Archive for University

Third Level Ireland – The Core Problem

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , on February 13, 2022 by telescoper

One of the things I noticed straight away when I moved from the UK to my current job in Ireland is how under-resourced the Irish higher education system is. That realization was driven home still further by the Covid-19 pandemic during which those of us working in Irish universities had to switch to online teaching with precious little support.

Academic staff worked very hard to keep going during the various lockdown periods, but I’m sure I’m not the only person to feel deep regret that we were unable to do things better and that many students have a right to feel they have been let down by the system.

Now that we’re back teaching on campus the problems have not gone away. With a significant number of students prevented from attending lectures by the need to self-isolate we should be making recordings or live streams available, but we lack the equipment to do so properly. I have to carry a webcam and a tripod around campus to record my classes in improvised and not very satisfactory fashion. Contrast with the UK, where proper lecture capture facilities were commonplace in universities long before the pandemic. We are at least a decade behind.

This is one example of a deep crisis in the Irish third level system. Sadly it is by no means clear that the current Government is interested in solving it. There is talk of reducing the “student contribution” (currently €3000, the highest in the EU) because of the cost-of-living crisis but cutting this tuition fee (which is effectively what it is) would reduce the money coming into higher education unless offset by an increase in Government funding. According to this report (from November 2019), core state funding per student in third level institutions fell from about €9K in 2009 to under €5K in 2019.

A sizeable fraction of the income of a university is spent on its staff. In Ireland academic staff are treated as public sector employees which means that salary levels are set centrally. After being cut after the financial crisis they are now fairly generous and increase in line with overall pay settlements. Academic staff get annual increments and can get promoted, which adds to costs on top of the cost-of-living increases.

And that’s the crunch.

If the resource per student is decreasing but the salary bill is increasing, universities have to find other ways of generating income (which has been particularly difficult during the pandemic) or to increase the number of students. Keeping staff and student numbers constant means sliding into deficit. The way out of this many have found is to freeze permanent academic hires and instead take on casual teaching staff that can be paid lower wages than full-time staff. With no disrespect at all to people employed on such contracts, who generally do an excellent job, I feel we are short-changing students if they are not taught by academics who are active in research.

Take my current Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University as an example. This has a student-staff ratio of about 15. That would be considered quite high for a physics department in the United Kingdom, but lower ratios are financially viable there because the fee income per student is much higher and physics departments bring in significant research income that makes a contribution to both direct and indirect costs. The latter is very difficult in Ireland because of the lack of research funding, especially in basic sciences; fortunately we have been relatively successful in generating research income and have recently increased student numbers, so we’re keeping our head above water. For now.

The price is that all academic staff in the Department have very heavy teaching loads – about five modules a year. That is way higher than physics departments in the UK, where most staff teach at most a couple. That makes it very difficult to stay competitive in research.

The problem is that science subjects are (a) more expensive to teach and (b) have limited capacity to grow because of constraints on, e.g., laboratory space (and the fact that there is a limited pool of suitably qualified school-leavers). As a consequence there is a strong incentive for universities to expand in subjects that are cheaper to teach. Something has to be done to ensure that Ireland’s universities can continue to provide education in a broad range of subjects.

Given the funding situation and the charges currently levied on students, it amazes me that more don’t seek their tertiary education elsewhere in the EU where fees are much lower (and in some places non-existent) especially since there is such a terrible shortage of student housing In Ireland. Does the Government really want to continue giving its young people such strong incentives to emigrate?

I was going to end this post there, having stated that the mismatch between between income and salary costs is the core problem facing Irish universities. As I went along though I came to think that the really basic problem is at a deeper level than that. Irish universities are public institutions but the political parties that have dominated Irish government for decades are of a neoliberal hue and are at best ambivalent towards the public sector. There are many in the current Government who would privatize everything if they could get away with it. They are pragmatic, though, and realize that these institutions are actually popular, just like the NHS in England. It is however very difficult for public institutions to function when the Government in charge doesn’t really believe in them.

Lockdown Prolonged, Leaving Certificate Postponed

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on April 10, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just listened to the latest update on the Covid-19 situation in Ireland. One entirely predictable announcement made this afternoon was that the current restrictions on movement will continue until Tuesday May 5th at the earliest. Monday May 4th is a Bank Holiday in Ireland.

I would personally be surprised if the measures now in place were eased before June, actually, but it seems sensible to wait and see if the situation improves before making a decision on further extensions.

(Incidentally, I am keeping track of the Covid-19 numbers in Ireland on a page here.)

Another announcement made today is likely to be more controversial: that this year’s School Leaving Certificate examinations, due to start on June 3rd, will postponed until “late July or early August”.

Among many other things, this will cause those of us involved in University teaching quite a few problems to solve. A lot of thinking caps will be getting dusted off right now!

On the normal cycle, Leaving Certificate results are available in mid-August and successful students begin their University courses in mid-September.

Assuming that there is a delay of two months in sitting the exams and no time can be made up in the marking and moderation process, we’re looking at students not being able to start their courses until mid-November, just a few weeks before the normal end of the First Semester. I have heard suggestions that new students could start in October but these have not included any explanation of how to speed up the process enough to make this possible.

It seems possible to me that, because starting in November would create more problems than it would solve, new students might actually have to defer entry until January, which means in turn that their Second Semester would have to take place during the period June-August. That, in turn, will require staff to abandon any plans for summer research activity and, for some science disciplines, will involve labs being kept open when they are usually closed for upgrades.

Presumably the proposal will be that returning students will follow the usual academic year timetable, but there’s a problem there too if students have to repeat modules from the 1st year which are to be taught on a different calendar.

I’m sure that none of these problems are insoluble but I’m equally sure that the powers that be haven’t really thought about them. Ireland’s current Government does not give the impression of being that interested in universities or the staff who work in them. In recent weeks lecturers have worked exceptionally hard to switch to online teaching and assessment only to have these efforts conspicuously ignored in a recent statement by the Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’connor. No doubt the Government will again just take it for granted that we’ll sort things out on their behalf.

Admissions Matters

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on August 12, 2019 by telescoper

Well, the wait is almost over. Tomorrow is the day that students in Ireland get their Leaving Certificate results. Tomorrow’s date is Tuesday 13th August, so I hope that’s not a bad omen! A couple of days later this week, on Thursday, UK students get their A-level results.

Here in Ireland, University admissions are dealt with through the Central Applications Office (CAO) which, for UK readers, is roughly equivalent to UCAS. Earlier this year we heard Maynooth University received its highest-ever number of first_preference applications, which is a very positive sign, but we don’t know yet exactly how many of those actually made the grade needed to start here next month.

As is the case in the UK with A-level results, Irish institutions receive the Leaving Certificate results a bit before the students do, which means that on both sides of the Irish sea higher education institutions will be very busy sorting through their applications to see who has made it onto what course. This is a very stressful time for all concerned, not only the prospective students but also the university staff involved in processing the results and academics wondering how many students they will have to teach next year.

From time to time one hears suggestions that the system could be made much fairer and less stressful if students could remove some of the uncertainty by applying  to university after getting their Leaving Cert (or A-level) results rather than, as is the case now, before. UPDATE: here’s a piece in the Guardian by Angela Rayner arguing this.

The problem is that there are only two ways that I can see to achieve this:

  • have the final school examinations earlier;
  • start the university academic year later.

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of late Septembe. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research. The summer recess (July-September), wherein much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?

Failing A-levels

Posted in Education with tags , , on April 17, 2019 by telescoper

As it is tangentially related to yesterday’s post I thought I’d comment on an article in The Times with the headline

University grades: firsts for quarter of students with lowest A levels

The piece (which you probably won’t read as it is behind a paywall) goes on to imply that the success at degree level of students who got poor A-levels results is the result of ‘grade inflation’.

My take on this is somewhat different. To me it just confirms what I’ve thought for years, namely that A-levels are virtually useless, either as a preparation for undergraduate study or as an indicator of academic potential. If they are are a guide to anything at all, it is to the quality of the school the student was lucky enough to attend.

It’s not only a shame that UK universities rely on A-levels so heavily for student recruitment but also a disgrace that institutions are punished in league tables whenever they take on students with low results. And if they do a good job educating such students to high levels of achievement they get attacked in churlish articles accusing them of lowering standards.

The assumption behind this is that there should be a near-perfect correlation between entry and exit qualifications. That is not the case at all, and why on earth should it be?

Look at this the other way round. Oxbridge only accepts students with the highest A-levels results, so why do these Universities not award more first-class degrees? Dare I suggest that perhaps not all the students they select have the aptitude their school qualifications suggest?

I noticed this the other day. It’s a list of skills needed for the job market in 2020.

Strangely, ‘rote learning’, ‘uncritical regurgitation of factoids’, and ‘ability to perform formulaic tasks’ are not on the list. They’re not much use as a preparation for university study either. So why does the UK school education system place such an emphasis on precisely these useless activities, to the exclusion of actually useful things?

Answers on a postcard please.

The World’s Oldest Professor?

Posted in Education with tags , , , on December 1, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I was sitting at home listening to the radio when someone used the phrase “The World’s Oldest Profession”. Naturally, that made me think of those such as myself who Profess for a living (although that’s apparently not what the original expression applies to). Anyway, that idle thought made me wonder whether there is, in the Guinness Book of Records or elsewhere, a recognized holder of the title World’s Oldest Professor?

A short tweet about this elicited one suggestion: Professor Ephraim Engleman of the University of California at San Francisco who is an extremely distinguished Professor of Rheumatology and is still active at the age of 102. Blimey. That’s going to be a pretty though record to beat, but I thought I’d post about it to see there are any other contenders for (a) the world’s oldest professor in any discipline and (b) the world’s oldest professor in physics and astronomy?

Suggestions through the comments box please.

P.S. Apart from anything else, Prof. Engleman’s inspirational example has made me feel guilty for moaning about the advancing years at the tender age of 50; he’d reached my current age before I was even born!

Lecture Capture

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on November 27, 2013 by telescoper

One of the things that I found out when I came to the University of Sussex in February this year is that it provides something that I think is a very good thing for both staff and students – facilities for lecture capture which are in all the main lecture theatres on campus. These facilities allow lecturers to record videos of their own lectures which are then made available for students to view online. This is of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access such material. Some faculty were apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact the evidence indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly.

Anyway, I like this idea a lot and am very keen to do it with my own lectures. It does seem to be the case however that some staff are wary of this innovation. I thought this might be an interesting issue to put to a public poll open to staff, students and interested others either at Sussex or elsewhere to gauge the general feeling about this:

If you don’t like the idea I’d welcome a comment explaining why. I’d also be interested in comments from colleagues in other institutions as to the extent to which lecture capture technology is used elsewhere.

Can a University be Democratic?

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on July 6, 2013 by telescoper

Today I thought I’d pick up on a topic I mentioned in last week’s post about Simon Fanshawe, about University governance.

The Royal Charter which formed the University of Sussex way back in 1961 includes the following clauses:

1.         By this Charter there shall be constituted and founded a University by the name of ‘The University of Sussex’ (‘the University’).

2.         In this Charter: ‘Council’ means the Council of the University; ‘Regulations’ except when otherwise required by the context, means Regulations made pursuant to this Charter or the Statutes. ‘Statutes’ means the Statutes of the University set out in the Schedule.

3.         The objects of the University shall be to advance learning and knowledge by teaching and research to the benefit of the wider community.

7.         There shall be a Council of the University which shall be the governing body of the University and shall have the custody and use of the Common Seal and shall be responsible for the revenue and property of the University, its conduct and activities, and shall exercise all the University’s powers.

8          There shall be a Senate of the University which shall, subject to the general control and approval of the Council, be responsible for academic standards and the direction and regulation of academic matters.

9.         There shall be a Students’ Union of the University.

This makes it quite clear that  the Senate (on which I happen to sit) is specifically meant to focus on academic matters; see below for a comment on this.  The role of the Student’s Union is not specified at all in this document, although it should be said that there are student members of Senate and Council too.

The reason for including this in a blog post is that it demonstrates an organization formed in this way has to strike a difficult balance between, on the one hand, listening to staff and students when it comes to forming policy and, on the other, having an efficient and effective executive that can implement those policies. There are about 16,000 people working and studying at the University of Sussex (c. 13,000 students and c. 3,000 staff), most of whom are highly intelligent and independent-minded so there’s bound to be a divergence of opinion on almost any topic under discussion. Even if it were possible for everyone to get involved in the University’s governance, it’s inevitable that decisions will be made that run counter to some of the input.

Difficult balances that have to be struck in the governance of any organization, whether religious, administrative, commercial or educational. The Council of the University of Sussex is its supreme governing body and everyone who works here is in some way accountable to it. In turn, Council is accountable to its “stakeholders”, not just funding authorities and students, but the wider world; its Charter states that

The objects of the University shall be to advance learning and knowledge by teaching and research to the benefit of the wider community.

In a nutshell, a University is not a democracy. It can’t be, not unless “democracy” is defined in a very limited way. A university can employ some democratic structures, and may (for many reasons) desire to include as many people as possible in its governance, but in the end this is limited by the need for effective and efficient management. We can – and do – debate where this balance should lie, but anyone who has ever worked in a University will agree that if it were allowed to be run “democratically” by some of academic collective then the result would be a complete shambles. Democracy has to be balanced by the rule of law.

Similar issues apply further down the pecking order. Since I took over as Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here earlier this year, I have had a wide range of responsibilities for the School, including its finances, academic matters, and even health and safety. I’m not an autocrat, so I try to do things as democratically as possible within the constraints I have to work, but this democracy is necessarily limited. I like to keep staff informed about and involved in decisions, but I sometimes have to make decisions without any consultation at all. This can be because such a quick decision is required that there is no time to consult widely, or because there is some issue to do with confidentiality which means that it can’t be discussed in an open forum (including, e.g., email). More often, though, it is just because they pay me to be Head of School and its my job to take responsibility so staff working in the School can get on with what they are supposed to do without being inundated with requests for input from me on trivial things.

On the other hand there are things in  MPS that are extremely  democratic compared with other places I’ve worked. We have a  Joint Committee which gives students direct input into various aspects of School life. In particular, the School has ceded part of its building to form Student Spaces and given students a budget to manage them (i.e. choose furniture, equipment, etc). These are extremely popular and no doubt contribute a great deal to our healthy position in the National Student Satisfaction (NSS) Survey. I think it’s great to have students involved in this way, but we have to remember that students are not the only stakeholders in a University; we also have obligations to other bodies whose requirements may run counter to the wishes of the student body.

Anyway, these ramblings are given a bit of topicality by an item in the Times Higher recently about two student representatives on the University of Sussex Senate who resigned in protest against alleged lack of consultation by the University management. I was at the Senate meeting when they resigned, as well as the previous one where there was a lengthy discussion at which they and others were given an extremely good hearing despite the fact that the matter concerned was not to do with academic so wasn’t strictly speaking in the remit of Senate anyway.

Eventually Senate voted and the two students concerned were on the losing side. I’m sad that they subsequently decided to resign from Senate, although to be absolutely factual both were due to be replaced next academic year anyway so it was a pretty empty gesture.

The point is that democracy isn’t just about being given the chance to express your own views. It’s also about acknowledging that others might feel very differently and accepting the decision when it turns out that you lost the argument.

What’s Your Lecture Face?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on December 19, 2012 by telescoper

I was thinking the other day – it doesn’t happen that often so I try to make the most of it when it does – about what a strange situation it is when someone stands up in front of a bunch of students and lectures at them for an hour. In the course module I’ve just finished teaching I’ve had the best part of a 100 people watching, and occasionally listening to, me drone on about something or other. What’s strange is that all those people see basically the same thing, whereas the lecturer gets to see all those different facial expressions. I wonder if the students are even aware that each one has a characteristic lecture face?

I’m one of those people who finds it very difficult to give a lecture without looking at the audience. It’s partly to try to establish some kind of rapport with them, notably in order to encourage them to answer when I ask a question or to offer questions of their own, but also to try to figure out whether anyone at all is following what I’m saying. Not all students are helpful in this regard, but some have very responsive mannerisms, nodding when they understand and frowning when they don’t. When I’m teaching a class for the first time I usually look around a lot in an attempt to identify those students who are likely to help me gauge how well things are going. Usually,  there are only a few barometers like this but I would be lost without them. Fortunately most students seem to sit in the same place in the theatre for each lecture so you can usually locate the useful ones fairly easily, with a discreet look around before you  start.

Most other students seem to have a default lecture face.  The expressions range from a perpetual scowl to a vacant smile (each of which is in its own way a bit scary). There’s the “wish I wasn’t here” face of pure boredom,  not to mention those who are fast asleep; I don’t mind them as long as they don’t snore. There’s the Bookface of someone who’s not listening but messing around on Facebook, and the inscrutable ones whose faces are masks yielding no clues as to what, if anything, is going on behind. The brightest students often seem to belong to the last group, although I haven’t done a statistical study of this so that must be taken as purely anecdotal.

Anyway, I feel a Christmas Poll coming on. Please participate if you can be bothered. If you don’t know what your own lecture face is, then you could always ask….

Generational Guilt

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2012 by telescoper

Exhausted near the end of an exceptionally busy week, I found myself taking a short break after a two-hour lecturing session when a student knocked at my door to ask for some advice about applying for PhDs. I was happy to oblige, of course, but after he’d gone it struck me how much tougher things are for today’s generation, compared with how easy it was for me.

I got a scholarship to the local grammar school (The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne) by passing the 11+ examination back in 1974. I got a good education that most pupils at the School had to pay for (or at least their parents did). I got good 0 and A levels, and then passed the post A-level examination to get me into Cambridge. Through contacts at school I got a job for nine months working for a British Gas research station in Cramlington, during which time I earned a nice wage. I went to Cambridge with a healthy bank balance on top of which I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees then either. When I graduated I was solvent and debt-free.

When I applied for PhDs I did so with no real idea about what research I might do. I wasn’t an outstanding undergraduate student and my personal statement was vagueness personified, but I got a place nonetheless. The stipend was modest, but one could live on it. I never had money worries as a PhD. Nor have I since. It all seems so simple, looking back.

Today’s students have no such luck. The Direct Grant system that paid my school fees was discontinued shortly after I benefited from it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got into University had I gone to the local comprehensive. Then maintenance grants were discontinued and fees introduced (then rapidly increased from £1000 to first £3000 and then £9000). Graduates now are usually burdened with huge debts. Moreover, when students apply for postgraduate study are nowadays often expected to not only to know precisely what they’re going to do but also be outstandingly good

The pressure we put on graduates now is out of all proportion to what I experienced. The reason? There are more of them overall, so there are more with first-class degrees chasing PhD funding. Many students who are much better than I was at the same stage of my career won’t make it just because of the arithmetic. Many will be discouraged by the finances too. It’s tragic that talented young people should be denied the chance to fulfil their ambitions by not having wealthy parents.

I’m often impressed (and even inspired) by those students who show a determination to pursue academic ambitions despite all the difficulties, but at the same time I feel guilty that it was so much easier in my day. Mine is the generation that decided to transfer the cost of higher education onto students and their families. Mine is also the generation that wrecked the economy by living beyond our means for too long.

To all those young people whose ambitions are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control all I can say is I’m sorry we oldies stole your future.

The End of the Viva

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 13, 2012 by telescoper

I’m stuck at home today, waiting for UPS to come and collect a defective printer. Any time between 9am and 7pm, they said. Very helpful. Anyway, I’ve got plenty to do while I’m here, catching up on STFC Astronomy Grant Panel business that I’ve been too busy to attend to. Also, this week’s Private Eye has just arrived in the post, so I’ll take a break at some point to do the crossword by Cyclops. It’s a lovely day. Pity I can’t sit in the garden. I’d miss the doorbell when the carrier arrives.

Anyway, the past two days have been largely given over to the business of examinations in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. The External Examiners spent a big slice of Monday doing viva voce examinations of selected candidates; not just those on borderlines, but also some others for “calibration”. I wasn’t involved in them this year, but have taken part in the past as External in various places. Obviously these examinations are very stressful for the students, and also quite difficult to conduct fairly, but sometimes provide useful insights in the cases where a student’s marks put them on a knife-edge between two degree classifications (or even between pass and fail).

Anyway, in its infinite wisdom Cardiff University has decided to scrap the viva voce examination after next year. From 2014 onwards we’ll just have to apply a formula to deal with borderline cases; the algorithm involves counting how many modules were passed at the higher level, etc. Actually, I probably agree with this for the purposes of classifying degrees. Twenty minutes’ questioning under stress can hardly be expected to yield much objective  information about a candidate’s knowledge of the subject that dozens of written papers and other assessments. Often, in my experience, students (especially the shy ones) are so nervous that the shutters come down almost straight away.  I would  prefer a system which is algorithmic as possible, so everyone knows what the rules are, rather than relying on subjective judgements.

As external, I always found the viva examinations a useful way of getting feedback from the students on their course which can be fed back – either usefully or not – to the department. In losing the viva  for drawing up the classification lists, I hope that we can find another way for the externals to talk to students in some other context to get some feedback about the course. Perhaps they could attend for project talks, or something like that?

Yesterday, the entire Board of Examiners (including Externals) gathered to go through all the individual cases and draw up the Honours List. I was delighted when I saw all the consolidated marks in advance of the meeting, to see how well how many of our students had done. There were one or two difficult cases, but in the end we produce the lists. As I went back to my office, students were already gathering in the corridor by the noticeboard where it is always placed as soon as the definitive final version has been prepared, shortly after the meeting closed.

Soon I heard whoops of joy and laughter and had a quick look to see the students congratulating one another. As always on such occasions, I was tempted to go along and chat to a few of them but, as always, I resisted doing so. It’s a time for them, the students, not us, the staff.

Anyway, congratulations to all those who had good news yesterday!

I hope your hangovers aren’t too bad…