Archive for August, 2009

Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking)

August 29, 2009

Dr Aust has been on the road for a few days, including a trip to Science Online 2009. Call it a sort of slightly working holiday. I started writing the following as an update for the embarrassingly neglected Diary page, but it has now grown to such length that I thought I would give it a post of its own.

So a bit of boring diary travelogue follows, finishing with some ponderings about the conference. If you are just interested in the last bit, skip down to “Anyway – that’s enough diary“.

Thursday 20th.

Slightly frantic morning trying to tie up a few things at work, then off to the station after lunch to catch a train to Oxford to see Dr Aust’s mother. Arrive at 5 pm off hot and crowded train. The walk from Oxford station up to the Aust parents’ part of North Oxford can be done by various routes, but my favourite one, especially for late afternoons and early evenings in Summer, has always been the Oxford canal towpath. When Dr Aust was a teenager in Oxford, an awful lot of years ago, the family garden actually had the canal at the bottom of it. Here the next door neighbour would fish and escape his family, the Aust family dog would occasionally fall in and have to be rescued, and one of our more eccentric neighbours would swim in the Summer, braving assorted waterborne diseases (Mrs Dr Aust would probably have mentioned Leptospirosis).

Anyway, two canal towpath sights never fail to make Dr Aust feel that he is really home – because in some odd way Oxford does still feels like home, even though Dr Aust has not been a permanent resident for nearly 30 years now.

One is this kind of view:

Oxford canal scene

The other is sort of summed up by the middle-aged gentleman who overtook Dr Aust, riding a sturdy upright bicycle that looked at least 50 yrs old and had a battered briefcase strapped on the back. The gent in question was wearing a serviceable but far from new dark linen suit, and a blue bicycle helmet, and looked about as much like an Oxford academic as is possible to look without becoming a total caricature – and whilst pressing a mobile phone to one’s ear and wobbling slightly along the towpath.

The point, perhaps, is that Oxford is rather a special enclave.

Now, when Dr Aust was 18 he was in a tearing hurry to leave Oxford. Oxford, he and his friends would regularly agree, was not the real world. We were mostly dreaming of London – Islington, Notting Hill and the King’s Road. Or perhaps of places even further afield.


“Oxford is not the real world”

Quite true.

The difference is that nowadays Dr Aust tends to think that is precisely what is good, and worth preserving, about the place. The Real World can be a bit overrated.

Friday 21st

Another late afternoon train, this time to London, to check into the hotel and thence to the “pre-conference unconference” (whatever that means) on a roof terrace in Farringdon (which belongs to these guys). The setting is rather good, although the random city noise means you have to shout a bit. Luckily (or not, depending on your POV) Dr Aust is an experienced shouter and annoying interrupter. This comes of years of on-the-job training in lectures, tutorials, or large and protracted University committee meetings.

The best things about the conference “Fringe Prequel” are the smallish number of people and the informality, which make for lively discussions. Oh, and the free booze. Get to catch up a bit with BadScience sensei David Colquhoun, and to meet several bloggers who were hitherto only names and emails, such as scourge of misadvertising chiropractors Zeno of the Think Humanism forum, Nature Network science blogger and crystallographer Stephen Curry (“Reciprocal Space”), and shockingly young bad science ubersleuth Gimpy.

Saturday 22nd

Despite my well-documented loathing of early mornings (or mornings at all, come to that), haul myself out of bed at 7.45, only slightly hoarse from last night’s extended talking session, to get to the 9.30 start of Science Online. As an economy measure I have brought my own breakfast, half an almond croissant from my favourite French patisserie.

Deciding to turn up to the first session turns out to be a piece of good fortune – a last-minute change of  timetable has put the “Legal and ethical aspects of blogging” bit, with blog notables Jack of Kent and Dr Petra, first up. Jack’s request not to be podcasted causes a slight stir. About a third of the audience seem to be hiding behind portable or laptop computers, among which MacBooks are particularly well represented. There is definitely a study of some kind to be done about how rates of Mac use vary across different scientific user groups. Jack gives a nice (if slightly scary) introduction to the possible legal consequences of blogging. Am gratified to find that my strictures a while back about not getting on the wrong side of courts in open cases and risking committing Contempt of Court were probably a sensible note of caution.

It is a hot day, and the after-coffee session on “Online Communication by Institutions and Organisations” is a bit airless. However, it is interesting to find out how different organisations – though none of those discussed is a University – handle online science, and particularly blogging. My personal view is that blogging is not an easy fit with “offficial” sites run by large institutions. The bedrock reason is that institutions have a pathological fear of saying something that offends people – and therefore often of saying anything much at all –  and they find the natural anarchism of scientific bloggers to be distinctly indigestion-causing. For more on this theme, you can read my comment here.

Lunch with Jack of Kent, Dr Petra, Gimpy and Frank the Science Punk, who like Gimpy is preposterously young. Actually, compared to me almost everyone at the meeting looks young, especially since David (Colquhoun) sneaked off before the lunch break, pointing out that it was too nice a day to be stuck indoors. One of the conference speakers is Times science editor Mark Henderson, who looks about 25, though I guess he is probably in his early 30s.

A lot of the afternoon is devoted to the question of linking online identities, online platforms for science data exchange, and various other techie stuff. Some bits are interesting, but the XML-speak and repeated use of the word “syntactical” is a bit hard core for an Technophobic Old Fart like Dr Aust.  Retreat to the nearest pub seems a good option, (I shall rather presumptiously cite Crick and Watson as my authority, if you are arguing) where I discover that several of my fellow-bloggers in the Bad Science posse now have book deals. Quite pleasing to think there is that much demand for sceptical thinking – but then, you can never have enough, certainly these days.

A highlight of the pub, apart from Jack of Kent buying me a couple of drinks, was Andy from the Quackometer’s description of his investigations of some of the Quacktronic “black boxes” that people have sold to try and cure people of “electrosensitivity”.

This particular branch of Quackorama always reminds me of late 19th and early 20th century quack Albert Abrams and his ERA machine (nice old picture and more info here). Abrams was revealed as a flagrant charlatan more than eighty years ago, but his quackery lives on today as “Radionics” (and here). It is, you will be surprised to hear (err…not) popular with some of the homeopaths.

So a successful meeting – as ever, mainly for the informal chat with people who you previously had either heard of, or read a comment by, or possibly corresponded with. Apart from those I have already mentioned, I got to say Hi to Euan Lawson of the excellent Northern Doctor blog. And I also met, as one does, some people completely new to me, like postdoc and science blogger “Dr Jim”, and TV presenter Greg Foot. another of the disturbingly youthful brigade. While Greg is not the first person I have met who has his/hers own Wikipedia entry, I’m pretty sure he is the first I’ve met who has his own “Showreel” on Youtube. Greg and Frank the Sciencepunk have just been given the job of “re-booting” the government “Engage Kids with Science” site Science? So what? (or SSW for short), as you can discover (and offer your own suggestions about how they should do it) here.

In order to save my liver from further damage I finally do a runner at about 6 pm, heading for Paddington station and a packed train back to Oxford. And England look to have a lock on the Final Test, failing improbably Australian comebacks.

All in all, a most excellent and useful day.

Sunday 23rd

A recuperative day of doing nothing in Oxford. Stroll across Port Meadow for a pre-lunchtime beer in the garden of the Perch at Binsey. This used to be one of my favourite weekend lunchtime pubs, but has now morphed into a sit-down restaurant. Thankfully you can still sip a beverage in the garden, and then amble back across the meadow, past the grazing horses and cows, hordes of stroppy geese, and small boat sailors. My mother tells me she took up sailing for a couple of years at University in the late 50s “because when I told the ladies’ moral tutor that I got my keep-fit exercise by jiving, she clearly thought that was most unsuitable”. I knew my mother had been into trad jazz and jiving, but not that she had been a sailor. It just shows how you can still be finding out new things about people after knowing them all your life.

Spend the later afternoon wrestling with my mother’s ancient computer. A decade or so back I taught myself how to build and fix computers, mainly because when the lab was “between grants” there was no money to buy new ones. Unfortunately, just as I got reasonably proficient at it, the price of new machines fell to the point where there was no saving in building from bits. This is fairly typical of Dr Aust’s money-saving or money-making brain-waves.  Sadly, the computer resists most of my attempts at spring cleaning; the antivirus programme won’t update because they’ve released a new version but that won’t install because the Operating System is too old a version, and it won’t update properly because Microsoft’s website says it’s a pirate copy and the shop we bought the machine from has gone out of business years ago…. *sigh*.

On the bright side, I can listen to Australian wickets falling while I fight my losing battle with the dratted computer. And finally….England have won The Ashes! Rapidly compile mental list of all my Australian friends who I can email to have a good gloat. They would, after all, do the same for me.

Monday 24th.

Amused to see in The Times (my mother reads the Times – Dr Aust prefers the Guardian) a “heat map” of the London Underground. Several of the lines were shut this weekend for repairs, so that instead of taking the previous year’s route from Green Park (and the Royal Institution) to Paddington Station, Dr Aust had to foot it down to Picadilly and take a sweltering Bakerloo line train. This is revealed by the map as the second hottest line on the system, reaching 30-32 deg C on hot days. It certainly felt every bit of that at 6 pm on Saturday. Perhaps I should blame Global Warming.

Leave Oxford mid-morning, overcast but warm, and head North on the train. It starts raining just before Birmingham, and then gets progressively colder and progressively wetter as we get further North. Arrive home late afternoon in thin drizzle to find puddle stretching halfway across our road. Jr Aust calls this “the lake”. Feel so cold I have to fire up the central heating. Mrs Dr Aust tells me that in her native part of central Europe the temperature has been 25-30 C all of the last week, with no rain, and that house prices there are such that we could sell up here and build an architect-designed mansion there two-and-a-half times the size. Ponder once again why I live in a place whose climate I have grown accustomed to describing to my American friends as “like Seattle, if Seattle didn’t have any Summer”.

Oh well. Only four weeks until the start of the University teaching year. Joy.

Tuesday 25th – Weds 26th.

More rain.   *sigh*


Anyway – that’s enough diary.

So what about the Science Online 2009 conference (hence “SciOnLon”)?

Well, like most conference, I enjoyed bits of it a lot. It is a very rare conference, actually, where you enjoy ALL of it. Even in specialist meetings there are usually bits that match exactly to your own interests and enthusiasms, and other bits that you find plain dull. As I already said, the techie stuff about “science online” left me a bit cold. And the implementations of things on Second Life that were attempted here and there were rather laboured, which leaves me tempted to conclude, as one other blogger did, that “Second Life is Pants”.

However, as a scientist one grows used to the idea that one does not really “get” a lot of the science other scientists do, even in vaguely related areas. But of course, the people doing it do get it. Indeed, one of the attractive features of science, as I think I said in one of the Friday night “Unconference” sessions, is that no matter how weird, unpromising, downright bizarre, or seemingly parochial the topic, there will be at least one somewhat obsessive scientist type out there  who thinks it is the most fascinating thing s/he has ever come across.

Every geek shall find his/her place, if you prefer.

The  example of this that Dr Aust used to use as an example in tutorials is fossilized dinosaur poo – although this probably isn’t the best example, as the subject actually has a long history.  But really, who on earth would think fossilized dinosaur poo would be fascinating?  Of course, apart from telling you about what the dinosaurs ate, it also gives information about the vegetation around at the time the dinosaur lived.  And there are other folk who specialize in fossilized human, er, deposits, and what they can tell you about human diet and health in pre-modern and even pre-historical times. And there are still other folk who specialize in fossilized animal poo, and so on, and so on.

Bill Bryson’s best-selling A Short History of Nearly Everything has a bit of this sense about it, that is, of some the fascination of science being related to its rather esoteric corners, and slightly loopy practitioners.

Anyway, the point of this diversion is to say that there is a point in these geeky talks, and sessions. You may not get it, but someone else will. And if you don’t have clunky Second Life / online conference participation now, then you clearly won’t have more broadly usable systems a few years down the line. So I appreciate that there will be people who want to sit in sessions logging into web portals and muttering about “syntactical hierarchies”.  Even if I don’t.

But I think I would rather that stuff were in a parallel session or a breakout group, rather than as a big chunk of the main lecture strand.

A somewhat related point is that science bloggers clearly do fall into subsets. One subset, obviously,  is the people who are interested in how the online technology works, or who are working on developing it. People who actually blog about their own research are another subset. People who explain research in their general field, but more for the public that for the Geek-o-sphere, are still another subset. And the Bad Science gang (who talk about science, or pseudoscience, but largely not about the science they do professionally) are still a different subset.

Of course, since most (non-group) blogs are above all personal to their writers, one blogger may span several of the above categories. When I started this blog nearly two years ago I actually anticipated writing rather more than I actually have done about “physiological” subjects, since physiology is my professional speciality. But I think some of the water posts are almost the only example of writing on physiology. And there have certainly been a lot more facetious musical ditties than I had ever anticipated.

Anyway, is there a demand for a conference to get all the factions of “science online” together?  I think there still is. Conferences, at best, offer a mix – detailed stuff you are really into the minutiae of, plus some more general stuff where you get a general “catch-up” on what is going on, plus some things you wander along to on a whim. I’m all for variety. And long coffee and lunch breaks.

The conference has, unsurprisingly, spawned a vast array of blogposts and discussions (some links here) – so far the one I am following with most interest is on Stephen Curry’s blog here.

Of course, above all, conferences remain “a gathering of the tribe”, and this was as true of SciOnLon as any other, see above. Stephen Curry writes on his blog:

“It is agreeably ironic that the richest experience for me was meeting… online folk in the flesh.

Meeting [some of the Bad Science] guys and all the other people I chatted to during the conference, and in the pub afterwards, brought home just how much joining in online has enriched my life with new connections. But it still strange to realise that these connections are best savoured in the real world.”

Which echoes precisely my own feelings.

The commenter who captured this best for me, though, was Canadian genome scientist Richard Wintle, in this response to Stephen Curry’s post:

“I love the delicious irony of your observation that it’s better to meet all these online acquaintances in person, at an event about online interaction.

Somewhere in there, there is a moral for the 21st century. Darned if I know what it is though.”


Cretaceous mud slinging

August 5, 2009

In which we ponder whether extinct prehistoric reptiles can sue for libel in the English courts. After all, everybody else can.

Via Frank the Science Punk’s mini-blog, I have just read this shocking story about the well-known dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex:

T rex offended

T. rex “mostly ate babies”

(see also the original story in the Independent by noted science journalist Steve “lofty medics” Connor)

Frank suggests that T. rex is clearly in urgent need of a PR agency.

I have a slightly different suggestion.

Since the allegation that T. rex ate babies is clearly injurious to the dinosaur’s reputation, T. rex should engage a good reputation management law firm – a couple of options are  here and here, the latter lot being Matthias Rath’s libel lawyers of choice, though there are plenty of other options too – and file a libel suit in the English courts with all haste.

With any luck, the case will be heard by an eminent legal mind, and this shameful slander upon the reputation of one of our best loved prehistoric carnivores can be shown for the premeditated attempt at (Cretaceous) mud-slinging that it is.

A spokesman for the popular dinosaur and family favourite assured Dr Aust that “sales of T. rex soft toys and other branded merchandise have not been damaged” and that “movie tie-ins are not in danger”, but also said that the dinosaur was “looking into” the question of defending its reputation, if necessary through legal action. Reading a prepared statement, the spokesman added:

“With rights come responsibility and scientists must realise that they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous”

T. rex itself was unavailable for comment.


PS  The paper from which the Independent story derives is in a paleontology journal called Lethaia. The abstract of the paper is here, and here is some background on the debate about what T. rex might have eaten.  I shall look forward to seeing  in due course if blogger and Nature “fossils editor” Henry Gee has anything to say about the “T. rex was a babykiller” story.

Science has lost a friend in Parliament – goodbye to Ian Gibson

August 1, 2009

In which Dr Aust mutters darkly about “real world experience” (are Universities the real world?  I always rather hoped not) and laments the loss of one of the few MPs who actually knew anything about science and Universities. Plus some “University Finance 101”.

Before Conservative Party Leader “Call me Dave” Cameron got into a bit of rather inconsequential bother over his use of a naughty word on the radio this week, he and his chums had presumably spent last weekend celebrating. This was, of course, because on Friday 24th July a 27-year-old Management Consultant and Tory Bright Young Thing named Chloe Smith was elected as the new MP for Norwich North, overturning a decent-sized Labour majority.

There are several ironies about this victory. One that amused me was Ms Smith being quoted as saying that she considers it important for MPs to have “experience of the real world”.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment as quoted, it is slightly undercut for me by her bio, as printed in various newspapers. Judging from this her short-ish employment history consists of several stints as researcher or assistant to various Tory MPs – and, of course, of being a Management Consultant. She has been working, we were told, for Deloitte, though it emerged during the by-election campaign that she was on secondment to a Tory “Implementation Unit”. This is apparently the set-up which is trying to work out how Call Me Dave and his chaps and chap-ettes will run Britain after the next general election.

The whole idea of which fills me with deep foreboding.

Chloe Smith’s bio reminds me somewhat of that earlier Conservative meteor, former teenage Party Conference speaker and later Tory Leader William Hague. Though William had clearly been training to be a politician since he was barely out of short trousers, he did fit in a few years of management consultancy before he became a youthful MP at the age of 28.

Now, from the tone of the above you may have gathered, if you didn’t already know, that Dr Aust is an ageing leftie. But politics is not really the point of this post. And it is a truism of modern life in the UK that the baffling enthusiasm for Management Consultants transcends political affiliation, at least if one is talking about the major parties. The Consultants are all over the Health Service too, to the profound dislike of pretty much every doctor I know. Even Universities have a worrying tendency to call in the Consultants, though in academia the slight saving grace is that Universities are too hard-up – or at least penny-pinching – to splash out the kind of vast amounts that the NHS burns on the suits from McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & co.

The brightest and the best – errrm….

Of course, one is frequently told that Management Consultants, a bit like lawyers, are the brightest and the best, ultra-high-flyers and intellectual stars etc. etc. All of which may indeed be true. I actually know several Consultants, but not enough to tempt me to a nice glib generalization.

However, I do struggle to think of several years of political wonk-ery, and a brief-ish stretch serving the Consultancy cult, as being “experience of the real world”.  No matter how bright the person getting the experience is.

“Experience of the real world”, in my Grumpy Old Man’s view, comes of having done a job long enough to have some idea of what it is really like to do it – preferably as both an inexperienced and an experienced person, and at several levels of the hierarchy. In my view, you need to have put in some meaningful time in a business, or sector – earned your experience from the inside – to speak about it with any real authority or knowledge.

Which brings me to the main subject of this post, or at least the first part of it – the now ex-MP for Norwich North, scientist and trade unionist Ian Gibson.


Ian Gibson was that rarity in modern British politics – someone who became an MP comparatively late in life, having actually worked his way through a full career in something first. In Gibson’s case, the career was biological science; he did a B.Sc. and Ph.D. in genetics in Edinburgh, and post-doc work in the US, before going to work at the then new University of East Anglia in 1965. Gibson rose through the ranks at UEA to eventually become Dean of Biological Sciences from 1991 until 1997, when he was elected as an MP at the age of 59.

Gibson stayed a back bencher during his twelve years in parliament, generally characterized as an “Old Labour” type figure, becoming a notable scientific voice in the Commons. He was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee for many years, and its influential Chairman from 2001 to 2005. The Committee contained most of the (few) MPs who had any first-hand knowledge of science, plus some others who were at least interested. The Committee was abolished in 2005, something which conspiracy theorists – possibly including Gibson himself – have been known to attribute to Government annoyance at the Committee’s tendency, under Gibson’s leadership, to point out when the Government was doing something that the committee did not believe was the best thing for science.

Gibson’s downfall was the MPs’ expenses scandal. Rather curiously, however, he is the only MP so far to actually resign over expenses. His misdeed was not all that untypical, but arguably less egregious than some. No moats, tennis courts, mortgage claims for already-sold flats, or claims for 3rd homes in the country. Gibson had claimed on expenses the mortgage costs of a London flat where he admitted he only lived for three days a week, a flat that he later sold to his daughter at well below the market rate.

Gibson was deselected (barred from standing again as an MP) by a national Labour Party “Star Chamber” disciplinary committee. Four other Labour MPs “convicted” by the Star Chamber mechanism had already stated they would not stand again; they thus remain in office until the next General Election. Gibson, in contrast, had stated his intention to stand again, unless the local Labour party in Norwich North did not want him to. However, they did not get a chance to say yea or nay, as the national Labour party barred Gibson from being a candidate.

The decision was, according to most observers, highly unpopular with Gibson’s constituents in Norwich North, where he was well-liked as an “activist” MP. During the by-election campaign the Financial Times quoted some of them, noting:

“All six mothers [who spoke to the FT] said they would have voted for Ian Gibson, the outgoing Labour MP, had he run as an independent – even though the by-election was triggered by Labour disciplining Mr Gibson over his expenses.”

Similarly, the website, in a story entitled

“Gibson’s ghost haunts Norwich North”

– quoted another of Gibson’s constituents as follows:

“He’s been tremendous in this area for us, for our community, all the way, Everybody’s been doing it [i.e. over-claiming on their expenses]. So why aren’t the guys at the top being hung out the same as Ian Gibson? It’s a tragedy, what’s happened to him.”

Now, the remark about “the guys at the top” is interesting, since it re-iterates an earlier point about Gibson. Despite his scientific background, both as scientist and “science manager”, and a knowledge of both science and higher education probably unsurpassed among Members of the Commons, Gibson never made it to even the lowest rung of Junior Ministerial Office. If you wonder why, Gibson’s own webpage bio offers a clue:

“During my time in Parliament, I have acquired the reputation of a rebel.”

Gibson was not really a part of New Labour, and indeed not really a part of the modern British  “political class”, which seems to be characterized, in the major parties, by people who have been training to be professional politicians since their early teens. Indeed, most political commentators – see e.g. the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee here – interpreted Gibson’s fate as his being thrown to the wolves  largely because he was not part of the clique.

And this returns us to the reason why Gibson was very popular among rank and file scientists, especially in the Universities.

He was one of us.

As in – a bit of a grumpy bugger, but someone who was passionate about his beliefs, whether in science or in politics. A bloke who was prepared to distinguish between what was important, and what the Government of the day was telling various biddable journalists was important. A paid-up member of the awkward squad, not an on-message apparatchik.

Thus, when the Blair or Brown Government could be heard telling you how very much they valued research, or how much new money they had put into the Research Councils, Gibson could generally be relied on to deconvolute the bullshit and give a more realistic verdict.

He was also an old trade unionist at heart, interested in hearing from people who wanted to tell him what was really going on at the grass roots in the science base and the Universities – notably about the ways in which career progression had become problematic for many 20- and 30-somethings stuck in the postdoc ghetto, and (not entirely unrelated) the many ways that the Research Assessment Exercise had distorted the system. I personally know two people who had significant exchanges with Gibson on these kind of topics.

Gibson did not always articulate the views of “the academy”, of course – he was and is his own man, with his own views. Notably, he continued to campaign against students having to pay “top up fees”, something most academics had reluctantly concluded was unavoidable if British Universities were to be put on some kind of sustainable financial footing.

But even when you disagreed with Gibson’s views, at least you knew they stemmed from a belief in, and a lifetime’s experience of, the University system, and science, and the opportunities that both offered people.

But anyway, now Gibson is gone from the House of Commons, and science has lost a real friend and champion in the House. He will be missed. Though I would not be altogether surprised to see him re-emerge as the head of some scientific Think-tank or perhaps even as a  University Vice Chancellor.

Meanwhile, at a University near you… cuts are coming

In an odd coincidence, the Norwich North by-election results appeared the very same day as this story on the BBC Education site:


University teaching cut by £65m

Funding for teaching at England’s universities is being cut by 1.36% next year to save £65m.

Every university is affected by the revised grant allocations from the funding council (Hefce).

But the biggest cuts are at those with the most students: £2.5m at the OU (Open University), £1.4m at Manchester, £1.2m at Leeds.

Unions reacted angrily but the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) said the sector had to tighten its belt like everyone else.

The University and College Union (UCU) said the £65m would equate to the loss of a further 1,500 full time lecturing and support staff, days after it had complained at nearly 6,000 cuts affecting 100,000 students.


UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said this was just the first wave of likely new cuts.

“What kind of message does this send out to future generations of educators?

“It seems absurd that in a week when the government has done so much soul searching over widening participation that it is putting up new barriers for people wishing to study.”


Now, you might thing that the £ 65 M saved is a drop in the bucket compared with the billions and billionsthat have gone into bailing out the banks. Especially given that the banks caused the crisis.

You might think.

Meanwhile, of course, the Government was busy elsewhere congratulating itself for this:


The government says there will be 10,000 more university places in England this autumn, mainly in maths, science, technology and engineering.

The extra places will be allocated by the higher education funding council in consultation with universities.

They will be part-funded: universities will get students’ tuition fees but not grants for teaching and other support.

Funding is from existing budgets and in part by cutting student loan repayment holidays from five years to two.


The BBC story, unlikely most of the feeble newspaper stories that covered the extra places when the announcement was made, correctly noted that the Govt was basically inviting Universities to take these students on while receiving only 30-40% of the normal funding level “per student”.

University Finance 101

For those not familiar with the numbers, let me spell it out.

For each UK student my (biological science) faculty taught we received, last year:

£ 3,145 a year from the student (the so-called “top-up fee”).

£ 6,710 a year from the Government (the standard subsidy for lab–based sciences).

Thus a total of nearly £ 10 K per student per year (the Govt figure, often referred to as HEFCE teaching income, is explained clearly here).

If we take on extra students under the Government’s grandiosely titled “10, 000 extra places” scheme, we will be taking those students at an (effective} fee of £ 3,145 each – less than a third of the standard rate.

Given the cuts in teaching funding, I would suggest that Universities will not be taking the extra students unless they are expecting major difficulties  in balancing the budget otherwise.

Now, if you are as cynical as me about politicians, you might think that is just the point. The Government cuts the teaching funding allocation – the cuts were trailed a couple of months ago – and waits for the message to filter through that the Universities are going to be up against it financially.

Then it says “But you CAN take extra students, of course – for a third of the rate you normally get, and at a net saving to us of several thousand pounds a student”.

All Universities are equal – but some are more equal than others

Not all Universities are equal in this, although the % cut in funding for teaching students is the same across the sector.

Although the headline “reductions in teaching funding” are mostly biggest for the research-intensive Universities, which typically also have a lot of students, they are not the institutions likeliest to be facing melt-down. After all, even though they are losing the most income, these are also the institutions with the biggest budgets, the largest reserves, with their choice of students (that is, courses are far more likely to be full than “lower down” the sector), and with the most money from NON-teaching sources.

Meanwhile, it is in the less research intensive and “post-92” Universities that I expect the cut to be felt the hardest. These are often smaller institutions, and ones where teaching accounts for most of income. In addition, filling courses is sometimes problematic.

Of course, the Govt has cynically given them a partial solution to the budget problems produced by the cut; if you are facing a loss of £ 0.6 M from the cut, as many of the post-92 Universities are, you can rebalance your budget by taking 200 extra students with NO Govt funding – because each student will be ponying up three grand plus. Well, you can take these students if you can find them, that is.

Note that you will not be able to hire any extra staff to teach them – not without spending money you haven’t got – but at least the £ 3 K per student will mean you don’t necessarily have to sack anyone. Unless you want to. But all your staff will be working harder, and teaching more students, quite possibly in larger classes. And necessarily having less time to do research and other stuff.

What a tremendous bargain.

It will also not have escaped the notice of most people that a further effect of all these cuts will be to push the post-92 and other less research-intensive Universities a bit further towards being teaching-only institutions for science degree subjects. Which many science academics think is what all UK Govts have wanted, at least since the Thatcher years.

Now, I like to think that, if Ian Gibson were still in the Commons, and sitting on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (as it is now called), he would call all this the hypocritical piece of Realpolitik wrapped in spin that it really is.

I shall be interested to see if any of the current crop have the guts.


Instant Update:

Since I originally wrote most of the above some time last weekend, we have actually heard which Universities are going to take the extra 10,000 students. Surprise surprise – or rather, “no surprise at all” – Oxford and Cambridge, and most of the Russell Group, said they would not be taking any extra students, thank you.

Various noises were made about “quality of the education experience being sacrosanct”. Which is good to hear, don’t get me wrong.

Though another way to put this is that these Universities simply don’t need the money enough to be prepared to take extra students for 30% of the usual “rate per head”. The list of who is taking the students shows, entirely predictably, a heavy slant towards the post-92 institutions (the full list is linked from this article).