Archive for August 2009

Would you buy a used essay from this man?

August 30, 2009

In response to my recent post Returning, one person attempted to submit the following comment:

It’s not so simply to bring a great custom essays, especially if you are intent. I recommend you to find buy a custom essay and to be devoid from discredit that your work will be done by essay writers.

Well obviously this is spam, which is why you don’t see the comment in its intended place, and why I am not giving you the link submitted with it. But what struck me was that if I were trying to flog some plagiarism materials, I’d have a go at advertising this in a reasonably literate and coherent way. However, being a naturally curious person, I followed the link and was gratified to learn that the service they offer – i.e. that they’ll write your essay for you, though no doubt it won’t have the look and feel of Shakespeare about it – is completely and absolutely legit:

100% Plagiarism FREE. Your reputation is also our reputation. We are building our company on a quality and understand the harm of plagiarism. Protecting your academic life is something we are worry about.

Well, since they are worry about my reputation, I’m afraid I cannot resist this. I am going to commission an essay from them. They say they can deliver in just 12 hours at $24 per page. I’m afraid I’m going for the cheapo 7-day option, which comes in at $11 per page. So I’m going to splash out for, say 4 pages. I’d be grateful for any suggestions as to a good topic. The resulting essay will be published here. Fully credited.

Profiting by the news

August 30, 2009

This week on August 28th, something happened that could yet change the way we think and determine what we know and how we know it. It received news coverage, but I suspect not enough. So what was this event? It was the delivery of this year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. It was given by James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and chairman of News Corporation of Europe and Asia. And why was this lecture so important? Well, let me say a little about it, and leave it to you to judge.

First of all, while the lecture has, as I noted, received some media attention, the summaries of it in the press do not altogether do it justice. So I recommend that you actually read the whole thing, and you can find it here. There are a couple of recurring themes in it, which can be summarised thus: (i) media regulation is bad (I was going to say, ‘mostly bad’, or even just ‘often bad’, but I have re-read the lecture and cannot see anything in it to suggest that he thinks it is ever good); and (ii) always let the media develop through customer choice, which in turn should never be influenced, guided or constrained. In explaining these principles Murdoch argues that his company’s free market approach is intellectually to be seen as an application of Darwin’s evolution theory, while those who favour or apply regulation are the media equivalents of the followers of creationism.

But it is clear that Murdoch was delivering a story with a punch line, so we may as well come straight to that, the very last sentence in the lecture:

‘The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.’

In many ways you have to admire the Murdoch empire, which has prospered despite early disasters and near-bankruptcies. It has delivered some very smart media strategies and, I have no doubt, a number of popular media products. It has also gained a position in global media markets in English that give it an awesome power. But it seems to see one huge threat to the onward march of its corporate success, and that is the BBC. The BBC, Murdoch argues, is a broadcaster owned by the state and regulated by it, and subject to all sorts of rules and restrictions he clearly regards as barmy (including, as he points out, the requirement to give equal air time to opposing political or other viewpoints). But most of all his complaint is that the BBC has too much money, and is able to use its resources to expand its services and crowd out the competition. It is not driven by what customers want, he suggests, but by what regulators and ministers and various do-gooders want them to want. He sees this as particularly threatening as the previously separate media of broadcast and print start to merge, and in the light of the growth of the internet as a news medium. This is how he sees the BBC’s operations in this new world:

Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy.
Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.
Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.
We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.

‘Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy. Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.

We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.’

So what are we to make of all this? Is state-owned public broadcasting an assault on freedom of expression and independent news gathering, as Murdoch asserts? Is the idea that an organisation like the BBC represents impartiality just an illusion? Would an unregulated broadcast market still be selling independent journalism and programming? Murdoch’s answer to the latter, by the way, is to point to the growing arts coverage of Sky TV as proof that for-profit broadcasting does not slide into the gutter.

So, is the era of public service broadcasting over, or should it be? What does or would this mean for RTE? And what does the punter really want?

Abolishing slavery

August 29, 2009

A few weeks ago I was listening to a competition on the radio. One of the multiple-choice questions was this. When was slavery abolished? (a) 537; (b) 1833; or (c) 1949. As I listened to this I couldn’t help wondering what the person who had assembled these options was trying to do. All of these dates are both right and wrong: the emperor Justinian abolished the Roman practice of slavery in 537; the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1833; and in 1949 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. So what would you think was ‘the’ right answer? Well, according to the presenter, it was 1833, and from his little bit of follow-up chatter it became clear that he had no idea that the other two dates represented anything relevant at all. I think the researcher was having some fun at the expense of the presenter.

Well, 1833 is not an uninteresting date in the history of slavery, and it in fact the Act was passed in that year on this date (August 29). Some years earlier, in 1807, the transatlantic slave trade had already been made illegal in the Slave Trade Act. William Wilberforce, who was a member of the House of Commons, is generally credited with the successful movement to abolish slavery. This, by the way, is a matter of great local pride in Hull, where I worked for ten years: Wilberforce was a native of the city and lived there, and his home is now a museum of the slave trade.

However, two comments should be made. As was so often the case in history, others who played a major role in this important historical event have largely been written out of public awareness, if not the official record. Chief amongst those who deserve a mention is Elizabeth Heyrick, a radical reformer and campaigner against the slave trade. She was instrumental in moving public opinion in favour of more immediate and effective methods to put an end to slavery and secure emancipation of former slaves, often criticising liberal politicians (including Wilberforce) for their timid approach.

The second point that needs to be made is, of course, that in reality none of the three options in the radio competition was correct. To our shame, slavery has still not been abolished, and human trafficking is alive and well. The organisation Anti-Slavery International on its website details both countries and industries in which humans are held in slavery-like conditions. And in case you thought this is all far away from our own part of the world, it isn’t: human trafficking in women for the purposes of prostitution is right here and right now.

Many problems, issues and disasters across the world call for our attention and help. Slavery is still one of these, and the ultimate human indignity of being possessed and controlled by others is still there and needs to be abolished, finally and effectively. It is a cause well worthy of your support.

Returning

August 27, 2009

It’s that time of year again when well-meaning people I know will say something like this to me: ‘ I expect you are now getting busy again.’ I usually nod politely and bite my lip. Well yes, we are busy, but frankly we’ve been pretty busy throughout the summer, and I expect this is true all over the Irish university system. In university life as in other professions there are times and seasons, but really no period (except for the week between Christmas and New Year, and perhaps the first week of August) when nothing much is happening in academic life. When the students return next month it will change the nature of people’s busyness somewhat (though not necessarily mine), but it will not be an awakening from slumber.

Nevertheless, slipping out of defensive mode, the return of continuing students and the arrival of new students is always a major moment in the life cycle of colleges. It is a time when you can almost touch and smell the sense of intellectual adventure the accompanies the start of term, before, at least for some, this is worn down by the pressures of daily life.

But while as a nation we are aware of the renewal that takes place at the beginning of the academic year, it is not quite the same national experience that can be found, for example, in France. I confess that I am not a particular fan of the French education system, and their universities in particular are surprisingly uninteresting and unimaginative. But I do like the concept of ‘La Rentrée‘, the annual phenomenon that takes over French national consciousness about this time. It means ‘the return’, and it is a reference to the opening of the educational year. But it is more than that: it involves a sense of national celebration of education, a movement rather than an event.

In Ireland the event that attracts the most attention in education is the period when students sit the Leaving Certificate examinations. But in a way, the interest in ‘the Leaving’ is concerned with performance and results, not with educational or pedagogical principle. It is not a time for anticipation and reflection, in the way that La Rentrée can be.

So as we prepare to see the return of the old students, and the arrival of new students, we could perhaps spend a moment thinking about what education means to us individually and as a country, and what we could be doing to enhance standards and meet society’s needs and expectations.

Mind your language!

August 27, 2009

Last year I wrote a post on political correctness, and mentioned the occasional attempts to sanitise our language of all possible suspect associations. In fact, I should say that I am not against being sensitive with language and avoiding expressions that are clearly offensive, particularly terms that were once used to dismiss ethnic or racial groups. However, all this can be taken too far. At a recent meeting which was conducted in an atmosphere of considerable gloom because of current economic conditions one participant remarked that it was a ‘black day’. His neighbour suddenly perked up and delivered himself of a long speech about how it was ‘the very worst kind of racism’ to use such offensive language so carelessly. The offending original speaker was flustered and embarrassed but subdued. Certainly not a racist, he wasn’t sure how to respond without making matters worse. I came to his defence and suggested he had a track record of being opposed to racism, and after a little more shuffling around the meeting settled happily back into the appropriate gloom about matters economic.

As a recent report noted, this kind of over-the-top concern with identifying unacceptable expressions is not uncommon, and increasingly language commissars are active in stopping us from using terms that we should find offensive even when we don’t. This brings us to the sort of verbal gymnastics that results in renaming Manchester as Personchester.

I am absolutely of the view that the use of expressions that have a history of use in discrimination or oppression is unacceptable. But equally we should not drive this kind of thing too far, and above all should avoid contrived words that take us to almost comical lengths in order to avoid associations that nobody saw in the first place. In language as in much else, we should not let go entirely of common sense. So for me it is OK to talk about a ‘black day’ (though I wish we didn’t have any), as indeed I don’t see that an accusation of a ‘whitewash’ is reprehensible as anti-white racism. In other words, we should not amend our language on the basis of the assumption that good people ought to be offended, even when they manifestly are not. We should be sensitive with our language, but we should not allow the tyranny of a language police.

Higher education and class

August 26, 2009

In a quick follow-up to the post on this blog of last night, the Higher Education Authority has released figures that show the extent to which in Ireland the children of so-called ‘higher professionals’ (mainly doctors and lawyers) are hugely over-represented in the student body in degree programmes that lead to professional qualification. ‘Higher professionals’ make up 3 per cent of the population, but their children account for 33 per cent of medical students and 23 per cent of law students.

Leaving aside for a moment the discussion about professions and training for professional qualifications, what this shows us is that higher education continues to entrench class divides rather than overcome them. This is remarkable after  more than a decade of ‘free fees’, and underscores the point made previously that the abolition of fees may actually have harmed equality rather than enhanced it, as the state was unable to provide proper resources and support for disadvantaged students in part because it was spending too much money on free fees for the middle classes.

But whether I am right or wrong in my analysis, it is unacceptable that the system of higher education should be reinforcing privilege and wealth. A tertiary sector that is not manifestly offering opportunities regardless of class and background is not doing its job in a modern society.  This should be a priority concern for us all as we look again at our strategy for higher education.

Professional qualifications and postgraduate degrees

August 25, 2009

In a previous post I questioned our national attitude towards the professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so forth), and asked whether we were training too many people for these careers, and whether we were getting our priorities wrong when we were valuing them (at university entry level) above the actual ‘productive’ professions of engineers, managers, scientists and so forth. As I have also mentioned, these latter careers can be pursued through university programmes that require much lower points than those needed to become, say, a lawyer.

Maybe we should look again at whether professional qualifications should be available at all through, or with the help of, undergraduate degrees. In other words, it may be that we should have law, accountancy, architecture and similar degree programmes only at postgraduate level, and that anyone wanting to pursue the relevant degrees would need to do an undergraduate degree first in a different discipline. This has been a topic of discussion in relation to medical education and training, but it may be right to look at the whole framework of training for the professions and to consider a change of this kind.

Moving professional training to postgraduate programmes would have a number of potential advantages: it would probably reduce the numbers somewhat (except in medicine); it would be pedagogically more desirable, as it would allow undergraduate education to focus more on general intellectual topics; it would avoid excessive interference by professional bodies in undergraduate university education; and so forth.

There are also arguments the other way, to do with cost principally. But it would be worth a more vigourous debate.

Assessing aptitude

August 25, 2009

As readers of this blog will know, I am no fan of the so-called ‘points system’ in Ireland, under which applicants for university programmes are admitted in accordance with the points score they achieved on foot of their final school examination results (the Leaving Certificate). The result of this system is that the points needed to enter a certain course are determined by supply and demand rather than the demands of the course. For example, one of the most popular degree programmes has been law, and so it has attracted very high points requirements; whereas science subjects have been less popular, and students have been able to get admitted on much lower points – yet few would argue that science students need to be less gifted intellectually than law students. I have written on this topic in the past. My view has been that almost anything would be better than the points system, as it is pushing young people into careers for which they may not be best suited and which they are choosing solely because of the points attached to the relevant degree programmes.

When therefore those universities with medical schools, under some external pressure, agreed last year to alter their selection processes for medicine by introducing an aptitude test, I was certainly willing to consider this as a potentially useful initiative. What these institutions did was to use the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT), which has been developed by an Australian company. This consists of a multiple choice paper, which the student must pass and the results of which are then included in the computation of the points score (together with the Leaving Certificate results).

As the first group of would-be medical students has just undertaken this exercise, a debate has come alive as to whether it is a sensible mechanism, and indeed whether it might be applied to other programmes as well. In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper it is suggested that the Department of Education and Science might like to see this kind of testing considered more generally, while in the same paper the leading oncologist (and DCU adjunct professor) John Crown expresses serious reservations about the capacity of this kind of test to measure aptitude (or perhaps anything very much), and argues that a it may end up ‘favouring the clever work-shirker over the diligent student’. And still in the Irish Independent, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, takes a very different view and argues as follows:

‘The approach taken by the HPAT, combined with the Leaving Cert, provides an additional means of predicting the aptitude of a student for a particular programme. It operates in a number of other countries as part of the selection process for higher education. Unlike an interview process, it is transparently objective…

Far from decrying the HPAT we should seek ways in which this approach can be used more widely in our education system in tandem with older tried and trusted models of assessment.’

I’m not altogether sure where I stand on this, in large part because I have not seen what the HPAT looks like (though I have just ordered a sample paper). On the one hand, I am very strongly in favour of finding something better than the points system, which has over recent years become more and more damaging to Irish society. On the other hand, an aptitude test consisting of a multiple choice paper, which can be (and will be) the subject of grind school preparation, probably isn’t the answer either. John Crown’s view that only the very best should study medicine (and the nature of that profession may mean he is right) can be met by attaching a very high minimum points requirement to that programme. But we need to move away quickly from the current idea that in order to study biotechnology you only need to be about half as intelligent as you have to be to study law.

I am still inclined to think that once you have set genuine performance thresholds actual selections could be made by lottery, as has been done in the Netherlands. It would be better than what we have now, and would avoid adding one more controversial and maybe dubious testing element.

The search is on!

August 24, 2009

Last year in a post I listed some of the more unusual or unexpected terms entered by people in search engines which brought them to this blog. Here are some new ones I rather liked, not least because they demonstrate a fairly zany outlook, and because I cannot imagine how some of them ever got to me with those terms:

Poetry about university life
is name aran a form of the name john
we have 26 holidays per year
the university of whatever it takes
my generation and the zimmer frame
poetry my arse [apologies, but that's what they entered]
how can I get more money
where can I learn about life
what can you do with a minister

And then, here are some who may not have a completely open mind about their chosen topics:

for god’s sake pay no tuition fees
harm done to america by obama
parliamentarians should not be paid
universities are completely pointless

And here’s one who has worked it all out:

prondzynski is a shit

What do we do now?

August 23, 2009

I am a fan of the actors Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. So when they both appeared in the same movie in 1990 I made sure to see it as soon as it opened. The movie is Awakenings. In summary, the plot revolves around a doctor (Williams) who discovers that a particular medication can ‘awaken’ patients who have become catatonic after contracting encephalitis. He succeeds in resuscitating a whole ward full of them (the first one being de Niro), and to reintroduce them to a life they had pretty much lost. However, after a while we discover that the effects of the medication are temporary, and one by one the patients return to their catatonic state. It’s a good movie, if you allow for some slightly over-the-top ham acting by de Niro and a somewhat awkward romantic sub-plot.

Right now it seems to me as if the plot of Awakenings could be some sort of parable on the higher education sector in Ireland. When I started my professional academic life in 1980, universities in Ireland were on the whole pretty lethargic, not because anyone was deliberately or negligently under-performing, but because the resources were not there for us to be anything else. We had old, not-fit-for-purpose buildings, an unfavourable staff-student ratio, and virtually no research performance by international standards. I suppose it would be fair to say that, given those constraints, there were some academics and groups who did perform amazingly well, but Irish higher education as a whole was not visible internationally. Then came the Celtic Tiger, a sudden surge in student numbers, serious research funding (initially kick-started by Chuck Feeny’s Atlantic Philanthropies), research councils and foundations. We are not yet amongst the top universities globally, but we are on the way up. I suspect that this year’s global rankings will see some further improvements in the standing of Irish universities.

But if I am right about the rankings, then enjoy it, because this may be the peak, and now we’re going down. For next year and beyond, everything may be against us. Public sector embargos and similar measures will reduce staff numbers and worsen staff-student ratios (which are already bad by international standards); research funding is being cut (and we have yet to see by how much). And these two metrics are perhaps those that most significantly influence world rankings. As the effects of these measures come into account we must anticipate a visible deterioration in our sector, not made any better by the creeping imposition of bureaucratic controls likely to militate against innovation and initiative. The ‘awakenings’ may come to an end as the medication is withdrawn.

Or maybe we need to decide now that we will not just sit back and let all this happen. Despite the hostile environment of the 1980s, in parts of the higher education sector this was also a time of innovation and enterprise. My own university, DCU, grew strongly over that period and was able to innovate effectively. Others did also. We need to find ways now of becoming less dependent on an increasingly unreliable state, by finding new revenues that will allow us to support our key priorities and maintain standards while we do so. We need to develop strategic goals that we can pursue successfully, particularly in cooperation with each other. We must not sit back and wait to be victims of the evolving circumstances.

The key to our continuing growth and success will be financial ingenuity. Without resources we can do very little. This means that we must make the best case we can for public funding, but we must also become more active in trying to influence the debate around fees, and we must also look at ways of harnessing our facilities and our skills to secure other income. It is worth a fight to ensure that we retain the international recognition and the excellence that we have so far secured and to build on that.

And of course if we success, we can start planning the movie. I was thinking that Brad Pitt might be suited for my part. And I’m sure we can find a part for Angelina.


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