Archive for Leighton Andrews

The Welsh University Funding Debacle

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on September 4, 2013 by telescoper

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. That’s why my eye was drawn this morning to a news item on the BBC website about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border it costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

I did in fact make exactly the same point over three years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG 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 will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise 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. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming depressingly clear.

The figures in the BBC story suggest something that I’ve also worried about, which is that the WAG policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy. There didn’t seem to be any chance of a U-turn while Leighton Andrews remained in charge, but now that he’s gone perhaps there’s hope.

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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…

Slide1

Remarks on Regrading

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2012 by telescoper

I haven’t had time thus far to comment on the ongoing row about GCSE examinations, but was inspired to do a quick lunchtime postette when I read some of Chief Stooge Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s comments over the weekend.

It seems Mr Clegg objects to Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ decision to order the examination board WJEC to regrade GCSEs in English, as a response to a report from regulatory officials arguing that the grading process had been unfair and that it had disadvantaged students. As a result of Leighton Andrews’ intervention, over two thousand Welsh students of English have received higher grades than initially awarded.  In England, on the other hand, the regulator Ofqual decided not to regrade examinations, but to offer students the chance to resit.

Here is a statement from a spokesperson for the Welsh Government explaining the different approaches in England and Wales:

Unlike in England where responsibility for qualifications is devolved through legislation to Ofqual, in Wales the Welsh Ministers have regulatory responsibility for the qualifications taken by learners.

In requiring the regrading to take place, the Minister was fulfilling properly these regulatory responsibilities. The decision to carry out the re-grade in Wales led to the swift resolution of an injustice served to well over 2,000 Welsh candidates.

The decision to direct the WJEC to carry out this work was about fairness and ensuring that Welsh students got the grades they deserved for the work they put into their examination. The result of the re-grade was the only acceptable outcome for learners affected by a questionable grading methodology.

Candidates can now rest assured that the process used to determine their final grades was fair and just.

Nick Clegg accuses the Welsh government of “moving the goalposts” – Westminster politicians can always be relied upon to produce  a tired cliché at the drop of a hat – and accused Mr Andrews of political interference.

I think what I’m going to say may prove quite controversial with readers of this blog, but I think Leighton Andrews did the right thing. He has responsibility for regulating the examination system in Wales, and his officials told him the grades were likely to be wrong. He therefore stepped in and ordered the examinations to be  regraded. What’s the problem?

Minister for Education Michael Gove has already admitted that the grading of GCSE examinations this year was indeed unfair, but he decided not to intervene and left it up to Ofqual to decide what to do. I don’t think this because he was worried about political interference in the examination system, as he’s been all over the exam system like a rash in recent months. He decided not to intervene because he wants to kill CGSEs, and the problems this year have probably done just that.

Presumably Nick Clegg’s response to the grading errors would just have involved saying “sorry”….

But whatever the rights and wrongs of Michael Gove and Leighton Andrews, I think this episode just demonstrates what a complete mess the examination system really is.  If anyone previously thought they knew what a grade C in English was supposed to mean then the behaviour of the exam boards this year will have convinced them otherwise. Students and parents must surely now regard the whole process as arbitrary and meaningless.

It’s also a shame that we now seem to think that education is entirely about examinations and qualifications, as if tinkering with the grades that come out of one end of the process somehow means that the students have learned more.  If  more people grasped the fact that there’s much more to education than bits of paper or rankings in league tables then the power of those in authority to depress and demoralize students and teachers would be immediately diminished.

That wouldn’t solve all the problems in our education system, but it would be a start.

Reffing Madness

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m motivated to make a quick post in order to direct you to a blog post by David Colquhoun that describes the horrendous behaviour of the management at Queen Mary, University of London in response to the Research Excellence Framework. It seems that wholesale sackings are in the pipeline there as a result of a management strategy to improve the institution’s standing in the league tables by “restructuring” some departments.

To call this strategy “flawed” would be the understatement of the year. Idiotic is a far better word.  The main problem being that the criteria being applied to retain or dismiss staff bear no obvious relation to those adopted by the REF panels. To make matters worse, Queen Mary has charged two of its own academics with “gross misconduct” for having the temerity to point out the stupidity of its management’s behaviour. Read on here for more details.

With the deadline for REF submissions fast approaching, it’s probably the case that many UK universities are going into panic mode, attempting to boost their REF score by shedding staff perceived to be insufficiently excellent in research and/or  luring  in research “stars” from elsewhere. Draconian though the QMUL approach may seem, I fear it will be repeated across the sector.  Clueless university managers are trying to guess what the REF panels will think of their submissions by staging mock assessments involving external experts. The problem is that nobody knows what the actual REF panels will do, except that if the last Research Assessment Exercise is anything to go by, what they do will be nothing like what they said they would do.

Nowhere is the situation more absurd than here in Wales. The purported aim of the REF is to allocated the so-called “QR” research funding to universities. However, it is an open secret that in Wales there simply isn’t going to be any QR money at all. Leighton Andrews has stripped the Higher Education budget bare in order to pay for his policy of encouraging Welsh students to study in England by paying their fees there.

So here we have to enter the game, do the mock assessments, write our meaningless “impact” cases, and jump through all manner of pointless hoops, with the inevitable result that even if we do well we’ll get absolutely no QR money at the end of it. The only strategy that makes sense for Welsh HEIs such as Cardiff University, where I work, is to submit only those researchers guaranteed to score highly. That way at least we’ll do better in the league tables. It won’t matter how many staff actually get submitted, as the multiplier is zero.

There’s no logical argument why Welsh universities should be in the REF at all, given that there’s no reward at the end. But we’re told we have to by the powers that be. Everyone’s playing games in which nobody knows the rules but in which the stakes are people’s careers. It’s madness.

I can’t put it better than this quote:

These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example.

Any reader of this blog who works in a university will recognize the sentiments expressed there. But let’s not blame it all on the managers. They’re doing stupid things because the government has set up a stupid framework. There isn’t a single politician in either England or Wales with the courage to do the right thing, i.e. to admit the error and call the whole thing off.

A Return to O-levels?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on June 21, 2012 by telescoper

I woke up this morning as usual to the 7am news on BBC Radio 3, which included an item about how Education Secretary Michael Gove is planning to scrap the current system of GCSE Examinations and replace them with something more like the old GCE O-levels, which oldies like me took way back in the mists of time.

There is a particular angle to this in Wales, because Michael Gove doesn’t have responsibility for education here. That falls to the devolved Welsh Government, and in particular to Leighton Andrews. He’s made it quite clear on Twitter that he has no intention to take  Wales  back to O-levels. Most UK media sources – predominantly based in London – seem to have forgotten that Gove speaks for England, not for the whole United Kingdom.

This is not the central issue, however. The question is whether GCSEs are, as Michael Gove claims, “so bad that they’re beyond repair”. Politicians, teachers and educationalists are basically saying that students are doing better; others are saying that the exams are easier. It’s a shouting match that has been going for years and which achieves very little. I can’t add much to it either, because I’m too old to have done GCSEs – they hadn’t been invented then. I did O-levels.

It does, however, give me the excuse to show you  the O-level physics paper I took way back in 1979. I’ve actually posted this before, but it seems topical to put it up again:

You might want to compare this with a recent example of an Edexcel GCSE (Multiple-choice) Physics paper, about which I have also posted previously.

I think most of the questions in the GCSE paper are much easier than the O-level paper above. Worse, there are many that are so sloppily put together that they  don’t make any sense at all. Take Question 1:

I suppose the answer is meant to be C, but since it doesn’t say that A is the orbit of a planet, as far as I’m concerned it might just as well be D. Are we meant to eliminate D simply because it doesn’t have another orbit going through it?

On the other hand, the orbit of a moon around the Sun is in fact similar to the orbit of its planet around the Sun, since the orbital speed and radius of the moon around its planet are smaller than those of the planet around the Sun. At a push, therefore you could argue that A is the closest choice to a moon’s orbit around the Sun. The real thing would be something close to a circle with a 4-week wobble variation superposed.

You might say I’m being pedantic, but the whole point of exam questions is that they shouldn’t be open to ambiguities like this, at least if they’re science exams. I can imagine bright and knowledgeable students getting thoroughly confused by this question, and many of the others on the paper.

Here’s a couple more, from the “Advanced” section:

The answer to Q30 is, presumably, A. But do any scientists really think that galaxies are “moving away from the origin of the Big Bang”?  I’m worried that this implies that the Big Bang was located at a specific point. Is that what they’re teaching?

Bearing in mind that only one answer is supposed to be right, the answer to Q31 is presumably D. But is there really no evidence from “nebulae” that supports the Big Bang theory? The expansion of the Universe was discovered by observing things Hubble called “nebulae”..

I’m all in favour of school students being introduced to fundamental things such as cosmology and particle physics, but my deep worry is that this is being done at the expense of learning any real physics at all and is in any case done in a garbled and nonsensical way.

Lest I be accused of an astronomy-related bias, anyone care to try finding a correct answer to this question?

The more of this kind of stuff I see, the more admiration I have for the students coming to study physics and astronomy at University. How they managed to learn anything at all given the dire state of science education represented by this paper is really quite remarkable.

Ultimately, however, the issue is not whether we have GCSEs or O-level examinations. There’s already far too much emphasis in the education system on assessment instead of   learning. That runs all the way through schools and into the university system. The excessive time we spend examining students reduces what we can teach them and turns the students’ learning experience into something resembling a treadmill. I agree that we need better examinations than we have now, but we also need   fewer. And we need to stop being obsessed by them.

Do you iTunesU?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on January 23, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve spent all morning re-writing a grant proposal for the umpteenth time, so I thought I’d take a short break for a sandwich and take the opportunity to dash off a quick blogette on a topic of topical topicality.

An interesting Twitter discussion took place on Friday, instigated by Leighton Andrews who asked the apparently innocuous question why so few Welsh universities have put content on iTunes U? I suppose what sparked this off was that a new version of the relevant app had just been released last week. In fact I think there’s only one Welsh university that has any material on iTunesU at all (the University of Glamorgan).

My response to the question was basically that, at least here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University,  we don’t have the resources to put a significant quantity of the more interesting content (e.g. video lectures and podcasts) on this resource. For one thing, although iTunesU is available for both Mac and PC platforms from what I understand you need to buy Apple software in order to create content to upload, which means having to buy Apple products in order to do so. Some of my colleagues have Macs and/or iPads, but I don’t. I think Apple kit is overpriced and gimmicky, but some of my colleagues go even further and consider Apple corp to be an intrinsically evil outfit that we shouldn’t have anything to do with, on principle.

However, those opinions don’t really matter because it would only take a few people with (possibly) dirty Macintoshes in the whole university to set it all up and there are undoubtedly many, especially younger, people out there who would want to see content there.  See, for example, this blog post which shows that having appropriate stuff on iTunesU could have a significant impact on undergraduate admissions. Perhaps we should put our open-day talks etc there and use it as a kind of shop window for the School?

We do have quite a lot of online material already – deposited on a system formerly known as Blackboard but now called Learning Central. Most of us distribute written notes, problem sets and the like on there and I think the students find it quite useful. I don’t know for sure how easy it would be to transfer such material to iTunes, but it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The problem is with the more complicated content such as videos. I’ve experimented with video lectures in the past and quickly came to the conclusion that you have to spend an awful lot of time and money to do them properly, otherwise they are excruciating.  A single fixed camera recording a traditional 50-minute lecture is as dull as ditchwater to watch, and we don’t have the resources to do anything more sophisticated. I think 5 or 10 minute supplementary videos is the way to go with this.

There isn’t much specifically physics content on iTunesU from the UK, apart of course from the Open University which has posted a large amount of material.  Oxford University has also made some very nice things freely available, including lectures on Quantum Mechanics from James Binney.

But then the basic question is who benefits from doing this? Our own (fee-paying) students already get material online for free from Learning Central. Should we make this available for free on a worldwide basis? Contributing to the general education of the world’s population is surely a good thing for a University to be doing, but is it consistent with the New World Order in which universities are merely businesses and students merely customers?

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear any comments on the usefulness (or otherwise) of iTunesU from teaching staff, students and interested parties here or elsewhere. The comments box awaits…

UCAS Update: Worrying for Wales?

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on January 5, 2012 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post today, to comment on the latest batch of application figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). A late rush of applications has changed the situation since I last posted about the topic of university admissions, and there is a mixture of good and bad news.

Overall, applications to UK universities are down 6.4% on last year. That’s not surprising, given the introduction of much higher fees this year and the fact that applications were up last year on the previous year. In fact, it’s a much smaller decrease than many predicted.

It also appears that the Physical Sciences are bucking the national trend. Applications in these subjects are actually up 0.5% on last year. It’s a very slight increase, of course, but better than a drop.

However, there does seem to be some bad news for those of us in  Welsh Higher Education. As I’ve blogged about before, the Welsh Assembly Government has decided to subsidise Welsh domiciled students wherever in the UK they decide to go to University. Funding the  required bursaries means that  money has to be clawed back from Welsh Higher Education Institutions.

Leighton Andrews, the Minister responsible for administering this policy,  has argued that the resulting shortfall will be more than offset by funds brought into Wales by English students electing to study here and bringing their own money with them. That argument can only be sustained if the number of English students wanting to study in Wales is greater than the number of Welsh students wanting to study in England, which has been the case in previous years. Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales whereas about 16,000 Welsh students study in England.

The latest application figures, however, reveal a potentially worrying trend. Applications from English students to Wales are down a massive 11.1%, while applications from Welsh students to English universities are up 2.9%. These are application figures, of course, and it’s by no means clear how they will translate into actual numbers of students next year. However, any drop in income from English students and/or increase in expenditure on Welsh students will squeeze the Welsh Higher Education budget.

In fact Welsh universities expecting a massive shortfall next year anyway, because HEFCW will be forced to slash the core support for existing students at Welsh universities in order to pay for those going to England.The School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, for example, is currently running a comfortable surplus. Next year, however, we are planning on the basis that we be losing all of our core teaching support for students in Years 2, 3 and 4, money which has been allocated to support existing students in Wales but which instead will be clawed back and given to new students wanting to study at English HEIs. Only the first year students will be bringing in the new £9K fee, so this policy will plunge us into deficit and we’ll have to rely on the goodwill of the University administration to tide us over with a subsidy until we have a full complement of fee-paying students. It will only after be several years of the new fee-paying regime , if at all, that the deficit situation is reversed. Meanwhile it might just provide University administrators with an excuse for closing expensive departments….

Happy New Year.