The role of universities!

I haven’t had much chance to write posts recently, although I don’t have much of a following so I suspect not many have actually noticed. I’ve been quite busy with some other things and am also trying to write a talk for a conference next week. My recent post about the integrity of universities did, however, generate a little bit of interest. If you’re interested in that topic can I recommend that you read some of the posts on Richard Hall’s Space. He has a lot of interesting posts about the role of universities and their place in society. The only real criticism I have of his posts is that they are written in a manner that requires quite a lot of concentration. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but does mean that I find them quite difficult to understand when I’m perusing them in the evenings after a long day at work.


REF and teaching

There’s a recent article in the Guardian about the influence of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) on university teaching. The basic issue is that money will only be allocated on the basis of papers that score highly (3* and 4*) and that league table rankings will also be determined by these high-ranking papers. Therefore, there is an incentive for universities to only submit researchers who have enough (essentially 4) papers that will be judged to be 3* or 4*. The concern is therefore that those who do not qualify will be encouraged (forced) to focus primarily on teaching or (as in the case of Queen Mary, University of London) face redundancy.

Many universities are making “clear pledges that not being entered to the REF in November will not damage an academic’s career“. There are others, however, where this is clearly already having an impact (Queen Mary, University of London, Kings College and Strathclyde are three that I’ve heard about). I personally think that it is potentially a real problem. There is a big difference between how research and teaching are evaluated at universities, with an individual’s contribution to the research ranking being much more obvious than an individual’s contribution to any teaching ranking. One concern is that it will create a hierarchy within universities with some able to focus more on research and others “encouraged” to focus primarily on teaching and administration. I don’t have an issue with different people contributing to an academic department in different ways. I just would rather it were dynamic and evolved in some “natural” way, rather than being forced upon us by an external assessment exercise.

University leaders are trying, in general, to make it clear that research and teaching are both valued parts of an academic’s career. The problem is that they don’t get to decide if the staff regard them as being of similar value. It certainly seems that even students are concerned about the impact that REF might have on the motivation of staff who might be judged to be “unworthy” and hence encouraged into having a larger role in teaching. I certainly think that these concerns are justified, even if there isn’t any evidence that REF is having, in general, this kind of impact.

There do seem to be two common views expressed by those who are more supportive of REF than maybe I am. One is that it is not unreasonable to expect academics to publish 4 good papers every 7 years. In general I agree with this, although there may be some exceptions. However, there is a difference between publishing 4 good papers and publishing 4 papers that will be judged (by a panel – many of whom may not be particular expert in your field) to be good. Maybe about one-quarter of my papers have done quite well (in terms of citations) but I don’t really have a good idea why they did well and why others didn’t. I can’t really look back and claim that I can now tell why some papers would be judged to be good, while others would not. I’m typically quite pleased with most of the papers I publish. Whether or not they do well (in metric terms) all seems a little random to me.

The other claim that is often made is that REF has forced universities to take hiring more seriously and that hiring is now based on excellence. Firstly, this is presumably only “perceived excellence” in research. One of the perennial criticisms of university hiring has been that teaching ability hasn’t been taken seriously enough. I really can’t see that REF has helped here. My feeling is that it may have made the situation worse. The other issue I have with this claim is that it suggests that the typical academic today is somehow better (because of REF) than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Really? I thought universities in the UK have been world-class for decades. I’m sure many academics who were active in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s might be slightly insulted by this suggestion. I suspect there were issues with hiring practices in those days, but that was probably more to do with societal issues that have been remedied via equalities legislation, than via REF.

It strikes me that there has been quite a lot of recent coverage about the negative aspects of REF, so maybe some of it will sink in. Not that hopeful though. Maybe I should be considering holding back some of my current work so as to publish papers that will qualify for REF2021.

Academic promotions (or not)

I don’t normally write much about things that are personal, but I thought I might pen some thoughts about my recent (unsuccessful) promotion attempt. Hierarchies in academic departments (or at least those that I am aware of) can be quite different to what one might encounter in other industries. The normal academic job titles are Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor and one might expect one’s position to be determined by the job one is required to do, but that isn’t normally the case. It’s quite common for people in more junior positions to have the same kind of role in a department as those who are more senior (in fact, it’s not uncommon for more junior people to have more prominent roles than those who are more senior). To get promoted requires that you build up some kind of portfolio and have some kind of status that satisfies the requirements of each position. By and large, I’m reasonably comfortable with this as people’s roles in a department can change quite a lot over a career and so basing it on what your current role is would be unmanageable.

So, I’ve held a management post in our department for a number of years, have a reasonably heavy teaching load, hold research grants, manage students and postdocs, publish regularly, and am quite well cited. To be fair, nothing particularly spectacular but I do have a good number of highly cited papers and I am first or second author on a majority of my papers. I decided (and was encouraged) to apply for promotion. I wrote all my promotion documents (which I do find a little odd) got some comments from our head of group and sent them off. I was then told that my department was not going to support my application. I was disappointed (as one might imagine) but also a little surprised. I hadn’t expected the department to do this. I knew that the head would have to write some kind of support letter, but I assumed that it would go to whatever central committee decides these things and that the department could indicate the strength of its support in the accompanying letter. To be fair, I knew I was probably marginal and I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be successful, but I expected the decision to come from some nameless university committee, rather than from a group of people who I actually know quite well.

On the other hand, I can completely understand that it doesn’t make sense for the department to submit applications that they’re not really supporting. If the decision was based on some objective, unbiased analysis of my case then, although disappointing, I would be comfortable with this. Honesty being the best policy. The feedback I got, however, suggests that the process can be somewhat tribal. There are a limited number of cases that the department can realistically support. There are a number of groups within the department and so you probably need to be the strongest applicant in your group. Even this may not be strictly true as there is a sense that there is an order (i.e., who gets to go first). It seems as though someone who’s applied before will get supported ahead of someone who is applying for the first time. To be fair, I don’t really know how it works and, given that I felt myself that my case was possibly marginal, I can’t really be too dissatisfied about not being supported this time. I also have a good job at a good university that pays me a decent salary to do something I enjoy, so can’t really complain too much.

What’s probably most disappointing though is that even though I’ve had a reasonably substantial management role in the department and had one of the higher teaching loads, I’ve maintained a healthy research programme. I think that I had hoped that anyone looking at my overall performance would be supportive. The main criticisms, however, seemed to be that I didn’t have any real indications of leadership outside my university. Part of this is just how I do research. I don’t really belong to any major collaborations so can’t be leader of some part of a major research project. What they were looking for was, supposedly, something like me being on some national committee that was deciding some kind of policy. I haven’t really done much of this, partly because it’s not clear how doing these things would make me a better teacher and researcher and partly because I’ve never been asked. Not being asked may well indicate how I’m thought of in the community, but it does seem that it’s quite common to put yourself forward for these type of things and I’m not that comfortable doing that. If it’s thought that I could contribute to something and if I thought it worth doing, I would be happy to be involved. What I don’t want to do is push to be on various high profile committees just to tick some box on a future promotion application. This is probably my main issue with the process: the sense that you need to do some things that may not benefit your research or teaching, but make people – who don’t know or understand your research well – think that you have some kind of leadership role in your scientific community. I’m not suggesting that it’s terrible to do these kinds of things, just not clear why they are seen as so important (especially if it can be a little self-selecting and if noone actually checks whether you’re any good at these things).

Anyway, that’s all I was going to write. If anyone does reads this, I hope it doesn’t come across as whiny. Writing this has felt a little cathartic, so maybe it has helped. I do worry sometimes that someone involved will read a post and take some kind of offense, but given my typical readership I probably don’t have to worry about this too much. Overall, I’m reasonably comfortable with my lack of promotion support, but I do think that there are some aspects of academic promotions that leave a lot to be desired. Let’s hope I’m still as philosophical about this when the email comes around next year congratulating all those who’ve been successful.

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.

Tuition fees – Do they really know what they’re doing?

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 actually gain nothing, in that the government is likely to cut the HE budget by an amount equivalent to the extra amount that the HE sector will get through tuition fees. The main thrust of the Browne report is that the money lent to a student will only be paid back once the student earns more than £21000 per year and would be written off 30 years after the person has finished their degree.

Fundamentally I think it is wrong and I believe that a free market Higher Education (HE) sector will not be as effective as one that is primarily funded by the public and that is largely free to pursue excellence. However, rather than going into a long discourse about why I think this is the case, I thought I would present some basic consequences of the Browne report – assuming that it is accepted as the new model for funding the HE sector.

A little while ago I was playing around with distribution functions and managed to produce one that largely matches the income distribution in the UK. It’s shown in the figure below. It’s not perfect but it has approximately the correct mean (£25000), the correct median (£19000) and the 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th and 90th percentile incomes are very close to the actual values for 2007/2008.

The table below is taken from the Browne report and it shows the amount of money that someone will pay per month to repay the loan they were given to cover tuition fees and cost of living expenses.

At first glance it doesn’t seem unreasonable; the highest earners pay more per month than the lower earners. There are, however, a couple of things one can do straight away. The payment as a percentage of total income is straightforward. It is also likely that there will be interest, at about 2.2%, that will accrue once someone crosses the £21000 threshold. One can therefore calculate how long it will take for someone to repay the loan. These are both shown in the figure below. The solid line is the payment as a percentage of income, while the dashed line is the number of years it will take for someone to repay the loan, capped at 30 years after which the remainder is written off. Included in this calculation is the assumption that people’s salaries will rise with inflation at a rate of 2.2 % per year (for simplicity, the same as the loan interest rate).

What the above figure shows is that everyone earning, today, between £21000 and £32000 per year will repay for the full 30 years. Those earning close to £32000 per year will be paying almost 3% of their income for the entire 30 years. If we go back to the income distribution figure that I showed at the beginning of this post, one can calculate that about 45% of those in employment (about 15 million people) earn £21000 per year or more. Since slightly more than 40% of school leavers go to university, we can assume that almost everyone earning £21000 per year or more will have gone to university and will therefore be repaying a student loan. If this is the case, almost 5 million people will have their income reduced by between 1% and 3% for 30 years. If one considers those who will pay for 10 years or more it amounts to almost 9 million people. Someone earning £50000 per year will pay almost 5% of their income for 10 years in order to pay back their student loan. Almost half of all those earning £21000 per year or more will therefore effectively have their tax raised by 1% or more for 30 years, while 2/3 will have an effective increase of 1% or more for at least 10 years. Of course, inflation could be higher than I assumed and so the repayment period may reduce slightly, but it is unlikely to change things significantly.

One can also determine how much each person will pay. This is shown in the figure below. The full amount will only be repaid by those earning £32000 per year or more. Someone earning £32000 per year will end up paying more than £40000 over a period of 30 years, while someone earning £100000 per year will pay £32000 over a period of about 4 years. This illustrates that the middle income group will pay much more than the highest earners who will be able to repay the loan very quickly.

We can also use the distribution function that I showed at the beginning of the post to determine how much money the government can recover every year. It’s not necessarily exact, but here is what I assumed. Everyone earning over £21000 per year went to university and has to repay a student loan of £30000 pounds. Everyone works for 40 years after graduating, but the loan is only repaid for the first 30 years (any remaining parts of the loan are written off after 30 years). The fraction of people in a given income bracket who will be repaying at any given time is therefore the number of years those people have to repay for, divided by 40. It turns out that if this was already in place and people today were repaying a student loan, the government would recover about 8 billion pounds. Here’s where I have a problem. There are currently 1.2 million people at British universities today. If the government is lending them £10000 each, they are then lending £12 billion and recovering £8 billion. Unless I’m mistaken, this ratio will always remain the same. The government will only ever recover 2/3 of the money because at least 1/3 of those who go to university will not finish paying within 30 years and quite a lot of those are only paying back interest.

If I’ve got this right (which maybe I haven’t as I’ve been trying to do this while my son keeps clambering all over me) the government is about to cut the HE budget by about 4.2 billion and will recover this money by increasing tuition fees. The money for the increased tuition fees will be loaned to students, resulting in an increase in the effective taxation of about 2/3 of those earning above £21000 by at least 1% for at least 10 years after they graduate. Ultimately, however, the government will only recover 2/3 of the money lent which, in today’s terms, will amount to a loss of about £4 billion. Furthermore if they simply increased the level of taxation for those earning above £21000 by 1.5%, revenues would increase by £9 billion. I don’t know about everyone else, but I would rather pay 1.5% more in tax and have a publically funded HE sector, than pay something like 4% for 10 years after graduating (or 1% for 30 years) and end up with a supposedly free market HE sector. I’m of course ignoring that this is still £3 billion less than the £12 billion required for all the 1.2 million students so students would still need to borrow something to cover cost of living expenses and to pay some top-up fees.

Maybe I’ve made some kind of silly mistake or maybe my assumptions are too simplistic but it seems quite possible that – to reduce direct funding to the HE sector by £4.2 billion – the government is going to introduce a graduate tax that could result in some paying 4% more in tax for a decade after they graduate, and after all that the government will still end up paying £4 billion per year to the HE sector. Effectively the government will introduce a very complicated taxation system for middle earners who will lose significant amounts of money just when they’re trying to have families and buy houses and as a result of this, the government will effectively save £200 million. Am I stupid or are they?

Common sense?

Don’t know who wrote this letter to the Guardian a few days ago, but it does make a very good point. It’s along the lines of what I was discussing in an earlier post, although put somewhat more eloquently than I could manage.

Although I certainly wouldn’t be necessarily advocating turning back the clock, trying to simplify the system does seems quite reasonable. A few years ago, one of the things I really liked about working in the UK, when compared with the US, was that money wasn’t a major issue. I don’t mean that money wasn’t important, but simply that Academic researchers weren’t under a great deal of pressure to bring in money. They would still need money to carry out their research, but because the research money primarily covered direct costs, as long as someone was productive the amount of money they brought in didn’t really matter.

With the introduction of Full Economic Costing (fEC) this is all changing. Even a basic grant brings in a lot of money to the university, some of which covers the Principal Investigator’s salary. I think this is a very negative step and could well change the motivation of some researchers and become very divisive if a two-tier system develops – those with money and those without. One of the reasons why I think the UK has punched above it’s weight internationally in the recent past is precisely because academics were relatively free to pursue what they enjoyed, rather than being pressurised to do what is most likely to bring in money.

I certainly think that the system would be much simpler if universities were given enough money to operate, probably determined by the number of students and the quality of research (as determined by the Research Assessment Excercise). Researchers would then apply for funding to cover the direct costs of their research (plus some basic overheads). Together with being simpler, this would be a much more positive environment in which the UK could continue to punch well above its weight.

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.