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.

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Full Economic Costing : Another cut on the way

If you’ve read any of my earlier posts, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the Full Economic Costing (fEC) funding model that was recently introduced in the UK. In case you don’t know what this is, it is the way in which research is funded in universities. When a researcher wants money to carry out research, they will apply for funding from one of the research councils and the researcher’s university will include all the costs associated with the research. This will include any salaries (or parts of salaries), admin costs, estates and buildings, travel, computing and a sum referred to as “indirect costs”.

The fundamental problem I have with this is that I think it is not straightforward to separate the costs of teaching and research and that they are both an equally important part of an academic’s career. The risk, in my view, is that we will start to value someone’s ability to bring in money more than the quality of their research and teaching. There will be pressure for research to follow the money and also the possibility that teaching will suffer since the direct link between teaching and money is less obvious. This isn’t to suggest that the amount of money that the universities are getting is not appropriate, but simply that we should have a more holistic view of universities and provide the funding in a more general way (i.e., how much does a research university of a certain size need to cover the basic costs of operating).

However, I do think that some universities may have been interpreting the term Full very specifically and have been including anything that they possibly could onto a research grant. Typically a research grant that proposes to employ a junior researcher, buy some computing, pay some travel costs, and pay some of the Principal Investigator’s (PI) salary will be costed at £150000 per year (with the junior researcher’s salary being about £29000 per year). The university gets almost £50000 per year to cover indirect costs and estates and buildings plus another £15000 or so to cover part of the PI’s salary. I don’t want to suggest that a university wastes this money, but I suspect that it is – in general – more than the actual full cost of a typical research project (or at least more than the full cost that could be easily associate with a typical research grant).

I was listening to Radio 4 yesterday evening and they had – amongst others – David Willetts discussing the science budget. He made the point that even though the science budget will effectively see a 10% cut over the next few years due to inflation, he thought that there could be efficiency savings of order 10%. He highlighted, in particular, the possibility (suggested supposedly in a review by Bill Wakeham – a physicist from Southampton) that in fact universities have been including too many things in fEC research grants. Essentially what he seems to be proposing is that research grants are reduced by about 10% and that all of this will come out of the indirect costs. A consequence of this is presumably that the same amount of money will be going into universities, but more of it will be used to cover the direct cost of research and less to cover the indirect. Universities will therefore effectively see a cut in the money that they use to cover infrastructure and other non-direct research expenses.

My personal view is that universities made a mistake in agreeing to the fEC model. My understanding is that there had been a period when universities were supporting research with money that they felt should have been used to support teaching. I believe the initial idea was that some money would be taken away from universities (the portion that supported research) and returned (with some extra added) through research grants from the funding councils. Universities expected to gain money and hence properly cover all the costs of research and teaching. It is quite possible that the reverse will happen. The research councils could agree that the fEC costs are too high and that there should be some kind of cap on the level of non-direct costs on research grants. Universities could therefore end up back where they started with not enough money to cover the indirect costs of their research activities properly. Personally I wish they’d thought more deeply about the consequences of the fEC model and not simply leapt at the possibility of getting more money.

Science budget cuts

I’ve signed the Science is Vital petition and clearly agree with the view that if the cuts are of the magnitude that people expect, the damage done to UK science could be extreme and irreversible. I’m, however, finding it quite difficult to really get behind this fight, largely because I’m not particularly comfortable with what this argument implies. The government wants to cut the total public budget by something like 10-20%. Their reason for doing this is that they want to reduce the structural deficit, essentially the amount of money the government has to borrow, annually, to balance its books even when the economy is performing optimally.

Although I do believe that cutting the science budget would be disastrous, if one assumes that the cuts are inevitable and we don’t want the science budget to be cut, what gets cut in its place. As far as I’m aware, health and education (although not Higher Education) are ring-fenced. Ultimately, reducing (or getting rid of entirely) the structural deficit is a perfectly sensible thing to do. We can’t expect to simply borrow money indefinitely. However, trying to do so on the timescale proposed by the government may be the problem. Admittedly, annual borrowing is currently something like 10% of GDP, so we are increasing our debt by a substantial amount every year. However, our total debt is still not particularly large. It is similar to, if not smaller than, many other comparable countries.

Allowing the debt to grow for the next few years is not obviously the wrong thing to do. Although slashing public sector budgets may also not be obviously wrong from an economic perspective, it will clearly have a very serious effect on some sectors of our society and if we can’t protect the most vulnerable in our society, then we have some very questionable ethical standards. What is more, I suspect that the impact of the proposed cuts will be very hard to predict. When scientists try to understand the evolution of a system, a very common approach is to perform a linear analysis. If you assume the perturbation is small, the equations often become analytically solvable. If, however, the perturbations are large the system becomes non-linear and understanding its evolution becomes very difficult. Computer models can deal with such systems, but predictions based on the simple linear analysis become largely useless.

Strictly speaking the cuts aren’t effectively non-linear, but the consequences of such a large perturbation must be virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. I certainly feel that cuts of this magnitude will be damaging for the country as a whole and that even if we can protect the science budget, the damage done to some other sectors of our society may make protecting the science budget all a little pointless. I think we, as academics, should be making strong arguments as to why cuts of this magnitude are too unpredictable to be worth considering. Growing our debt in a managed way and aiming to reduce the structural deficit over a longer time period will be much safer and result in more long term stability. Included in this are decisions about the size of the public sector and how to get the required revenue, but this will be much easier to do if the economy is reasonably stable than if it is highly perturbed and uncertain.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is apparently Ada Lovelace day, a day when bloggers are meant to draw attention to the achievements of women in science and technology. Although I am aware of many women who have done and still do contribute greatly to science and technology, I had – embarrassingly – never heard of Ada Lovelace.  It turns out she lived from 1815 to 1852 and was one of the world’s first computer programmers, working with Charles Babbage on his mechanical computer.

The idea behind Ada Lovelace day is for bloggers to “tell the world about these unsung heroines”, but I wasn’t really sure how to do this. I probably don’t know enough about any scientist (man or woman) to really do them justice in this blog. What I thought I would do instead was to write something that would at least support what I think is the goal of Ada Lovelace day : to highlight – even today – how underrepresented women are in some areas of science and technology. Certainly in most physics departments – or at least in the ones of which I’m aware – the fraction of permanent posts taken up by women is small. In mine, it’s something like 10% and none of the women in my department are yet professors, although this is largely because most of the women in my department are early to mid-career and aren’t yet in a position to really expect a promotion to professor. I would, however, expect this to change some time in the not too distant future.

A simple interpretation of why women are so underrepresented in physics departments today is that in the past they were clearly disadvantaged in some way, either directly or indirectly, and it will take some time to redress the balance. It takes something like 30 years to change completely the personnel in a department and so assuming that 50% of all future hires are women, it will take about 30 years before physics departments have an equal representation of men and women.

It is, however, somewhat more complicated than this. Even in PhD programmes, there is still not an equal number of men and women. In most physics departments something like 30% of the PhD students are women. This is clearly not ideal, but is probably an improvement on the recent past and means that we should expect at least 30% of academic hires in the near future to be women. However, when one looks at the make-up of research staff (i.e., non-permanent) in Physics departments today, the fraction of women in these post is often less than 20%. This is slightly concerning because most research staff have been hired recently and so why the fraction of women in these research posts is significantly less than the fraction of women in PhD positions suggests something is wrong. If a smaller fraction of women, compared to men, choose to continue with their academic careers, this implies that we won’t improve the current 1 in 10 ratio anytime soon.

The fact that the ratio of women to men in research positions decreases as you move through the different career stages is well documented and is often referred to as the “leaky pipe” syndrome. There are probably a number of reasons for this but, I believe, that we are now in a position where the ratio of women to men on a research job shortlist is similar to the ration of women to men who apply for the job. I also believe that the number of women hired into academic jobs is consistent with these ratios. This suggests that there is no obvious bias in the hiring and selection processes today. Presumably something is discouraging many women from continuing their academic/research careers. I don’t know what this is (or even that my interpretation is necessarily correct) but I do think we should do all we can to reverse this.

There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be striving to have diverse and balanced physics departments. If there is something about academic careers that particularly discourages women compared to men then we should try to work out what this is and do something about it. Maybe it is seen as too competitive and aggressive. Maybe the methods we use to determine quality disadvantage women compared to men, although I think all would benefit from a more balanced – and less simplistic – view of what it takes to be a good academic and researcher. An organisation that is trying to help is Athena SWAN. They do this by encouraging universities and university departments to have responsible working practices that don’t disadvantage women or, in fact, anyone who has, for example, family responsibilities.

I don’t really know how to increase the ratio of women to men in physics departments, but I do think we should strive to do so. It is in no one’s interest to have a system that disadvantages one group of people compared to another. We should be aiming to give everyone (men or women) an equal chance to contribute to science and technology, now and in the future. We can continue to have an Ada Lovelace day that highlights the contribution of women to science and technology prior to the 21st century, but I would like to think that at some point in the near future men and women will be contributing equally and we won’t need to have a day that particularly highlights one group’s contribution.

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.

Degrees from 2 different universities

Not many people are reading this blog, which may actually be quite a good thing since it is turning into a bit of a personal core dump. Someone did, however, end up here after doing a search about whether or not they should get degrees from 2 different universities. I don’t know the answer to this, but it did remind me of some discussions I’ve had in my own department about attracting and keeping good PhD students.

A few years ago – prior to my arrival back in the UK – it was apparently fairly common to encourage students not to apply for a PhD place at the same university from which they got their undergraduate degree. The idea, which is probably quite reasonable, is that it would be advantageous to study at more than one university and if everyone does this, good students will ultimately be shared around evenly. This, however, seems to have changed a little. More and more departments are starting to offer PhD places to their own good students. This is probably because we have many more places to fill than was the case a decade or so ago. Trying to fill these places with potentially good students can be hard, and so if you can attract a few good students from different universities, and offer places to some of your own good undergraduates, you will do better than if you encourage your own students to go elsewhere.

Of course, the above policy will only work for a short while, since eventually all departments will be trying to keep as many of their own good students as possible. This may not seem to make much difference but I think it has the potential to make future generations very narrow. Not only do different departments focus in slightly different areas, they also have different research philosophies and practices. Exposing students to a wide range of different topics and different research practices and styles will help our future research leaders to have both a broad understanding of their general area, as well as a detailed understanding of their particular topic. It’s not that those remaining at a single university will not have a broad understanding, but it may be harder to gain that if they’ve never been anywhere else.

I should at least acknowledge that I actually did all my degrees at a single university, but did hold postdoctoral and faculty positions at a number of different universities and in a number of different countries. This too can help – I think – develop breadth and an understanding of different possible research styles. I do think that studying and working in different universities and countries can be very advantageous. It does, however, have some side effects and can disadvantage those who are not able to easily move around – although that is probably a topic for a future post.

Ignorant university leadership?

There is a report in the Times Higher Education that a group of 25 senior university sector figures met to discuss the objection by many in the academic sector to economic and social impact being included in research assessments. They claim to have completely “bought into the impact agenda”, but that there is a group of middle ranking academics/researchers who have “rather lost the plot”.

What these senior figures seem to think is that academics don’t want their research to have impact. This was illustrated by one speaker who was quoted as saying “take a large number of academics into a room and ask them to put their hand up if they wish their work to have no impact whatsoever … I have yet to see a hand”. This statement either illustrates that the speaker is completely ignorant of what drives academics, or it is a completely disingenious comment that intentionally misrepresents the debate in an attempt to make it appear that academics are selfish prats who believe that because they’re so clever they deserve to have taxpayers’ money spent on them without giving anything in return. Of course academics want their work to have impact. They debate is about the optimum way in which to achieve and measure impact.

There is ample evidence to suggest that in many cases impact from fundamental research, be it in the sciences or social sciences, occurs many years after the research is done and in many cases is totally unpredictable. Not only this, but this unpredictable impact can have immense value, much more than would generally be true of predictable research. This is the fundamental point. The argument being made by academics is that you generally cannot predict the economic and social impact of a particular research project in advance. Additionally, if you try to do so and make this an important factor in determining whether to fund research or not, you will drive research to become more predictable and significantly reduce the potential impact.

The only positive spin I can put on the view of these senior university figures is that they believe that including economic and social impact in the assessment of research activities is going to happen whether we like it or not. We may as well, therefore, just get on with it and make the best of it. If this is the case
then I think it is incredibly cowardly and simplistic. It may well happen, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing our best to illustrate that it may do immense damage and that if too much pressure is put on academics to illustrate the potential impact of their research, it will encourage predictable research that will have minimal impact. This will ultimately be a waste of taxpayers’s money and if anything we have an obligation to spend this money as wisely as possible. Accepting the impact agenda may well violate this principle.