reduced from 2016 onwards). There is however considerable nervousness around the university sector about whether and how the cut of 33% in fee income will be made good. The proposal seems to be that the shortfall of around £3bn will be made up by grants from government to universities, funded by a reduction in tax relief on pension contributions made by high earners.  I have yet to see any concrete proposals on how these grants would be allocated.

I would like here to make a proposal on how this allocation should be done, in such a way that it corrects a serious anomaly in how the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) affect Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For the record, I’ll declare my interest in this: I work in a STEM area and am therefore biased.

I’ll explain my reasoning by going back a few years. Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees in 2012  (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:

Budgets

In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

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.

In my School, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483, a percentage difference of just 16.4%. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated. In most universities, though gladly not mine, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the higher  fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%.

Now there’s a chance to reverse this bias and provide an incentive for universities to support STEM subjects. My proposal is simple: the government grants proposed to offset the loss of tuition fee income should be focussed on STEM disciplines. Income to universities from students in, especially laboratory-based subjects, could then be raised to about £12K, adequate to cover the real cost of teaching, whereas that in the less onerous Arts and Humanities could be fixed at about about £6K, again sufficient to cover the actual cost of teaching but funded by fees only.

I want to make it very clear that I am not saying that non-STEM subjects are of lower value, just that they cost less to teach.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a totally unscientific poll to see what readers of this blog make of the Labour proposals: