Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing references

At Cambridge, Mary Beard blogged recently about the reference-writing burden. Here's a quote:
evaluating students, ex-students and colleagues is an important part of my job; I'm not complaining about being asked to do it (so no need to feel remotely guilty about asking me) -- I'm complaining about the cumbersome, inefficient and sometimes downright obstructive infrastructure.

Regarding academic references (for students applying for postgraduate study), Beard notes that some departments
To save themselves money and to maximise your irritation, many departments now have feeble, barely secure systems where you hand the reference back to the student in an envelope, signed across the seal and then covered with sellotape.

From recent experience, having produced a bunch of references for students applying for MSc study, I can reveal that Cambridge is by far the worst offender in this respect. At York and Edinburgh, they email you a URL, you go there, and upload the reference in PDF. At Oxford, it's bit worse, they email you a URL, username and password, you login and have to provide details of your contact info, affiliation and next of kin (I exaggerate slightly) which gets checked by "inspector" software, then you finally get to upload a PDF. At Cambridge, the student has to come by your office with a reference form in triplicate (you don't often get to use that word these days) and you have to print and sign three copies of the reference (one for each reference form) then you go through all the amateur cloak-and-dagger stuff with the signature and sellotape.

The point is, I guess, that Cambridge (and to some extent Oxford) are the only universities that can afford to be so obstructive to potential customers. The trouble is, they are mainly wasting the time of the referees, not just the students, and referees are ethically obliged to cooperate with whatever stupid system is being used. But I will complain to them about their system, and report here on any response I receive.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Forthcoming inaugural lecture

My inaugural lecture (on Computational Game Theory) is on the 2nd of March; I'm currently working on the slides. Here is a schedule of a one-day mini-workshop we are having on topics in computational game theory, to take place alongside the lecture. Here is an electronic invitation that anyone reading this is most welcome to. Here is a link to the university's web site on the current series of inaugural lectures, includes a registration facility for anyone who wants to attend.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

mainly about cuts

I went to a university staff meeting today where our Vice-chancellor began with a presentation on funding cuts, and after he was done, I asked him which way we should all vote in the next election. It's the kind of question you ask when you've just finished marking 40 exam scripts. His response touched on the fact that the USA, Japan, Germany and France all are spending more rather than less on higher education, as part of their fiscal stimulus packages. I knew about the USA, but it's great to hear that all these other places also regard universities as part of the solution and not the problem. (added a day later): This beautifully-written article in the Guardian is a must-read for anyone who is interested in this topic!

The VC also noted that the funding formula is now allocating more weight to research that received the highest RAE rating (4*) than it previously did. It is starting to look like it is wrong to refer to "3* and 4* research" in the same breath; in reality we should all be chasing after 4* research, and disregard anything less.

Back to exam marking - no-one likes doing it, but it's nice when someone gets everything more or less correct, and you think, hey, I really got through to this guy.

On Facebook, Ulle Endriss called attention to this web site about the closure of the Group of Logic, Language and Computation at Kings College London. I would guess that the people being laid off would not get so much sympathy in the wider community, at a time when unemployment is still rising in the USA, and is still very high over here. It's a reminder that universities are not in the public sector, and are all in thrall to fiscal constraints.

Finally, a definition: meritocracy: government by people with a powerful sense of entitlement.