Archive for March 2009

The Newcastle drama

March 31, 2009

I suspect that not that many readers of this blog are very interested in Newcastle United FC, but then again I haven’t written about the club for a while. And today we have some fairly dramatic news. According to the BBC and Sky Sports, the club has appointed football legend and record Newcastle goal scorer  Alan Shearer to be the manager until the end of the season. I have to confess that at first I suspected this was an April Fool’s story, but I have now seen it confirmed in several different places, so I am coming to the conclusion that it’s true (but so far unconfirmed by the club’s website).

Why does this matter? Newcastle United, having parted company last autumn in very acrimonious circumstances with the legendary Kevin Keegan, went into free fall, and right  now is in the ‘relegation zone’ of the Premier League; in other words, unless fortunes change, the club will be out of the premiership in the next season. This has happened under two separate caretaker managers, ex-Wimbledon Joe Kinnear (who actually didn’t do too badly but then had heart surgery), and stand-in Chris Hughton (who seems out of his depth). Devoted, loyal and so often disappointed Newcastle fans have not been served well by the club’s current owner, who seemed intent on giving priority to his preferred management structure over actual success on the field.

Maybe it’s all too late, and maybe it’s just a fantasy anyway, but for most Newcastle fans the news of Shearer’s return will prompt a spark of optimism and belief. He was one of the club’s best players ever, and he is a local man. Whatever happens now, at least it will be interesting.

Does the lecture have a future?

March 30, 2009

About a year ago a research group involving four Australian universities published a report entitled The Impact of Web-Based Lecture Technologies on Current and Future Practices in Learning and Teaching. One of the key findings of this report was that students on the whole were enthusiastic about web-based lectures – i.e. lectures delivered in the traditional way but recorded for transmission on the internet – while faculty were on the whole more cautious, and a sizeable minority actually hostile. This raises the question of whether traditional teaching methods – the lecturer standing in front of a class wielding chalk and delivering talk – are still sustainable.

There is a debate to be had in this about the value and appropriate use of elearning, but that is maybe for another post. My purpose here is to ask whether we need to re-consider the usefulness of the lecture in particular as a teaching tool. When I was a student a good few of my lectures were entirely expository – essentially they were the source for a ‘good set of notes’ which, if properly remembered, were the passport for a good examination result. While some were given by gifted communicators, a good few were a perfect cure for insomnia; very few were interactive in the way that we would understand that concept today.

Nowadays there is very little need (if ever there was any) for expository lecturing. There are good materials everywhere, on paper and online, that can provide the basic information, whatever that may be. So one conclusion would be to say that the lecture as a teaching tool is redundant, except perhaps  when contained in an online resource on the web, to be consulted or used by students as they see fit.

On the other hand, I tend to think that a carefully constructed lecture that is interactively delivered and challenges the students is still valuable. But to allow students to experience that consistently requires us to provide better training for lecturers, and also to maintain an ongoing dialogue with students to ensure that their needs and expectations are being met. But the idea of the lecture as a formal device for distributing basic information is probably no longer of any real use.

The purpose of higher education reform

March 29, 2009

Over recent months a significant number of commentators – in the media, in politics, from industry and elsewhere – have suggested that major reform in Irish higher education is needed. Furthermore, the Minister for Education and Science has, as we know, established a strategic review process for higher education. Most of the discussion that this has generated has been about the reform of structures, and in particular the possibility of rationalisation; this has been covered in previous posts in this blog.

In fact, the time is right for considering reform – including some quite radical reform – of the Irish higher education system; but as in all questions of strategic reform, it is doubtful whether this should start with structures. Before we can really begin to say what structures are appropriate for our system, we need to be clear about what we want this system to deliver; it is only then that we can say whether the structures we currently have need to be changed. Therefore, rather than suggesting that rationalisation should be the first and foremost topic for review, I might have suggested some discussion of the following:

• What entry criteria should we use for student admissions to universities – should we abandon the points system?
• What is the potential (or what are the risks) of the further development of modular teaching?
• Should we be re-considering the largely discipline-based framework of teaching in universities and colleges?
• Should there be a more strategic link between teaching and research? 
• What do we expect of university research? Will we still encourage basic research? 
• Are the links between universities and industry/business about right, or do they need to be developed further?
• What is our modern understanding of academic tenure and academic freedom? 

I do not think that there is a clear consensus on any of these issues, and it may well be right for some of these questions to be answered differently between institutions, but I believe they are all more urgent and, in the first instance, more important than the questions being raised for the strategic review. And unless we start addressing them, we will not be in a position to address the reform of Irish higher education in a coherent manner.

The road back to an exporting economy

March 28, 2009

The trajectory that led us to the particular circumstances we are now experiencing was becoming evident to some observers by the middle of this decade. It is interesting to quote what was said in the 2006 Annual Report of Ireland’s National Competitiveness Council:

‘While the economy has continued to grow strongly in the first half of this decade, the underlying impetus to this expansion shifted from the broadly-based, and export-led, growth of the late 1990s to a growth pattern that by 2005-06 had become entirely dependent on domestic consumption and investment.’

Of course other countries are experiencing the current recession also, as it is a global phenomenon; but Ireland’s position has been particularly stark. The problem for us is that we have developed a standard of living and a cost base that cannot be sustained on the back of domestic consumption only, as our economy is far too small for that. That fact was obscured for a short while by the abnormal volume of construction, but it was bound to become apparent to us sooner or later as demand for such levels of construction fell. So now we either need to scale back our expectations and living standards quite substantially, or we need to start selling our goods and services again in international markets. But here the problem is that what we were selling 10 years ago is now being sold at much lower prices by others; we are no longer competitive in those areas. So we need to start selling something new.

The goods and services we should now be exporting need to be much higher-value, and need to be innovation and knowledge-driven. We need to be offering new processes, new product design, new intellectual property to others who will then do the basic production. In short, if we are to become an exporting nation again we need to to support and develop the knowledge society.

The government has been right to support and fund high value research. We now need to make sure that this is being conducted in institutions whose overall funding base ensures sustainability.  This is the only realistic way out of the recession and back to prosperity for Ireland.

Day trip to Dublin

March 27, 2009

The first diary I ever kept was in 1966. And on March 27 that year (exactly 42 years ago today), I joined my mother on a trip to Dublin, from our home in County Westmeath. And in the diary I noted:

“1 hour 45 minutes each way. Car parked by man outside Hibernian Hotel. Switzers (boring). Golden Spoon for lunch. Dugdale, terrible. Pineapple sweets on Dawson Street. Home.”

This rather sketchy entry is actually still very meaningful for me, and prompts a lot of memories. The Hibernian Hotel was perhaps the most elegant of the traditional hotels in Dublin. It was located half way up Dawson Street, at the spot where the Royal Hibernian Way shopping mall now is. The hotel was demolished in the 1980s. One of my strongest memories of it is that you passed by a huge mirror as you walked past the entrance lobby. The reference to the man who parked the car is also interesting. As yet back then there were no parking meters or pay-and-display machines; I am not even sure there were yellow lines anywhere to restrict parking. Outside the Hibernian Hotel on every weekday was a man wearing a peaked cap who, for a little money, would take your car as you arrived and would park it somewhere for you (often double parked). On your return he would retrieve it – a kind of unofficial and probably technically illegal valet parking service that always seemed to work.

Switzers was one of the two Grafton Street department stores – the building now occupied by Brown Thomas, which in those days was on the other side of the street where Marks & Spencer is now. My mother was probably shopping for clothes, but in any case the shop was boring to me. The Golden Spoon was a fairly cheap restaurant on Suffolk Street. It was seventh heaven – I always ate a sirloin steak and chips there, and admired their truly wonderful plastic ketchup bottles shaped as tomatoes.

Mr Dugdale was our family dentist. These were the days before local anaesthetics, and a visit there was always likely to turn out to be very painful. In the front garden outside his practice (and I don’t recall where that was) was a huge monkey puzzle tree. Mr Dugdale himself had a set of light brown teeth, which seemed incongruous.

The pineapple sweets were, for me, in themselves a sufficient reason to come to Dublin. They were sold in a shop (whose name I no longer remember) on the corner of Dawson Street and Molesworth Street. They came in huge bars, a mixture of white sugary rock and orange transparent candy. To put it in a state that was more convenient for eating the shopkeeper would take the bar and smash it into smaller pieces with a hammer.

So there it was, Dublin as it appeared to me in March 1966. It was in many ways a quiet town, not the bustling metropolis you find today. I suppose I would visit it five or six times a year back then, and each visit was an adventure.

College disasters and their causes

March 27, 2009

By now we have become accustomed to the parade of disaster stories from financial institutions, and on the whole we now know how they got themselves – and us – into the major messes we have witnessed. But now the question is occasionally being asked whether higher education institutions will also start to hit the headlines for these reasons. There have been plenty of stories about deficits, and some of these look serious. But the first major crisis story in Ireland is from Waterford, where the Institute of Technology has hit major financial problems.

According to a recent article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, a large number of American institutions are in crisis, with budget cuts and lay-offs. But the writer indicates that this is not all down to the bad economic environment; many of them took poor decisions during the good times that have now come to haunt them. The article describes thirteen such reasons, including risky investments, relying on too much cheap credit, too many capital projects, poor political lobbying, the failure to focus on appropriate niche areas.

It is well worth while reading this analysis in full. But it is also important to note that a common theme of much of this is that the institutions took risks; and as we know, risks can go wrong. So what we now need to ask ourselves is how good we are at evaluating risk and developing our strategies accordingly. It cannot be right to suggest that we should only act prudently and avoid all risks – to do that would mean never to innovate. But not all risks are good risks, and we need to be able to identify the more likely bad ones.

My view is that, on the whole, Irish universities have not been bad at this, and while there have been some initiatives (as you would expect) that didn’t work, or didn’t work as well as expected, or didn’t work immediately, there have been many others that have been spectacular successes; and few life-threatening disasters. But if we are now to be yet more entrepreneurial (as we should be), we need to have a shared framework that represents best practice in identifying risks and assessing the wisdom of taking them. In the overall planning framework for higher education institutions, this should become one of the priorities.

University accountability – here we go again

March 25, 2009

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, the Minister for Education and Science Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, in addressing the Higher Education authority, declared that universities needed to demonstrate ‘greater value and accountability for money’. He went on to muse that the universities’ institutional autonomy had been beneficial at one level but had also raised concerns about value for money.

No sensible university President will want to argue against accountability and transparency; but in the avalanche of bureaucratic reporting requirements that have flowed over us in recent years I doubt very much that we are lacking in accountability. And as for value for money, we educate students in Ireland to a high quality at half the cost of a similar education in the United Kingdom, and a fraction of the cost in the United States. I cannot help wondering why on earth the Minister keeps raising this doubt, without ever spelling out on what basis he feels it. I suspect there isn’t a university sector in the developed world that produces better value for money; comments of this kind merely fuel prejudices about higher education, and this is not helpful at all as we make huge efforts to help this country escape from the recession. Every review of universities and university finances commissioned by anyone, including the government, over recent years has told the same story: that Irish universities achieve much on inadequate resources.

I believe that universities are eager to work with the government to enhance the quality of education and stimulate innovation and discovery which will help fuel indigenous enterprise and foreign investment. I also accept we need to be open, co-operative and transparent, and of course accountable. But people really should stop constantly querying the universities’ credentials in relation to value for money, unless that is there are specific issues that are raised and that need to be addressed.


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