Tuesday, 2 June 2015

On a couple of things I've seen

Sometimes semi-spammy posts come my way with interesting things in them, and so it was this week.  One, from the Institute of Physics, included a link to a story with the headline "Culture for PhD students must change, says report from IoP and Royal Astronomical Society."

It reminds me of similar reports from the time I was a postdoc (a long time ago now) -- so in some sense little has changed, but there is perhaps more acknowledgement now that the culture of PhD studies works differently for men and for women that I don't remember from twenty years ago.  I think, really, there has been progress from the time I was a student, though this may very much depend on where you study and on individual experiences.  The idea that you have to routinely work outside work hours to succeed sure isn't one I encourage my PhD students to follow, but it seems to still go on.  I also make pretty sure that any prospective PhD students know that academia is not necessarily going to be the outcome for them, given the numbers. 

The other interesting article that came my way was from sister-magazine of the Daily Telegraph -- The Spectator -- about league tables.  It came about because the University at which I work (the University of Surrey) appeared at number four in the Guardian League table.  The Spectator article is pretty scathing of the table.  It is written by people working in recruitment and can be summed up by their quote
"From an employer’s perspective, the picture is clear and consistent: the Russell Group universities come top, led by Oxbridge and LSE. A degree from the top three will get you into almost any interview room. A degree from Surrey will not. It’s as simple as that"
I am in no sense a fan of league tables.  They attempt to quantify unquantitative things, and the results are not particularly benign, as people end up believing them, and Universities even end up making their mission not to achieve excellence but rather to improve their league table score (though one might fancy that they believe they can only do this by being more excellent).   Still, the Spectator article makes me think that league tables may not be all bad after all.  If it causes the tools of the right-wing press to snort with indignation about how the only thing that matters is to have gone to the same university of the patriarch of the company that might employ them, and that they should be wearing the right old school tie, then perhaps these league tables that rate Universities highly if they have, for example, good teaching feedback, are not such a bad thing.  

Though I've said it before -- let me reiterate about the sentence in the Spectator article about the Russell Group.   The Russell Group is a London Gentleman's Club.   It was set up by a bunch of rich men, in a London hotel. Its purpose was to be a club which you can only join by agreement of those already members, and by contributing a lot of money, and the reason to join is because you are fearful that if you aren't a member of the club then people won't like you.  That's all it is, and that's all students are paying for when they hand a Russell Group university their tuition fee, some of which is passed straight to the Russell Group as membership fee.  It doesn't matter, as long as you are happy with it -- as many people who pay fees to independent schools before going to Univeristy are.  On the other hand, if there is hope for more than the old school tie principle, then we could go for these league tables.  I'd also suggest that if you can't give the right kind of handshake to the authors who have advertised in the Spectator article that their job is to get you a job, that you don't use their recruitment company.  Sadly, the only reason that the Russell Group's premise works is because the recruitment consultants can't be bothered to do more than use the school tie principle.

It wasn't the only blog to be upset about Surrey's 4th place:  This one, concerned with music degrees, was also not happy.  A commenter on it was quick to point out that Surrey had a long tradition of being top of the class in their Tonmeister degree.