Archive for Higher Education

The English Higher Education Funding Mess

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , , on June 2, 2019 by telescoper

One of the items that sneaked out in the news last week was the Augar report on the future of post-18 education and funding in England. A review led by a former equities broker was never likely to be friendly to the higher education sector, and so it seems to have turned out.

The headline recommendation that the level of tuition fee should be reduced from £9250 to £7500 seems to me rather silly: it’s enough of a reduction to cause serious financial problems to universities if the shortfall is not replaced by increased teaching grants  but not enough to make a qualitative difference to students. In fact, since the report also recommends reducing the threshold for repaying student loans, and increasing the term over which they will be repaid, many graduates will end up paying significantly more in the long run.

To be fair the Augar report does recommend:

Government should replace in full the lost fee income by increasing the teaching grant, leaving the average unit of funding unchanged at sector level in cash terms.

Unfortunately, I can easily see a Conservative government implementing the cut in tuition fees but not making up the difference with grants.

As I have blogged about before (many times e.g here) the current level of resource is insufficient to fund teaching STEM disciplines properly. This graphic is from a few years ago, but the situation has not changed significantly:

The annual cost per student in Arts and Humanities disciplines is typically around £6K whereas for STEM disciplines the figure is typically over £10K. The former are effectively subsidizing the latter in the current system. If the maximum fee chargeable is £7.5K then this subsidy will be impossible. Bear in mind also that a slice of the fee is used to fund bursaries and other schemes for widening participation, so only a fraction of that funding is available to be redistributed. It’s a system that is stacked against STEM disciplines already, and that will only get worse if the Augar proposals are implemented.

Another problem with the stance taken by the `independent panel’ is that it seems to regard the only useful courses to be those that lead to high earnings upon graduation. There is even a call to cut funding for course that do not produce `outputs’ that are paid high wages.  I find it profoundly depressing that the purpose of a university is reduced to such an empty utilitarian level. Is this what the education system is to become?

Increasing their future earning potential may indeed be why some people go to university, and good luck to them if it is, but others are driven by quite different goals. Anyone who wants to be a research scientist, for example, faces years of low salaries and insecure contracts until, if they’re lucky, they get a secure job with a decent wage. In this case and no doubt in countless others, students go to university because learning is and end in itself.

While I am critical about the Augar review’s narrow-minded view of higher education, I will give credit where it is due and point out that it does recommend the re-introduction of maintenance grants which, if implemented, would be a positive.

When I went to University (in 1982) I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student on a grant was fairly comfortable. Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly. There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.

In summary, then, I think UK universities are right to be worried about, especially as it comes on top of the damage already being done by Brexit. But Brexit has also induced a paralysis in Westminster that means the legislation needed to enact the Augar recommendations is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon. Although that means that cuts – and let’s face it, that’s what this review is about – are likely to be delayed, the uncertainty will make it difficult for universities to plan their finances.

To summarize the summary: it’s a mess and I’m glad I’m out of it. As I wrote a in 2018, after I’d decided to move to my current position in Ireland:

Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other idiocies that have been inflicted on UK* universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

*To clarify, these idiocies are mainly of English origin, but the devolved systems of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had to deal with the consequences so they have been inflicted on the entire United Kingdom.

I just hope Ireland resists the temptation to destroy its own education system. Recent history does reveal a remarkable willingness to implement stupid ideas from across the Irish Sea but perhaps Brexit will put a stop to that.

 

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Surrey, another unsustainable UK University

Posted in Education with tags , , , on March 4, 2019 by telescoper

A couple of weeks ago I posted an item about planned job losses at Cardiff University during which I remarked that it seemed that a number of other universities are suffering financial problems.

I quote:

There are cold winds blowing through the sector. Many institutions (including Cardiff) have committed to ambitious building programs funded by a combination of borrowing and on optimistic assumptions about growth in student numbers and consequent increases in fee income. Although I no longer work in the UK Higher Education system, I do worry greatly about its sustainability. Even from across the Irish Sea the situation looks extremely precarious: the recent boom could easily end in some institutions going bust. I don’t think that will include Cardiff, by the way. I don’t think the Welsh Government would ever allow that to happen. But I think the English Government wouldn’t act if an English university went bankrupt.

Now the University of Surrey is ringing alarm bells, making £15M cuts and opening up a redundancy scheme `to all staff’. I wonder if that includes the Vice Chancellor, Max Lu, who is quoted on the BBC website:

Mr Lu said: “Some of the main financial challenges include reduced income due to Brexit and an ever more competitive student recruitment environment, significantly increasing pension costs and a national review of tuition fee levels.”

Mr Lu added: “Our university also faces the not inconsiderable impact of a fall in our national league table positions.”

The latter shows the ruinously real effect meaningless league tables can have on an institution and, more importantly, the livelihoods of the staff that work there. The whole higher education sector is suffering because of the ideologically-driven attempt to turn it into some sort of market. A crash seems inevitable unless the dangers are recognized and dealt with.

One thing I want to know, though, is: if the University of Surrey’s redundancy scheme is open `to all staff’, what happens if they all take it?

Cardiff Blues: Sustainability and UK Universities

Posted in Cardiff, Education with tags , , , on February 20, 2019 by telescoper

Just before I left on my travels last week I saw a rather depressing news item about Cardiff University. It seems that, after posting a deficit of £22.8 M last year, the University is planning to cut about 380 staff positions. According to the news item:

“The university plans to reduce current staff levels by 7%, or 380 full-time equivalent over five years,” said vice chancellor Colin Riordan in an email to staff.

Since I left Cardiff University in the summer I didn’t get the email from which this is quoted and I don’t know the wider picture. (If anyone would like to forward the V-C’s email to me I’d be very interested.)

The news item also says

Its aim is to get back into surplus by 2019-20 and it wants to cut staffing costs from 59.6% of total income to no more than 56% of income by 2022-23.

Between you and me I was quite surprised that a University can be spending less than 60% of its income on staff, since staff are by far its most valuable resource. Bear in mind also that academic staff will be responsible for only a fraction of this expenditure. In some universities this fraction is only about half. Cutting this still further seems a very retrograde step to me, as it means that student-staff ratios will inevitably rise, making the institution less attractive to prospective students, as well as increasing the workload on existing staff to intolerable levels.

I sincerely hope none of my former colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy is affected by the deterioration of the University’s finances. At least the news item I referred to does mention new investments in Data Science, so that is presumably a positive development for the Data Innovation Research Institute with which I was formerly associated.

Incidentally, best wishes to anyone at Cardiff who is reading this, and good luck against England in the Six Nations on Saturday!

I’ve mentioned Cardiff here just because I noticed a specific news item (and I used to work there) but it seems a number of other universities are suffering financial problems. There are cold winds blowing through the sector. Many institutions (including Cardiff) have committed to ambitious building programs funded by a combination of borrowing and on optimistic assumptions about growth in student numbers and consequent increases in fee income. Although I no longer work in the UK Higher Education system, I do worry greatly about its sustainability. Even from across the Irish Sea the situation looks extremely precarious: the recent boom could easily end in some institutions going bust. I don’t think that will include Cardiff, by the way. I don’t think the Welsh Government would ever allow that to happen. But I think the English Government wouldn’t act if an English university went bankrupt.

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!

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: