Shovel ’em through

Saturday I went to Andy T’s Burns Night party. Lots of haggis, singing, and this year he had a piper. Fine evening. Brendan (who turned out to have a splendid singing voice) asked me why the blog entries were slowing down. The answer I gave was that I am swamped with first year teaching at the moment.

Its a big class – a hundred and eighty or so. Sometimes it feels like battery teaching. Crowd all those bodies into one room; force feed ’em a sequence of words, pictures, and numbers; shovel ’em back out; collect degree, start life. University checks balance sheet. Academic revises learning outcomes checklist. Groan.

Other times its a shining joy. Two hundred young things drinking in your words, as you reveal the secrets of the Universe. Beat that for a job. What I really like is the feeling of putting power in their hands. This is not quite astronomy-for-poets. Its mostly for hard science types – chemists, engineers, geologists, as well as physicists – so you can use an equation or two. You show a picture of a distant spiral galaxy. How could you possibly imagine you could know anything about this distant patch of light you can’t touch ? Then you wheel out Newton’s laws, a bit of Doppler effect, and … zap …. mass of galaxy and discovery of dark matter. Look what we did.

This is a lesson for life, and the importance of science. You can master the world. This is why the Government should pay for us.

Gettng ready for the next lecture, I picked up the local student newspaper. There I found an article about that nice Mr Mandelson, and how we wants us to save money by doing degree courses in two years. Academics all over the land are recoiling in horror. Standards forced down even more ! The education-factory wins and the temple of inspiration loses.

Woah there, Captain Jumpy. Is there an opportunity here ? Now that we are teaching 40% of the population rather than the 5% of those long lost elder days, of course standards have to go down. What did you think ? And why is this bad ? Don’t a large fraction of the populace deserve some advanced education ? Isn’t that good for the country ? But how do we do this without losing the truly advanced education needed for working engineers and research scientists ?

In Scotland history has left us an interesting range of degree qualifications – as well as honours degrees, there are ordinary degrees and general degrees. For years they have been seen as compensatory qualifications for the failed. But why should they not be positive intentions, and proud successes when won ? So I have often been tempted by the idea of a designed pyramid. Take in a huge number of students at year-1, and take in gradually fewer each successive year. It shouldn’t be a failure to not go on to the next year; it should be an achievement if you win it competitively; and you are not obliged to try. Year-1, Diploma; Year-2, General degree; Year-3, ordinary degree in named subject; Year-4, honours degree; Year-5, Masters degree; Year-8, PhD.

Every year you exit with a piece of paper. Every one a winner.

21 Responses to Shovel ’em through

  1. Tom says:

    Your post is so cynical I have half a mind to believe this is actual government policy – or will be.

    I know nothing about the two-year degree proposal. This isn’t real, is it? I’ve been away from the UK for a few years I admit, but I thought things were moving to 4-year degrees. What have I missed or are you just trying to scare me?


      • Tom says:

        I really hoped you were joking. It seems you weren’t. Thanks for the links and all I can say is WTF? and bloody hell.

        What happened to 4-years degrees? What have I missed? I thought they were a good thing which would have students graduate with a much better grounding than they do now or at least when I did my degree. Do those degrees still exist? Apologies for the US terminology, but are we now faced with community college students running nuclear power stations? That’s the message I’m getting.


  2. Ken Rice says:

    Assuming that you are talking about the Scottish system rather than the English system (currently 5 year MPhys degrees in Scotland comared to 4 years in England), my one modification would be

    …. Year-4, Honours degree; Years 5&6, Research Masters degree; Year-9 PhD.

    This would allow us teach a lot of the research skills that industry supposedly likes (and I have no reason to believe that there isn’t some truth in this) and allow the PhD to remain as a primarily a pure research degree. Many PhD graduates will still go off and do great things in industry, but many will do very well with the skills that a research masters could teach them.

    By the way, are the tutorial 2 questions and solutions ready yet? 🙂

  3. andyxl says:

    Tom – if we really are forced into just two year degrees (in England) or three year degrees (in Scotland) then that would be a disaster. The graphic example you quote – the slightly educated running nuclear power stations – is spot on.

    But you don’t expect 40% of the population to be capable of running nuclear power stations. So if two year degrees are just part of a flexible menu of options, that could be more sane rather than less. Think of it as a way of protecting those specialised four and five year degrees.

  4. telescoper says:

    Two-year degree courses will definitely come in over the next few years, whether we like it or not. The model being touted is that such degrees are taught over two full calendar years (i.e. no summer break) and therefore can contain the same amount of material as 3 years in the current system.

    Of course any department involved in teaching such degrees can say goodbye to research…

    • Paul Crowther says:

      yup. The Univ of Buckingham (proud to be independent of gov’t support) was the solitary institute to welcome the move towards 2 yr degrees, as they already offer them for business, law, marketing, economics etc. Buckingham, not to be confused by Bucks New University is notable by its absence from the RAE 2008 institutions.

    • andyxl says:

      Peter – you are right of course that Mandy’s idea of two year courses is not what I put forward in my fantasy. I just thought we should capitalise on the motivation behind this – the government wants to put more people through advanced education, but as cheaply as possible, and without expanding the corollary research areas by the same amount. This is very hard if we follow the traditional university model.

      I am reminded of some coffee-room cynicism that was around when the polytechnics were converted into universities. Some speculated that the secret reason for removing the binary dividing line was to allow it float upwards. This is not the way it worked out – many of the old polys have aggressively and successively played the research game. So maybe this is the government trying again.

  5. Kav says:

    don’t forget those students who spend their summers working to pay their fees and living costs for the rest of the year.

  6. I think the whole point of the fast-track degree system is to forget those students who have to work. The changes are being made to conform to the en vogue neoliberalism present in many countries, particularly in the UK. The more the students have to pay, and the less time they have to earn money, means the fewer poor students will exist. This is probably the ultimate goal: stop throwing away tax money to support poor folks who are better at menial labour. Ultimately, the class system in all its “glory” will probably return. That seems to be the real agenda. Sadly, I have heard some academics (in some cases people who would never have had an academic career had conditions then been what they are now) go on and on about the virtues of student fees—the higher the better—without any trace of sympathy for the vast majority of the population who actually have to work to earn money.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    One more extreme version of the same idea would be to simply allow students to collect credits, perhaps part time if they are working, perhaps from different institutions when they move, and when they have the appropriate number at the appropriate levels they can cash them in for maybe a foundation degree, or keep “saving up” for a BSc or an MSci. Even if they never cash in for a finalized qualification, a full transcript would show potential employers exactly how much they have done. If they fail a module that they think is important or want to improve a grade, they just take it again. The fees, as now, are paid by the government deciding how many modules-worth of higher education they are willing to fund.

    There would be issues related to module prerequisites, curriculum design, etc, but given that we already deal with students transferring into our courses from other institutions and taking a year abroad, these are clearly not insurmountable.

    • Monica Grady says:

      They could always enrol at the Open University…

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Having been thoroughly impressed as external examiner there, that was rather the model I had in mind. In these modularized days, it isn’t clear why we have such a narrow monolithic view of what individual students should get out of their time at university.

  8. Monica Grady says:

    Right at the start of this blog, Andy says:

    Other times its a shining joy. Two hundred young things drinking in your words, as you reveal the secrets of the Universe. Beat that for a job. What I really like is the feeling of putting power in their hands. This is not quite astronomy-for-poets.

    Reading this, I am moved to copy a short poem that I became aware of recently. Maybe you all know it, being proper astronomer types and learned coves? It is by Walt Whitman, and is called ‘When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer’

    WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

    • This reminds me of a poem by Keats. Most of you probably know this one already but here it is anyway:

      Do not all charms fly
      At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
      There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
      We know her woof, her texture; she is given
      In the dull catalogue of common things.
      Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
      Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
      Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
      Unweave a rainbow

      To me this is a manifesto for mindlessness. (As Miss Piggy said, “Pretentious? Moi?”) The Enlightenment values are under attack even now… Did anyone here take part in the hilarious mass homoeopathy “overdose” last weekend?

      • andyxl says:

        Hmmm… yes, reminds of me of that Blake picture of Newton, dividing the Universe. (Here it is on wikipedia). Feynman had a disarmingly simple rebutall of this view – see this short YouTube video.

        But mindless ?? Not sure thats the right word. After all, Wu Wei means “no mind” does it not, and leads us to see the real universe by shedding our prejudices. (Or is that Wu Xin ?) Usually when we talk about “mindless” as in “mindless thugs” we mean in a mental state driven by unquestioned assumptions. This is fixed mind rather than no mind.

        ps is that pretentious enough Steve ?

  9. andyxl says:

    Monica – if any of my students wander out to look up in perfect silence at the stars, I shall consider that a victory for education, even if its because they have concluded I am a pompous old prof

  10. Innocent light-minded men,
    who think that astronomy
    can be learnt by looking at the stars
    without knowledge of mathematics
    will, in the next life, be birds

    —Plato, Timaeus

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  11. Dave says:

    Has anybody asked the noble Lord how these two year degrees can possibly work in the Bologna framework for EU degrees that the Uk has signed up to?

  12. Simple: Do the stuff in 2 years, then the degree is awarded after a third year. 🙂

    While the goal might be admirable, the entire Bologna process is a farce, for a number of reasons, one of which is that from country to country the packaging is similar but the contents are different. Many people say that under the new system, mobility is in practice more difficult than before (again, for several reasons). My suggestion above is not too far removed from the truth in some cases.

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