Archive for Times Higher Education

The One True Ranking Narrative

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 27, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday saw the release of the 2019 Times Higher World University Rankings. The main table of rankings can be found here and the methodology used to concoct it here.

It seems that there’s little point in doing so, but I’ll try to reiterate the objections I made last year and the year before that and the year before that to the completely unscientific nature of these tables. My main point is that when changes to the methodology used to compile these tables are introduced no attempt is ever made to distinguish their effect from changes in the input data. This would be quite easy to do, by simply running the old methodology alongside the new on the metrics. The compilers of these tables steadfastly refuse to do this straightforward exercise, I suspect this is because they know what the result would be: that many of the changes in these tables year-on-year are the result of artificially introduced `churn’.

And then there’s the questions of whether you think the metrics used are meaningful anyway, and whether any changes not due to methodological tweaks are simply statistical noise, but I have neither the time nor the energy to go into that one now…

Notwithstanding the reasonable objections to these tables, the newspapers are full of stories constructed to explain why some universities went up, some went down and others stayed roughly the same. Most of these articles were obviously written by that well-known journalist, Phil Space.

However, not all these narratives are meaningless. The latest Times Higher World University Rankings have revealed that here in Ireland, while more famous higher education establishments such as Trinity College Dublin have fallen three places due to , my own institution (Maynooth University) is one of only two to have risen in the tables. It simply cannot be a coincidence that I moved here this year. Clearly my arrival from Cardiff has had an immediate and positive impact. There is no other credible explanation.

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Staff Whereabouts

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 19, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been a predictably strong reaction from academic colleagues to an announcement by the University of Edinburgh that it is introducing a new staff monitoring policy that will require employees to tell management if they leave their “normal place of work” for half a day or longer.

Some have argued that this is measure is simply unenforceable and that the University concerned will have to employ extra people if all academics have to notify a management person every time they travel somewhere off campus. Perhaps the plan is to have all staff fitted with microchips like we do with pets so we can find out where they are if they go wandering off, or get temporarily adopted by friendly neighbours.

I did some time ago draft an April Fool email in which I claimed  my current employer was going to extend the attendance monitoring we perform with undergraduate students (which is partly to assess usage of teaching spaces and thus improve timetabling efficiency) to include academic staff, so we could assess usage of office space on a similar basis. I never sent the email because I thought too many would think it was real and get very angry. Although being at least slightly credible is an essential part of an April Fool, causing a riot is not.

Here at the University of Sussex academic staff are obliged to inform the University (via an official form) if they are travelling elsewhere in the course of their duties. In practice this form comes to the Head of School, which is me in in the case of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. This bit of bureaucracy is primarily for insurance purposes, but also means we have a record of where to contact people in case of emergency.

Most staff comply with this procedure  if they are travelling abroad, but they don’t always do so when they’re travelling in the UK for a day or so, e.g. for doing a PhD examination or something like that. Staff also often fail to let us know if they are working from home, which some (especially theorists and mathematicians) do a lot in order to get on with their research without interruption. Although this doesn’t often cause problems, I think it is reasonable that we should be able to get in touch with staff when they’re doing that (in case, e.g., one of their academic advisees has a problem) but it seems to me excessive that they should have to inform someone at an official level every time they work off campus for whatever reason. Leaving a contact phone number for use during working hours is quite adequate.

It seems to me that behind this move by the University of Edinburgh there’s the managerialist suspicion that everyone must be a shirker at heart. In fact one of the problems I have as a manager is not persuading staff to work longer hours, but to  stop working  excessively long hours.  I don’t think I’ve succeeded, largely because I haven’t found a way of doing my job at the same time as achieving  a sensible work-life balance.

Anyway, the point is that academic contracts do not usually specify where staff should work. There is a good reason for this, which is that the job is very diverse and replies flexible work arrangements. Academic contracts do not usually specify fixed hours of work per week, either, for the same reason. Some don’t even give a specific holiday entitlement. Staff in technical and professional service areas generally have contracts that specify both. I floated an idea at a staff that academics should file an official log of official leave. It wasn’t a popular suggestion because academic staff thought there was an implication that they were skiving by taking excessively long holidays. In fact my motivation was quite the opposite: to try to ensure that they take all the leave to which they are entitled.