Archive for Higher Education

Exam Time

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 12, 2020 by telescoper

Back in Maynooth into the January examination period, I await the arrival tomorrow of the first batch of examination scripts I have to mark, so I thought I’d do a quick post on the topic of examinations.

First, for readers elsewhere, full-time undergraduate students at Maynooth what is called 60 “credits” in a year, usually split into two semesters of thirty credits each. This is usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination in each module at the end of each semester. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical student will have at least 5 written examination papers in January and at least another 5 in May. Each examination is usually of two hours’ duration.

This is very similar to the system in most UK universities that I am aware of except that a full year’s work over there is 120 credits so there’s a conversion factor of 2:1. A 5-credit module in Ireland would be a 10-credit module in the United Kingdom, for example, but otherwise the system is similar.

One big difference between our examinations in Theoretical Physics in Maynooth and those at other institutions I’ve taught at in the UK is that the papers here – at least at a reasonably advanced level, say Years 3 and 4 – offer no choice of questions to be answered.  A typical format for a two-hour paper is that there are two long questions, each of which counts for 50 marks. Elsewhere  one normally finds students have a choice of two or three questions from four or five on the paper.

One  advantage of our system is that it makes it much harder for students to question-spot in the hope that they can get a good grade by only revising a fraction of the syllabus. If they’re well designed, two long questions can cover quite a lot of the syllabus for a module, which they have to in order to test all the learning outcomes. To accomplish this, questions can be split into parts that may be linked to each other to a greater or lesser extent to explore the connections between different ideas, but also sufficiently separate that a student who can’t do one part can still have a go at others. With such a paper, however, it is a  dangerous strategy for a student to focus only on selected parts of the material in order to pass.

As an examiner, the Maynooth style of examination also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry too much if one question turns out to be harder than the others. That can matter if different students attempt different questions, but not if everyone has to do everything.

But it’s not just the number of questions that’s important, it’s the duration. I’ve never felt that it was even remotely sensible for undergraduate physics examinations to be a speed test, which was often the case when I was a student. Why the need for time pressure? It’s better to be correct than to be fast, I think. I always try to set examination questions that could be done inside two hours by a student who knew the material, including plenty of time for checking so that even a student who made a mistake would have time to correct it and get the right answer. If a student does poorly in this style of examination it will be because they haven’t prepared well enough rather than because they weren’t fast enough.

The structure of the Maynooth examinations at more introductory level is rather different, with some choice. In my first year module on Mechanics & Special Relativity, for example, there is a compulsory first question worth 50 marks (split into several pieces) and then the students can pick two out of three shorter questions worth 25 marks each. This is a somewhat gentler approach than with the more advanced papers, partly adopted because we have quite a few students doing the General Science degree who taking Mathematical Physics as one of their 4 first-year subjects but will not be taking it further.

As their examination is not until Wednesday, I’ll have to wait until later this week to find out how my first-years have done. This will be the examination taken at University level for most of my class, so let me take this opportunity to pass on a few quick tips.

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination and arrive in plenty of time before the start.
  2. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  3. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves.
  4. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and – PLEASE – remember to put the units!
  5. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.

Readers of this blog are welcome to add other tips through the comments box below!

Oh, and good luck to anyone at Maynooth or elsewhere taking examinations in the next few weeks!

 

The Necessity for De-Anglicising Irish Universities

Posted in Education, History with tags , , , , on November 17, 2019 by telescoper

Way back in 1892 Douglas Ross Hyde (who later became the First President of Ireland) delivered a famous speech to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin on the subject of The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland. You can find the text of the speech here, and it’s well worth reading because much of what Hyde says is still relevant to the state of independent Ireland. It’s by no means a xenophobic anti-English rant, by the way, if that’s what you are tempted to infer it is based on the title.

I was struck by a theme which comes up repeatedly in Hyde’s speech. Here, for example:

It has always been very curious to me how Irish sentiment sticks in this half-way house –how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so.

Having moved to Ireland to take up a position in an Irish university relatively recently I have been particularly struck by the tendency of those in charge of higher education in Ireland to copy slavishly the actions of the English government. I say `English’ specifically because higher education is devolved within the UK and there are different policies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. While it is true that we haven’t got a REF or a TEF yet or ridiculously high tuition fees, but that is probably just because of inertia. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if any or all of these were introduced before too long.

(As things stand students at Irish universities do not have to pay tuition fees as such but they do have to pay a `student contribution’ of up to €3000, which is a fee in all but name. There is more state help for disadvantaged students in Ireland than in England too. In most respects the situation here is similar to the regime that held in England prior to 2012, when £9000 year fees were brought in following the Browne Review. The question is whether England will cut university fees before Ireland gets round to increasing them. )

The current Irish government – which is of neoliberal hue – is presiding over a worsening situation in Irish universities, with funding for Irish undergraduate students failing to keep up with increasing numbers. It is hard to resist the feeling that starving the system of state funding is a precursor to increasing student fees to levels seen in England. At the moment English universities have the highest tuition fees in Europe. After Brexit it will be Ireland that takes that dubious honour within the EU.

The situation is even worse at postgraduate level, about which there seems to have been no thought whatsoever at government levels. In contrast to most European countries there is very little state funding for Masters courses in Ireland, so those wanting to do postgraduate degrees generally have to fund their own fees (over €6K per annum in physics) and living expenses. When final-year undergraduate students ask for advice about doing a Masters one is morally obliged to point out to them that they can do a high-quality course in, e.g., Germany or The Netherlands essentially for free, and that’s what many very able students do. Some might return, and bring their skills and knowledge back to Ireland but many won’t. The landscape of higher-education in Ireland does not encourage them to come back.

So what’s the answer to these woes? Well, it won’t solve everything, but a good start would be to stop looking at England for a way to run higher education and look instead at continental models. In this respect Brexit could prove to be an excellent opportunity for Ireland to reinvent itself as a fully European country. Over the years, largely driven by its membership of the European Union, Ireland has steadily reduced its economic dependency on trade with the United Kingdom and increased its connections with mainland Europe. Brexit will probably accelerate that trend.

I think that Ireland now needs to re-examine other sectors and stop the slavish copying of the idiotic policies of English politicians. It could do worse than to start with 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.

 

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.