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Do Vice Chancellors love Cox? The 'celebrity academic' – a statistical analysis

You cannot have watched television on a Sunday night in the UK over the past few weeks without witnessing the wonders of Professor Brian Cox, the be-gortexed globetrotting human lens flare that has defined popular physics in 2011. With his rock&roll background, his boyish enthusiasm and charm, and his habit of wearing t-shirts that display a startling level of nipple definition, many hearts have been set a-flutter and the phrase "stellar superfluid" has taken on a whole new layer of meaning.
This article is more than 10 years old

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

You cannot have watched television on a Sunday night in the UK over the past few weeks without witnessing the wonders of Professor Brian Cox, the be-gortexed globetrotting human lens flare that has defined popular physics in 2011. With his rock&roll background, his boyish enthusiasm and charm, and his habit of wearing t-shirts that display a startling level of nipple definition, many hearts have been set a-flutter and the phrase “stellar superfluid” has taken on a whole new layer of meaning.

But Coxy isn’t your average media tart. He’s got an excellent research profile, and teaches particle physics at the University of Manchester. Which, you would think, is good news for the University – having an on-faculty TV heart-throb must help draw students (and thus funding) into the already world renowned School of Physics and Astronomy.

The hypothesis here is that since the dawn of the Cox era (which, I would suggest happened in 2009-2010, just before he went – erm – supernova with Wonders of the Solar System), women looking to study physics would have been more likely to choose Manchester as a place to apply – so you would see a rise in applications to study physics in Manchester from UK domiciled females in 2010.

Sadly for headline writers everywhere, this does not appear to be the case.

(data taken from UCAS application stats, digest is attached)

These figures refer to UCAS applications over 4 years, 2007-2010, looking at the University of Manchester and three comparator institutions with similar settings and league table standings for physics tuition (source, The Guardian).

As can be seen, whereas Birmingham and Sheffield saw a substantial rise in female applications for physics between 2009 and 2010, and Liverpool stayed stable, applications from women to study physics at Manchester dropped slightly despite an overall rise in female physics applications from the UK (27988 in 2009, 31221 in 2010).

There are a number of further variables that could be examined here – did Manchester change the number or nature of physics courses on offer in 2010? were there other unusual activities around physics at Manchester that could have had a negative effect on female applications? Or is the effect delayed – would we expect to see a jump in 2011 applications? Further research is both needed and outside of my capacity to conduct at this point.

But even this basic analysis casts doubt on previous positive experience of (or familiarity with) academic faculty being an influence on undergraduate applications. There may be implications for the school of thought that suggests iTunes U or OER promotion will drive up applications, given that a popular and attractive BBC series does not appear to do so.

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for, or of moderately successful bands I used to play keyboards for. This post is available under a creative commons attribution CC-BY license.

6 responses to “Do Vice Chancellors love Cox? The 'celebrity academic' – a statistical analysis

  1. Where I work there has been a definite increase in applications to study physics.
    In the past I think there has been a definite impact of TV programmes on applications. I’m thinking quite recently with CSI and Cracker have had a noticeable effect on biology (anything with forensic in it) and criminology respectively.

  2. It seems that women thinking of studying at uni are not so utterly shallow that they chose how to spend their next X number of years in study based upon the looks of one of the academics at an institution – what a surprise.

  3. Hear hear Steve: an insulting and unfounded hypothesis. The author appears to be having such a massive Cox love-in thats he has indulged himself in extending it a little too far.

  4. @Steve, Bev – cheers for the comments guys.

    This post is a response to a number of people seriously arguing that “celebrity academics” are a way of encouraging student recruitment (for instance, at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=408203 )- as I hope the last paragraph made clear.

    It is a deliberately over-the-top opening, but hopefully it made at least a few people giggle.

    I have the utmost respect (as I, again, hope is clear) for Prof. Cox given the amazing research and public science advocacy he is known for. And hell, us scrawny floppy haired northern keyboard players who used to be in briefly successful pop groups and now work in academia need to stick together… 🙂

  5. I know what the Times Higher article is getting at – the celebrity academics in my field are those who have taken their passion and ability for teaching into the wilds of public engagement. It’s celebrity of a different kind – that of being a public intellectual able to engage those without specialist knowledge. I appreciate the humorous angle you’ve taken, but I think you miss the point a little, and do women a disservice in the process (I’m glad you’ve clarified however). These academics are trading on charisma and passion – I’m sure Prof. Cox could have done the same without his history. Where the Times, and I think you, go wrong is trying to locate the value of this kind of engagement to narrow, immediate benefits to particular institutions.

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