Archive for Universities

The English Higher Education Funding Mess

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , , on June 2, 2019 by telescoper

One of the items that sneaked out in the news last week was the Augar report on the future of post-18 education and funding in England. A review led by a former equities broker was never likely to be friendly to the higher education sector, and so it seems to have turned out.

The headline recommendation that the level of tuition fee should be reduced from £9250 to £7500 seems to me rather silly: it’s enough of a reduction to cause serious financial problems to universities if the shortfall is not replaced by increased teaching grants  but not enough to make a qualitative difference to students. In fact, since the report also recommends reducing the threshold for repaying student loans, and increasing the term over which they will be repaid, many graduates will end up paying significantly more in the long run.

To be fair the Augar report does recommend:

Government should replace in full the lost fee income by increasing the teaching grant, leaving the average unit of funding unchanged at sector level in cash terms.

Unfortunately, I can easily see a Conservative government implementing the cut in tuition fees but not making up the difference with grants.

As I have blogged about before (many times e.g here) the current level of resource is insufficient to fund teaching STEM disciplines properly. This graphic is from a few years ago, but the situation has not changed significantly:

The annual cost per student in Arts and Humanities disciplines is typically around £6K whereas for STEM disciplines the figure is typically over £10K. The former are effectively subsidizing the latter in the current system. If the maximum fee chargeable is £7.5K then this subsidy will be impossible. Bear in mind also that a slice of the fee is used to fund bursaries and other schemes for widening participation, so only a fraction of that funding is available to be redistributed. It’s a system that is stacked against STEM disciplines already, and that will only get worse if the Augar proposals are implemented.

Another problem with the stance taken by the `independent panel’ is that it seems to regard the only useful courses to be those that lead to high earnings upon graduation. There is even a call to cut funding for course that do not produce `outputs’ that are paid high wages.  I find it profoundly depressing that the purpose of a university is reduced to such an empty utilitarian level. Is this what the education system is to become?

Increasing their future earning potential may indeed be why some people go to university, and good luck to them if it is, but others are driven by quite different goals. Anyone who wants to be a research scientist, for example, faces years of low salaries and insecure contracts until, if they’re lucky, they get a secure job with a decent wage. In this case and no doubt in countless others, students go to university because learning is and end in itself.

While I am critical about the Augar review’s narrow-minded view of higher education, I will give credit where it is due and point out that it does recommend the re-introduction of maintenance grants which, if implemented, would be a positive.

When I went to University (in 1982) I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student on a grant was fairly comfortable. Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly. There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.

In summary, then, I think UK universities are right to be worried about, especially as it comes on top of the damage already being done by Brexit. But Brexit has also induced a paralysis in Westminster that means the legislation needed to enact the Augar recommendations is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon. Although that means that cuts – and let’s face it, that’s what this review is about – are likely to be delayed, the uncertainty will make it difficult for universities to plan their finances.

To summarize the summary: it’s a mess and I’m glad I’m out of it. As I wrote a in 2018, after I’d decided to move to my current position in Ireland:

Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other idiocies that have been inflicted on UK* universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

*To clarify, these idiocies are mainly of English origin, but the devolved systems of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had to deal with the consequences so they have been inflicted on the entire United Kingdom.

I just hope Ireland resists the temptation to destroy its own education system. Recent history does reveal a remarkable willingness to implement stupid ideas from across the Irish Sea but perhaps Brexit will put a stop to that.

 

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Marking the End of Term

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The term is finally over. Lectures officially finished yesterday, and there’s now another week or so before examinations start (next Friday, 17th May). The examinations for my two modules take place on Tuesday 21st and Wednesday 22nd May, and after that I’ll be busy with marking for a while. In fact, I’ll probably be getting much busier in general pretty soon, but more of that in due course…

 

Marking doesn’t just mean written examinations. I have been teaching a module on Computational Physics to 3rd Year students here in Maynooth, and 40% of the assessment for that is a mini-project (usually done in groups of two or three). Early on the term, I put up a list of a dozen or so projects and ask them to pick first second and third choices so I can form groups in such a way that most students get to work on a project they like the look of. This year I made up a new set of projects, but I feel a bit sorry for one of them (`Scattering in a Spherical Potential’), which didn’t appear anywhere \at all on any student’s list of preferences. That’s a shame as I thought it was a well-rounded project, with lots of potential. Hopefully it will prove more popular next year…

Anyway, the deadline for projects to be handed in came yesterday so I’ve got a stack of those to mark which, you will realise, why I am indulging in a displacement activity by writing this blog post. My plan is to mark these next week so that they’re done before the written examinations come in.

Before I get on with what I should be doing I’ll just mention another thing that happened yesterday: the President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann), Michael D. Higgins visited Maynooth University yesterday:

That’s him at the front, on the right, of course. The reason for his visit was to attend a memorial service.

University News

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2019 by telescoper

As we stagger towards Week 11 of this twice-interrupted Semester I’m back in the office preparing stuff for another set of lectures. This term seems to have gone on forever, largely because of the two breaks (one at half-term around St Patrick’s Day, and other other for Easter). Now, though, the end is in sight. Or at least the examination period is: there are just two more weeks of lectures, ending on 10th May then a short break, then examinations start (on 17th May). Then, of course, there is marking, checking, conflating exam grades with coursework marks, examination boards, and all the other stuff that go on behind the scenes.

I noticed that this weekend’s edition of the Irish Times included a hard copy of a report called Delivering for Ireland: The Impact of Irish Universities which was produced by the Irish Universities Association. In fact the thing given away with the paper is just a summary report (you can download it in PDF format here). The full report (all 86 pages of it) can be downloaded here.

The report is full of interesting information, including this (which I didn’t know before):

The report was produced with the aim of making the case for further investment in Ireland’s universities. It remains to be seen whether the current Irish government will be persuaded. I’m not holding my breath. right-wing governments never seem to be interested in investing in the future. I think the best we can hope for is that Ireland does not continue its policy of slavishly copying English Higher Education policy, especially with the introduction of student loans and high tuition fees.

And talking of the idiocies of the English University system, there is a story going around that the UK Government is planning to make EU students pay full `Overseas’ fees after Brexit. Actually, Higher Education policy is a devolved matter so this can only be directly enforced on English universities. It will, however, be hard for Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish institutions to resist the consequences.

In fact I’ve long felt that the existing system – in which Home and EU students have to be treated the same way as a matter of law but non-EU students can be charged different (i.e. higher) fees is completely immoral. Once at university students are all taught the same way so why should some be charged more than others because they happen to come from China? What would you think of a shop that tried to charge people different prices for the same goods depending on the nationality of the customer?

This decision is of course an inevitable consequence of Theresa May’s interpretation of the EU referendum result as a mandate for policies of extreme xenophobia, as is the withdrawal from Erasmus. It is just another symptom of the UK’s descent into narrow-minded insularity. The message this decision sends out is that Britain hates foreigners but it likes their money so the rich ones who can pay extortionate fees will be graciously allowed to come here to get fleeced. Does the government really think that EU citizens are daft enough to come to a country that identifies itself in such a way? I don’t think they are. They’ll just find somewhere else to go, and the consequence for UK universities will be severe. I am confident this will push more than one UK higher education institution into bankruptcy.

Anyway, even if the the Irish university continues to be under-resourced, it will at least continue to welcome students from the EU on the same basis as before. So if you’re a European student who was thinking about studying in England, why not come to Ireland instead? It’s far cheaper, and we even have the same weather…

From Phase Walks to Undergraduate Research

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2018 by telescoper

This week I put together a couple of brief descriptions for possible research projects for final-year undergraduate and/or Masters students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, and I was reminded of the value of projects like this when I found this paper on the arXiv:

In fact the `Phase Walk Analysis’ developed here is based on an original idea I had for an undergraduate summer research project when I was at Nottingham University and have mentioned before on this blog. The student who did the project with me was Andrew Stannard (who is now at King’s College, London) and the work led to a paper that was published in a refereed journal in 2005 and has now been cited 21 times by various authors including the Planck Team.

Although Andrew is now working in a completely different area (Condensed Matter Physics), I like to think this taste of research was of at least some assistance in developing his career. Above all, though, it relates to something I read in the Times Higher by astronomer, Nobel Prize winner, and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, namely that the idea that many politicians seem to have of separating teaching from research in universities is at best misguided and at worst threatens the very idea of a university.

USS Pension Proposal: Poll

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I saw the news on Twitter that negotiators on behalf of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and the employers’ organisation Universities UK (UUK) under the auspices of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) agreed a proposal to end the strike over pensions that has been going on since the end of February.

The text of the agreement can be found here (PDF). This proposal will have to be discussed and ratified formally, but the negotiators hope this can be do today and that the strike will be suspended from tomorrow.

The proposal suggests a transitional period of three years from April 2019 during which a much reduced Defined Benefit scheme will operate, but it still affirms the much disputed November 2017 valuation of the scheme which means that it is overwhelmingly likely that after three years the dispute will be back on.

I shall be leaving the USS scheme in July 2018 as I’m moving full-time to Ireland where I will be joining a Defined Benefit scheme so the changes outlined in the document will not affect me. Moreover, though I have supported the strike I am not a member of UCU. If I were I would not be in favour of accepting this deal because it seems to me that it amounts to an abject surrender on all the main issues. But given my personal situation I don’t think my opinion should carry much weight. The few friends I have discussed this with feel the same as I do, but I’m interested to know what the general opinion is. If you feel like filling in the poll below please feel free to do so. I’ve divided the responses between UCU members and non-UCU members to see if there’s a difference.

On one matter however I am less equivocal. The document calls on staff to `prioritise the rescheduling of teaching’ (lost during the strike). I have a one-word response to that: NO. Not only will it be logistically impossible to reschedule so many teaching sessions, but I am also not going to do extra teaching for free when my pay is being deducted for days on strike.

As usual, I invite your comments through the box below.

UPDATE: Here is a Google Document showing how UCU branches are responding to the proposal: at the time of posting, it is solidly `reject’..

UPDATE: Following on from the above, the UCU has now formally rejected the proposal. The strikes continue.

Why I’m taking part in the UCU Strike Action

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2018 by telescoper

In case you weren’t aware, from tomorrow (22nd February) the University and College Union (UCU) is taking industrial action over proposed drastic cuts to staff pensions funded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). You can find some background to the pensions dispute here (and in related articles). A clear explanation of why the employers’ justification for these cuts is little more than fraudulent is given here and here you can find an example of the effect of the proposed changes on a real person’s pension (ie a cut of almost 50%). I also blogged about this a few weeks ago. There’s no doubt whose side the Financial Times is on, either.

I am not a member of UCU – I left its forerunner organisation the Association of University Teachers (AUT) as a result of its behaviour when I was at the University of Nottingham – but I will be participating in the industrial action, which takes place over four weeks as follows:

  • Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
  • Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
  • Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
  • Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

This is a bit complicated for me because I only work half-time at Cardiff University (usually Mondays, Tuesdays and half of Wednesdays) and at Maynooth University the rest of the time. The USS only covers UK universities, and the dispute does not apply in the Republic of Ireland (though it does affect higher education institutions in Northern Ireland) so I won’t be on strike when I’m working for Maynooth University, which includes the first two strike days (tomorrow and Friday). I will be participating in industrial action next week, however, and have today sent an announcement to my students they hear from me that the strike has been called off there will be no lectures on 27th February, 6th March or 13th March.

All staff will be docked pay for days not worked owing to strike action, of course, but that will be far less than the amount to be lost in these pension cuts. In my case I will be docked the equivalent of three weeks’ pay as 2.5 days a week I work are all strike days in Weeks 2-4. Moreover, I shall be leaving the UK for Ireland this summer and the pension cuts will not affect my pension anyway – any changes will not be made until after I’ve left the USS scheme. Nevertheless, this is an important issue and I feel it is right to take a stand.

One final comment. Last week Cardiff University sent an email to staff including a link to a website that stated:

If staff refuse to cross a picket line and they are not a member of UCU they will be in breach of their contract of employment with the University.

In fact, any strike action (even by a union member) is a breach of contract. The law however prevents employers dismissing staff who participate in industrial action, provided that it is lawful (i.e. following a ballot, and with due notice given to the employer, etc). The government website makes it clear that non-union members have exactly the same protection as union members in this regard. The Cardiff website has now been changed, but I’m very unhappy that this extremely misleading communication was sent out in the first place.

I sincerely hope that there is a negotiated settlement to this issue. Nobody wants to go on strike, especially when it has the potential to damage students’ learning. But there comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand, and we have reached that point. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I think this could be a very prolonged and very unpleasant dispute.

Problems with two-year degrees

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2017 by telescoper

I see that the Minister responsible for UK universities, Jo Johnson, has decided that universities should offer two-year degrees, claiming that this will somehow attract more students into higher education.

The idea seems to be that students will get the same `amount’ of teaching, but concentrated in two full calendar years rather than spread over three academic years. This fast-track degree will be offered at a lower level of fee than a normal three-year Bachelors programme.

I can just about accept that this will work in some disciplines and at some universities. The (private) University of Buckingham, for example, already offers such programmes. On the other hand, the University of Buckingham did not participate in the latest Research Excellence Framework, no doubt for the reason that teaching all-year round leaves its academic staff no time to do research or even attend conferences, which (I find) these days is only possible during the summer recess.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think an institution that does not combine teaching and research – and indeed one in which the teaching is not led by research – does not merit the name of `University’. The old polytechnics offered a range of valuable opportunities that complemented the traditional honours degree, but that capacity was basically eliminated in 1992 when all such institutions became universities.

Though my main objection to two-year degrees is their impact on research, there are problems from the teaching side too. One is that keeping up the intensity of full-time study throughout a whole year will, in my opinion, exacerbate the difficulty many students have managing their workload without stress or other mental health difficulties. Moreover, many students currently use the long summer vacation either to work, either to earn money to help offset the cost of study, or to participate in placements, internships or other activities to help make them more employable after graduation.

It would be particularly difficult to manage two-year degrees in STEM disciplines, as the teaching laboratories need maintenance and installation of new equipment, for which the proposed system allows no time. And how would project work fit into the fast-track system? On top of all that there’s the fact that the current fee level does not cover the cost of teaching in STEM disciplines, so having to do it faster and for less money is not going to be possible. Incidentally, many STEM students currently pursue undergraduate programmes that last four years, not three…

These points have no doubt been made before, but there is another point that is less widely understood. The fact is that a two-year Bachelors degree may not be a recognised qualification outside the UK. This is, in fact, already a problem with the four-year undergraduate programmes we call, e.g., MPhys, and regard as Masters level in this country: these are not regarded as Masters qualifications in many European countries. Perhaps this is part of some cunning plan to stop graduates leaving the UK after Brexit?

In the light of these difficulties it is no surprise to me that not a single undergraduate I’ve spoken to thinks that a two-year degree is a sensible option. If the government wants to make studying cheaper, said one Physics student I was chatting to, why don’t they just cut the fees for normal degree programmes?

The impression one gets from all this `thinking’ is that the Government increasingly regards universities as businesses that trade in a commodity called `education’, where the word ‘education’ is narrowly construed as `training’ in the skills needed for future employment. I believe a University education is (or should be) far more about developing critical thinking, problem-solving ability, intellectual curiosity than it is about teaching them, e.g., programming skills. Skills are important, of course, but we also need to educate students in what to use them for.