Archive for Times Higher

Should Academics be (Facebook) Friends with Students?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on June 30, 2015 by telescoper

I noticed a short article in the Times Higher last week about a small survey that concluded that more than half academics count students among their Facebook friends. It’s actually a very small survey – of 308 academics, all based in America – of whom 54.4% admitted being “friends” with students.

For those of you who don’t use Facebook, a “Facebook friend” isn’t necessarily an actual real-life friend, it’s just someone else on Facebook with whom  you agree to share information, photographs, music and other stuff. Different people have different policies with regard to whether to accept or decline a friend request (or indeed initiate one). I only ever accept requests from people I know in another context, for example, which restricts the number of people who get to see my Facebook scribblings. Others are less selective and have many many more Facebook friends.

One of the things about Facebook is that people do sometimes share quite personal things, and sometimes things that might be quite compromising in a work context, e.g. pictures of themselves ina  state of inebriation. I suppose that’s why it’s a rather  contentious whether a member of academic staff in a University should or not be “friends” with their undergraduate students. I know many of my friends and colleagues  in academia flatly refuse to befriend undergraduate students (in the Facebook sense) and indeed this is the advice given by some institutions to staff. Most wouldn’t have a problem with having social media interactions with their graduate students, though. The nature of the relationship between a PhD student and supervisor is very different from that between an undergraduate and a lecturer.

There is a point on social media where professionalism might be compromised just as there is in other social interactions. The trouble is knowing precisely where that boundary lies, which is easy to misjudge. I’ve never felt that it was in any way improper to be friendly to students. Indeed I think that could well improve the students’ experience of education. If the relationship with staff is too distant students may not  feel comfortable asking for help with their work, or advice about wider things. Why should being “professional” mean not treating students as human beings?

One can take friendliness too far, however. There have to be some boundaries, and intrusive or demanding behaviour that makes students uncomfortable should be avoided.

I’ve thought about this quite a lot since I joined Facebook, which was in 2007. What I decided to do is simple. If a student initiates a friend request, I usually accept it (as long as I actually know who it is). Not many make such requests, but some do. More often, in fact, students send friend requests after they’ve graduated, when they perhaps feel liberated from the student-teacher relationship. On the other hand, I never initiate friend requests with students, for fear that they might feel pressured to accept it. It’s much the same as with other interactions.  For example, I rarely visit the extensive Student Spaces in the School without being invited there for a specific reason. If I did I’d just feel I was intruding. Many universities don’t bother to provide study space for their undergraduates, so this is probably only relevant here in Sussex.

Anyway, that’s my response. I know it’s a sort of compromise, but there you are. I am however interested in how other academics approach this issue. Plus, I haven’t done a poll for a while. So here we go:

 

 

Mental Health at Work – to Declare or not to Declare?

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , on April 19, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a comment on a recent article in the Times Higher  (written in response to an earlier piece expressing an opposite view). The question addressed by these articles is whether a member of University staff should be open about mental health issues or not. The latest comes down firmly on “no” side. Although I understand the argument, I disagree very strongly with this conclusion.

In fact I’ve taken this a bit further than just disclosing my problems to my employer; I’ve even blogged about them, both here and elsewhere. I also stood up in the University of Sussex Senate about two years ago and spoke about them there. That latter episode was in response to the attempts by some members of Senate to play down the extent of the violence and intimidation associated with a protest on campus that erupted into a full-scale riot on March 2013, accompanied by theft, vandalism and arson. Since violence is the root cause of my longstanding troubles I was incensed by the casual attitude some academics displayed about something that should never be tolerated. I don’t know whether my intervention had any effect on the discussion but I felt I had to make my point. It still troubles me, in fact, that the culprits have still not been brought to justice, and that some of them undoubtedly remain at large on campus even today.

Anyway, two full years have passed since then and I have received nothing but supportive comments from colleagues both in the School and among senior managers in the University.

When I applied for my current job at Sussex, it was just after I’d recovered from a serious breakdown. When I was offered the position, paperwork arrived that included a form on which to declare any health issues (including mental health). I have moved around several times in my career and have never made a declaration on such a form before, but this time I felt that I should especially because I was still taking medication then. I did wonder whether I might be declared unfit to take up a job that promised to have a fair share of stress associated with it. In the end, though, what happened was that I was put in touch with the Occupational Health department who offered their services if there was anything they could do to help. All these discussions were confidential.

I think it is very important that staff do declare problems with depression or other mental health issues. That’s the only way to be sure of getting the support you need. It’s also important for your colleagues to be able to put arrangements in place if you need to take some time off. On top of all that, employers need to learn how widespread such problems can be so they can try to deal with any factors that might exacerbate existing conditions, such as work-related stress.

Going back to the article in the Times Higher, though. I should say that I can understand the author’s reluctance. It took me twenty-five years so I am hardly in a position to criticise anyone! I was particularly struck by this section:

To disguise my illness, I try my best to be the very opposite of what depressed people are. I become the funniest, the smiliest and the most supportive colleague at work. At times, the performance succeeds and I feel a fleeting sense of being invincible. However, this feeling quickly dissipates and I am left feeling utterly alone, dark and lost. A colleague once said to me that she thought I was the most positive person she had ever met and that everyone enjoyed working with me. I couldn’t say anything to her in that moment. But if I was to speak my truth, it would have been to tell her that I was probably the darkest and saddest of her colleagues. That darkness frightens the hell out of me – so I keep it to myself.

That will ring very true to anyone who is living with mental illness; it becomes part of who you are, and it does mean that you find somethings very difficult or impossible that other people take for granted, no matter how effective your medication is. Putting on a brave face is just one way to avoid dealing with it, but it’s just a form of denial. Another common avoidance strategy is to make up fake excuses for absence from events that fill you with dread. I’ve done that a number of times over the years and although it provides short-term relief, it leaves you with a sense of shame at your own dishonesty that is damaging in the long run to your sense of self-worth and will only serve to give you a reputation for unreliability. The darkness can indeed be frightening but it does not follow that you should keep it to yourself. You should share it – not necessarily with friends and colleagues, who may not know how to help – but with compassionate and highly trained professional counsellors who really can help. It will also help your institution provide more and better assistance.

This is not to say that there isn’t a downside to being open about mental health issues. Now that my own genie is not only out of the bottle but all over the internet I do wonder what the future holds in store for my career beyond my current position. Then again I’m not at all sure what I want to happen. Only time will tell.

Widening Participation – Outreach versus Bursaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I came across a University of Sussex News Item which explains that Sussex has made the shortlist, published today (Thursday 5 September), for Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2013.  This piece reminded me of a discussion I had a while ago about the whole approach to widening participation in University education, an issue made all the more serious by the introduction of £9K a year tuition fees. In particular

The University has increased spending on widening participation activities to £8.1 million a year, with over half of this spent on the innovative First Generation Scholars scheme, which supports students who are from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to go to university.

Before commenting on this in any detail I should put my cards on the table. 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 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.

To get back to the news item I mentioned earlier, I have always thought there is a tricky calculation to be made when it comes to designing programmes intended to encourage students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to come to university, whether that be to do with socio-economic considerations, gender, ethnicity, age or anything else. The question is whether pumping money into bursaries is actually effective. I can imagine that a large bursary, perhaps equivalent in money terms to the old maintenance grant, would genuinely influence the decision of a prospective student, but if the pot is shared out among very many people the resulting bursaries are fairly modest. How much does a bursary have to be to make a difference? Answers on a postcard.

The other side of the debate is what the balance should be between bursaries and outreach. In a subject like Physics one of the principal obstacles faced by pupils from the state sector is the dire shortage of physics teachers as well as the lack of laboratory facilities in schools. Here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex we have a very large (and growing) outreach programme which includes giving kids from local schools the chance to come into our building and do specially designed experiments in a laboratory set aside for the purpose.  This kind of activity is intended to get those of school age thinking about doing Physics or Astronomy, which they might not otherwise do.

I don’t see bursaries and outreach as mutually exclusive approaches to  the goal of widening participation. It’s more a question of the balance. How do we decide how to allocate resources? Is there research on the effectiveness of different programmes?

As always, comments are welcome via the box below!

 

Never mind the table, look at the sample size!

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , on April 29, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I was just thinking that it’s been a while since I’ve filed anything in the category marked bad statistics when I glanced at today’s copy of the Times Higher and found something that’s given me an excuse to rectify my lapse. Last week saw the publication of said organ’s new Student Experience Survey which ranks  British Universities in order of the responses given by students to questions about various aspects of the teaching, social life and so  on. I had a go at this table a few years ago, but they still keep trotting it out. Here are the main results, sorted in decreasing order:

University Score Resp.
1 University of East Anglia 84.8 119
2 University of Oxford 84.2 259
3 University of Sheffield 83.9 192
3 University of Cambridge 83.9 245
5 Loughborough University 82.8 102
6 University of Bath 82.7 159
7 University of Leeds 82.5 219
8 University of Dundee 82.4 103
9 York St John University 81.2 88
10 Lancaster University 81.1 100
11 University of Southampton 80.9 191
11 University of Birmingham 80.9 198
11 University of Nottingham 80.9 270
14 Cardiff University 80.8 113
14 Newcastle University 80.8 125
16 Durham University 80.3 188
17 University of Warwick 80.2 205
18 University of St Andrews 79.8 109
18 University of Glasgow 79.8 131
20 Queen’s University Belfast 79.2 101
21 University of Hull 79.1 106
22 University of Winchester 79 106
23 Northumbria University 78.9 100
23 University of Lincoln 78.9 103
23 University of Strathclyde 78.9 107
26 University of Surrey 78.8 102
26 University of Leicester 78.8 105
26 University of Exeter 78.8 130
29 University of Chester 78.7 102
30 Heriot-Watt University 78.6 101
31 Keele University 78.5 102
32 University of Kent 78.4 110
33 University of Reading 78.1 101
33 Bangor University 78.1 101
35 University of Huddersfield 78 104
36 University of Central Lancashire 77.9 121
37 Queen Mary, University of London 77.8 103
37 University of York 77.8 106
39 University of Edinburgh 77.7 170
40 University of Manchester 77.4 252
41 Imperial College London 77.3 148
42 Swansea University 77.1 103
43 Sheffield Hallam University 77 102
43 Teesside University 77 103
45 Brunel University 76.6 110
46 University of Portsmouth 76.4 107
47 University of Gloucestershire 76.3 53
47 Robert Gordon University 76.3 103
47 Aberystwyth University 76.3 104
50 University of Essex 76 103
50 University of Glamorgan 76 108
50 Plymouth University 76 112
53 University of Sunderland 75.9 100
54 Canterbury Christ Church University 75.8 102
55 De Montfort University 75.7 103
56 University of Bradford 75.5 52
56 University of Sussex 75.5 102
58 Nottingham Trent University 75.4 103
59 University of Roehampton 75.1 102
60 University of Ulster 75 101
60 Staffordshire University 75 102
62 Royal Veterinary College 74.8 50
62 Liverpool John Moores University 74.8 102
64 University of Bristol 74.7 137
65 University of Worcester 74.4 101
66 University of Derby 74.2 101
67 University College London 74.1 102
68 University of Aberdeen 73.9 105
69 University of the West of England 73.8 101
69 Coventry University 73.8 102
71 University of Hertfordshire 73.7 105
72 London School of Economics 73.5 51
73 Royal Holloway, University of London 73.4 104
74 University of Stirling 73.3 54
75 King’s College London 73.2 105
76 Bournemouth University 73.1 103
77 Southampton Solent University 72.7 102
78 Goldsmiths, University of London 72.5 52
78 Leeds Metropolitan University 72.5 106
80 Manchester Metropolitan University 72.2 104
81 University of Liverpool 72 104
82 Birmingham City University 71.8 101
83 Anglia Ruskin University 71.7 102
84 Glasgow Caledonian University 71.1 100
84 Kingston University 71.1 102
86 Aston University 71 52
86 University of Brighton 71 106
88 University of Wolverhampton 70.9 103
89 Oxford Brookes University 70.5 106
90 University of Salford 70.2 102
91 University of Cumbria 69.2 51
92 Napier University 68.8 101
93 University of Greenwich 68.5 102
94 University of Westminster 68.1 101
95 University of Bedfordshire 67.9 100
96 University of the Arts London 66 54
97 City University London 65.4 102
97 London Metropolitan University 65.4 103
97 The University of the West of Scotland 65.4 103
100 Middlesex University 65.1 104
101 University of East London 61.7 51
102 London South Bank University 61.2 50
Average scores 75.5 11459
YouthSight is the source of the data that have been used to compile the table of results for the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, and it retains the ownership of those data. Each higher education institution’s score has been indexed to give a percentage of the maximum score attainable. For each of the 21 attributes, students were given a seven-point scale and asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements based on their university experience.

My current employer, the University of Sussex, comes out right on the average (75.5)  and is consequently in the middle in this league table. However, let’s look at this in a bit more detail.  The number of students whose responses produced the score of 75.5 was just 102. That’s by no means the smallest sample in the survey, either. The University of Sussex has over 13,000 students. The score in this table is therefore obtained from less than 1% of the relevant student population. How representative can the results be, given that the sample is so incredibly small?

What is conspicuous by its absence from this table is any measure of the “margin-of-error” of the estimated score. What I mean by this is how much the sample score would change for Sussex if a different set of 102 students were involved. Unless every Sussex student scores exactly 75.5 then the score will vary from sample to sample. The smaller the sample, the larger the resulting uncertainty.

Given a survey of this type it should be quite straightforward to calculate the spread of scores from student to student within a sample from a given University in terms of the standard deviation, σ, as well as the mean score. Unfortunately, this survey does not include this information. However, lets suppose for the sake of argument that the standard deviation for Cardiff is quite small, say 10% of the mean value, i.e. 7.55. I imagine that it’s much larger than that, in fact, but this is just meant to be by way of an illustration.

If you have a sample size of  N then the standard error of the mean is going to be roughly (σ⁄√N) which, for Sussex, is about 0.75. Assuming everything has a normal distribution, this would mean that the “true” score for the full population of Sussex students has a 95% chance of being within two standard errors of the mean, i.e. between 74 and 77. This means Sussex could really be as high as 43rd place or as low as 67th, and that’s making very conservative assumptions about how much one student differs from another within each institution.

That example is just for illustration, and the figures may well be wrong, but my main gripe is that I don’t understand how these guys can get away with publishing results like this without listing the margin of error at all. Perhaps its because that would make it obvious how unreliable the rankings are? Whatever the reason we’d never get away with publishing results without errors in a serious scientific journal.

This sampling uncertainty almost certainly accounts for the big changes from year to year in these tables. For instance, the University of Lincoln is 23rd in this year’s table, but last year was way down in 66th place. Has something dramatic happened there to account for this meteoric rise? I doubt it. It’s more likely to be just a sampling fluctuation.

In fact I seriously doubt whether any of the scores in this table is significantly different from the mean score; the range from top to bottom is only 61 to 85 showing a considerable uniformity across all 102 institutions listed. What a statistically literate person should take from this table is that (a) it’s a complete waste of time and (b) wherever you go to University you’ll probably have a good experience!

University Admissions Turbulence

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on January 21, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I’ve been compiling various bits of statistical information for our Annual Programme Review and Evaluation. Yes, it really is as exciting as it sounds. In the course of this I remembered a news item in last week’s Times Higher concerning the latest University admissions figures from UCAS.

The story compares overall admissions figures (i.e. the total number of students entering each university) for 2011 and 2012, pointing out that there are huge changes in some institutions with winners and losers even within the Russell Group. The University of Bristol, for example, increased its intake by a whopping 28% whereas Sheffield was down by 13%.

Similar comments can be found here, in the Grauniad.

For your information you can find complete lists for 2011 and 2012 on the UCAS website.

What I usually do when statistics like this are released is look at the places I have worked in my own career, so here we are:

2011

2012

change

Cardiff

5130

5799

+13%

Nottingham

7187

7160

-0.4%

Queen Mary

3704

3484

-5.9%

Sussex

3203

3221

+0.6%

My current employer, Cardiff University, was well up in 2012 compared with 2011, whereas Queen Mary was significantly down. Nottingham was slightly down and Sussex slightly up, but both these variations are really within the level of √N noise.

Of course these are overall (institutional) figures, and I suspect they hide considerable variations at subject level. For example, although Physics has seen something of a resurgence in popularity lately, it’s difficult for Physics departments to over-recruit given constraints on laboratory space.

I’ve heard these changes described as “Darwinian”, but I’m not sure I agree. The big factor allowing Bristol to do so well has been the ability of institutions to recruit unlimited numbers of students with at least AAB at A-level. This completely changed the dynamics of the UCAS clearing system so it’s not at all surprising that it generated short-term chaotic variations. This year it is different again, with ABB now set to be unrestricted; similar turbulence is inevitable.

It’s difficult enough for universities to navigate safely through such unpredictable waters, and persistent tinkering with the controls is not helping in the slightest. Will the chaos decay naturally, or will it be constantly regenerated by badly thought-out interventions from those in charge?

Rubbishing the Viva

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by telescoper

There’s a strange article today in the Times Higher that claims that the UK’s system of examining PhD students is “a scandal” and that it is “way behind the rest of the world”. These comments are from a chap called Ron Barnett (an emeritus professor at the Institute for Education, who explains

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

I have to say I find it hard to reconcile such remarks with the business of examining PhDs as I’ve observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field – the Research Councils put extremely strong pressure on departments to ensure that students submit within four years, and most research students take less time than this to produce their thesis.

But it’s the idea that a maverick external examiner can sabotage a PhD that I find hardest to recognize. If that looks like happening the internal examiner should stand up for the candidate. In fact, here in Cardiff we have an additional safeguard against this sort of eventuality: each viva has a Chair as well as the two examiners. The Chair is just there to ensure fair play and that proper procedure is followed, but is rarely (if ever) called upon to intervene in practice.

I can’t speak for other fields, of course, and it may indeed be more of a problem in other disciplines. Curiously, Prof. Barnett says that he has seen it happen “far too many times”. I wonder how? As internal examiner? In which case he should have stepped in to stop it? If not as internal then in what capacity was he privy to the conduct of a PhD viva? I’m confused.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’ll be participating in a PhD examination in another country (Denmark). There the defence is public, and it involves two external “opponents”, but I don’t know whether it is easier or harder for the candidate than the British system so I won’t comment on whether it’s fairer or more rigorous than what we have in the UK. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works, actually.

In my opinion, if there is a “scandal” in the system of UK PhD examinations, at least in science disciplines, it’s not the one Prof. Barnett describes. It’s that we produce far too many low-quality PhDs based on dull, incremental research and that, if anything, externals are not tough enough.

There, I’ve said it. No doubt you’ll have a go at me through the comments box!

Death by Management

Posted in Education with tags , , , on March 4, 2012 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick post before I go out to pass on a story from the latest Times Higher. The news won’t come as a shock to anyone who actually works in a University, but it appears that the number of  “managers” working in Higher Education is growing rapidly:

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal there were 15,795 managers in higher education in December 2010 – up by almost 40 per cent on the 11,305 employed in the 2003-04 academic year.

That was compared to the 19.2 per cent increase in academics since 2003-04. It means there is now a manager for every 9.2 academics compared with a ratio of one to 10.8 seven years earlier.

It’s tempting to take the usual easy shot at “managers”, but I’m not going to do that, at least not immediately, because I’m not at all sure precisely how they define a “manager” in the context of this survey. In my School we have a School Manager, who looks after budgets and runs the School Office which carries out a large number of complex administrative tasks related to research grants, undergraduate and postgraduate admissions, student records, and so on. People like this are indispensible because if we didn’t have them these tasks would have to be done by academics, which would be a distraction from their proper business of teaching and research, and which they would almost certainly do extremely badly. Managers who work alongside academic staff and understand the realities of University life are therefore a good thing to have. They actually help.

The problem I have is that, as it seems to me, much of the growth in numbers of “managers” does not involve people in this sort of job at all. The greater part of the increase is in centralised administrative divisions or, as they’re called in Cardiff, “Directorates”. In fact Cardiff is nowhere near as bad in this respect as some other universities I’ve either worked in or heard about from colleagues, but it is an issue even here.

The problem we find with such folk is that they are so remote that they seem to have no idea what people working in  academic Schools and Departments actually do. For one thing they seem to think we just loaf around all day waiting for the chance to fill in some new forms or attend a some allegedly vitally important meeting at short notice (usually in teaching term, and usually mid-morning when lectures are in progress). In fact, there isn’t a day of the week when I don’t have teaching of some sort going on in teaching term. That’s not unusual for an academic in my Schoo, so it’s extremely difficult to attend such events at the drop of a hat without jeopardising teaching. The frequent requests to do so mean that I’d be surprised, in fact, if most of these managers actually knew when teaching term was.  Meetings scheduled outside term of course eat into research time, but given that managers think “doing research” means “having a holiday”, you might be surprised we don’t have more meetings during the student vacations. Of course the real reason for this is that they don’t want us to attend (see below).

Another result of the increase in administrative staff is a plethora of badly thought out “initiatives”, similar initiatives even arising from several directorates simulaneously as managers compete with each other to weigh down academics with forms to fill in. The worst of these involve idiotic schemes in which Schools have to prepare lengthy documents to bid for minuscule amount of money from the central University coffers, the cost in staff time  of administering such procedures far exceeding the financial or other benefits they can possibly deliver.

Worse, these central units are sometimes so badly run that they mess up the basic administrative tasks that they should be carrying out.  Schools are thus forced to duplicate the work that should be done by someone else to make sure that it’s done properly. The idea that centralised administration leads to greater efficiency rarely works in practice. In contrast to the staff in individual Schools, most of whom actually care deeply about what they do because they work directly with the people involved, to the administrators are sometimes – not always, by any means, but definitely sometimes – too remote to care.

So in the end I am going to take a cheap shot at creeping managerialism, but only insofar as it relates to the invasion of universities by people who have no understanding of the core activities of a higher education institution, but who think they have the right to dictate to people who do. Instead of meaningful cooperation with academics, we have phoney “consultations”: meetings usually scheduled in such a way that academics can’t attend (see above) or documents requiring a response with absurdly short deadlines. This kind of management does not lead to a more “professional” institution, it just leads to alienation. In short, these people don’t help at all, they’re a positive hindrance.

Over the last decade, the burden of red tape has steadily increased for all kinds of institutions, but only the NHS vies with Universities in taking the fetish of managerialism to absurd levels. Academics will soon have to take courses in management-speak before they can be employed at a University as the influx of business types continues to accelerate.

The greatest irony of all this is that in the UK universities (with some notable exceptions) are generally regarded by the wider world as examples of international excellence, whereas British businesses (again with some notable exceptions) are seen by those abroad to epitomize incompetence and failure….

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