The Big REF gamble

February 6, 2013

Three days in a row? Crumbs. Better do some real work soon.

Interesting but perhaps not surprising that the reactions to yesterdays Tricky Dicky post were all about University PR and Corporatism. Universities are in a tricky situation; its quite right that they should be more business-like, but not that they should be run as businesses. Education is not simply a commercial transaction; but we do have to balance the books, attract students, maintain a brand, and so on.

The public worry tends to concentrate on what the evolution of student fees is doing to the university infrastructure. (Or at least the English infrastructure; Scotland is a kind of giant experimental control…) Everybody is obsessed with bums on seats, and with the ghastly Key Information Sets etc (see this post). Market forces will mean that some thrive and some sink.

But thats only half of it. The other half of our income comes from research funding, and most of that still comes through HEFCE, SFC etc. This is why we are all panicking about the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). The money we get will depend in an unknown but certainly highly non-linear way on our gradings. Universities are being very entrepreneurial about this : there has been a burst of academic recruitments, getting fresh young stars in just in time to count their papers.

If this works, you are in the money; if however your grading comes out low, you are stuffed. Stuck with a salary bill you can’t pay.

Maybe, like RBS, when some big universities fail, the government will buy 80% of them.

Tricky Dick, Leicester’s own

February 5, 2013

Except he wasn’t of course. Just murdered and buried there, poor sod. He should be re-buried in Yorkshire. Anyhoo, by majority vote, the Leicester archaeology team did a fine job. It was all very exciting and splendid, and a lovely boost for my second Alma Mater… so of course here are a few carpings : (is carping a noun? Ed)

(1) Did you see the Channel 4 documentary? It was both fun and worrying – all that nervous weeping, buried-under-the-R stuff, and interviews with nutty Ricardians. I guess it was planned as a jokey look at over-keen amateurs and the usual “aren’t the eggheads funny”  stuff, presented by a comedian, but bugger me they spoiled the plot by actually finding the bastard. Still… it was enjoyable.

(2) Big press release before the paper is refereed? Oooohhh dear …. Martian meteorite anyone? As far as I can tell, the team did do a very thorough job, but you never know. Somewhere I saw some dark mutterings about “only thirty base pairs”. Where was that? Probably somewhere in the Grauniad, but unless @wikimir points me to the right page, I don’t know where to look. Anyway, with something as big as this, they probably had no choice.

(3) The only bit that grated for me was the  corporate wording of the announcement. “So, the academic conclusions of the University of Leicester are..”. Not, you’ll notice  “..the conclusion that I, learned scholar, have come to is…”. Boy those Leicester people have their scientists well trained ! There was me thinking that universities are multilithic cultures, convenient agglomerations of scholars. Well of course we are all under pressure, so one can’t blame an organisation for trying. My first Alma Mater and current employer has got about a quarter of the way towards house training Peter Higgs. But somehow I can’t help feeling it could be done with a little more subtlety. You don’t find starlets on chat shows saying “well, in my latest Warners Bros movie…” but somehow Warner Bros make a decent living …

Phil’s University Challenge

August 3, 2009

I am back at the University treadmill, only to find crisis brewing. Pardon gharssly mixed metaphors. Nobody should cook things on a treadmill.  There are probably Health and Safety Regulations which prevent this.

Anyhoo. I was awoken by Phil Willis on my radio, explaining how University degree classifications are a farce. There are more firsts every year, and nobody can prove that a 2:1 from University X is the same as University Y, or that it means the same in Physics as it is does in Sports Science. Yes folks, this is the same Phil Willis, chair of the IUSS Select Committee, that we love so much for roasting STFC.

This a very interesting but scary debate. Where it seems to be heading is that Universities cannot be allowed to regulate themselves and set their own exams. How can the Government pay us £15bn per year and not want to take charge ?   Its hard to deny the central point, that degree standards are not uniform in space or time. But this situation has been created by Government policy, not by the Universities, over many years.

(1) Distinction between Universities and Polys removed. Their degrees must therefore be the same.

(2) Percentage of population going through University must go up, from 5-10% to 30-50%. We will pretend that all these people are equally capable of high level achievement, so all degrees awarded must be the same value. Oh and standards must be maintained.

(3) Students must pay for their education. Therefore they are customers. Therefore they must get what they belive they have paid for. A piece of paper with an unambiguous meaning.

I believe, as the Government has done for many years, that it is a good thing for a large fraction of the population to undergo tertiary education. I also agree that such a mass education system should be of uniform and reliable quality and calibration. But we still need something like the old University system to produce the 5% of specialists as well.

Going back to step (1), I find myself suprised at the way history has unfolded. When the “binary dividing line” was removed between Polys and Unis, many folks secretly assumed that the real point was to allow it to float upwards…


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