Archive for July 2009

Reforming Law Reform

July 31, 2009

One of the recommendations made in the report of the  Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’) concerns the Law Reform Commission, and it runs as follows:

The Law Reform Commission’s mandate is to keep the law under review and make recommendations for reform. The Law Reform Commission was set up on a statutory basis independent of the Oireachtas and as well as law reform has been accorded some other functions such as legislative restatement and legislative directory.  The Group holds the view that the Law Reform Commission could be used in a more targeted way by moving away from the model of a permanent commission towards one in which the commission is re-convened as required to address government mandated reform agendas. As a first step, the discontinuation of the Law Reform Commission should yield €2.8m in savings. The Group envisages that up to half of the Commission’s permanent staff could be assigned to the AGO on ongoing work such as legislative restatement and legislative directory.

The Law Reform Commission was established under the Law Reform Commission Act 1975. Section 4(1) of that Act sets out its agenda:

The Commission shall keep the law under review and in accordance with the provisions of this Act shall undertake examinations and conduct research with a view to reforming the law and formulate proposals for law reform.

In other words, the intention underlying the establishment of the Commission was to ensure that there is an independent body capable of addressing specific reform proposals, while also having the capacity to undertake a general analysis of the state of the law and put forward an agenda for reform. The first President of the Commission was the celebrated Supreme Court judge, Brian Walsh, and he was succeeded by High Court judge Declan Budd, and most recently by Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness. Apart from the President, the Commission itself is small, consisting of only one full-time Commissioner, and three part-time ones. However, it has a significant number of expert staff, including (as far as I can tell) 20 researchers. The permanent staff are led by Raymond Byrne, who is as it happens on secondment from DCU.

The Commission’s current programme includes alternative dispute resolution, sexual offences, e-conveyancing, children and the law, assisted human reproduction – which demonstrates the wide-ranging approach that the Commission can take.

The establishment of the Commission in the 1970s had been preceded by strong lobbying. Law Reform in Ireland had proved very hard to achieve, and by the mid-1970s the record of law reform consisted of some very imaginative pieces of legislation – generally prompted by the emergence of a (rare) reforming Minister – and of very occasional instances of reforming court judgements. An Example of the former would have been the Succession Act 1965 (initiated by Charles Haughey, and giving succession rights to spouses and children); and of the latter, the ground-breaking Supreme Court judgment of McGee v. Attorney General (1974, which changed the law on contraception). But there was no consistent programme of law reform. The model used by those who were lobbying at the time was the Law Commission, the law reform body for England and Wales and which had been established in 1965.

So what now? Of course we must understand the need for savings, and it’s easy to keep picking off Bord Snip proposals and say, in effect, that none of them will work. But there is a high price to be paid, in almost every walk of life, for failing to address law reform. The Bord Snip concept of law reform is project specific, but the need for law reform is not. Government departments are well able to handle many of the specific reform proposals that may come up, but there is a need for a much wider view of the problems and needs of our legal system, as it interacts with citizens and organisations.

It seems to me that this proposal should not be adopted. The cost of doing so would well exceed the savings made.

Engaging the politicians

July 31, 2009

On this blog I have now conducted two interviews with senior politicians about higher education and other matters. Both politicians – Brian Hayes TD of the Fine Gael Party, and Ruairi Quinn TD of the Labour Party – expressed similar thoughts and concerns on certain issues, and it will be important for the higher education sector to address these, and to develop clear views on them.

The key issues are the following.

1. The added value of research. In the light of the recommendations that have been made by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’), it is interesting to observe that the politicians are showing some scepticism about the value of the large national investment over recent years in research and R&D. In particular, they are asking for evidence of a more direct trajectory from investment in research to job creation or the development of commercial activities. It has always been the sector’s position that such an impact can only realistically be observed over a larger number of years; but it is clear that this response is becoming unsustainable, and that we will need to be able to show a more direct and more immediate economic impact of research. On the other hand, promising large scale job creation through high value research is dangerous, and in any case may be missing the point that R&D provides a vitally important backdrop to and motivation for industrial investment, rather providing the jobs directly. It is clear that the arguments for significant research investment have not been properly and convincingly presented, and that in the absence of such communication the support of key stakeholders is being lost.

2. Higher education funding. There does now appear to be a growing consensus that Irish higher education is under-funded. But we still seem to be quite some distance away from a consensus on what can be done to improve this situation. However, a consensus is emerging that the days of government funding as the only real source of income are over, and that either fees, or loans, or graduate taxes will now be debated. However, such discussions realistically address the longer term, and so for the next two years the situation will remain what it now is, with declining state support, not yet compensated for through student contributions or repayments.

More generally, it is clear from these interviews that the expectation and demands affecting universities are increasing all the time, not just the expectation of larger numbers and more activities, but also of the prioritisation of those programmes and activities that have a more direct economic relevance and impact. These pressures are likely to grow over the years ahead, and we must prepare for that.

In the meantime, it is gratifying that senior politicians are willing to talk and to explain their perspectives. Such a dialogue is vital for the future of higher education, and perhaps of our national prosperity and welfare.

Guest blog: A festival of ideas

July 29, 2009

A Festival of Ideas
by Dr Iain Mac Labhrainn, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at NUI Galway


It was nice to see TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) receive such coverage in much of the press last week although one suspects that it is perhaps the celebrity attendees (via the “entertainment” part of the label) that may have lured the photographers at least. TED though is both a celebration of ideas and a binge of creativity, style and eloquence. Carefully selected speakers are each given just 18 minutes to describe their ‘big idea’ or reflect on a particularly resonant experience to a live audience on stage, surrounded by cameras and in the knowledge that it will be broadcast to the world via the website, YouTube and iTunes.

Despite the outrageously expensive ticket prices (thousands of Euros per head), the event is popular (and of course is highly expensive to run) and all the presentations are ultimately made available and released under a Creative Commons license that ensures that they can be used for a variety of purposes by educators across the world. Many university courses now embed some of these in their courses and many academic staff also find them inspiring, not just in terms of the content but also in providing to some extent, interesting examples of how to capture an audience’s rapt attention.

From my perspective, in some ways this is a vision of what at least part of a university’s mission can and should be about – not just creating and nurturing new ideas but sharing them and indeed celebrating the joy of learning, of research and of creativity with a wider public – a place where ideas are the currency and where different disciplinary traditions meet and knowledge is contested. Of course it’s not possible to really get at the detail and the subtlety of academic research and scholarship in 18 minutes, nor should we forget to remind others of how much hard graft is involved in research (and learning a particular discipline). Nor can all of our statisticians swallow swords, nor all of our neuroscientists be recovering from a stroke ! But despite the slings and arrows of outrageous budget cuts and administrative loading, we all have somewhere within our heart a love for our subject that drove us deep into the discipline in the first place and perhaps at least those who have the ability to share in this way can be encouraged to do so and for it to be seen and recognised as a valid contribution to the academy and not just sneered at as part of ‘dumbing down’ or a ‘culture of celebrity’.

Even to talk to one another within the university (“in-reach” perhaps, rather than ‘outreach’), breeching the disciplinary barriers and going beyond the “academic tribes and territories” would have great value, particularly at a time in which funders and policy-makers are increasingly distinguishing between subjects in terms of funding and perceived economic relevance. A simple but rewarding aspect of our local programmes in Academic Practice, for example, is the ‘field trip’ where participants walk across the campus and visit each other’s labs, classrooms and buildings, describing their teaching and research in accessible terms.

TED itself is also now nurturing local events across the globe that follow the same basic structure of short, powerful talks or performances to an invited or selected audience that encourages cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives. It would be remiss of me not to mention that TEDxGalway is already being planned for December.

Operatic ambitions

July 29, 2009

It is sometimes said that one of the key characteristics of a of a world class city is the existence of a well-maintained opera house. I believe I am right in saying that Dublin is one of the very few capitals in Europe – maybe the only one if you except Liechtenstein and San Marino – that does not have such a cultural facility. In other cities worldwide the opera house is a defining institution, such as Covent Garden in London, the Sydney Opera House, or the Opéra National in Paris.

Capital investments in the performing arts may not, in Bord Snip times, be seen as a huge investment priority, and it clearly won’t happen for the next year or two. But now is the time to look more closely at possible longer term plans. It is not that Dublin doesn’t have opera – it clearly has – but it doesn’t have a proper facility. National self-respect suggests we need to look again. It’s time to take all our national melodrama and put it where it belongs, in the opera.

Interview with Ruairi Quinn TD

July 29, 2009

The following interview with Ruairi Quinn TD, Labour Party front bench spokesperson on education and science, was conducted on July 27, 2009, by Ferdinand von Prondzynski

FvP: Can I ask you first about your general perspective on education at this point? What are your priorities right now, and the priorities of your party?

RQ: Well, let me give it a bit of historical perspective. The Labour Party was the first political party in Ireland after 1921 to publish a policy on education, and it was always seen within the wider labour movement as an integral part of liberation for working people. Access to education was very much part of that. I think the Party currently would have two major concerns regarding education. One would be about access to the educational system at primary and secondary level, and the quality of the system as perceived by all of the stakeholders. The second is a concern, which I certainly have, that we still have an unacceptably high drop-out rate, and we have a very high illiteracy rate. The movement from primary school into secondary is very traumatic. It occurs at a critical age of maturation, and you go from a relatively secure environment to navigating something much more complex. Moving into secondary education can be very disconcerting; if in addition to that your literacy levels are poor, you can very quickly begin to drift, and within six to eighteen months some young people, particularly working class boys, are heading for the exit. Given the nature of Irish society and the labour market, they are heading for a lifetime of periodic, poorly paid employment, and very close to the edge of crime and drug addiction.

FvP: What steps are you suggesting should be taken to address these concerns?

RQ: All of the evidence shows that some form of pre-school education for children is an essential pre-requisite, and we have argued that there should be one year of guaranteed pre-schooling provided for our primary system, preferably on the campus of the primary schools so that it is a seamless journey, particularly if there is more than one child in the family. In this way the pre-school child gets oriented and made familiar with the school.

FvP: The National Competitiveness Council has, for some years now, suggested a focus on pre-school education, with a particular focus initially on disadvantaged areas. Would you agree with that approach?

RQ: That’s where I would start, because the children of middle class families will receive support at home – for example, they will be read to virtually every night, and will be encouraged to read. But in my constituency I might go to a house where there are ten electronic devices, including two or three flat screen televisions, but not a single book. That’s where the target should be.

FvP: Two weeks ago the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’) issued its report. What are your views on what it had to say about higher education?

RQ: The whole of the ‘Bord Snip’ exercise is a bit black and white, and maybe a little crude. It has to be seen in the context of what taxation proposals may emerge and what the substance will of the Budget later this year. I read the Bord Snip report really as the Department of Finance seeking to regain control over the economy from the Taoiseach’s Department, and indeed from the social partners.

That said, the McCarthy analysis is quite useful and identifies a variety of savings, but particularly in the education sector it displays a certain amount of naivety. That may have been inevitable in the context of how the Group had to work. But for example, the proposal to scrap the Grangegorman project for DIT is naïve and indeed ill-informed. After all, the continuation of maintenance in Bolton Street, Cathal Brugha Street, and all the other DIT locations has a cost, and the savings that would therefore arise from not proceeding with Grangegorman might not be that great, given a whole lot of postponed maintenance work that will have to be done, and so forth.

One other suggestion that they made – moving the Higher Education Authority into the Department of Education and Science – might benefit from some detailed discussion. The Department of Education could perhaps be described as the ‘Department of Schools’ (it’s not my phrase, but has been used by several commentators). If the HEA were to be merged into the Department, it might have a qualitative impact on the rest of the Department; whether it would lift the Department, or whether the Department would pull it down, really is the dilemma. The view has been expressed that perhaps the HEA should be moved under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; I have mixed views about that. I would like to hear some dialogue on this.

The higher education system has to improve the quality of its teaching. Its primary function is teaching. We have not satisfactorily developed our opportunity as a native English speaking country to develop and expand cultural tourism. Ireland represents 1 per cent of the population for whom English is their mother tongue, but our cultural impact is utterly disproportionate compared with others. Maybe we should be looking more at our opportunities and develop the teaching of English, which is not capital intensive. Perhaps the continuing focus in public discourse on R&D, on Science Foundation Ireland, and on Fourth Level is slightly unbalanced. It seems to me we need to cherish what we are good at and to develop it, because it has an economic dimension to it as well as improving overall education.

FvP: Does that mean you might go along with the view expressed by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes that university research has had no visible economic benefit?

RQ: I think, in the words of the former Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai when asked about the benefits of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to say. The evidence from other economies would suggest that it does create employment – for example, the United States and Israel. But at a time of economic stress, maybe you could look at some the programmes and decide which ones are more likely to have an employment impact. I would prefer to see the culture of commercialisation of research being extended within the third level system. The attitude to commercialisation varies across the sector. Applied research clearly has a more direct prospect of job creation than pure research. But I also suspect that you need an element of pure research, if only to provide for the educational requirements of the system overall.

FvP: Would you support the McCarthy Group proposal to discontinue the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI)?

RQ: I would be slow to do that. I would prefer to hear the arguments for this first, and whether a greater focus within PRTLI would help. What I do welcome, by the way, is the way in which PRTLI and SFI have pushed the institutions in the direction of alliance and cooperation. That clearly is the way to go, particularly when modern communications make such relationships much easier.

FvP: If I can turn to the question of higher education and funding, if the proposal for fees backed by loans emerges as the formal government position, what is your approach likely to be?

RQ: We will still hold the view that this will not deal with or solve the immediate funding problems. It may even aggravate them. If the new €1500 student registration charge is incorporated into it, and you have a student loan that kicks in after the graduate starts working and their income rises above a certain threshold, there is a time lag in the availability of money to the system. There could then be a massive cash flow problem, and I would be interested to see how the government proposes to deal with that. Dedicated taxes, by the way, are not terribly popular in the Department of Finance, and they don’t tend to have a long life as history shows.

Historically speaking, it was easy for us to abolish third level fees back in 1995/96, because of the explosion in the covenant arrangements and their impact on taxation. The cost of free fees at the time was around £42 million per annum, but we were previously losing something in the order of £38 million through tax covenants, so we were able to show that the net cost was low. The real tragedy is that the Department of Education didn’t consistently argue for a stronger subvention to maintain the value of funding for third level.

FvP: So what in your view is the solution to what I believe you accept is the current under-funding problem? If you were in government now, what would you be aiming to do?

RQ: Well, the basic raw financial data would not change by virtue of our being in government, and we would have to juggle between increases in overall taxation and economies in staffing and operating costs. We might also have to ‘cool’ certain courses. If you take the entire third level sector, could you perhaps get economies of scale, could you locate certain kinds of facilities together to improve efficiencies? I don’t know what savings could be achieved through that, but colleges may be able to operate more effectively and more sensitively.

FvP: If in a couple of years time the economy is better and the recession is over, what then, in terms of the funding envelope for higher education, could be done to give institutions reasonable financial security and the opportunity to undertake more effective financial planning?

RQ: To be frank, 100 per cent funding from the state is not realistic; there has to be more money from industry, there has to be more private money, hopefully more philanthropy. I think the tax system should be looked at in terms of how you would encourage people to make money available to higher education. Perhaps there could be some kind of ‘intellectual BES scheme’ (Business Expansion Scheme), so that a fund could be created that would own intellectual property rights from what was developed by research teams. If this is going to be an area of economic resource, then people need to be attracted to invest in it.

One of the problems I see is that the career prospects of some students – say, those doing science, as distinct from those doing accountancy or law – are very poor and very erratic. There will have to be better careers for scientists, including those on post-doc contracts.

Guest blog: Cut and paste?

July 27, 2009

Cut and Paste?
by Dr Perry Share, Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo


I was looking back at two earlier posts in this blog in April and July of this year, and was reflecting on how they relate relate to a topic that I have had a passing interest in (both intellectual and administrative) – that of plagiarism. Or, as I prefer to think of it, for reasons that will become apparent below, intertextuality.

Over the last year there was something of a mini-rash of alleged plagiarism cases at my institution. These were difficult to deal with, partly because the institution in question, like most of its counterparts in Ireland, does not have a well thought-through set of policies and procedures, which makes it rather exposed to even the idea of legal challenges; but also because any consensus that may have existed in relation to what plagiarism might be has become increasingly fragile in a world that is saturated with practices of re-use and re-purposing of intellectual property. It is no longer clear as to what it means to re-use another’s material and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

We live in a world where the reuse of written materials is ubiquitous, widely rewarded, sometimes celebrated and increasingly expected. Exhibit A is of course the Internet, where a Google search of any distinctive phrase will allow you the opportunity to trace its use and reuse through thousands if not millions of sites, though it may well be impossible to track down the original iteration. Exhibit B is the mass media, where pop music, popular film, fashion, advertising, commercial fiction, magazines routinely recycle and reuse concepts, phrases, images and storylines. Exhibit C is the world of routine administration, business and – yes – academia, where numerous documents, from contracts to safety statements to business plans to research funding applications are (re-) constructed unapologetically from commercially-available templates or, more often, from whatever worked before for somebody else.

Many academics and nearly all students have grown up in a world where the rules of intellectual property have been changing at a rapid pace. Most students live in a semiotic universe defined by the cut-and-paste culture of Bebo, YouTube, Photoshop and Facebook. They either download their music, images, TV shows and films illegally, or at least know people who do. They wear T-shirts that ironically (or unironically) reuse and recycle corporate logos and cultural imagery from the Mona Lisa to the GAA. They find most of their information in Wikipedia and Google Scholar and – quelle surprise! – put this into their essays and projects.

Just like the music and film industries, the academic system struggles to cope with this new culture of the copy. One way is to threaten stringent penalties for the ‘crime’ or ‘fraud’ of plagiarism, often so draconian that they are rarely if ever implemented. A second is to try to train students in the arcane rules and rituals of referencing and attribution – and of course the mastering of such techniques is a rite of passage of the successful scholar. A third approach is to seek a technological fix in turnitin.com – the ‘anti-plagiarism’ software that will allow for detection of the least sophisticated copiers. All of these approaches will of course have some ‘success’ in preventing students from copying material, or at least in making them feel guilty (or terrified, or confused) about it.

But what rarely happens is a fundamental questioning of why the culture of the copy is a problem in the first place. It is clear that without borrowing, cross-referencing, mimicry and copying – or intertextuality to give it a technical term – culture just could not exist. That which is completely original is of course uniquely unintelligible. In academia perhaps more than anywhere it is necessary to make products that are very similar to what has gone before – to show that you are really part of the academic community.

But in an age of ‘free culture’, ‘creative commons’, sampling, remixing, open-source, and on-line collaborative working, why do we continue to insist on the Romantic notions of ‘originality’ and individualistic intellectual production? Are there not ways that our teaching and learning practices can be remodelled to encourage genuine collaborative working, the constructive use and reuse of existing material, and the astute assessment of how to use templates, models and processes?

If the central theme of contemporary culture is the copy, how do we serve students by constantly urging them to come up with something ‘original’, while pretending that we are going to punish them if they don’t? Wouldn’t it be a lot better to help them to deal with the world as it really is?

Blog update

July 27, 2009

The next post on this blog will be by Dr Perry Share, who is Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo and is a sociologist. Prior to returning to Ireland in the late 1990s he taught at a regional university in New South Wales, Australia, for a decade. He has written and edited textbooks in the fields of Irish sociology and applied social studies and has research interests in food and eating, professionalisation, and language and culture, as well as in the administration of tertiary education.  I am very pleased to welcome him as a guest contributor here.

On Wednesday, the main item will be an interview with Ruairi Quinn TD, Labour Party front bench spokesperson on education, in which he will set out his views and his party’s position on a range of issues in education.

And then on Thursday, there will be another guest blogger, this time Dr Iain Mac Labhrainn, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at NUI Galway.

In between I may also post a comment or two, unless someone stops me!


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