Archive for Welsh Assembly Government

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.

Admissions Latest

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by telescoper

Only time for a short post today, so I thought I’d just pass on a link to the latest  Higher Education application  statistics, as reported by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

It’s still several weeks before the UCAS deadline closes in January so it’s too early to see exactly what is happening, but the figures do nevertheless make interesting reading.

The total number of applications nationally  is down by 12.9% on last year, but the number of  applications from UK domiciled students has fallen by 15.1%; an increase in applications from non-EU students is responsible for the difference in these figures.

Non-science subjects seem to be suffering the biggest falls in application numbers; physical sciences are doing better than average, but still face a drop of 7% in numbers. Anecdotal evidence I’ve gleaned from chatting to Physics & Astronomy colleagues is that some departments are doing very well, even increasing on last year, while others are significantly down. It is, however, far too early to tell how these numbers will translate into bums on seats in lecture theatres.

A particular concern for us here in Wales are the statistics of applications to Welsh universities.  The number of English-domiciled applicants to Welsh universities is down by 17.4% while the number of Welsh applicants to Welsh universities is down by 15.2%. On the other hand, the number of Welsh applicants to English universities is down by just 5.3%.

The pattern of cross-border applications is particularly important for Welsh Higher Education  because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy of subsidizing Welsh-domiciled students wherever they study in the United Kingdom, a policy which is generous to students but which is paid for by large cuts in direct university funding.  The more students take the WAG subsidy out of Wales, the larger will be the cuts in grants to Welsh HEIs.

Moreover, in the past, about 40% of the students in Welsh universities come from England.  If the fee income from incoming English students is significantly reduced relative to the subsidy paid to outgoing Welsh students then the consequences for the financial health of Welsh universities are even more dire.

Although it is early days the figures as they stand certainly suggest the possibility that the  number of Welsh students  studying in England will increase both relative to the number staying in Wales and relative to the number of English students coming to study in Wales. Both these factors  will lead to a net transfer of funds from Welsh Higher Education Institutions to their English counterparts.   I think the policy behind this is simply idiotic, but by the time the WAG works this out it may be too late.

Another interesting wrinkle on the WAG’s policy can be found in a piece in last week’s Times Higher. We’re used to the idea that people might relocate to areas where schools or  local services are better or cheaper, but consider the incentives on an English  family who are thinking of the cost of sending their offspring to University. The obvious thing for them  to do is to relocate to Wales in order to collect the WAG subsidy which they can then spend sending their little dears to university in England. That will save them tens of thousands of pounds per student, all taken directly from the Welsh Higher Education budget and paid into to the coffers of an English university.

There are already dark rumours circulating that the WAG subsidy will turn out to be so expensive that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is thinking of cancelling all its research funding. That means that Welsh universities face the prospect of having to take part in the burdensome Research Excellence Framework, in competition with much better funded English and Scottish rivals, but getting precisely no QR funding at the end of it.

And all this is because the Welsh Assembly Government wants to hand a huge chunk of its budget back to England. Is this how devolution is supposed to work? Madness.

University Admissions in Uncharted Territory

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2011 by telescoper

It turns out I have a few minutes spare before going to our staff Away (half) Day this afternoon, so I thought I’d pass on another interesting bit of news that came out this week.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, known to all and sundry as UCAS, has released some interesting statistical information on numbers of applicants to UK universities and how this compares with the corresponding stage in the admissions timetable last year.

We’re still very early on in the process so it would be unwise to read too much into the figures available so far. The big question, however, is whether the ConDem government’s decision to raise fees for university students to £9K per annum has had any effect on the number of students applying. In fact the headline figure is that after several years of growth in overall applicant numbers, the figures for 2012 entry are down 9% on last year. Still early days, of course, but it does look like the new fee levels may be having the deterrent effect we all expected.

Another interesting thing that struck me, from Table 6 of the UCAS analysis, is that the number of students applying to study courses in the physical sciences (including Physics & Astronomy) is down by just 1.6% on the same stage last year, compared to an average of 7.9% across all subjects. (Note that this is not the same as the 9% mentioned above, because students get more than one choice of course..).

Of particular interest to us in Wales is the breakdown of applicants by domicile and choice of institution.  From Table 4 we see that the number of English students applying to Welsh Universities is down 13.4%, while the number of Welsh-domiciled students applying to study in England is down by only 4.3%. If this differential persists then it will have a big impact on the Welsh Higher Education sector, because of the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision to cut funding for Welsh Universities in order to pay for its  subsidy for  Welsh students wanting to study in England.

It’s too early to predict what will happen to overall student numbers for 2012/13, but I’m sure planning officers in universities all around the UK will be looking at the interim figures with a considerable degree of anxiety.

The Dissolution of the Assembly

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on March 27, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday’s mail included a polling card for the forthcoming elections to the Welsh Assembly. Coincidentally, I found out this morning that the Welsh Assembly will be dissolved on 31st March, to be re-convened on or after 5th May when the elections are finished.

Until Thursday the Welsh Assembly Government comprises a coalition of New Labour and Plaid Cymru and, although I don’t know enough about Welsh politics to predict what’s going to happen with any real confidence, it seems reasonably likely that not much will change. I can’t see the Tories or LibDems making any gains, at any rate.

I’m not sure of the extent to which Higher Education will be important in the forthcoming election campaign. It sure be, of course, as the relevant issues are those over which the Assembly has direct responsibility, education being one. The WAG’s hands are tied to a large extent by the funding it receives from Westminster, and it also has many other calls on its purse, but I do hope the new WAG, whatever its complexion is, will do the right thing by Welsh universities when it re-forms in May.

I have to admit, though, that I’m very worried for the future. As I predicted when the new funding arrangements for English universities were announced, the vast majority – and certainly all the research intensive ones – will be charging the full £9K fee level from 2012. That means the current WAG’s commitment to pay fees for Welsh-domiciled students wanting to study in England will be much more expensive than the WAG’s estimates, which were based on an average fee level of £7.5K. English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay whatever fee Welsh universities charge, which isn’t known yet.

Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If numbers remain the same, in order for the funds coming in from England to exceed the money going to England, the fee level charged in Wales must  be at least 64% of that charged in England, i.e. £5760 if all English universities charge £9K. That’s way above the putative mininum fee level of £4K announced by the WAG; if Welsh universities charge fees at that level then the WAG will be providing a large net subsidy to English universities.

And breaking even isn’t anywhere near enough. The WAG has signalled an intention to top-slice teaching budgets by about 40%. We don’t yet know how that will be implemented, university-by-university and department-by-department,  but unless there are to be wholesale closures of “expensive” subjects (i.e. science and engineering) fee levels will have to rise substantially above the level calculated above. My own employer, Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group of research-led universities, will probably want to brand itself alongside the English universities belonging  to this club by charging a high fee. I hope it doesn’t do this, but  the WAG’s policies are pushing it in that direction. As one of Wales’ biggest recruiters of English students, Cardiff will have to charge high fees in order to be seen as being of the same quality as leading English universities as well as to make up for funding lost in the latest round of deep cuts to recurrent grants.

The recent rhetoric of the WAG is all about achieving greater control of the HE sector in Wales to align it with strategic priorities within the Principality. This is certainly justifiable in principle as Wales has a university system which is far too fragmented and chaotic. Paradoxically, however,  the WAG’s own policies seem to be forcing Welsh universities to look to England for income to make up for the big cuts recently announced.

So what’s the alternative?

I think it would be much more rational to ditch the commitment to fund Welsh-domiciled students for studying in England. If a student wants to go to England then they should experience the same fee regime as students domiciled there. After all, you wouldn’t expect the WAG to pay fees for a Welsh student to go to America, would you? The cash thus saved should be reinvested in Welsh Higher Education, in accordance with the WAG’s strategic priorities, and in keeping tuition fee levels as low as possible within the Principality. The best way to avoid tuition fee levels of £9K is to maintain core grants at a level that makes it unnecessary to charge so much.

It seems to me that this plan is a better deal for Welsh students, for English students wanting to study in Wales,  for Welsh universities, and for the Welsh Assembly Government, but then I’m used to being in a minority of one.

Let’s just say I’ll be reading the party manifesto statements with great interest over the next few weeks…


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Local News

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 25, 2011 by telescoper

I’m looking forward to tonight’s Annual Chaos Society Physics Ball, in advance of which I’ll have to go home to get my glad rags sorted out.

This posh night out should provide some welcome fun at the end of a week in which various items of news concerning Welsh universities have generated considerable anxiety around these parts.

For a start the Welsh Assembly Government has announced funding levels for HEFCW, the body that distributes funding to Welsh universities. According to a newspaper article

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw) has seen its core budget slashed by 8.5% from £453m in 2010-11 to £388m in 2011-12.

Well, pardon my numeracy but a cut from £453m  to £388m is actually a drop of 14.3% not 8.5%. This is much worse than the cuts already announced by HEFCE for English universities, although it remains to be seen how HEFCW will pass on this cut to the institutions it funds. Whatever it does will cause considerable pain, as this cut is being imposed a full year before universities will be allowed to recoup any losses by charging increased tuition fees.

There was also some even more local and even more disappointing news this week concerning HEFCW. Over the past year or so, the three remaining physics departments in Wales (at Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) have developed a proposal to form a strategic alliance along the lines of similar initiatives in Scotland, the Midlands, and South-East of England which resulted in the injection of large amounts of cash into physics research in those areas. The bid went into HEFCW in January and this week we received the decision. No.

I suppose the decision wasn’t surprising given the current funding climate, but it’s nevertheless extremely disappointing to realise we’ve  missed a very important boat. If  Welsh physics had gone down this road a decade ago – which I believe it should – then we would be in much better shape to face the very uncertain future that hangs over us. Still, I suppose it spares us the effort of trying to think up an acronym.

What’s especially worrying about this is that it seems to me that it makes it  inevitable that Welsh physics will do as poorly in the forthcoming Research Excercise Framework as it did in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.
I think it’s worth quoting the observations made by Sub-panel 19 (physics) after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise:

Sub-panel 19 regards the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance collaboration between Scottish departments as a highly positive development enhancing the quality of research in Scotland. South of the border other collaborations have also been formed with similar objectives. On the other hand we note with concern the performance of three Welsh departments where strategic management did not seem to have been as effective as elsewhere.

Ouch! The final sentence is completely out of order, of course, as it exceeds the remit of HEFCE (which administered the RAE) to try to dictate how Higher Education is run in Wales, as this responsibility is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. It is, however, to some extent a valid criticism. England and Scotland have pumped money into physics in order the develop strategic alliances. Wales hasn’t. And it isn’t going to either.

Given Wales’ relative autonomy when it comes to Higher Education I still don’t understand why its universities forced to participate in the REF anyway, but since it looks like we are stuck with it, I worry what the outcome will be, especially since Welsh physicists have been systematically excluded from the physics panel.

The last item of news concerns HEFCW itself. A report produced by John McCormick has recommended that it be scrapped and replaced with a new body called Universities Wales.

There are many reasons why scrapping HEFCW could turn out to be a good thing. For one thing, a new body might realise that continuing involvement in the REF is wasting a huge amount of time and money in the Welsh HE sector on an exercise that takes no account of Welsh strategic objectives. Nevertheless, I’m  a bit worried by some of the rhetoric coming out of the Welsh Assembly about this issue.

Universities are not the property of the Welsh Assembly (which in fact only funds part of their activity). Universities are independent charitable institutions. Their autonomy is essential in allowing them to do what they do best, free from the short-term expediency that dominates the thinking of the political establishment.

But that’s not to say that the Welsh Assembly is wrong to expect universities to respond to the changing socio-economic landscape. It’s all a matter of balance. If Universities Wales is sufficiently “hands-off” to allow universities to do what they do best – teaching and research – but sufficiently “hands-on” that it can help the HE sector to reorganize in the ways it clearly must, then this could be a very good move.

And if HEFCW does die, I’m afraid there will be few around these parts that mourn its passing.


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Why should Wales subsidise English universities?

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on December 5, 2010 by telescoper

As the argument about increased tuition fees for English universities  intensifies in the run-up to Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons,  the Welsh Assembly Government last week announced that fees for students in Wales would rise to a basic level of £6000 per year, with a possible increase to £9000 “in certain circumstances”.

I’m a bit surprised that the WAG made this announcement in advance of the vote in Westminster, as it seems to me to be by no means certain that England will introduce the post-Browne system that Wales is copying. If the increased fee measure for England doesn’t get through Parliament then Welsh universities will find themselves out on a limb.

More generally, I find it extremely disappointing that there seems to be absolutely no independent thinking going on in Wales about Higher Education funding. The responsibility for this is devolved to the WAG, but time and time again it simply copies what the English are doing. What’s the point of having devolution if you haven’t got politicians willing and able to be different from the Westminster crowd?

One thing that Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton Andrews did announce that isn’t the case in England is that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from any tuition fee rise by a new system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra (between about £3K and £6K). This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

POSTCRIPT: Leighton Andrews’ speech to the Welsh Assembly can be seen here.


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Uncertain Universities…

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on November 24, 2010 by telescoper

Interesting snippets of Higher Education news today from the BBC website.

It seems that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HECFW) has voiced concerns about the sustainability of no less than five Welsh universities. Although it hasn’t named them, I think it’s likely to be those most dependent on state funding which is pretty certain to shrink drastically over the next few years. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify the five most likely to fold. This news has emerged as a result of a request by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

This comes as no surprise to me, actually. It’s clear that, for its size and population,  Wales has too many separate institutions currently regarded as “universities”. A sustainable system would have less than half the number than we have now, but managing the change to a more rational structure is bound to be a difficult process, especially if it is allowed to happen by organized neglect (which seems to be the plan). Wales drastically underfunds its Higher Education sector compared to England anyway and, with what jam there is spread over far too many institutions, there’s very little by way of resources to devote to any real sort of strategic development.

Another interesting bit of information in the BBC report is that the Welsh Assembly is expected to outline its response to the Browne Review before Christmas. I was expecting the WAG to but  the introduction of any new fee system will probably have to wait until after the Welsh Assembly elections next May.

Meanwhile Cardiff University students are holding a protest against the possible introduction of fees at the very moment I am writing this, as part of a day of action across the UK. Although there are no definite plans to increase fees in Wales at the moment because the WAG has not announced its policy, I think most of us working in academia think a big increase in fees is imminent in Wales, just as it is in England (provided the necessary legislation gets through the House of Commons). It remains to be seen, however, whether Welsh universities will be allowed to charge as much as English ones, i.e. up to £9000 per annum.


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Higher Education Spending in Wales

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on November 17, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the Welsh Assembly has now published its draft budget for 2011/12 (and following years). You can find the documents related to this here, the most useful one of which is this.

I haven’t got time to comment in detail but, being a university employee, I skipped directly to the section about Higher Education and found the following:

In order to direct funding to schools and skills, the majority of budget reductions have been focused on specific budgets. Higher Education will receive a reduction over the next 3 years of £51m. This amounts to some 11.8%, compared to the severe reductions proposed in England. The planned reductions will facilitate the statutory commitment to provide financial support for Higher Education students, numbers of which have increased significantly over the past two years. This does not predetermine the Welsh Assembly Government’s response to the Browne Review. The reductions include the efficiency savings we expect to be delivered through the implementation of our Higher Education strategy, For our Future. The commitment to the development of the University of the Heads of The Valleys (UHoVI) and Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (formerly Coleg Federal) will, however, remain a priority to
be funded from this budget.

In other words, Higher Education is to bear the brunt of protecting the budgets for Schools (which remains roughly level in cash terms) and  Further Education (which is cut by about 2%). Clearly the WAG must either think that  maintaining funding for Higher Education  is a low priority or that money saved from HE can be recouped some other way (i.e. through increasing fees or cutting student support).

An 12% cut in cash terms is much worse in real terms, of course, but the draft budget doesn’t give any details of how this is going to be broken down in terms of research and teaching allocations. Moreover, the Welsh Assembly has yet to formulate a response to the Browne Review which has resulted in proposals for tuition fees up to £9000 per annum in England. Since the Welsh Assembly elections are to be held next May, it is highly unlikely that a new tuition fee system for Wales  will be in place before then. Moreover, the fact that funding is being diverted into the new institutions described above suggests that even less money than this will be available for established universities.

We also don’t know the extent to which research will be protected. In England, a cut of 40% has been applied to teaching budgets from next year, with research funding largely preserved. It appears something similar is going to happen in Scotland, but with a much smaller overall cut to the universities budget there. Will Wales follow the same pattern, or will it sacrifice any chance of having high quality research-led universities by single-mindedly pursuing its “regional agenda”?


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Among the Crachach

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on June 6, 2010 by telescoper

Catching up on the news by looking through my copy of last week’s Times Higher, I came across an account of a speech made by Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton Andrews about the Future of Higher Education in Wales. I mentioned this was coming up in an earlier post about the state of the Welsh university system, but wasn’t able to attend the lecture. Fortunately, however the text of the lecture is available for download here.

There is some discussion of positives  in the speech, including a specific enthusiastic mention of

the involvement of the School of Physics and Astronomy in the international consortium which built the Herschel Space Observatory.

I was pleased to see that, especially since much of the rest of it is extremely confrontational. Much of it focusses on the results of a recent study by accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper that revealed, among other things, that  52% of the funding provided by the Welsh Assembly Government for higher education goes on adminstration and support services, with only 48% to teaching and research. Mr Andrews suggests that about 20% of the overall budget could be saved by reducing duplication and introducing shared services across the sector.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the actual figures in the report, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were correct.  They might shock outsiders to the modern higher education system but most universities – not just those in Wales – seem to employ at least as many administrative staff and support staff as “front-line” teachers and researchers. I’m likewise sure that the Welsh Assembly employs many more such staff than there are Members…

Within academic Schools we need to employ staff to handle financial matters, student records, recruitment, admissions,  and general day-to-day administration. On top of that we have technical staff, to support both research and teaching laboratories as well as computing support staff. Add them all together and you definitely have a number comparable to the number of academic staff,  but  they don’t account for 52% of our salary bill because they are generally paid less than lecturers and professors. The mix in our School is no doubt related to the specific demands of physics and astronomy, but these staff all provide essential services and if they weren’t there, the academic staff would have to spend an even greater part of their time doing such things themselves.

As well as the staff working in individual Schools there are central administrative departments (in Cardiff they’re called “directorates”) which don’t employ academics at all. I have no idea what fraction of Cardiff’s budget goes on these things, but I suspect it’s  a big slice. My own anecdotal experience is that some of these are helpful and efficient while others specialise in creating meaningless bureaucratic tasks for academic staff to waste their time doing. I think such areas are where 20% savings might be achievable, but that would depend on the University having fewer and less complicated “initiatives” to respond to from the WAG.

The Times Higher story discusses the (not entirely favourable) reaction from various quarters to Mr Andrews speech, so I won’t go into it in any more detail here.

However, I was intrigued by one word I found in the following paragraph

 I was interested to learn recently that some members of university governing bodies have been appointed on the basis of a phone call. Who you know not what you know. It appears that HE governance in post devolution Wales has become the last resting place of the crachach.

Crachach? Being illiterate in the Welsh language this was a new one on me. However, I found an article on the BBC Website  that revealed all.

The term used to denote local gentry but 21st century crachach is the Taffia, the largely Welsh-speaking elite who dominate the arts, culture and media of Wales and to a lesser extent its political life.

It goes onto say

The Vale, Pontcanna and Whitchurch are crachach property hotspots while barn conversions in Llandeilo and cottages in Newport, Pembrokeshire, provide weekend retreats.

Hang on. Pontcanna? That’s where I live! I wonder if they let foreigners join the crachach, provided of course they learn the Welsh language? I note however that “arts culture and the media” is their remit, so science apparently doesn’t count. Perhaps I could start a scientific wing? Maybe those Welsh lessons will be useful after all. I’m told that the crachach always manage to get tickets for the big rugby matches…

On a more serious note, however, that part of Leighton Andrews’ speech stressed the importance of university governance. If he’s true to his word he should look into the Mark Brake affair. I think the taxpayers of Wales have a right to know what’s been going on.

Water and Energy

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve refrained from blogging about the fraught history of my attempts to have a new  gas boiler installed in my house. Today, however, at last I have finally succeed in getting a state-of-the-art high-efficiency condensing contraption fit for the 21st Century, which will hopefully save me a few bob in gas bills over the winter but, more importantly, actually produce hot water for more than a minute or so without switching itself off.

The chaps that did the job for me actually had to test all the radiators too, which meant switching them all up to maximum. It wasn’t quite as hot today as it was yesterday but nevertheless the inside of the house was like a Turkish bath for a while. I therefore sat outside in the Sun for a bit waiting for them to get finished and tidy everything up.

While I was sitting there I got thinking about sustainable energy and so on, and was reminded of a comment Martin Rees made in his Reith Lecture not long ago. Wanting to sound positive about renewable energy he referred to the prospect of generating significant tidal power using a Severn Barrage. Given the local relevance to Cardiff – one of the main ideas is a barrage right across the Severn Estuary from Cardiff to Weston-super-Mare -so he presumably thought he was on safe ground mentioning it. In fact there was a lot of uneasy shuffling in seats at that point and the question session at the end generated some tersely sceptical comments. Many locals are not at all happy about the possible environmental impact of the Severn Barrage. That, and the cost – probably in excess of £20 billion – has to be set against the fact that such a barrage could in principle generate 2GW average power from an entirely renewable source. This would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our energy security too. The resources probably aren’t available right now given the parlous state of the public finances, but I’m glad that the Welsh Assembly Government is backing serious study of the various options. It may be that it won’t be long before we’re forced to think about it anyway. The Wikipedia page on the various proposals for a Severn Barrage is very comprehensive, so I won’t rehearse the arguments here. In any case, I’m no engineer and can’t comment on the specifics of the technology required to construct, e.g., a tidal-stream generator. However, I have to say that I find the idea pretty compelling, provided ways can be found to mitigate its environmental impact.

For a start it’s instructive to look at turbine-generated power. Wind turbines  are cropping up around the British isles, either individually or in wind farms. A  typical wind turbine can generate about 1MW in favourable weather conditions, but it needs an awful lot of them to produce anything like the power of a conventional power station. They’re also relatively unpredictable so can’t be relied upon on their own for continuous power generation. The power P available from a wind turbine is given roughly by

P \simeq \frac{1}{2} \epsilon \rho A v^3

where v is the wind speed, A is the area of the turbine, \rho is the density of air, which is about 1.2 kg per cubic metre, and \epsilon is the efficiency with which the turbine converts the kinetic energy of the air into useable electricity.

The same formula would apply to a turbine placed in water, immediately showing the advantage of tidal power.  For comparable efficiencies and sizes the ratio of power generated in a tidal-stream turbine to a wind turbine would be

\frac{P_{t}}{P_{w}}\simeq \frac{\rho_{t}}{\rho_{w}} \left( \frac{v_{t}}{v_{w}}\right)^{3}

The speed of the water in a tidal stream can be comparable to the airspeed in a moderate wind, in which case the term in brackets doesn’t matter and it’s just the ratio of the densities of water and air that counts, and that’s a large number! Of course wind speed can sometimes be larger than the fastest tidal current, but wind turbines don’t work efficiently in such conditions and in any case it isn’t the v which provides the killer factor. The density of sea water is about 1025 kg per cubic metre, a thousand times greater than that of air. To get the same energy output from air as from a tidal stream you would need to have winds blowing steadily ten times the velocity of the stream, which would be about 80 knots for the Severn. More than breezy!

Not all proposals for the Severn Barrage involve tidal stream turbines. Some exploit the gravitational potential energy rather than the kinetic energy of the water by exploiting the vertical rise and fall during a tidal cycle rather than the horizontal flow. The energy to be exploited in, for example, a tidal basin of area A  would go as

E \simeq \frac{1}{2} \epsilon A\rho gh^{2}

where h is the vertical tidal range, about 8 metres for the Severn Estuary, and g is the acceleration due to gravity. The average power generated would be found by dividing this amount of energy by 12 hours, the time between successive high tides. It remains to be seen whether tidal basin or lagoon based on this principle emerges as competitive.

Another thing that struck me doodling these things on the back of an envelope in the garden is that this sort of thing is what we should be getting physics students to think about. I’m quite ashamed to admit that we don’t…