Friday, November 18, 2016

The American Astronomical Society reaffirms its commitment to discrimination

The President of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Christine Jones, released a letter today (18 November 2016) on behalf of the AAS Council, titled “Reaffirming Our Commitment to Inclusiveness”. While purporting to support inclusiveness, this letter calls for bigotry to be tolerated and indulges in victim-blaming and gaslighting of those who feel threatened by Trump's election.

The tone of the letter becomes obvious in the first paragraph, which states that “it is the responsibility of each of us to treat every member of our Society -- and every member of society more generally -- with respect and dignity, regardless of … political opinions.” As we have seen recently, the spectrum of political opinions in the US includes fervent opposition to inclusiveness in all of its forms. This is an unacceptable call to tolerate racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and other oppressive behaviours.

Later in the same paragraph, the letter talks about “cruel incidents” – a euphemism, it would seem, for hate crimes and violence, and one which serves to minimise the impact of these acts. These are blamed on “a polarizing national election”, implying that there was blame on both sides. That was not the case – on one side, Trump and his supporters were actively provoking intolerance, while on the other side groups who have suffered historic and ongoing oppression were asking to be treated equally as human beings. This false equivalence boils down to saying that the victims of Trump's rhetoric are partly to blame for the violence aimed at them. This is an unacceptable act of victim-blaming.

The second paragraph of the letter starts promisingly, with a call for everyone to “be committed to ensuring an astronomy community that is safe and welcoming for all people, especially those who are currently underrepresented in our science and/or marginalized by society at large.” But the idea of how to do this appears to be limited to a call to AAS members “to be mindful of how we treat each other and to support students and colleagues”. There is a complete lack of any commitment, or even notice of intent, from the AAS to actually stand up for its members who might be threatened by proposed actions of the Trump administration – everything is to be done by members being nice to one another (including, let us not forget, being nice to the bigots, misogynists, racists, homophobes, etc.). There appears to be a deliberate ignorance of the fact that the freedom of AAS members to practice astronomy is threatened not just be the violence of Trump supporters but by the campaign promises he himself made and the stated opinions of those he has nominated to serve in his administration.

The second paragraph goes on to talk about “those who may now feel threatened or frightened by recently reported acts” – minimising the violence as merely “reported”, a word that implies by its inclusion that the violence might not actually be happening, and insinuating that people are merely frightened of reports, thus dismissing the possibility that they could have actually been victims themselves. Indeed, nowhere in the letter does it actually acknowledge that any violent acts or hate crimes have actually taken place. This is classic gaslighting.

There no mention in the letter of the fact that Trump and his supporters deliberately provoked the rise of hate and intolerance, let alone any condemnation of this. Nor is there any recognition that people in the targeted groups might be threatened or frightened by the President-elect and his spokespeople having encouraged intolerance of them and engendered an environment where violence, both physical and psychological, is seen as socially acceptable.

Overall, the message of this letter is that the AAS are willing to appease and tolerate oppression. My take home from this, as an immigrant myself, is that when they come for me, I shouldn't expect the AAS to speak. There is one light on the horizon, however – the AAS Council elections are coming up, and a number of the candidates are known as supporters of diversity who might move the society towards representing all of its members.


Text of the AAS letter:

Reaffirming Our Commitment to Inclusiveness

As President of the American Astronomical Society, I wish to remind members and other stakeholders of the Society's resolute commitment to promote inclusiveness. In keeping with the AAS Council's recent adoption of a comprehensive code of ethics, it is the responsibility of each of us to treat every member of our Society -- and every member of society more generally -- with respect and dignity, regardless of race, ethnicity, skin color, national origin, age, disability, religion, faith, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or political opinions. I expressed similar sentiments in my last President's Column, but they bear repeating in the aftermath of a polarizing national election that has been followed by a growing number of cruel incidents.

We must all be committed to ensuring an astronomy community that is safe and welcoming for all people, especially those who are currently underrepresented in our science and/or marginalized by society at large. I urge all AAS members to be mindful of how we treat each other and to support students and colleagues, especially those who may now feel threatened or frightened by recently reported acts of harassment, intimidation, and violence against people of color, women of all backgrounds, immigrants of all statuses, Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ persons, and those at the intersections of these axes. I am especially troubled by hateful acts occurring on the campuses of educational institutions.

Finally, as our colleagues in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) frequently point out, science plays a central role in America's security, economy, and well-being. Let's do our part to ensure that science continues to make our country more secure, more prosperous, and more comfortable -- for everyone.

-- President Christine Jones for the AAS Council

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Double Prime Meridian – why is the Greenwich Prime Meridian 102m west of the GPS zero meridian?

If you visit the Royal Greenwich Observatory and stand across the Prime Meridian of the World, your GPS will tell you that you are are at 0.00147°W (or 0°0.09′W or 0°0′5.3″W, depending on how your system displays coordinates), the GPS zero meridian (properly called the International Terrestrial Reference Frame zero meridian) is 102m further east. A recent article on, Moving the Earth's Prime Meridian, says that this is due to "improving technology" and "increased accuracy" in the measurements. This seemed unlikely, as the error sounds well above the level of accuracy achievable with the Airy Transit Circle, so I clicked through to the scientific article by Malys et al. that they were reporting on, and found that had completely misunderstood it. The actual reason is completely different, and far more interesting.*
* Well, to me anyway

GPS on the Greenwich Prime Meridian, showing 0.00149W
This GPS unit reads 0.00149°W on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich (Source: J. Cohen/Wikimedia Commons)
Airy defined the Prime Meridian using astronomical measurements of the stars. His instrument was surveyed carefully into position. He measured the horizontal with a bowl of mercury (don't do this at home, kids!), which was used to define the vertical. There was nothing wrong with his astronomical measurements – it was his measurement of the vertical that caused the position of the Prime Meridian to be 'wrong'.

What could possibly be wrong with that though? When we think of vertical we think of 'straight down' – the direction in which things fall, which is what Airy measured. However, this is not what is used for vertical when defining the Earth's coordinate system nowadays. For the coordinate system, a vertical line is one joining where we are on the Earth's surface to the centre of mass of the Earth. Globally this works, but locally on the Earth's surface there are deflections caused by mountains, ocean trenches, and other lumps and bumps. The mass of a mountain pulls the local vertical towards it, while the missing mass of a trench means the local vertical is pulled away from it.

Here at Arecibo Observatory we are just south of the Puerto Rico Trench – the deepest spot in the Atlantic. This causes a significant 'deflection of the vertical', as it is termed. The astronomical latitude of the Observatory, based on the vertical defined by the local gravity, is 18°21′13.7″N, but the geodetic latitude, based on the vertical passing through the Earth's centre of mass, is 18°20′36.6″N. That's a shift of 37.1 arcseconds, corresponding to over a kilometre! This is caused by the 'missing mass' of the Puerto Rico Trench, meaning the local 'straight down' is pulled south by the mass of Puerto Rico, shifting 'straight up' northwards. The stars that pass directly overhead are 37.1 arcseconds further north than our geodetic coordinates would indicate – we have to use astronomical coordinates, based on our local vertical, in order to point our telescope correctly.

The 102m shift at Greenwich is due to the deflection of the vertical in exactly the same way as the shift at Arecibo. Malys et al. used a model for the Earth's gravitational field to estimate the deflection of the vertical at Greenwich, and found that it was 5.5 seconds of longitude (and about 2.2 arcseconds in latitude, which isn't important here). This makes the astronomical longitude of the Greenwich Prime Meridian 0°00′00.19″ ± 0.47″. In other words, completely consistent with it being at zero longitude, as originally defined. This means that a line passing through the centre of mass of the Earth and the GPS zero meridian 102m east of Greenwich is parallel with a locally vertical line passing through the Greenwich Prime Meridian: they point to the same place in the sky. However, a locally vertical line on the GPS zero meridian would point about 5 seconds of longitude (3.3 arcseconds at that latitude) east on the sky, meaning a transit there would take place about 0.35 seconds earlier than predicted.
A line joining zero longitude on the celestial sphere to the centre of mass of the Earth passes through the GPS zero meridian, but zero longitude on the celestial sphere appears 'straight up' on the Greenwich Prime Meridian (which is how zero longitude on the celestial sphere was originally defined). As the celestial sphere is effectively at an infinite distance, the line from the Earth's centre of mass to zero on the celestial sphere and the line from Greenwich to zero on the celestial sphere are essentially parallel in reality, but that would require an infinitely large figure to show!
So, where does the "improving technology" come in? Satellite measurements force the vertical to be towards the Earth's centre of mass – which is what the satellites are orbiting. Furthermore, we now want a single system that will cover the entire globe – it is much easier to get a match between astronomical and geodetic coordinates when trying to only map a single continent. In North America, the ellipsoid (approximation to the shape of the Earth) worked out by Alexander Clarke in 1866 is generally off from the true shape of the Earth (i.e. sea level) by less than 10m, while the ellipsoid used for the GPS coordinate system is always off by at least 15m and often more. But the North American ellipsoid, and the 1901/1927 North American Datum coordinate system based on it, would fail dismally if extended over the entire world, while the GPS system works approximately equally badly everywhere.[1] This is why GPS heights are often significantly off from heights measured from sea level – the difference is about 60m in Arecibo.

In summary: The Greenwich Prime Meridian is the line of zero longitude defined astronomically, with vertical defined by local gravity. The GPS zero meridian is the line of zero longitude defined geodetically, with vertical passing through the centre of mass of the Earth. If you calculate a point on the sky that will be overhead at zero longitude at a certain time, it will be overhead on the Greenwich Prime Meridian, not the GPS zero meridian. Airy wasn't wrong, he was simply using a different definition of 'vertical'.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rhodes Should Fall

Outside of Oriel College, Oxford, in a second floor niche above a doorway stands a statue of the British colonialist and architect of apartheid, Cecil Rhodes. On a nearby building, also part of the College, there is a plaque erected “in recognition of the great services rendered by Cecil Rhodes to his country”.
The autumn of 2015 saw protests by students at Oxford calling for removal of both of these. A petition was handed in to Oriel on 3 November, and they responded on 17 December. The College said they would be seeking consent to remove the plaque, adding: “This plaque was erected in 1906 by a private individual. Its wording is a political tribute, and the College believes its continuing display on Oriel property is inconsistent with our principles.”
The issue of the statue was deemed to be more complex, which Oriel said “cannot be resolved quickly”, although they recognised that “In the absence of any context or explanation, it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of a controversial figure, and the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents”. But a way ahead was proposed: “the College has decided to launch a structured six-month listening exercise on the statue, running from early February 2016, seeking the views and ideas of students and staff of the College and the wider University, alumni, heritage bodies, Oxford City Council, residents of Oxford, and other members of the public, as we seek a positive way forward. This is a commitment to seek views in as inclusive a way as possible on how controversial associations and bequests, including that of Rhodes to Oriel, and the record of them in the built environment, can be dealt with appropriately.”
Both of these commitments, on statue and plaque, would be broken.
In late January, 2016, before the consultation on the statue's future had even begun, the College announced that they were reneging on their promises. The plaque would stay and the consultation on the statue would not be happening. The decision that could not be made quickly could, as it turned out, be made in a matter of weeks without any of the promised inclusive listening.
The Daily Telegraph, a right wing British paper that favoured keeping the statue, revealed how such a difficult decision could suddenly become so easy: the College faced losing donations from alumni – presumably worried about what history would have to say about their legacies. Oriel’s principles, that six weeks earlier had said the plaque must go, were swiftly forgotten. They were, quite simply, bought.
Besides money, the intellectual arguments that have been made for keeping the statue are (i) that it is better to remember history than to forget it and (ii) that Rhodes was a man of his time.
To the first, I would simply say that a statue, in our society, will always appear as celebration of a person. There is no getting around this: we put up statues of the “great and good”, not of those we would rather forget given the opportunity. The context of the statue, above the doorway looking down on everyone entering and leaving the College, is completely out of keeping with any idea that the statue will remind people of Rhodes’ evil. While for historians it might be possible to view the statue as history, for black students in Oxford today it is the present.
The second is more complex. Historical figures are never perfect; William Wilberforce, the famous anti-slavery campaigner, opposed granting equal rights to Catholics, for example. But an important point here is that we don't commemorate Wilberforce for his anti-Catholic position, we commentate him for his part in the campaign to end slavery. With Rhodes, the statue commemorates the money he left Oriel, which he had accumulated as a direct result of “the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents”.
Furthermore, it is far from clear that Rhodes truly was a “man of his time”. In 1876, while Rhodes was an undergraduate at Oxford, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone became affiliated to Durham University in England. The Durham University Journal printed the following:
“In reflecting upon the origin and growth of the Fourah Bay College, it must be borne in mind that it was at the first purely experimental. There were many who considered that the children of Ham could not be taught, and that they were decidedly inferior to the average of Europeans. But the chill of heathendom and slavery had frozen them. In the genial warmth of Christianity their faculties expanded, and it was soon discovered, as the universal testimony of those who have taught them shows, that this low estimate of their capabilities was a delusion, and that the African under favourable circumstances can effectually receive the highest education.”
Durham, which only a decade earlier had become the last university in Britain to open its degrees to non-Anglicans, was hardly a hotbed of liberalism. It was still strongly tied to the Anglican church: the head of the University was the Dean of Durham Cathedral, and the canons of the Cathedral formed its governing body. The affiliation of Fourah Bay to Durham helped maintain the colonial structure, putting an end to the campaign for it to become a locally-run independent university.
However, it does demonstrate that in England, at the time Rhodes was himself being educated, people knew there was nothing inherently inferior about Africans. The first Durham BA at Fourah Bay was Nathaniel Davis in 1878, with an external examiner from Oxford ensuring the degree was equal to the one Rhodes himself took in 1881.
Davis was the first but by no means the last. By the time Rhodes returned to Africa, it was clear that African students could compete alongside English students for English university degrees. The idea of African inferiority was exploded: “this low estimate of their capabilities was a delusion”. Rhodes revived the concept in South Africa and Rhodesia in order to justify his exploitation of the native people. He was, by the standards of his own time, a vicious racist.
The Oxford Union (the posh debating society, not the Students’ Union, whose £248 membership fee ensures it’s anything but a bastion of radicalism) debated the issue and voted to take the statue down. Yet Oriel came to a different conclusion, choosing not only to keep the statue up without the promised consultation, but also to preserve the plaque, even after saying this went against their principles. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Oriel, and by extension Oxford University’s Committee to Review Donations, have allowed money to talk louder than addressing institutional racism. The statue of Rhodes, representing “colonialism and the oppression of black communities”, will continue to stand proud; Oriel and Oxford should hang their heads in shame.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Makes a Top University?

Defining a Top University
There are three major national rankings of universities in the UK – the Complete, Guardian and Times University Guides. These have slightly different takes on what makes a good university, and there are points of massive disagreement, but by looking at where they do agree it is possible to get an overall idea of which are Britain's best universities for undergraduate study and put together a combined ranking.
The first element of agreement is on the top spot. The unanimous vote for Britain's best university is Cambridge. Second place is also unanimous, with Oxford hot on the heels of its ancient rival. After that discrepancies start to arise, but surprisingly although there is no agreement on the top ten, there is on the top thirteen. The same eleven universities fill third to thirteenth place in all three guides, although only six of these are ever-present in the top ten. This can be seen in Figure 1 showing the Guardian and Complete University Guide scores – this group of eleven is clearly separated from the rest (only those in the top 50 of one of the guides are shown here).
Figure 1
So which institutions are these? In order of their average position, and in descending order:
St Andrew's: Scotland's oldest university is its only representative in the group. It takes third place in two thirds of the guides, and third place overall. Will and Kate's Alma Mater is also the top-ranked non-Russell Group institution.
Imperial: London's specialist science and engineering school is fourth in two of the tables, giving it fourth on average position.
Durham: England's third oldest university has the smallest scatter in position of any but the top two, placing fifth or sixth in all of the guides. This helps it to fifth place on average position.
LSE: A placing outside of the top ten from one guide drags it down to sixth on average position, although the LSE is above Durham in the other two.
Warwick: The Midlands p!ate-glass university places between sixth and eighth in the guides, unsurprisingly putting it in seventh on average position.
Surrey: The home counties' favourite, and another non-Russell Group university, makes the top ten in two guides,  taking eighth place on average.
Exeter: The south-west is represented by the home of the Met Office, at ninth the lowest-ranked institution to make all three top-tens.
Bath: Another south-western university, and the third non-Russell Group institution, fills tenth spot, with two of the guides putting it in the top ten.
Lancaster: The north-west's top university makes the top ten in two guides, but slips to eleventh on average position.
UCL: London's Global University does much better on international rankings, only making the top ten in one table and placing twelfth on average.
Loughborough: The famous sporting university isn't so bad academically either. It doesn't break the top ten in any guide, pushing it to thirteenth overall, but it does place above UCL in two of the guides.
What is most striking about this list is the absence of many of the traditional 'top' universities. In particular among the 11 British universities in the Times Higher Education's World Reputation Rankings top 100*, King's College London, Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol are missing from this top thirteen list, while UCL – fourth out of UK institutions by reputation – fails to make the top ten in two of the three league tables.
*The London Business School also makes the reputation top 100, but as a specialist postgraduate institution is omitted from the rankings.
It's also striking how many institutes from outside the Russell Group, often thought of as "Britain's Ivy League", feature in this top group. It's notable that Exeter is the only Russell Group university in the group not to make the top 100 worldwide by reputation, while none of the non-Russell Group institutions are included. All of those included in the top 100 reputation rankings from outside the top 13 are also members of the Russell Group.
Very few of Britain's major cities are represented on the list. According to the 2011 census, the ten largest conurbations outside of London are Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Bristol. All of these have Russell Group institutions, but none make the top group here. (Southampton comes closest, ranking 14th in two of the three guides.)
The Influence of Research
It would not be surprising if research had some influence on league table position. The universities with more research will, at least in general, have more income, and thus better facilities. Both the Times and Complete university guides explicitly include research as a measure in their league table, although the Guardian does not.
In order to measure research meaningfully, it is necessary to account for the size of the university. For research power, I use the Research Fortnight analysis of the REF results (as given in the Guardian), normalising this by the size of the undergraduate population to get a measure of research intensiveness, i.e. the balance between undergraduate teaching and research at the institute*. The correlations between research power and university size can be seen in Figure 2. From this and Figure 3, three groupings can be seen in the data: the "golden triangle" universities of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Imperial and the LSE (KCL, although often listed as part of this group, is not included by this analysis) with a research intensiveness score of 0.8 - 0.9, the "research intensive" universities representing the bulk of the pre-1992 institutions with a score of -0.1 - 0.6, and the "teaching focused" universities made up primarily of post-1992 institutions below -0.1. (The lone data point near the top with 8.7% of all undergraduates is the Open University.) The 24 Russell Group universities are the 24 with the highest research power, all having 1.4% or more of the national share (log research power share > 0.14), but not the 24 with the highest research intensiveness.
* Research Intensiveness score = log (research power share/undergraduate share); undergraduate share calculated from HESA figures for 2012-13.
Figure 2
Figure 3
The orange points in Figure 2 (and subsequent figures) indicate the top two, Oxford and Cambridge, the red dots indicate the next eleven,  while the blue dots indicate other universities. Figure 3 shows that there is a link between research intensiveness and high positions in the league tables: all of the 'golden triangle' institutions make the top group, and there are no representatives with a 'research intensiveness score' below 0.16 – they are all in the top 75% of the research intensive universities.
The three universities in the 0.5 - 0.6 bin are particularly notable for their absence from the top of the league tables: these are Edinburgh, KCL and Bristol. As noted before, these three universities (along with Manchester, which has a high volume of research diluted in this analysis by a large student population) have a high international reputation; it is likely this is linked to their research rather than their league table position.
As Figure 4 shows, research intensiveness is clearly linked to league table position. But it is not the whole of the picture. What other factors go into making a top university?
Figure 4
City Size
In the early nineteenth century, arguments raged about whether universities should be in small town like Oxford or Cambridge, where students could study with little distraction - or in the large cities, where students were plentiful. Despite Durham being founded according to the first of these ideas, it was the later that drove the founding of the civic 'redbrick' institutions. But now Durham is in the top group and all of the redbricks are missing. Could there be something in this idea after all?
Figure 5 certainly seems to show that smaller towns are more likely to host to universities. Looking at universities that make the top 50 in any of the league tables, of the 11 that are in towns or conurbations smaller than 120,000 at the 2011 census, only four are not in the top group. These are Bangor, Falmouth, Stirling and Kent. None of these rank in the top 40 by research intensiveness, with Stirling (1.12) coming closest to the levels of research seen in the to institutions.
Figure 5
Of the six top institutions found in towns larger than 120,000, five are the 'golden triangle'. Only Warwick, which is actually in the middle of nowhere despite technically being on the outskirts of Coventry, breaks this pattern.
Figure 6 shows that this relationship between high league position is not that tight, and only persists down to about 30th in the combined league table, below this come a lot of universities in smaller towns that don't do well enough in research intensiveness to aim for high league table positions. It also doesn’t cover London institutions (at the top of the plot), which are either ‘golden triangle’ or lower down the league tables. It is only in combination with research intensiveness that we really see an effect.
Figure 6
Using the correlation seen in Figure 4 between research intensiveness and league table position, I worked out the expected research intensiveness from the rank in the table and calculated the residuals. This is shown in Figure 7, plotted against the population of the host town. This shows that there is indeed a relationship between the residuals and the host town population for the top 30 institutions, albeit one with a large scatter. Below the top 30 it is hard to see any correlation.
Figure 7
Using this correlation, I corrected the research intensiveness for the effect of population and used this new score to re-rank the 55 universities that feature in the top 50 of any of the three tables. The results for the top 30 are shown in Figure 8, along with the performance of the other ranking methods (all re-ranked to 1 - 55).
Figure 8
It is clear from Figure 8 that research intensiveness + population size (blue) is not as good a predictor of average league table rank as any of the individual university guides. However, it is a better predictor than research intensiveness (cyan), which is, in turn, a better predictor than research power (purple) alone (which is almost uncorrelated with league position). The median absolute deviations (half of the institutions will be closer than this) for the top 30 and all 55 institutions considered are given in Table 1
Table 1
Median Absolute Deviation Research Power Research Intensiveness Predicted Rank Guardian Complete Times
Top 30 12 8 4.5 2 1 1
All 55 9 7 5 4 1 1.5
Outliers from the predicted rank using research intensiveness + population includes Surrey and UEA, where the relatively small populations of the host towns only partly compensates for their low rank in research intensiveness; Birmingham and Leeds, where the relatively large populations of the host cities over-compensate for their research intensiveness; and Bristol, Reading and Edinburgh where the population makes virtually no difference to their outlier status based on research intensiveness. The use of population does, however, remove the discrepancy between research intensiveness and rank seen in KCL, Kent and Loughborough, and halves the discrepancy for UCL.
It is possible to use the league tables to compile a list of thirteen universities that all of the university guides agree on. These consist of two groups: the 'golden triangle' universities, defined as having a very high research power for their size, and universities that have a relatively high research power for their size and are located in towns of less than 120,000 people (ignoring Warwick).
Overall research power bears little relationship to league table position. This is the determinant for Russell Group membership - with the 24 universities in the group being the 24 universities with the highest research power. It therefore appears that, for an undergraduate, choosing a Russell Group institution purely on the basis of its membership of the group is not a wise decision – some Russell Group institutes fare quote poorly on the league tables.
Controlling research power for undergraduate size to find which institutions are more research intensive gives a better estimate of league table position. This is fairly easy to understand (at least at a simplistic level) – the extra income from research means more income per student and helps to attract top staff. A university with high research power but a large student population spreads that more thinly than one with a smaller student population. This analysis also shows quantitatively the division of universities into golden triangle, research intensive, and teaching focussed.
The last element identified here is a bit surprising, however: it appears that smaller host town populations correlate with league table position, at least for the top 30 institutions. Taking this into account does a better job that research intensiveness alone in predicting position on the league table. The reasons for this are not obvious, but it could be that (as put forwards in the 19th century) students in small towns have fewer distractions and so are better able to concentrate on their university work. It could also be that the university is more important to the local economy, and thus more valued locally, or possibly that housing prices are lower giving students a better chance at getting decent housing and increasing their satisfaction. Possibly it’s something else entirely, or a combination of all of the above.
Vice-chancellors wishing to propel their institution up the league tables thus have among their possible options:
1) Growing the research power of the university – everyone's trying to do this, and it's hard.
2) Reducing the student population to increase research intensiveness – this can have unfortunate consequences on tuition income.
3) Reducing the population of your town – this can get you in trouble with the police!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Universities under Elizabeth and Victoria

When Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, there were only 12 universities in England, and 18 in the whole of the UK. The dramatic changes in higher education of the last few decades have seen this increase to well over a hundred. By contrast, Victoria's reign saw a much more modest increase from four universities to six in England and from ten to thirteen across the UK. From this, it would possible to think that the changes in Elizabeth's time - the Robbins Report, the creation of the post-1992 universities, and the marketisation of higher education - far outweighed those in the Victorian era. But the numbers hide a number of revolutions in English university education in the 19th century that were every bit as dramatic as the more recent changes.

Structural Change
Three of England’s universities - Oxford, Cambridge and Durham - were residential, collegiate universities. But the fourth, yet to award any degrees when Victoria came to the throne, was different. The University of London had been established less than a year earlier, and was designed as a government-controlled, degree-awarding examining board. This enabled it to award degrees to many different colleges, not just in London but across the whole country. Initially, this was restricted to colleges on a list of government-approved institutions. But from just University College London and King’s College London at first, the list grew to include many colleges until it was abandoned completely in 1858.
London University examinations allowed colleges to be established all over the country. Following the model of the colleges in London, university colleges were established in most major towns and cities, later going on to be the ‘red brick’ universities. Other colleges established in the Victorian era evolved to become polytechnics and, from 1992, universities in their own right. The seeds of the explosion in the number of universities under Queen Elizabeth were sown in the reign of Queen Victoria.
The rise of the civic university colleges posed another challenge - how to fund them. It was recognised that, particularly in technical subjects, these institutions were doing essential work. But without the endowments of the three collegiate universities, they had to survive on the fees from their students alone - and these had to be kept low enough to be affordable. In the 1870s, the government started giving grants to some of the university colleges, and by the end of Victoria’s reign there were 13 participating institutions: UCL, KCL and Bedford College in London; Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and Reading also preparing students for London University exams; Liverpool, Leeds and Owen’s College, Manchester as part of the Victoria University, the Durham College of Science in Newcastle as part of Durham University, University College Dundee as part of St Andrews University, and Birmingham University. There were also three colleges of the University of Wales (at Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor) funded by the government under a separate scheme.
By the end of Victoria’s reign, government funding of university education was well established, and with the creation of the University Grants Committee in 1919 it extended to cover all British universities. Elizabeth’s reign first saw the complete abolition of tuition fees in 1962 and then their reintroduction in 1998, with predictions that the fraction of universities’ income from the government will fall back to levels last seen in Queen Victoria’s time.
A third major change, also linked to the rise of the university colleges, was in the idea of what a university should look like. UCL’s attempt to become a university had resulted, in 1836, in the foundation of the University of London. Owen’s College’s attempt had resulted (due to objections from regional rivals) in the formation of the federal Victoria University in 1880. These were joined in 1893 by a third federal institute, the University of Wales, taking in the three Welsh colleges. For most of Victoria’s reign, it appeared that the future was destined to be university colleges associated with regional federal universities. The University of London was reconstituted as a federal institute between 1898 and 1900, while Newcastle’s colleges were linked with Durham, Dundee with St Andrews, and Reading with Oxford.
But in 1900, the last year of Victoria’s reign, Mason University College in Birmingham became England’s first unitary university. This started a landslide: within ten years, the Victoria University had broken up and its colleges, and most of the independent institutions, had become universities in their own right. Unitary universities, inspired by UCL and realised first with Birmingham, became the pattern for future British universities - before 1900, there were no unitary universities in England; since then only a few collegiate universities (York, Lancaster and Kent in the 1960s, and the University of the Arts London and Roehampton in 2004) have been established. Elizabeth’s reign has also seen the breakup of the University of Wales, and Newcastle and Dundee become independent. London is the only federal university to have survived, although it now has a more confederal structure with most of its larger colleges awarding their own degrees and being de facto independent universities.
The last structural revolution was in university accommodation. Durham had been founded in 1832 partly on the basis of providing university education on a cheaper basis than Oxford or Cambridge. When Durham opened, however, it followed the practice of the older universities’ colleges in letting rooms unfurnished, with students buying in their own food and paying their own servants. But when the second college, Hatfield, opened in 1846 it was decided to try something new. In order to reduce costs, all meals were provided, rooms were furnished, and servants were shared. After the near collapse of the university in the 1860s, this was adopted by the rest of the university. Keble College, Oxford also took on the idea when it was established in 1870 and it eventually became the norm for residential universities.
However, most of the Victorian civic universities were non-residential, drawing their students from their local populations. It was only with the establishment of new residential universities and the addition of residential blocks to the older universities in Queen Elizabeth’s time that halls of residence following the Hatfield scheme became common. This is now standard in university residences around the world, although many opt for self-catering accommodation.
Revolution in Access
In June 1837, just twelve days before Victoria came to the throne, the first students graduated from Durham. Although these were the first university degrees from a new institution in England for over 600 years, the graduates were - like those at Oxford and Cambridge - all Anglicans, and all men. (And, again like Oxford and Cambridge, mostly bound for the priesthood.) But this revolution - the tearing down of religious barriers to university education - was already happening: the new University of London would allow men of all religions and none to take its degrees,
But Victoria’s ascension brought a crisis to the London University. It had barely started operating, and was yet to buy a single book let alone graduate any students, when it was discovered that the royal charter had been accidentally written to expire on the death of William IV. A new charter was hastily issued by the new queen in late 1837. The first London degrees - the first degrees in England open to non-Anglicans - were then awarded, to students from UCL and KCL in 1839.
This was not universally popular - one of the major arguments against giving UCL a charter as a university had been that it wanted to remove religion from higher education, earning it the moniker “the Godless Institution of Gower Street”. John Henry Newman spent the entire second discourse in his Idea of University arguing that an institution had to include theology (although not necessarily the doctrines of a particular church) in its teaching to be regarded as a university.
The idea of getting rid of religious tests (the requirement for students to assent to the doctrines of the Church of England) spread rapidly during Victoria’s reign. Most of the regional colleges followed UCL’s lead in being secular while one of the major exceptions, the Anglican Queen’s College, Birmingham, collapsed and saw many of its departments shift to Mason College (although the theology department still survives, ironically as an ecumencial institute serving three Protestant denominations with its degrees validated by the Catholic Newman University). Durham, too, came close to collapse in the 1860s, after which many of its religious restrictions were lifted. The religious tests were definitively abolished at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham by the University Tests Act in 1871, and were absent from the start at the Victoria University and the University of Wales.
The last revolution that took hold in Victorian times was that of higher education for women. This started with Church of England teacher training colleges for women - the first, Whitelands College in Chelsea, was founded in 1841 and is now part of the University of Roehampton. Bedford College, also in London, was founded as a women’s college in 1849 and was the first university college to teach women. It was soon followed by Girton (1869) and Newnham (1871) at Cambridge and the London School of Medicine for Women (1874) in London. UCL also started classes for women in the 1860s and, in 1871, the first mixed classes offered at any university institute in Britain.
When Frances Power Cobbe presented a paper in 1862 on “university degrees for women”, she became (in her own words) “the butt of universal ridicule”. Yet it was only 16 years later, in 1878, that the University of London received a supplemental charter allowing women to degrees; the first four graduates had mainly studied privately but one had taken classes at UCL and another was a graduate of Newnham. Following this, UCL opened many of its classes (although not engineering or medicine) to women in 1878, and KCL established the “King's College, London Ladies' Department” in 1885 (later Queen Elizabeth College). Other women’s colleges also opened with Royal Holloway (1879) and Westfield (1882) in London, and  Somerville (1879), Lady Margaret Hall (1879), St Hugh’s (1886) and St Hilda’s (1893) in Cambridge.
Outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge opened their examinations (although not their degrees) to women in the 1880s, while the Victoria University (1880) and the University of Wales (1893) were open to women from the start (although medical courses in the Victoria University colleges, as in London, were still restricted). Durham voted to open its degrees to women in the 1880s, but this stalled amid arguments over who would pay for a women’s college and the realisation that a supplemental charter would be needed. The supplemental charter was finally obtained in 1895 after Ella Bryant, a woman student in at the Durham College of  Science in Newcastle, forced the issue by qualifying for her BSc in Physics in 1892.
From 1895, Durham became the first university in England to open its medical courses (in Newcastle) to both men and women, and entered an agreement with the London School of Medicine for Women to allow their students to take Durham degrees. In Durham itself, St Hild’s women’s teacher training college became associated with the university from 1896, with the first students taking degrees in 1898, and the Women’s Hostel (later St Mary’s College) finally opened in 1899.
While the Victorian era saw the rise of women’s education, it took the First World War to open up the London medical schools and Oxford and Cambridge did not admit women to degrees until 1920 and 1948 respectively. Queen Elizabeth’s time has seen the effective ending of single-sex education at the university level. Bedford, Royal Holloway and Westfield colleges in London went mixed in the 1960s, while at the collegiate universities there is only one men-only college (St Benet’s, Oxford, which will admit women from 2016) and only only three women-only colleges (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish, all in Cambridge) remaining.
There were great changes in higher education under Victoria, but where we now value university status, it was access to degrees that was important then - whether for colleges training their students for London examinations, or for the marginalised groups fighting to be allowed in. Yet just before the Victorian era and again towards its end, institutional status battles drove change.
Many of the battles on access that the Victorians fought are still being fought today. Women now make up the majority of the UK student population, but are underrepresented in many STEM fields. The recent Colonial Comeback cocktail scandal at Oxford has shown how far there is to go on racism. People from state schools are still grossly underrepresented in the top universities.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The real #TimHunt witch hunt

'Unbelievably stupid', 'unacceptable, indefensible', 'inappropriate and stupid'. Just some of the criticism levelled at Tim Hunt after his "problem with girls" remarks earlier this month. Yet these remarks were all from those claiming the world – and social media in particular – had overreacted: Athene Donald, various Nobel laureates contacted by The Times, and Hunt's wife.

How much worse then must the social media reaction have been to bring forth comparisons to a 'witch hunt', a 'lynch mob' and 'ISIS in another guise'? Athene Donald, in her blog on the subject, tells us repeatedly to 'look at the evidence', so what does the evidence show?

The Daily Telegraph gives examples such as 'Maybe if less male scientists were such chauvanist [sic] pigs there would be more women in science and technology Tim Hunt?', 'Tim Hunt's comments are so ridiculously horrid they almost qualify as satire. Sadly they are only reflection of sexist reality in #science', 'Well done sexist Tim Hunt for overcoming crying, lovestruck women to win a Nobel. Sadly my career was blighted at an earlier stage.', 'Tim Hunt antiquated comments regarding women. People like him who hold back the process of making workplaces more equal', and 'What an idiot and how damaging for women in science. Glad he had the sense to issue an apology at least.'. The Telegraph also noted that 'Nobel prize winning scientist has resigned after saying women scientists 'cry' and 'fall in love' in laboratories. Now, they're sharing photos on social media, mocking his comments', in the article #DistractinglySexy: Female scientists mock Sir Tim Hunt on Twitter.

So the evidence from the Telegraph for what they term an 'online backlash' is comments that are certainly not significantly worse than those from his supporters, along with women having the temerity to mock the words of a knight of the realm.

It's worth looking at the first responses to these tweets to see how people who spoke out were received: 'Whiner. You're a perfect example as to why women shouldn't be doing anything important.', 'Well, women are the smarter sex so they should have their own working spaces. You go girls!', 'just another man whose professional achievements do not match his humanity', 'I say let the women have their own working spaces so they can show the world they are smarter!'. The last tweet quoted can no longer be found on Twitter, but three of the other four were met with an immediate sexist response. Glancing down the threads it is also clear that more sexist replies came in later, and by searching it is easy to find that the deleted tweet also garnered numerous sexist responses.

What about the Guardian? It says 'He was described on Twitter as “a clueless, sexist jerk”; “a misogynist dude scientist”; while one tweet demanded that the Royal Society “kick him out”.' Again, the responses are instructive: only one had an immediate sexist response, but it was the only one from a woman: 'just keep your head up your ass and exit the building. Thanks.'

There has been plenty of abuse online around #TimHunt – aimed at women who spoke out. But nowhere in the press coverage do we see this reflected. The stories are about how Tim Hunt was hounded out of office by 'Feminist Bullies' (Daily Mail, who I refuse to link to), and how hard done by he is. Despite UCL's clear statement that 'Media and online commentary played no part in UCL's decision to accept his resignation.', we still have the Times claiming his fall was caused by a Twitter 'lynch mob' and Richard Dawkins blaming a 'witch hunt' by 'academic thought police'.

There is a witch hunt out there, but it's not against Tim Hunt. It's against those women brave enough to speak out publicly against sexism.

Friday, June 12, 2015

UCL's problematic #TimHunt press release

Following the sexist comments made by Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt, UCL sent out a press release stating that he had resigned from his position as an Honorary Professor. If they had left it there it would have been great, but they didn’t.
A second paragraph* went on to say “UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men”. This was, of course, picked up by many media sites, including the BBC and the Guardian, and was included in their stories. A nice bit of free advertising for the university there, on the back of a scandal caused by someone they’d previously been keen to count among their Nobel Laureates! Maybe not the best time to be boasting about their history. But the problems don’t stop there.
UCL’s statement references its admission of women in 1878. There is a strong implication that it was the first institution in England to do so, but this ignores the contribution of the earlier women’s colleges: Bedford (1849) in London, Girton (1869) and Newnham (1871) in Cambridge, and the London School of Medicine for Women (1874) all pre-date UCL’s admission of women. UCL would, it appears, like to airbrush out Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Fawcett, Emily Davies, and Elizabeth Jesser Reid.
It could be argued that UCL’s statement is technically correct in that the other colleges were women-only, making it the first to admit women on equal terms to men. But did UCL truly admit women on equal terms to men in 1878? According to Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick’s 1897 essay The Place of University Education in the Life of Women “Women [at University College] are admitted to the faculties of Arts, Science and Laws, but excluded from engineering and medicine with the exception of hygiene and public health.” Medicine, let it not be forgotten, was the discipline in which Hunt won his Nobel prize. It wasn’t until 1917, under the pressure of World War I, that UCL allowed women into medicine, later than many provincial English universities and other London colleges.
A final problem is the way that this has been inserted into the Hunt story. It’s not just the free advertising, it’s not just the historically dubious claims, it’s the echoes of #NotAllMen, the implication that UCL has a spotless history of trailblazing women’s rights on which Hunt is the only blemish. By perpetuating the idea that Hunt was a bad apple rather than part of a systemic problem, UCL do a disservice to the gender equality they claim to champion.

*Note: this second paragraph was the final paragraph of the press release when I wrote this blog. Others have since been added.