The Joy of Teaching

Gave my last formal lecture of the semester today.  It’s quite a big class and I haven’t taught this material before, so it was a little daunting but I really enjoyed preparing it and learning some new things.  It’s also been quite a proactive class, so it’s been fun to teach.  I really like it when students ask questions during the lecture.  Partly it forces me to stop for a minute and clarify something, but it’s also just nice to have some interaction.

Today I had a really clever question that I couldn’t actually answer.  It’s slightly embarassing when someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, but it also shows that there are some really bright students out there who  get some of the subtleties really quickly.  I do often try to think of what I could be asked during a lecture, but it is hard to predict.  Generally the students completely ignore what you think might be obvious and ask something you hadn’t considered.  I’ve since worked out the answer to the question I was asked and have posted an explanation on the course’s discussion board.  I’ve been a slow convert to some of the technology that we use today, but when used properly it can be very helpful.

Despite not being able to answer a question during the lecture, I received what seemed to be a very genuine round of applause at the end of my lecture.  Never quite sure how to respond to this.  It certainly feels good to get a round of applause at the end of a series of lectures, but also a little embarassing.  Was also asked to autograph someone’s lecture notes.  I did do it, but this may well have been someone taking the p**s.

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Paul Drayson and Scientific Impact!

Paul Drayson recently gave the Nairn Lecture in Oxford and the title of his speech was “Science: where now?”. Apart from mentioning how successful and clever he had been, it seemed to focus primarily on the relationship between scientific research and economic impact. He specifically states “our capacity to create wealth from science needs to improve – to deliver the strong economic growth and jobs”. If any have read my other posts you will know that I am not a fan of the current impact agenda. This is not because I think scientific research shouldn’t deliver impact, it’s because I don’t believe what is being introduced will in any way help scientific research to deliver more impact and will ultimately be a complete waste of time and money.

It’s my view that if the government wants scientific research to deliver more impact, it should be putting more pressure on industry to communicate with researchers and to take more risks. To me, this is illustrated by the following statement taken from Paul Drayson’s speech

“I remind you that it was UK scientists who invented ultrasound. It was UK scientists who sequenced DNA. It was UK scientists who made the breakthrough on plastic electronics. It was UK scientists who got there first on monoclonal antibodies. In each case, commercialisation happened elsewhere.”

What I think he is trying to say here is that researchers in the UK have been very good at doing world class research, but very bad at exploiting it.  This may indeed be true, but what it actually illustrates – in my view – is that UK industry is very poor at exploiting the world class research that takes place in this country.  Is it reasonable to expect scientific researchers to do both the research and the exploitation (at the moment I seem to barely have time for the research).  In my opinion, it is not.  What motivates researchers is solving the puzzle, what motivates entrepreneurs and industrialists is presumably exploiting the results of the research.  Providing a way for entrepreneurs and industrialists to exploit the results of research done in the UK with public money (assuming that an appropriate amount of the resulting wealth remains in the public sector) seems perfectly reasonable.  Doing it by suggesting that the world class researchers should do better does not.

The more I encounter Paul Drayson, the less impressed I am.  We may well have a problem in the way in which we deliver impact from scientific research.  Trying to fix this by putting more pressure on those who are doing their part well, however, seems simplistic and short-sighted.   Part of me is pleased that he probably only has a few months left as science minister. Another part is terrified by what we will get in his place.

Academic retrenchments

I’ve just seen the reports from the Time Higher Education about compulsory academic redundancies at King’s College London, Imperial College, and possibly also University College London. Although I think some redundancies may have happened in the past, this is still somewhat unprecedented. Until sometime in the 1990s most UK academics had tenure, meaning that it was virtually impossible for them to be fired or made redundant. This has now changed and all new appointments, or anyone who has been promoted, is now on what is known as an open-ended contract. This does mean that redundancy is possible, but – until now – academics have been effectively permanent.

One could argue that times are tough for everyone and if there are redundancies in other sectors, why shouldn’t it be true for academia too. This may be a valid point, but let me tell you a personal story that may put this into some perspective. Including my years as a PhD student, I have worked (I was fortunate to be fully employed for most of my PhD) in the academic sector for almost 20 years. I’ve worked professionally on numerous different continents, I’ve moved across the Atlantic a number of times, and my 2 children were born in different countries (they don’t even share a citizenship at the moment). Prior to returning to the UK, I had a tenure-track position in the US. What attracted me to academia was getting paid what I felt was a fair wage to do a job I enjoyed, that gave me some freedom, and that provided job security. Although I have largely enjoyed everything I have done with may career so far, in some sense I have sacrificed quite a lot to get to where I am today. In particular, I don’t live anywhere near my or my wife’s parents or siblings and my children rarely see their grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. If 5 or 6 years ago, when I was evaluating my career options quite carefully, I had felt that academic jobs would be less secure in the future, I would have seriously considered alternative career options. Although I have no reason to believe that this will happen to me, if I was to be made redundant I would feel extremely cheated and deceived. In some sense, the sacrifices that academics make are made in return for job satisfaction and job security.

Although the above may illustrate why many academics may feel justifiably annoyed if faced with redundancy, it’s not really a strong argument for not doing it. Most people who are made redundant are probably more than justified in feeling annoyed and let down. The caveat, however, is how do you – in the future – attract people from all over the world to work in British universities if you remove what are the attractive aspects of such a career – job satisfaction and job security? This isn’t to say that those who take advantage of this job security and perform poorly shouldn’t risk losing their jobs. British universities may well have been soft on poorly performing academics, but in my experience the number of such people is really quite small. Compared to some academics I met while working in the US, most UK academics that I have encountered are extremely dedicated and hard working researchers and teachers. To a certain extent Britain already struggles to compete with the top US universities in attracting the top people. Introducing compulsory redundancies in some of Britain’s top universities is not going to make it any easier.

There is maybe one argument why making academics redundant is not quite the same as redundancies in other sectors. When an organisation is not performing well, making staff redundant reduces costs, allows the organisation to become more competitive, and ultimately may help the economy overall (not sure how true this is, but let’s assume it is for now). Those made redundant clearly suffer as a result, but hopefully find new careers when things improve. It’s not clear that the same argument applies in the University sector. Making redundancies now may save money (which is clearly the goal) but will damage the sector’s ability to attract the top people into academic jobs in the future. It’s therefore not clear that making redundancies will strengthen the sector in the long term. Academics also tend to become very specialised. I suspect that I would find it much harder now to find a job outside academia than I would have done 10 or 15 years ago. I’m probably either over-qualified or too expensive. Why hire me when you can probably hire someone younger who will cost less (even if I was willing to take a lower salary I’m not convinced that I would find work easily). What is more, when things improve it is unlikely that universities would then rehire those who’ve been made redundant. It is possible that academics find it harder to recover from a redundancy than those in other sectors, although in no way do I think it is easy for those in other sectors.

An obvious concern I have in making the above argument is that it will be interpreted as an arrogant academic arguing that we should be given special treatment. In fact similar arguments may actually apply in other sectors. The short term economic benefits of making redundancies may be destroyed by the reduction in loyalty and trust. So what is the reason for the introduction of compulsory redundancies in some of the UK’s top universities. Well, it is presumably a lack of money. Personally I don’t believe that now is the time to make cuts in the HE sector and we should be arguing that making such cuts will do damage to the UK economy as a whole. On the other hand, things will be very difficult for quite some time, so maybe we need to accept that some cuts are fair and necessary. Some US universities are actually introducing salary reductions and furloughs. Although I don’t think I get paid too much, I would be willing to accept a reduction in salary if it removed the need to make compulsory redundancies. With young kids I would also be fairly happy to work half a day less per week in exchange for a reduction in salary (although I would probably want to have an agreement that this wouldn’t be permanent). As a sector we should be doing everything we can to avoid making compulsory redundancies, but we also need to be careful not to end up being classed together with those in the financial sector who are threatening to leave the country if they don’t continue to get paid ridiculous salaries. I believe in the value of the UK HE sector and believe it has a very positive impact on the UK both socially and economically. I think that academics should be willing to make some kind of sacrifice to keep the UK HE sector world leading, and protect something that has been and should continue to be of benefit to everyone in the UK.

HE funding

Interesting speech by Phil Willis about Higher Education (HE) funding that makes a number of very valid points about how the current funding situation is likely to influence the HE sector and, in particular, those who are currently applying for places at HE institutions.

Although he has openly criticised the Russell Group universities’ take on the recent funding cuts for being somewhat over the top, he does feel that this is not the right time to be cutting funding to Higher Education. I probably agree that using scare tactics – especially ones that are probably not demonstrably true – is not going to convince the government to reverse the proposed funding cuts, even if this decision does verge on the insane. I do also agree that now is not the time to reduce funding for Higher Education.

What is of more immediate concern is the real possibility that, despite the increase in the number of applications for university places, Russell Group universities are likely to reduce the number of places that they fill. There seems to be two reasons for this decision. One is that universities generally have a quota that sets a limit on how many places they can fill. There is currently a threat that English universities will be fined £3500 for every student over this quota. The quota essentially reflects a maximum amount of money that a university can expect to receive. If this maximum also reflects a real limit on the number of places that can reasonably be accommodated, then a fine may also make sense. It’s not fair on students if there aren’t sufficient resources for them all to get the support that they need to perform well during their degree. On the other hand, there is probably some flexibility in most programmes. Fining universities for going a few percent over quota probably achieves nothing (and effectively reduces the available resources) and the threat of such a fine probably means that universities would rather reject potentially good students than go slightly over quota.

The other reason for this reduction in places this coming year is also probably because the actual quota is not on a single year, but a total over the first 2 or 3 years. Many universities over-recruited last year, probably as a result of the financial crisis and people choosing to go to university rather than look for a job (One reason for this over-recruitment is that universities use data from previous years to work out how many students will accept their offers. To fill 100 places universities may make offers to 800 applicants. The current financial crisis means that data from previous years is not really valid and so guessing how many offers to make is very difficult). Many universities are therefore worried that if someone notices that they are coping with more students than their quota allows, their quota may be increased without a corresponding increase in funding. Balancing their overall quota by under-recruiting this coming year (and maybe next year) may make some sense, but it does mean that students who would have been accepted last year and would be accepted in future years, will be excluded to match what might be a somewhat artificial quota. It is probably also largely correct that under-recruitment this year won’t really make up – in resource terms – for the over-recruitment last year. Students in different years generally don’t sit in the same lecture theatres and don’t use the same laboratory space. It would seem reasonable for universities to argue for an exception during what are clearly exceptional times.

Something that Phil Willis’s speech highlighted is that although there is a quota for local students (essentially UK and EU) there isn’t a quota for foreign students who pay their own fees. The under recruitment this coming year probably means that universities can fill what will essentially be spare places by making more offers to foreign students (assuming they can attract them). Having foreign students in our universities is, in my view, generally a good thing. They tend to be quite good students so have a positive effect on those around them, and they bring extra money into the HE sector (and in return hopefully get a valuable degree). However, the more foreign students in our universities, the fewer local students we can accept. Under-recruiting local students this year and effectively freeing up places that can be filled by foreign students seems wrong to me, especially if those being excluded would have been accepted in the recent past and would be accepted in the near future.

What is more, there must be some value associated with our graduates. It has been argued that Physics, for example, underpins something like 6% (~ £100 billion) of the UK economy. If we graduate 3000 Physics students a year each of whom work for 30 years, there will be something like 100000 Physics graduates in the UK economy at any one time. One could then argue that each graduate underpins about £1 million. This is clearly an oversimplification and increasing the number of Physics graduates isn’t going increase the UK economy by £1 million per graduate. Foreign students also, of course, bring new money into the UK, which is clearly a good thing. However, reducing the number of local physics graduates could, however, have a very detrimental effect on the economy since there must be some minimum needed to sustain this part of the economy. There must be a point at which increasing the number of foreign students – at the expense of local students – could damage the UK economy. The same must be true in other areas and reducing the intake of local students, particularly in the sciences, at a time when we need to stimulate the economy seems like a potentially damaging decision. It feels like another short-sighted decisions that will appear to save money in the short term (although even this may not be true) but potentially cost us in the long term.

I think I understand why universities are doing this. It may even be true that during these difficult financial times, predicting how many students will accept offers is very difficult. Over-recruiting again could be very damaging if we don’t have the resources to accommodate all the incoming students and so under-recruiting may well the sensible option. I do, however, feel that we will be disadvantaging students who won’t get a university place simply because of the year they finish school. Although I don’t necessarily think the current situation will lead to a sudden change in the ratio of foreign to local students, I do think we have to be very careful about the balance between foreign and local students. Foreign students do bring money into the UK economy now (in exchange for a good degree), but local students contribute to the economy for the rest of their lives. We have to make sure that we get this balance right.

As an aside, I believe that Phil Willis is not intending on standing again at the next election which is, I think, a great shame. From what I’ve seen, he’s been a very good chairman of the Science and Technology committee and I find his views very sensible and well informed. He also seems to be well regarded and has some influence. It is possible that his criticism of the cuts to research and HE funding could have some impact. I hope that we get a few more equally sensible MPs after the upcoming election.