Students from the physics department have drawn attention to the administrative failures of the Cavendish LaboratoryWikimedia Commons

Students from the Department of Physics have written an open letter raising concerns around the quality of the teaching they are receiving.

Although supervisors have now been assigned to students, the letter claimed that, entering Week Five, "most students still have not been assigned supervisors for some courses, with the department seemingly unable to provide a timeline for when we can expect this core part of our teaching to be organised."

It noted that this issue is "not unique to this year, but rather something that has gone on for many years and has been brought up countless times in the Student Staff Consultative Committee – without noticeable change."

Upon the assignment of supervisors on November 9th, a postscript was added to the letter commenting that "most students will at this point in time only have received a few of the 16 supervisions that are due to be given over the course of the 8 week Michaelmas term."

Third-year physics students are promised 16 supervisions over the eight-week during Michaelmas term. 68% of students who responded to a Varsity survey did not have their first supervision until week four, and 61% of the students have only received three out of the 16 promised by week five. 

The delay causes significant disruption to the students learning, according to the Part II students interviewed. The sudden spike in workload has had a negative impact on their learning quality and their mental health. About 85% of the students interviewed feel the lack and delay of supervisions severely or moderately affected the quality of their learning, and 64% of the students feel the decline of education quality has negative consequences for their mental health.

The Relativity course is one of the worst offenders, with most students still not assigned to a supervisor at the beginning of this week (08/11/21). The lecturers were not made aware of the issue by the department and were not aware of such disruption to teaching.

The majority (91%) of the Part II physics students who answered the Varsity survey feel a general lack of organisation from the department.

A Part II physicist from Corpus Christi College told Varsity that the lack of teaching "adds to a general impression that, whilst many individuals in the department are incredibly helpful and supportive, the department as a whole views supporting quality teaching as a low-priority, box-checking, exercise."

Another Part II physicist from Homerton College commented on the impact of the delay and lack of supervision on the quality of his learning, saying: "My biggest concern is the lack of Relativity supervisions since I have no way of ensuring that my understanding is correct."

The problem stems from the fact that although the supervision system is the formal responsibility of the Colleges, not all Colleges have the in-house expertise to teach the options available in Part II. The department has to seek supervisors who are willing to teach each course in order to make up for the shortfall in Colleges.

The Colleges then pay the supervisors for the work. The department cannot instruct its own staff to take on these supervisions, since it is not part of their contracted duties.

The open letter is addressed to both the Head of Department and to Senior Tutors across the University to account for the role that they both play in securing supervisions.


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According to the lecturers interviewed by Varsity (who wished to remain anonymous), the department has not informed them of the lack of supervisions being offered to students, despite them having approved potential supervisors months ago – potentially even before term started.

Jeppe Klitgaard, who co-wrote the letter, told Varsity: "It is very important for us to stress that we want to work with the department, not against it. In the same breath, we also wish to reiterate our position: the current teaching provided in the form of supervisions – or rather, lack thereof – is not acceptable and should be solved as a matter of urgency.

"Where the accountability, responsibility, and current failings lie on the Department-College spectrum is ultimately of very little relevance to us as students. We simply want the teaching we were promised and paid handsomely for."

By addressing the letter to both the Colleges and the department, Klitgaard pointed out that "this cannot be pinned on someone else" and as such "there is no possibility for them to respond with anything but action."

The department commented: "All of the supervisors are in place for this term, and everyone is working hard to ensure students will have all their supervisions. We will continue to work closely with the Colleges and the students to try to resolve any outstanding individual issues."