Perform or Perish: Guilty Confessions of a YouTube Physicist

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics and an Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Fellow in the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham.

This week is YouTube’s Geek Week so it seems a particularly (in)opportune moment to come clean about some niggling doubts I’ve been having of late about physics education/edutainment on the web. Before I get started – and just to reassure you that these are not the bitter ramblings of a dusty old academic who, like our current education secretary, is keen to hasten the return of Victorian education values – let me stress that I am extremely enthusiastic about many aspects of online science communication. Indeed, not only have I been almost evangelical at times about the value of web-based learning, I’ve invested quite a bit of effort in helping to make YouTube videos of the type I’m about to criticise (just a little).

Along with a number of my colleagues at the University of Nottingham, since early 2009 I’ve been contributing to videos for Brady Haran’s popular Sixty Symbols andNumberphile channels. I’ve even crossed over to the dark (and smelly) side and made a couple of videos with Brady for Periodic Videos, the chemistry-focussed forerunner of Sixty Symbols. These channels, along with Brady’s many other YouTube projects — Haran has the work ethic of an intensely driven academic — have been extremely successful and have garnered many accolades and awards.

Brady is of course not alone in his efforts to communicate science and maths via YouTube. There is now a small, but intensely dedicated, clique of talented YouTubers, as described in this article in The Independent, whose videos regularly top one million views. (Conspicuous by its absence from that list in The Independent, however, is minutephysics, a staggeringly popular channel with, at the time of writing, 1.6 million subscribers.)

Working with Brady is a fascinating – and frankly quite exhausting – experience: challenging (because there’s no script – and even if there were, Brady would rip it up); unnerving (because the first time we academics see the video is when it’s uploaded to YouTube and it may well have picked up 10,000 views or more before we get round to watching it); and always intensely collaborative (because Brady not only films and edits – his ideas and questions are absolutely central to the direction of each video). Most of all, it’s fun. It is also immensely gratifying for all of us involved with Sixty Symbols to receive e-mails from YouTube viewers across the world who say that Sixty Symbols has (re)ignited their love of physics, and, for example, inspired them to pursue a degree in the subject.

You might quite reasonably say at this point that it sounds like ‘all win’ for everyone involved. What the heck is my problem? What’s the downside? (…and where are those guilty confessions I promised?)

Read the rest of this post on Philip’s blog by following the link below: Perform or Perish: Guilty Confessions of a YouTube Physicist

University Status, Fees, and Funding

By Andrew McGettigan

Last week, it was announced that the government had conferred the university title on BPP, formerly a ‘university college’ specialising in professional courses in law, accountancy and business. Although presented in the mainstream press as the second UK ‘for-profit’ university, BPP University is a not-for-profit subsidiary of BPP Holdings, which in turn is owned by Apollo Global. It is not a charity, but it is barred from distributing profits to its parent company, and as such benefits from a VAT exemption on tuition fees for degree level courses.

BPP becomes the second dependent entity to receive permission to use the ‘university’ title following the upgrade of College of Law Limited last November prior to its sale to Montagu Private Equity. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills [BIS] has also confirmed that it is satisfied that what is now the University of Law still meets the governance criteria for universities under its new ownership.

Such developments have become possible because the government has lowered the bar to the full ‘university’ title and created a new route to the title for companies and their subsidiaries.

Applicant institutions must already have been granted the power to award degrees by the Privy Council, but since July last year the minimum size requirement, set in 2004, has been dramatically reduced in England and Wales. Previously, institutions needed 4 000 full-time equivalent HE students to qualify. Now, only 1 000 are needed ‘of whom at least 750 are registered on degree courses (including foundation degree programmes), and the number of full-time equivalent higher education students must exceed 55 percent of the total number of full- time equivalent students.’

This is smaller than some secondary schools (the count includes overseas students). The final condition is that a prospective university needs to demonstrate good financial, corporate and academic governance. Carl Lygo the head of BPP University and BPP Holdings, states: “BPP University has independent governance, is financially self-sufficient with no debts and fully satisfies the principles of good corporate governance.”

Significantly, BPP and University of Law used a newly formalised procedure separate to that by which the Privy Council has the power to create universities. It has been termed the ‘Companies House’ route’.

Both ‘degree’ and ‘university’ are protected terms in the UK. This means that companies wishing to use ‘university’ in their name must apply to Companies House for permission. The Registrar then checks with BIS to see if it has any objections. This process, which also covers the use of ‘university college’ is used for pubs seeking to be called ‘The University Arms’, for universities from abroad seeking to operate under their title in the UK and for the names of subsidiary companies operated by UK universities (one recent example being Coventry University College). This process was designed to prevent crammers and training providers passing themselves off as universities, but the government is now using it in a more positive fashion[M1] : not merely to police its proper use, but, in effect, to elevate colleges with degree awarding powers to ‘universities’.

The July 2012 policy announcement noted:

“The award of the title ‘university’ is granted by the Privy Council for publicly-funded providers. Other organisations must apply to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ in their name.”

The new specifics covering this second route, explicitly for ‘non-Hefce’ funded institutions (more on this below), were sent to Hefce last September and published in December. In this ‘self-certification process’, the applicant commissions a report explaining how it meets the prerequisites. BIS then seeks advice from the QAA and Hefce before taking the final decision. In this way, it claims to replicate the steps taken by the Privy Council when it is deliberating the same matter.

So are the two routes the same? Clause 4 of Section 77 of the 1992 Act outlines that as a result of the Privy Council route: “Any educational institution whose name includes the word “university” by virtue of the exercise [set out] above is to be treated as a university for all purposes.”

Is there a difference between being allowed to use the word ‘university’ in a company title and being ‘treated as a university for all purposes’?

The main difference is access to public funding – as opposed to student loan funding. Those undertaking the Privy Council route have access to public funding by right, those using the alternative route do not. Since the two institutions under discussion here only offer courses that no longer attract block grant and are research-inactive, does this leave the matter as an abstract distinction that has no importance in real terms?

David Willetts greeted the announcement with the comment that it represented an “an important step towards increasing the diversity of the higher education sector”. Given that this diversity is now a BIS objective and lowering the ‘barriers to market entry’ a key HE reform, you might wonder about the conflicts of interest that arise with BIS itself overseeing this process.

Such concerns pale beside further evidence of current government aims. Last month, a new strategy for boosting the export revenues of English Higher Education was published. There the contentious sale of College of Law to private equity was held up as a key model for established universities seeking to capitalise on new opportunities in ‘transnational’ education. The government believes the current status of most universities is an impediment to growth.

“UK education institutions have a noble history, rooted in the charitable impulses of past generations. To this day, many schools, universities and colleges have charitable status. They consider that this is an important part of their identity, and they discharge their obligations willingly and diligently. Although this model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world. …

“The challenge will be to ensure that decisions are not taken by default. A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.” (Paragraphs 2.12-2.14)

The split in the old binary system was formalised in the titular distinction between polytechnics and universities. The new multivalent system will be determined by market positioning, corporate form, ownership and relation to private finance[M2] .

In Northern Ireland and Scotland, universities need to have received the power to award research degrees. This is no longer the case in England and Wales, where the meaning of ‘university’ has been so diluted that the significant issue is now clearly the granting of degree awarding powers. The bestowal of the title is more to be understood as branding, a kitemark or simply recognition that the current government approves of this form of provision. Little concrete change to the institution itself will follow, beyond boosts to marketing, recruitment and the ability to strike international deals.


NHS SOS: What Higher Education has to learn

Guest post by Prof Roger Brown (Liverpool Hope University)

CDBU welcomes a diversity of views. Please contact us if you would like to be part of the conversation 

It appears from a recent series of essays on the Coalition Government’s NHS reforms (Davis and Tallis, 2013) that there are many parallels with the higher education reforms.

In both cases the reforms were driven by ideology, by a belief in increasing competition between providers, where the service could not be wholly privatised.

There are close parallels in the means of giving effect to this.  The NHS is being reduced to little more than a fund of taxpayers’ money through which services are purchased from a variety of providers.  In higher education, the state’s role in funding teaching is almost entirely limited to lending money to would-be graduates to support their tuition and living costs.

In both cases, the barriers to entry to new private providers have been significantly reduced, even though such providers are bound to ‘cherry pick’ the services/areas of provision, and to limit professional autonomy in doing so.

This is in effect the intended privatisation of a public service at the hands of private interests: various companies, many US-based in the case of the NHS, Pearsons and various shadowy finance groups in the case of HE.  This has been skilfully and successfully disguised by rhetoric about ‘putting the patient at the heart of the NHS’ and ‘students at the heart of the system’ as well as by consistent denials (in the NHS case) that the aim is privatisation.

There is no manifesto commitment, indeed such statements as there were by both Coalition parties ruled out significant reforms. After the election, the Lib Dems made noises but went along with the Conservatives after obtaining largely symbolic concessions: the National Scholarship Programme in the case of HE, now effectively jacked, various amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill.

To justify the changes, efforts were made to manufacture a crisis by portraying a service/sector that needed fundamental reform.  Yet in both cases the service/sector was an outstanding performer in international terms, especially in terms of value for money, and the main need was not for more competition but for a higher level of investment and state support.  Neither the NHS nor the English university system was ‘broke’ or needed fixing.

The reformers’ case was made easier by the fact that the prestigious public bodies concerned either did not oppose the reforms (the Vice-Chancellors) or did so too late to make a difference (the BMA, the great majority of the medical royal colleges).  Moreover, in both cases, the Government made a successful appeal to professional self-interest (many doctors, the Vice-Chancellors, especially of the more prestigious universities).  At the same time there were rewards for those who supported or went along with the reforms.

With a few honourable exceptions (The Guardian, Channel 4, in the case of the NHS) the mass media, and especially the BBC, failed to report and analyse the reform proposals in a timely fashion and with any degree of rigour.

The Government made much of the fact that key paving decisions had already been made by the Labour Government (Foundation Trusts, variable fees).  Labour opposition to the reforms was therefore to a large extent contaminated, and remains so.

There are also close parallels in the overhang of long term costs for PFI-funded projects and the cost to the taxpayer of the recent HE reforms.  Both have significant indications for the level and the quality of services that can be provided in the future: revenue for NHS services and non-PFI hospitals, funded student places and access.

There is one outstanding issue: who will speak for the service/sector as a whole?  In both cases, the (intended) effect of the reforms is to fragment the pattern of provision.  The Government’s responsibility for the NHS has been deliberately diluted.  Higher education is not in quite the same position but there is no one body that can now speak credibly for the sector.  There is a related issue, regulation.  It is generally accepted that the existing regulatory apparatus for the NHS is too weak to prevent for example another Mid-Staffs.  Higher education has not so far had any comparable difficulties, London Met being perhaps the closest.  But with increased competition and more variable institutional funding, similar problems can be expected before too long (McClaran and Brown, 2013).


Davis, J and Tallis, R. (Eds.) (2013) NHS SOS How the NHS was Betrayed – and How We Can Save it.  London: Oneworld Publications

McClaran, A. and Brown, R. (2013) The New Quality Assurance Arrangements.  Oxford Higher Education Policy Institute