Thursday, 16 February 2012

Selection for university

The question of selecting students for university courses has always been a difficult aspect of university life, one with which I have not had much to do, except occasionally when helping to select potential PhD students. At undergraduate level, though, various academic colleagues - with good administrative support - have always done most of the work to recruit our students into our various business-school degree programmes.

Quite a few institutions across the UK struggle to recruit enough students with adequate grades (from the main secondary school exams) to make their degree courses viable, so for them there is no real issue of selection - their problem is simply finding enough 'bodies' to occupy the available places. But for many degree courses at many institutions, there is real competition for places, and so departments do have to make choices regarding the sorts of offer they make to potential students. Places can be, and often are, rationed by setting a higher entry standard than the normal minimum qualification. Some institutions interview candidates to try to assess their academic potential; a few even set their own entrance examinations if they consider that the normal school examinations do not bring students quite up to the right level. This latter practice is most common among the leading universities offering degrees in mathematics (see below).

Now, up to this point the story is, I think, quite uncontroversial. It gets trickier, though, when we dig down a bit and consider the practicalities of the selection process, something that has become especially politicised of late in England. The issue boils down to this:

(a) Should universities insist on whatever entry standards they think appropriate, while supporting potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds (meaning either poor school or poor social conditions) to bring themselves up to the required standard through various forms of outreach - such as summer schools, short courses, school visits and the like? Or

(b) Should they make special efforts to accept additional students from disadvantaged backgrounds, even if that might mean making some offers to people who are less well qualified academically than others (presumably from 'better' backgrounds) whom they might otherwise have accepted?

Personally, I have always strongly favoured option (a) above, and have never greatly liked the sort of social engineering that seems to be involved in (b) (and I don't mean to sound shockingly elitist when I say that). Of course, universities have always made judgments about student potential, that's quite normal, but I do think students have to have the right qualifications - at the right level - to do a course, otherwise they will either fail or drop out. There is actually quite a high social cost associated with taking on students who are not really ready to undertake a particular course. The other way of mitigating these costs to some extent is through dumbing down courses, making them somewhat less demanding; and through providing lots of extra support to the weaker students. I really wonder whether this is the best route to take, given the highly competitive world we live in.

Given all this, the still on going controversy over whom to appoint as the new head of Offa (Office for Fair Access), and how he might choose to use his powers, seems to me completely counter-productive (see Times Higher Education (article by Simon Baker), and The Times (article by Camilla Cavendish), both today). For one thing, it's unfortunate that this new office has become so political, even before it really gets started - it was supposed to be independent of government, but how can it be now?. For another, although Offa was part of the package of measures that included allowing higher fees at English universities, I think it was a seriously bad idea. Personally, I would just abolish it, as there are already plenty of channels through which competitive pressures of all sorts are brought to bear on the universities.

Thinking about point (a) above, and mathematics, how do we bring potential students up to the very highest standards so they can succeed at the best universities? The reality of life, it seems, is that even quite good secondary schools in and around Edinburgh, for instance, lack the teaching resources (and sometimes, perhaps, the specialist ability) to provide extra tuition to the one or two students per year who might be good enough to try for Oxford or Cambridge entrance in mathematics. Almost by accident, I've gradually found myself acting as tutor to a scattered group of these students, now from three different schools. The students are very bright, and they work hard, but they do need the extra support - which none of their schools or families can provide themselves. So advanced maths tuition has become a sort of retirement 'hobby', if I can put it that way, which I do entirely for the satisfaction it offers, and for the fun of trying to solve the problems I set 'my' students. Getting students well prepared to cope with high standards is surely the right way to go.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Productive retirement............

I was amused to see an article in a recent Times Higher Education (February 4th) about retired academics and what they get up to. It seems they're often surprisingly productive, with some claiming that their post-retirement years have turned out to be their most fruitful. That all rings very true, as I find that in the early stages of my retirement I'm busier than I expected to be, and enjoying every minute of it. The book I was sent by our HR people when I formally retired, on 'Making the most of your Retirement' (or something like that, I don't recall the exact title), has not proved of any use at all!

The great thing about being retired is that no one in the home institution really cares terribly much what you do, presumably because you're not on the payroll, and so not formally accountable to anyone. Hence there are no administrative duties to undertake, no formal teaching either, except as the occasional guest lecturer, and no pressure to conform to RAE - or now REF - demands on the research side. In my case, I do still have a small office with a PC and most of my remaining academic books (many were culled in previous room moves), and I enjoy going into the university once or twice each week to meet colleagues, talk about research, and supervise my one remaining PhD student.

Most importantly, there's no shortage of interesting things to do, and the whole of this year is already looking very promising, with various papers and projects lined up, on very diverse subjects. Already there have been trips to Kuwait and Galway - see previous posts - and in the past couple of weeks I have been working with colleagues to finalise bids for some new activities, namely:

  • A small EU-funded consultancy project in the Falkland Islands, to advise on budget planning, and on ways of spending their next tranche of EU funding. As I discovered, all of the UK's remaining Overseas Dependent Territories (or ODTs, as they are known) receive some funding from the EU's Economic Development Fund, and it seems that advice is needed on the best way of spending it. I'd love to visit the Falklands, so I hope that my colleague and I win the contract, but I guess the chances are probably below 50-50. We'll see. If the project happens, it will start very soon, so I'll report back on this blog.
  • Working with colleagues in Poland and elsewhere, and led by a research institute based in Vienna, I've been helping to write and put together a bid for EU research funding as part of FP7 (Framework Programme 7). This is on the theme of EU widening and deepening, a mix of economics, political studies, and a few other things, and the consortium is seeking about 2.5 million euros in funding, for a three-year project starting next January. It should be really interesting and a lot of fun if we get the money, but we won't find out until the summer. No idea what our chances are, but you never know. I think the final bid (all 100+ pages of it!) as assembled by the Vienna institute looked pretty good, but of course I don't get to make the decision about funding.
  • Closer to home, my own university (Heriot-Watt) is thinking about a small project to estimate the impact of the university on the local region, and on the Scottish economy, along various dimensions. Quite probably, if this goes ahead, the university will use consultants to do the actual study, but I'm likely to be involved advising on how to do it. At the moment we're still at the rather preliminary phase of trying to specify exactly what we want to do. Again, though, potentially very interesting.
So who needs a proper job when there's so much going on?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Sunshine in Galway

At the end of last week and over the weekend I was in Galway, visiting the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway), staying with a colleague there, and getting to know the area a little. It seems to me that these days Ireland needs all the help and support it can get, so let me report right away that of the three full days I was over there, two were predominantly fine and sunny, only one was dull and wet for most of the day - or dreich as we would say here in Scotland. So overall, not at all bad weather-wise.

My visit to Galway had three aims. First, I was invited to give a talk to economics staff and students at NUI Galway, and this I did last Friday. The topic I chose had to do with my work out in the Caribbean (St Kitts and Nevis) in late 2010, and it seemed to go down well, stimulating a lively discussion. I couldn't resist mentioning the pelicans, my favourite bird in the Caribbean, but mostly I talked about the 'strange' economics of a very small country - after all, St Kitts and Nevis only has just over 51,000 inhabitants, and one consequence of that is that the usual distinction we make between macroeconomics (the whole economy) and microeconomics (looking at individual firms or sectors) doesn't mean terribly much. The first picture below shows the NUI Galway Business School where my talk took place, while the second shows part of the older section of the campus, the Quadrangle.

While at the University, I heard about a recent speech given by the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, on the occasion when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by NUI. He spoke eloquently about the economic crisis facing Ireland, as well as about the intellectual crisis facing the universities, reviewing their diverse and important roles and responsibilities in modern society. One sentence struck me as especially germane to our times (I have shortened it a little, where indicated):
'For those of us then who have had the privilege of being university teachers....the university is....a space from which new futures have always emerged and must do so again.'  I like very much the optimism implicit in this remark

The second aim of my visit was to work with the colleague who invited me over to Galway on a book we're editing. This is on the economies in transition (mostly Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, also a little on China), and we've invited lots of contributions from colleagues around the world, which we're now busy editing. Amazingly, most of our colleagues have been exceptionally cooperative, so we're only waiting now for a handful of late contributions. We aim to get the whole book off to the publisher in April or May, so it can come out late this year or early next.

Last, I was determined to be a tourist for part of my visit, both to look at the City of Galway (which I did in the rain), and to tour around the County to see the scenery and get to know the area, a part of Ireland I had never visited before. The tour was really interesting, with lots of open moorland, lochans, and coastal views, punctuated by small towns and villages where I could get refreshments, e.g.Clifden, a town with a history I knew nothing about - for it's the place where Alcock and Brown landed when they completed the first transatlantic flight in 1919. You live and learn, and all this certainly makes retirement a lot of fun!