This is a little like a double reblog. This post links to another that argues that brilliants students should seriously consider not doing a PhD. Personally, my experiences are not as extreme as illustrated in this post, but I think there is quite a lot of merit in what this post is saying. It does seem that we do need to think long and hard about our PhD programmes and how we treat PhD students. I would go further and suggest that we need to consider the full academic career structure. It seems, to me at least, that the pressure at all stages is increasing and that the aspects of an academic career that made it attractive are being eroded to the point where I’m not sure that I would recommend an academic careers to others.

Disturbing the Universe

Excellent post by a friend on why not to do a PhD:

Dear Brilliant Students: Please Consider not Doing a PhD

Liv says a lot of good things here so that even if you do still want to do a PhD after reading this, you will be going into the process with eyes more open than I did.

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Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU)

I thought I should write something about the recently launched Council for the Defence of British Universities. This is a group who’s goal is to protect academic values and to resist the “short term, pragmatic, and narrowly commercial” views that currently appear to persist in UK Higher Education.

I find the name a little militant and could imagine, in a Monty Python type of way, another group called the British Universities Defence Council who have the same aims, but instead of joining forces with the CDBU, end up fighting each other.

There is an article in the Times Higher Education suggesting that the CDBU is too narrow. Essentially suggesting that it is mainly “middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm”, or at least almost. That was one of my first impressions too, but I do agree whole-heartedly with the aims of the CBDU, which you can find here. I have, in the past, complained that senior members of the community are unwilling to fight against the changes that are taking place in Higher Education, and here they are. Even if it is dominated by “middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm”, at least they are attempting to make a stand against changes that could do immense damage to UK Higher Education. The Steering Committee does also seem more balanced, so maybe there is hope that it will be an organisation that is inclusive.

I don’t really know what else to say. I’ve been complaining for quite a while now about various aspects of UK Higher Education (introduction of tuition fees, emphasis on research over teaching driven mainly by REF2014, university management that thinks HE is a business and that generating income is a priority) and so it is very good to see a group like this starting and aiming to fight to protect more traditional academic values. Makes me think that maybe I don’t talk complete nonsense all the time. Then again, maybe we’re all wrong.

There is a report on the BBC website suggesting that the government has underestimated the cost of it’s Higher Education policy. I thought I would reblog a post that I wrote in October 2010 (just after the Browne report was released, but before the government policy was finalised). I suggested not only that it was a questionable policy since it is effectively a regressive tax, but also suggested that the government would only recover about 2/3 of the money anyway. I underestimated how much would be lent to each student, so that would suggest that even less will be recovered. The new report seems to suggest that this is indeed the case. I don’t really like saying “I told you so” but it is confusing that this seemed fairly obvious to me, but for some reason wasn’t to those deciding HE policy.

To the left of centre

Although not surprised, I am quite disappointed with the Browne report. I haven’t read it in detail, but at first glance it reads as something in which the outcome was essentially known from the beginning. There appears to be very little discussion of the fundamental reasons for the existence of a higher education (HE) sector, and it appears to assume that the current funding model has to change. The basic idea from the report is that tuition fees would be uncapped and that students would be lent the money to cover the tuition fees, and to help cover the cost of living. It seems unlikely that fees will actually be uncapped, but will probably rise to about £6250 per year with an additional £3750 per year for living expenses. Students will therefore accrue debts of about £10000 per year. If this does end up being the case, Universities will supposedly…

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External examining

It’s a few weeks into our semester which means it’s time to prepare and set the exams. The process here, as in many other UK universities, is that those who teach on the course set the questions. The exam is then checked by someone else, then by a committee, and then sent to the external examiner. The problem is that to get this all done in time, the exam has to be set before the middle of the semester. In many cases, people setting questions haven’t yet starting teaching their part of the course.

Personally, I think that setting exam papers so early in a semester is not ideal. It’s not maybe a major problem, but I would certainly prefer to set the paper after I’ve taught most of the course. I don’t think that setting it early is necessarily disastrous, it just feels like I’ll have a better sense of how to assess the students later in the semester than I do early in the semester. The UK is, however, so fixated with the external examiner system that it seems like it is virtually impossible to change it. I have, however, taught in the US where no such process exists and I don’t think the outcomes were worse as a consequence of this (or rather, I don’t think the students were particularly disadvantaged).

The main reason for having external examiners is, supposedly, to provide comparisons and to check that there is a reasonable consistency between UK universities. To me, this is a general comparison, rather than a specific course by course comparison. If so, why do they need to see the papers before the students sit the exams? Surely, if they were to look at the papers afterwards (when they attend the exam board for example) they could comment on the standards and, if there were any issues, this could be addressed for the next exam session. The point is to make sure that degree programmes across the UK are consistent not to specifically check (on an annual basis) individual courses. They are, of course, related but I don’t think anyone would suggest that every course at every university should be taught in the same way and at exactly the same level. What one wants to ensure is that graduates from different universities with the same degree classifications have, roughly speaking, the same skills and abilities.

I don’t really think, however, that there is much chance of changing the system anytime in the near future. Partly, I think it’s because it is seen as a strength of the UK system. We have external examiners who check everything and therefore our degrees are somehow more valid than those elsewhere. Furthermore, external examiners are now used to actually check for mistakes on exam papers. I think this is wrong. Why should we need external examiners to do this. Surely we could just as easily check our papers ourselves. There’s nothing particularly special about external examiners. They’re just academics from other UK universities. However, we now put so much emphasis on research that many (or at least some) academics can’t be bothered to put any real effort into setting their exams properly. Consequently we need this convoluted and lengthy process (involving external examiners) in order to compensate for the minority who can’t do their jobs properly. Personally, I’d rather we insisted that people did their jobs properly instead of all of us having to set our exams much earlier than is probably ideal.

London Metropolitan University part 2

So London Metropolitan University has lost its Highly Trusted Status. This means that it can no longer recruit or teach students from outside the EU. What I find amazing is that it appears to mean that the ~ 3000 students from outside the EU who are current students will either have to leave the country or find another university. I find this incredible. They are probably paying £15000 per year in tuition and another £10000 per year in living expenses. They could be 2 years into a degree, having paid a total of £50000, and now have to leave the country without a degree. There’s no indication that these students have done anything wrong. There’s no indication that the university is incapable of teaching and assessing these students. It’s simply that this university can no longer be trusted to recruit these students in a manner that is acceptable to the UK Border Agency. I can see no reason why these students shouldn’t be at least allowed to complete their degrees. To have paid £50000 and, through no fault of their own, have to leave without a degree, when they could easily do so, seems like a really unfortunate way to implement this policy.

London Metropolitan University

I noticed today that the University that was recently praised for its plan to outsource its service, is today at risk of losing its Home Office trusted status. This is essentially the status that gives the university the right to recruit and teach students from outside the EU. Personally, I think the UK Border Agency rules have gone too far and maybe it’s not quite fair to criticise London Metropolitan too much for this, but it doesn’t really instill confidence in its management.

What are universities for?

What has been happening at Queen Mary, University of London (highlighted here) and at other UK universities, has made me consider what universities are actually for. Stefan Collini has written a book titled What are Universities for? and I should probably read this before writing my own post, but I haven’t and I’ll write something anyway.

Basically, I think universities are places where people carry out research and other scholarly activities and pass on what they (and others) have learned. The research/scholarship should be original and fundamental and should aim to enhance our understanding of the world/universe. We then pass on this knowledge through publishing papers, talking at conferences, engaging with the public and educating students who can then go out and use this knowledge and the associated skills throughout their careers. The impact that universities have is therefore partly through the graduates and partly through the research/scholarship which may have both societal and economic impact (although one would expect it to be medium to long-term impact).

An academic job is also typically assumed to be permanent. The US still has tenure, the UK doesn’t, but academic jobs are still regarded as permanent. There are two reasons for this (I think). We want to attract world-class researchers into jobs that don’t pay huge salaries and so job security does play a role in making the career attractive. The other reason is that academic researchers have typically had, what is called, academic freedom. This is the freedom to, essentially, study/research whatever they would like. I think this is quite important and, without it, we risk the possibility that academics start doing predictable, risk-free research, which won’t have as much impact as the risky research that might result in something completely unexpected (but might also result in nothing). Also, what is the alternative? I don’t have a boss who decides what research I should do. I decide for myself. Sometimes, it turns out to be interesting and worth publishing. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it is important that academics can commit to a project that may not lead to anything without having to worry that they could lose their jobs if the management decide that they’re no longer doing valuable research.

It is now very clear, however, that universities are run as businesses with management teams who need some measure of success. Success is now generally regarded, by the management at least, as how much money the research is able to bring in and where the university sits in various league tables. The next big pot of money will be associated with next year’s Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). This is leading to some universities (Queen Mary, University of London) actually getting rid of a large fraction of the academics in some departments so as to hire new academics who can, supposedly, improve their REF2014 ranking. Firstly, I think this is morally indefensible as these are people who, by all accounts, are doing their jobs. They are being made redundant because the university has introduced some measures of research success that they don’t satisfy. If one could show that these measures are a sensible measure of research quality/success, this may at least make sense, but they almost certainly aren’t. These redundancies may also be, technically, illegal. Redundancies can take place if jobs are no longer needed. Queen Mary is currently advertising for people to take over from those being made redundant. I also think this is a very dangerous thing to do. People decide on academic careers for a number of reasons but job security and freedom to carry out research of your own choosing are certainly important considerations. If these are removed, then it’s quite likely that those with the most potential will simply not choose an academic career.

It’s possible that Queen Mary and the other universities who are replacing staff to improve their REF score will achieve what they want and will indeed move up the REF rankings. In the long-term, however, I think this kind of behaviour will lead to a university system that scores well according to the current metrics but doesn’t actually do anything particularly significant. When everyone realises that the scoring systems is flawed, these universities may suddenly plummet down the rankings when a better way of measuring research quality is introduced. I think this kind of behaviour is potentially extremely damaging to UK Higher Education and this kind of management (as exemplified by Simon Gaskell – principal of Queen Mary) could see the UK Higher Education system losing it’s status very quickly.

I’ll finish with a link to a post about Leaving Academica written by a US academic. I don’t think that the UK system is necessarily as bad as suggested in this post (and I’m certainly not about to leave academia) but it certainly strikes a chord with me and I do worry that we are heading in the kind of direction that this post highlights. You’ll have to read it to see what this is, but I think it is worth a read.