Archive for UCAS

Not the Six Nations

Posted in Biographical, Rugby with tags , , , , on February 18, 2017 by telescoper

After a misty morning it has turned into a lovely Spring-like afternoon here in Cardiff. I’ve been in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University this morning, helping out with a UCAS visit day by interviewing some prospective students and then having lunch and chatting with parents and others.

As well as the weather and the admissions season, another indication of the passage of the seasons is the Six Nations rugby. Our Saturday UCAS visit days have to be arranged with the RBS Six Nations fixture list in mind because Cardiff gets incredibly busy when Wales are playing at home. The capacity of the Millennium Principality Stadium is well over 80,000 which, for a City with a population of just over 300,000 represents a huge perturbation. 

Not only is there a lot of traffic and a very crowded city centre, but it’s also very difficult to find hotel accommodation at a reasonable price on match weekends.  Given that we start in the morning, quite a few prospective students and their families do stay overnight beforehand so this is quite an important consideration. There are no fixtures in the RBS Six Nations this weekend. Today two of my interviewees had travelled quite a long way to get to Cardiff – one from Richmond in North Yorkshire and another from Falmouth in Cornwall – and both families stayed over last night.

Anyway, while I’m not talking about the Six Nations I can’t resist mentioning last week’s match here in Cardiff between Wales and England. I didn’t have a ticket. I’ve ever really figured out how to get tickets for these matches. They always seem to be completely sold out as soon as they go on sale.

Before the match, I thought it was going to be a close game but Wales always have tremendous home advantage at Cardiff and I thought they might just sneak it. It was a rather dour struggle to be honest, but with less than ten minutes to go Wales were leading 16-14 and my suspicions seemed about to be confirmed. However, as is often the case with close matches, it was an error that produced the decisive moment.

About five metres out, Wales turned possession over and then rucked successfully, the ball eventually going to Jonathan Davies behind his own try line. With half of his team trying to disentangle themselves from the completed ruck, it was essential for him to clear his lines by kicking into touch. Unfortunately, he kicked straight down the field where his kick was collected by George Ford. England’s counter-attack was swift and lethal: Ford to Farrell and then to Elliott Daly on the wing, who went over for the try to the sound of groans all round Cardiff. After the conversion it was Wales 16 England 21, which is how the game ended a few minutes later.

The results of the other games so far mean that the only team capable of winning a grand slam is England, as each of the other teams has lost at least one game. There’s still a long way to go, however, and England still face challenging matches against Ireland and a much-improved Scotland.

Anyway, all this UCAS malarkey means that I’m way behind on Saturday crossword duties, so I’m going home. Toodle-pip.

Qualification Matters

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on January 18, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I had a very enjoyable dinner with a seminar speaker and group of students from the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute at Nagoya University. On the way back to the guest house I’m staying in, at about 9.30pm, we passed a group of young kids in uniform apparently returning from school. I was told that they were students from a Junior High School (chūgaku) who had been studying late in preparation for an entrance examination to the (selective) Senior High Schools (kōtōgakkō). I was a bit surprised to see young teenagers putting in such long hours, but such behaviour seems quite normal here in Japan.

One of the things I have to get to grips with when I get back to the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Sussex on Monday is the annual admissions cycle. I have meetings in my calendar for next week about this, and we are hosting an applicant visit day on Saturday 25th January; we have of course already made offers to a large number of students based on their predicted grades at GCE A-level. This process is fraught with difficulties, not least because there some schools seem to over-predict the grades that their pupils achieve in order to maximise the chance of them getting into University. Predicted grades being rather unreliable, it would of course be fairer on all concerned to use actual grades, i.e. to defer university applications until after the A-level results come out, but that would be far too sensible so obviously will not happen in the United Kingdom. I’m actually quite sceptical of the usefulness of A-levels for preparing students for University in general, but that’s another matter.

Anyway, the mini-rant above isn’t main point of this post, which is instead to issue a warning to those  students taking A-levels later this year. It is  based on anecdotal evidence, but quite a lot thereof. The point is that universities will often reduce their usual offer at A-level when they find an applicant with very high predicted grades, sometimes even making an unconditional offer (actually the minimum is two E grades) to high-fliers. This happened a lot in the old days when I was applying for a place at university. Though it is less common nowadays the government’s policy of lifting controls on universities’ ability to recruit students with three A-level grades at ABB or better is bound to increase the amount of game-playing as competition between recruiters intensifies.

This creates a number of issues, but the one I want to pick out arises when a student is predicted to get three As at A-level, but his/her first-choice university gives them an unconditional offer. Their first reaction will obviously be “whoopee! I’ll accept that offer and, what’s more, I don’t need to fret too much about my summer examinations..”.

In fact I’ve known plenty of students who came into university with quite modest A-level grades, but did brilliantly well at their studies and ended up with first-class degrees. There can be many explanations behind such cases quite apart from the relaxation effect. Some schools don’t have good specialist science teachers, for example; this can mean that a student’s interest is really only ignited once they get into university.

The problem is, though, that A-levels results are not just for university entry, they’re for life. A student may graduate with a good degree, even a First,  but so do many others. When selecting for postgraduate jobs, or even postgraduate study, recruiters often have a large number of people with excellent degrees; that’s an obvious consequence of the expansion of the Higher Education sector in recent years. What happens, therefore, is that employers and PG admissions tutors have to look at other factors; naturally, that includes A-level results but also even GCSEs. You might be surprised to learn that even if you get a first-class degree, your chances of getting a PhD place at a top institution depends on your performance at School but they definitely do. I’m not saying that this should, be the case, just that it in practice it is.

I recall hearing recently from one former student who had a first-class degree in Physics and a PhD from an excellent University, and who was applying for a job in a research institute (not in the university sector). The application form he received asked him to list not only his A-levels but also his GCSE results!

I hope I’ve made my point to any prospective students, but I’ll summarize it in case I haven’t. If you get a generous offer from your chosen university then that’s a good thing, because it means that they want you. You should be happy. But don’t ease off on your studies because if you end up getting poorer A-levels than you deserve, they may one day come back to haunt you.

Open for Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy (and Astrophysics)…

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve been here on campus at the University of Sussex all day helping out with an Admissions Day. We were all a bit apprehensive in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences about today simply because so many students and guests were scheduled to come that we wondered how well we could organize the large number of groups being shown around. There was also the question of the British weather. It was very cold this morning, with flurries of snow as I made my way to campus. I was wondering whether the weather might put some people off travelling, but as it happened we had a lot of visitors and although we were very busy there was a very good buzz about the place.

Notwithstanding the inclement weather this morning there are also definite signs that spring is on the way:


Anyway, it was nice to have the chance to talk to prospective students and parents in both Mathematics and Physics & Astronomy. Although Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy are combined within the School, there are clear distinctions between the way Mathematics and Physics are taught so the topics discussed with Mathematics students tended to be different from those in Physics and Astronomy. However, a chat with one group led eventually to the question What’s the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics? This is something I’m asked quite often, and have blogged about before, but I thought I’d repeat it here for those who might stumble across it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following primary definition for astronomy:

The science which treats of the constitution, relative positions, and motions of the heavenly bodies; that is, of all the bodies in the material universe outside of the earth, as well as of the earth itself in its relations to them.

Astrophysics, on the other hand, is described as

That branch of astronomy which treats of the physical or chemical properties of the celestial bodies.

So astrophysics is regarded as a subset of astronomy which is primarily concerned with understanding the properties of stars and galaxies, rather than just measuring their positions and motions.

It is possible to assign a fairly precise date when astrophysics first came into use in English because, at least in the early years of the subject, it was almost exclusively associated with astronomical spectroscopy. Indeed the OED gives the following text as the first occurence of astrophysics, in 1869:

As a subject for the investigations of the astro-physicist, the examination of the luminous spectras of the heavenly bodies has proved a remarkably fruitful one

The scientific analysis of astronomical spectra began with a paper by   William Hyde Wollaston in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Vol. 102, p. 378, 1802. He was the first person to notice the presence of dark bands in the optical spectrum of the Sun. These bands were subsequently analysed in great detail by Joseph von Fraunhofer in a paper published in 1814 and are now usually known as Fraunhofer lines.  Technical difficulties  made it impossible to obtain spectra of stars other than the Sun for a considerable time, but  William Huggins finally succeeded in 1864. A drawing of his pioneering spectroscope is shown below.

Meanwhile, fundamental work by Gustav Kirchoff and Robert Bunsen had been helping  to establish an understanding of the spectra produced by hot gases.  The identification of features in the Sun’s spectrum  with similar lines produced in laboratory experiments led to a breakthrough in our understanding of the Universe whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. The Sun and stars were inaccessible to direct experimental test during the 19th Century (as they are now). But spectroscopy now made it possible to gather evidence about their chemical composition as well as physical properties. Most importantly, spectroscopy provided definitive evidence that the Sun wasn’t made of some kind of exotic unknowable celestial material, but of the same kind of stuff (mainly Hydrogen) that could be studied on Earth.  This realization opened the possibility of applying the physical understanding gained from small-scale experiments to the largest scale phenomena that could be seen. The science of astrophysics was born.

One of the leading journals in which professional astronomers and astrophysicists publish their research is called the Astrophysical Journal, which was founded in 1895 and is still going strong. The central importance of the (still) young field of spectroscopy can be appreciated from the subtitle given to the journal:

Initially the branch of physics most important to astrophysics was atomic physics since the lines in optical spectra are produced by electrons jumping between different atomic energy levels. Spectroscopy of course remains a key weapon in the astrophysicist’s arsenal but nowadays the term astrophysics is taken to mean any application of physical laws to astronomical objects. Over the years, astrophysics has therefore gradually incorporated nuclear and particle physics as well as thermodynamics, relativity and just about every other branch of physics you can think of.

I realise, however, that this  isn’t really the answer to the question that potential students want to ask. What they (probably) want to know is what is the difference between undergraduate courses called Astronomy and those called Astrophysics? The answer to this one depends very much on where you want to study. Generally speaking the differences are in fact quite minimal. You probably do a bit more theory in an Astrophysics course than an Astronomy course, for example. Your final-year project might have to be observational or instrumental if you do Astronomy, but might be theoretical in Astrophysics.  If you compare the complete list of modules to be taken, however, the difference will be very small.

Over the last twenty years or so, most Physics departments in the United Kingdom have acquired some form of research group in astronomy or astrophysics and have started to offer undergraduate degrees with some astronomical or astrophysical content. My only advice to prospective students wanting to find which course is for them is to look at the list of modules and projects likely to be offered. You’re unlikely to find the name of the course itself to be very helpful in making a choice.

One of the things that drew me into astrophysics as a discipline (my current position is Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics as well as being Head of School) is that it involves such a wide range of techniques and applications, putting apparently esoteric things together in interesting ways to develop a theoretical understanding of a complicated phenomenon. I only had a very limited opportunity to study astrophysics during my first degree as I specialised in Theoretical Physics.  This wasn’t just a feature of Cambridge. The attitude in most Universities in those days was that you had to learn all the physics before applying it to astronomy. Over the years this has changed, and most departments offer some astronomy right from Year 1.

I think this change has been for the better because I think the astronomical setting provides a very exciting context to learn physics. If you want to understand, say, the structure of the Sun you have to include atomic physics, nuclear physics, gravity, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and hydrostatics all at the same time. This sort of thing makes astrophysics a good subject for developing synthetic skills while more traditional physics teaching focusses almost exclusively on analytical skills.

Brighton at home, and at home in Brighton

Posted in Biographical, Education, Football with tags , , , on February 9, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am again, in the office on a Saturday. This morning was the first UCAS Admissions Days during my tenure as Head of School so I came up to campus in order to make a short speech to welcome the prospective students and their parents to the University. Although I’ve only been in post for a week and hadn’t had time to prepare a proper presentation I think it went reasonably well. It’s bound to sound like a cliché when someone like me stands up and says it’s a very exciting time to be coming to the University of Sussex, but it just happens to be true in this case. We’re currently in the middle of quite a large expansion in the faculty across the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, or MPS for short, which means that there’s a lot of new blood coming with lots of new ideas in both teaching and research. The buzz around the place is unmistakable.

As far as MPS  is concerned,  today’s event was exclusively for students applying to do Mathematics so I had to pretend to know about  draw on my past experience of working in a Mathematics department in speaking to students and their parents. Of course the various activities inside the School were more detailed, so I tagged along a bit in order to find out what goes on in such events. Among the things that have changed since I was a postgraduate student here 25 years ago, is that there’s a thing called the Creativity Zone, which is a flexible interactive working space for the students to use in a variety of ways. I’m not saying we didn’t have any creativity when I was a student but teaching was rather one-dimensional in those days. I think the wider the range of teaching methods we can deploy the better, because different students respond differently to any given style; what’s best for one may not be best for everyone.

Anyway, in case anyone is interested I managed to find myself a flat in Brighton and took possession of the keys on Thursday morning. I then had to dash around buying bits and bob – bedlinen etc – before coming into work for some meetings in the afternoon. OnThursday evening I made a quick trip back to the old homestead in Cardiff to check everything was OK and  pick up some stuff for the flat (and my P45 which hadn’t arrived by the time I left last week). Passing through London on the way to Brighton last night I managed to make it to the Athenaeum for dinner with the RAS Club before returning late and very tired to my new Brighton residence.

If I hadn’t had to do the honours on campus this morning I would happily have slept until noon. It’s been such a busy week, that I’m definitely a bit knackered.  But then I knew it was going to be hectic and it’s all gone fairly well so far really. Now I’m going to head back home, put my feet up and do today’s crosswords.

The one complication is that Brighton and Hove Albion are playing at home today (against Hull) and their stadium,as you can see from the map, is right next to the campus, just on the other side of the A27…


However, the match is not until this evening (17.20) so I should be able to get home without too many problems.

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:












Queen Mary








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?

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.

Fee Summary – England versus Wales

Posted in Education with tags , , , on December 1, 2011 by telescoper

We’ve just had our first UCAS visit day of the year, for which those involved were given a handout showing the different fee arrangements for Welsh and English students applying to study at Cardiff University.

On the off-chance that some potential students might come across this blog and also for wider information – since there still seems to be quite a lot of confusion about the financial aspects of study in Wales – I thought I’d share the following useful summary here.


Cardiff University will charge a tuition fee of £9,000 per annum to new undergraduate students beginning their studies from September 2012 onwards.

I currently live in Wales

Cardiff University will charge an annual fee of £9,000 per annum.  However, if you live in Wales and studying towards your first degree you will not have to pay your tuition fee upfront. You will be eligible for:

• a non-repayable tuition fee grant of £5,535 from the Welsh Government, subject to terms and conditions.
• a repayable tuition fee loan of £3,465 which you only start to pay back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000pa.
• support towards your living costs – a loan is available to help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. Like the tuition fee loan, you only start to pay this back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000 a year.

You may also be eligible for an Assembly Learning Grant to provide additional help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. This grant does not have to be paid back and the amount you receive depends on your household income:

• If your household income is £18,370 a year or less you will be entitled to a full grant of £5,000 a year.
• If your household income is between £18,370 and £50,020 a year you would be entitled to a grant of between £5,000 and £50 a year.

I currently live in England (or elsewhere in the UK)

Cardiff University will charge an annual fee of £9,000 per annum.  However, if you live in England and studying towards your first degree you will not have to pay your tuition fee upfront. You will be eligible for:

• a repayable tuition fee loan of £9,000 which you only start to pay back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000pa.
• support towards your living costs – a loan is available to help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. Like the tuition fee loan, you only start to pay this back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000 a year.

If you are from England, you may also be eligible for a Maintenance Grant to provide additional help with your living costs such as food, accommodation, books and travel. This grant does not have to be paid back and the amount you receive depends on your household income:

• If your household income is £25,000 a year or less you will be entitled to a full grant of £3,250 a year.
• If your household income is between £25,001 and £42,600 a year you will be entitled to a partial grant.

Please note that the student support arrangements in England are subject to final ratification by Parliament.

I currently live outside the UK but inside the EU

Cardiff University will charge an annual fee of £9,000 per annum.  However, if you are from a country within the EU and studying towards your first degree at Cardiff University, you will not have to pay your tuition fee upfront. You will be eligible for:

• a non-repayable tuition fee grant of £5,535 from the Welsh Government, subject to terms and conditions.
• a repayable tuition fee loan of £3,465 which you only start to pay back when you have finished your studies and are earning more than £21,000pa.