New courses and an improved economy
The autumn semester is in full swing and things are moving at rapid speed! The other day I met our new students at a seminar about processes on the Earth’s surface, and their energy, curiosity and many interesting questions about the subject made me happy – they have come to the right department! Now we must make the most of their trust and train the young generation to become the geoscience experts that we expect. This places great demands on our teaching staff who need to continue to develop their teaching skills and who must be given the space they need to prepare, specialise and keep themselves updated in their subject areas. I myself feel that there is not enough time and therefore advocate that those who teach factor in time for reflection and review of their teaching. This is especially important during the coming year, given the planned restructuring of the so-called basic block of courses in our undergraduate programme. Towards mid-November, we must have the foundation in place to launch our new basic block as early as the autumn semester of 2016. I feel that the discussions we have had within our teaching staff committee have been open, and that any frustrations are due to all having high ambitions in their teaching. That makes me happy!
With regard to research, we are conducting a review of the equipment in some of our laboratories. This year we made some investments in renovations and purchases of standard equipment, which we will continue doing during the autumn in some labs. The reasons are that several research groups are growing and we need to optimise space and get the right equipment in the right labs. The premise in this case is that the department will generally pay for and provide the things that can be considered standard or basic lab equipment; the rest are to be provided by the respective lab group themselves. But the distinction is sometimes hard to make, in which case the issue will be raised within our management team for further discussion. The ambition is that this process will be quick, and that research is not unnecessarily held back, but I hope that there is an understanding that external factors can sometimes cause delays.
Throughout the year I have closely monitored the development of the department’s financial situation, and just a week ago we submitted a status report to the board of the faculty in view of the upcoming work on the budget. According to the forecast, the department’s performance at the end of the year will be clearly better than we budgeted for. This applies to the department as a whole, that is both research and first and second cycle education, and within both of our divisions. It is a direct result of the cutbacks we made which have affected both our staff and our educational remit. The efforts of trying to adapt ourselves to the available funds will continue and I will submit a proposal to the board meeting on 8 October to stop the department’s co-financing of grants we receive via the faculty. These grants are intended for various investments in new research, such as within synchrotron radiation, but also for support for administrative functions, such as Prefect money. Given the state of things, these funds should also have to include overheads. The proposal is that the change will apply from 1 January 2016 and only to agreements entered into after that date. In addition to this, the board will also discuss the two-year moratorium on faculty-funded doctoral studentships which was introduced for the period 2014–2015. We are approaching the end of the period and need to analyse whether it should be extended or not, and generally to assess how we are to deal with doctoral studentships in the future.
Education and students
A new semester and there are several items of news from education. We have a new director of studies, Dan Hammarlund, and he is currently busy familiarising himself with the many issues surrounding one of our two main tasks – providing world-class teaching. I also want to remind you that we have new grade boundaries from this year. Students now need 60% to pass and 80% for a pass with distinction. This change is first and foremost in response to higher demands from the department regarding student performance, but also a move to a consistent grading scale across the field of biogeosciences. The student representatives on the board supported the change but were clear that they also want to see monitoring of the quality of education provision as a whole. As teaching staff, we also have to perform to a high standard!
From this year, we have a significantly smaller range of courses at the department. The highly popular online courses that have been an important part of our range for many years have been wound up. We are also reducing the frequency of several popular science evening courses and now only offer one course per semester. These decisions are a consequence of constrained finances and changes brought about by the faculty’s new allocation model for direct government funding for education. When the funding isn’t there anymore, we simply have to adapt to the new situation. Online courses and evening courses have been of particular importance to pass on knowledge of geology to the public and to entirely new target audiences. One important group has been upper secondary school teachers, who in turn pass on their interest to their classes. In this way, the courses have not only formed an important component of our third-stream activities, but also a small yet not insignificant part of our student recruitment activities. We have now lost this and have to make an extra effort to share our knowledge of our subject with the public in the region. New investments in a geological resource centre and involvement in the planetarium at Vattenhallen are an important part of this. It’s great that a number of people have registered their interest in working on these initiatives. We have also stopped offering an introductory course and a second-cycle programme course in applied geology (Georesurser, GEOP03). We have reduced the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students from around 220 to just over 200, and will come close to our mandated number of 169 FTE in 2015. We have thus done our bit to reduce the faculty’s over-production, and we will not go any lower. In this I share the view of our new vice-chancellor that it is better to receive a higher level of funding per student than to be allocated more student places.
Cuts to the number of courses are not only for the worse. We have expanded our range of courses considerably in past years and I personally think we have had too many courses in relation to our funding and the number of teaching staff. We are now freeing up teaching resources and should be able to invest at least some of these in our two programmes in order to make them even better. My approach is to maintain an internal focus for the moment and to keep commissioned teaching outside the department and faculty to a minimum. The management are currently working to put together an easy-to-use system for timetabling so that course directors are able to plan in accordance with clear course budgets. There will be a presentation about this at the next meeting of the teaching team.
Our students are eager to have access to the building 24 hours a day. This request has been put to me before and is now on the table again. The modern student – as part of the modern information society – is not limited to office hours. It is excellent that the students are so keen on the department and their studies that they want to be here in the evenings and at weekends. I am sure that this would produce a creative working environment and breathe new life into the entire department. I therefore intend to try and meet their request, but it will require some planning. I also want to have significant student involvement as we redo our websites on a new web platform. The work is in full swing and the entire management have just taken a Drupal course in order to become web publishers! I think it is particularly important that the students appoint a couple of representatives who can get involved at this early stage and give their opinions on the course pages and the design of the student web pages. Get in touch if you are interested!
Budget, funding and research studies
The work on this year’s budget has begun and in a month we will know the outcome. In order for us to have a budget that is well anchored in the activities of the department, it is important that research leaders and those in charge of their own budgets talk to their subject representative and the department office about investments and plans for next year. This is particularly important if you plan to recruit new staff.
I have explained on a number of occasions over the past year that our finances are under pressure, and we have seen the consequences clearly in 2014, among other things in the form of people taking semi-retirement. Next year will also be a year with significantly lower revenue than expenditure, but the situation will be somewhat better. The first figures with regard to the level of the direct government funding are starting to be fixed, and the Ministry of Education presented the Government’s investments in research and education over the coming four years at the budget breakfast in Universitetshuset last Thursday. As expected, the universities will receive more student places, but their distribution around the country has not yet been decided. Lund has requested 2 000 places, and whatever the final figure, we hope the Faculty of Science will obtain a fair proportion of these.
The department management has just paid a visit to the faculty management to present a forecast of how the department’s expenditure and revenue will develop over the next five years. The forecast naturally contains many points of uncertainty, and these increase the further ahead we look. However, there are a large number of positive things to emphasise in this overview, and we predict a substantially improved outcome for direct research funding next year (forecast 2015: SEK 1 371 000) compared with this year (forecast 3 suggests SEK 5 485 000) and last year (result 2013: SEK 3 989 000). A significant proportion of the improvement is due to people taking semi-retirement, as mentioned above, and a positive changeover to our young senior lecturers in the faculty model. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Further belt-tightening is to be expected. This will mainly be in direct funding for research, and only to a small extent in education, where we have already taken a number of measures and expect a better balance in 2015. Government appropriations for education have stabilised this year, albeit at a low level.
In education, we are primarily trying to solve the problems that will come about as a result of people taking retirement over the next two years. This will free up no less than 1 800 hours, which will be largely taken over by those new senior lecturers who have taken over in recent years. It is important that all new and old senior lecturers recognise their responsibility and shoulder their part of the task: if you are a senior lecturer then teaching is part of your role. Continual dialogue among the teaching team, where different points of view are welcome, is important to make progress in this area.
For many years, the Department of Geology has had a joint research studies programme with INES. Regardless of the department at which you defend your thesis, you have the same general syllabus and become a Doctor of Geobiosphere Science with one of now four specialisations (geographic information systems has been added). Over all these years, we have shared a director of studies – a position I myself held for several years. However, from 1 January 2015, the Department of Geology and INES will have their own permanent directors of studies for doctoral education. The proposal was my idea and might at first look like we are distancing ourselves from one another. However, my view is that it should be seen as an investment in our joint programme, both a financial investment and an investment of staff. I think it is important that a director of studies has close contact with the activities of the department and has good insight and understanding of the subject down to the level of individual research groups. By dividing up this post, the role that was previously 20% of full-time hours has expanded to a total of 30% (15% for each director of studies). We are investing more resources in research studies, which causes a marginal increase in our overhead costs. However, it is for a good cause. The director of studies will be part of the department management team and I am sure that this will benefit our doctoral students in a number of important areas. Our research studies programme is extensive and the majority of our publications involve a doctoral student in one way or another. The conditions for the doctoral students are therefore very important to our research activities.
“Are you going to school today?”
Something has changed in the attitude towards higher education. I hear more and more often, and from all directions, that the university is cradling and curling its students. And, of course, there is a lot of evidence pointing in this direction. Today’s students refer to university as school and to the lecture-hall as a classroom. They may also ask which pages in the textbook they should read for the exam. Naturally, this is like nails on a chalkboard to a university lecturer who believes that teaching should be research-based and that students should be able to decide themselves what is important as well as have a critical attitude towards new information. Even if we throw off our own possible hubris, the problem still remains – why this shift in attitude towards higher education? Perhaps it is a slide that originated in a long-term national policy that everybody should study. A stance that I imagine our university management endorses. We prolong life’s education package and the borders between upper secondary education and higher education are fading with time.
A similar policy exists within Lund University and within our own faculty. The allocation of funds for undergraduate education has long been, and primarily, tied to the number of FTE places. The model has been expansive; the more students there are the more money the department receives. Strategies for gaining market shares in the student cake are becoming important and there is a possible risk that entry requirements will be lowered to eliminate the risk of losing students to another university. With a model such as this, it has been difficult or considered unwise to limit the number of students. This results in a reduction in competition for education places and, generally speaking, in all students being accepted to their study programmes, even the less motivated students and students with substandard knowledge – many with great difficulties in expressing themselves verbally and in writing. This puts pressure on the University’s central resources, such as the Academic Support Centre, and becomes above all a large burden to university lecturers and administrators at the departments. Our inability to encourage weak students to discontinue their studies at an early stage only contributes to the problem and means that it will persist far into the study programmes. I am certainly not the only one who has had moral doubts when such students have slipped through the system and can call themselves BSc and MSc of Lund University. This is not how Lund University should be.
The model for the allocation of funds has now changed. It is a welcome change as it means a reduction in the number of students. There must be competition for the study places within the department and faculty, if the quality of our courses and programmes is to be maintained. In the new model, we will work with an annual number of available study places. A risk with the model is that it might encourage increasing the completion rate of students, but wisely there is a limit of 80 %. A higher completion rate does not result in an increase in funding. The Department of Geology has been allocated funds for 169 FTE’s for 2014 despite having 220 FTE’s as a result of the large intake of students in recent years. Consequently, the department is overproducing by 22 % without any resources for this overproduction. There is good reason for a reduction in the number of students, no matter how strange it may seem. Therefore, on faculty level, we are limiting the number of students accepted to undergraduate courses and programmes and locally discontinuing courses in order to gradually reduce overproduction.
We need to challenge ourselves sometimes. Perhaps a more self-critical attitude towards students’ changing attitudes can mean that we are not devoting ourselves to research-related education steeped in critical thinking. Has the information society caught up with us? Students today can, if they so wish, come well prepared to lectures. Much of the information in current undergraduate courses can be obtained from websites around the world. The risk that university lecturers do the same, and hold “Wikipedia lectures”, is not negligible. We must be self-critical here. It is important that we as a department do not lower our ambitions or our demands of the learning outcomes to be acquired. We should not minimise our education package. It should be of high quality, and we are the ones who should set the standard.
Comments from the Prefekt
When I took over as Head of Department just over a year ago I had a clear idea and ambition surrounding the subject “communication”. A part of this ambition was to write a newsletter at regular intervals. I did not think, however, that it would take an entire year before I got around to doing it. Nevertheless, here it is. I would like to communicate with clarity the things that are taking place at the department and faculty so that everybody at the department is aware that we are a part of something greater, but also to create a feeling of participation. However, communication is difficult, as is deciding over which information is relevant to which group. Nobody wants to receive unnecessary emails. For an organisation such as ours this is a science of its own. We need to assist each other here.
We have a largely new management team at the department. We meet at the office of the Head of Department every second Thursday afternoon and spend a great deal of time exchanging information on activities at and outside the department. We have permanent points of information on the agenda that address, among other things, matters being discussed by the faculty management, as well as what is in store for the department, the staff situation, our premises, or something entirely different. There are many matters to discuss concerning our day-to-day operations and priorities often have to be made. If you feel there is something that the management team should or ought to discuss, please contact one of us and we will add it to the agenda. The management team is not a decision-making body but often prepares matters for the board, which meets three times per semester, or when needed. Remember, the minutes from board meetings can be found on our website!
Persons included in the management team have a particular responsibility to carry the department forward in a sensible way. This essentially applies to our finances and staff stability, which are the foundations that enable us to carry out top-level teaching and research. I have decided to lay a greater responsibility on the management team in terms of involvement in human resources matters. As you well know, this involves staff appraisals and the process surrounding salary reviews. It is simply not possible for me to solely hold all these discussions or evaluate salary levels. I think it will be advantageous and democratic to have the management team participate in this work.
This year there will be no less than two salary reviews to discuss, namely, RALS 2013 and RALS 2014. The reason for this is to get back up to date after the lengthy process with RALS 2012. As recently advertised, salary reviews will be carried out in February, followed by (or to some extent parallel to) staff appraisals. The next salary reviews will begin in the latter part of spring. Unfortunately, the financial resources are decreasing and we will have to get used to smaller scope for pay rises than previous years. The annual accounts referred to in the Vice-Chancellor’s latest newsletter stated that the volume of activity at LU had increased in 2013 by SEK 400 million and 300 employees, and the last two years by no less than two billion and 1700 employees. It is the volume of research that is increasing, which, of course, is a positive thing. However, funds for undergraduate courses and programmes are decreasing because the University is educating more students than it is paid to do. This also applies very much to our faculty and, at the moment, even to our department. Further financial cuts will be made here. During 2013, the management team and I devoted some time to reducing the volume of our undergraduate courses and programmes. There were no arguments here and I believe that we all considered the education package to be unnecessarily large. So far we have cancelled a number of courses and put a limit on the number of introduction courses and evening courses. We have also decided to temporarily discontinue evening courses in Helsingborg and will, as of next year, discontinue one more introductory course. The new faculty allocation model has been changed from 1 January 2014 and a greater number of students do not necessarily mean a greater financial reward. At the moment we have a mandate of producing a predefined number of full-time equivalent students. Currently, we are over-producing by almost 20%. I think it is wise that the faculty abandon the old, expansive model as it is having a bleed-out effect on undergraduate courses and programmes, as well as affecting the quality. There must be competition for our student places. There will be a continuation of financial cuts within undergraduate courses and programmes in 2014 and I will soon announce further stringencies in order to reduce expenses even more. We will no longer be developing new online courses or engaging in commissioned education if it is not directly profitable. We need to concentrate on our own two programmes and courses offered on our premises. This does not have to be something negative. What is positive, and worth highlighting, is the dedication I see among our lecturers. We contribute greatly to our undergraduate courses and programmes! We need to increase our revenue in terms of research, and in many respects we have been successful. However, funding is declining in spite of this and the level of income is equal to that of 2011. Whether or not this is a trend or merely a blip in the curve remains to be seen. Unfortunately, many believe it to be the former, and that we are seeing a change in externally funded research. This means that we will all need to be involved in applying for external resources; and this does not only apply to major funding. The department cannot subsidise research. Our research laboratories must be self-financing, as must our commissioned research.
During February and March, the management team will develop a common research strategy for the coming six years. I want us to take the chance and carve out a clear and carefully planned strategy that can be established at the department through discussions and meetings with research leaders. The strategy will be part of the faculty’s general research strategy, which will be presented to the Vice-Chancellor in September. This will provide a good overview for the new University Management Group when it takes over. If you have any thoughts concerning the research strategy, or if you would like to discuss the research strategy in general, please do not hesitate to contact me. Our research strategy is based on RQ08. Since this evaluation, research at the department has been further strengthened, not to mention diversified beyond the classic core subjects, which I also feel is something positive and worth highlighting. We shall now try to define how our overall research themes will develop over the coming three to six years. Feel free to comment on this, either to me or to the subject representatives.
Lastly, during the month of February, all locks on the ground floor and first floor will be replaced by Salto electronic locks. This is a general modernisation and I have chosen to begin on the ground floor and first floor and work upwards. We will continue the next stage with the second and third floors, which will be carried out next year. Salto electronic locks can be opened with your LU access card after activating it at the main entrance. I will explain this in more detail at a later date.