Archive for September 2009

What’s this all about?

September 30, 2009

Below is an email I received today. I have no idea what it is about, or who the individuals are or what institution is involved. It’s just one of those odd messages I get from time to time…

hello fellow scientists !

as u know somethings have changed…

i  encourage u to communicate only with the persons listed below your list…

I believe we should unite this global nation

/\

take humanity to another dimension !

This summer I decided that the old dean wasdeprecated by any modern standard and that the internal structure was not efficient anymore, so me and Mr SABIN BURAGA, who was vice-dean, are the new DEANS at

Faculty

of Computer Science, IASI.

The site will be updateD[1]2 reflect the administrative and scientific changes.

I recommend to all interested persons or institutions to communicate only with the following persons :

CIOBANU JESCU CRISTIAN

BURAGA SABIN CORNELIU

CROITORU CORNELIUS,

in order not to be held accountable by international laws.

We are the new scientific coordinators @ F.I.I. ! The X-[pelled] dean, Gheorghe Grigoras will be on trial for not allowing the scientific development of one of the most prolific students in the history of this faculty. There will be some new directions of research imposed at MY FACULTY, including state of the art technologies and optimization methods.

I declare any BsC/MsC/PhD thesis recognized by F.I.I. till year 2008 null and void, and those who recognized them accountable by law, for certifying hoaxes scientifically which is criminal activity by MY standards, except  for

Mr BURAGA and Mr CROITORU,

whom at least tried to give themes that honour this faculty reputation.

” THE FUTURE IS ALL ABOUT SEMANTICS ! “

mastermind

Jex-DEAN

So what’s next for Germany?

September 30, 2009

As some of the more internationally minded readers of this blog will know (and presumably any German readers will know it), there has just been a general election in Germany, and this has resulted in the prospect of a slightly new government consisting of a coalition between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). This is ‘slightly’ new in the sense that this government will be replacing a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD), the so-called ‘grand coalition’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) will remain in office, but her party has actually lost some electoral ground, and is only able to stay in power on the back of a major electoral boost for the Liberal and business-friendly FDP.

If you’re mot much into German politics then your eyes are probably glazing over right now, so let me get to the point. It struck me that it might be interesting to see what the new coalition partners have in mind for higher education in Germany. A few weeks ago in this blog I pointed out that German universities consistently and seriously under-perform in international terms and hardly appear in the league tables, and I suggested that what is missing there is a concept of institutional autonomy and strategic direction. So could all this change?

The most detailed proposals are those in the election manifesto of the FDP, which (if you read German) you can see here. The party suggests in this document that the key problems in German higher education are lack of financial and operational autonomy for higher education institutions and inadequate flexibility. It suggests five new policy principles: (a) money should follow students – i.e. the introduction of a voucher system whereby state funding goes to students rather than to institutions, with the students choosing where to spend it; (b) the introduction of further development of tuition fees; (c) the establishment of new private not-for-profit institutions; (d) a flexible curriculum that can be determined by each institution (rather than a centralised national curriculum); and (e) the abolition of current regulations that fix student numbers for each institution centrally.

What about the CDU? It has focused on the improvement of the student loans and grants system, as well as the suggestion that industry can be encouraged to fund higher education programmes which will give them skilled graduates in areas that industry needs. But their sister party, the CSU, is the only coalition partner to emphasise the importance of research and innovation, arguing that this is essential for the further development of national prosperity.

It may also be worth mentioning that the SPD, which will now be leaving government, had in its manifesto mainly argued for free higher education and the avoidance of tuition fees.

Despite Germany’s prominence in the EU and its leading role in both politics and economics, this is a country that has not been influential in the EU-wide and global debate on higher education. Maybe the first priority for Germany should be to address that deficit and to develop a clearer view of the significance of skills, knowledge and research, in a context of institutional flexibility and autonomy. Perhaps this will be understood by the parties as they negotiate their programme for government.

The cuts, the cuts – cleaning up

September 29, 2009

So what’s in store for us next? Well, a report in Times Higher Education tells us that staff in Sheffield University are now having to clean their offices themselves; or rather, the normal cleaning service now happens only every two to three weeks. The whole issue was made public by the British academics’ trade union, the University and College Union. The actual circular was also published by Sheffield University on its website. It appears that the university is seeking to make savings on cleaning services and is encouraging staff to assist in various ways, including emptying their own bins.

The UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, was apparently outraged:

‘The health and safety of staff is paramount and I am utterly amazed that the university is prepared to cut back on cleaning when it is under swine flu alert.’

I can’t help feeling the reference to swine fly is somewhat irrelevant in this context. Nevertheless, there is a serious issue in there somewhere, and it is clear that as all universities in this part of the world now face serious cuts in public funding there will be more cutbacks in services as institutions struggle to make ends meet. In Ireland this will be made worse by the attempt on the part of the government to stop all recruitment to non-academic posts, including the filling of vacant posts. Given a normal turnover of around 10 per cent per annum in such posts it would not take long before crises arise. The apparent view that you can protect ‘frontline’ educational provision by stopping non-academic appointments is very questionable.

But on the other hand, we are part of a country in crisis, and we must expect to share some of the burden. What we don’t at this point know is how much of this the sector can take without running into serious operational problems with longer term implications. In the early 1990s the then British government introduced a series of annual ‘efficiency gains’, which were if I recall in fact an annual reduction in recurrent grants of 1 per cent. Back then there were serious debates about how far this could be taken, and at which point efficiencies would turn into more serious structural damage.

But this debate needs to be an intelligent one. Claiming that a request to staff to assist in routine tidying endangers health and safety may not be the most sensible way to address this. Equally, pretending that neglecting maintenance and repairs can be a longer term solution to funding problems is also dangerous.

Universities cannot be run on the cheap. But they do always have some potential opportunities to conduct their business more efficiently. Getting that balance right at a time of crisis is vital, so that we can be confident that when economic conditions improve we will not be found to have been damaged beyond repair.

Referendumitis

September 28, 2009

As everyone knows, Ireland will be voting in a referendum this Friday on the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community. That will be the only issue to be placed before the Irish people in a referendum this year. And notwithstanding the excitements that such a referendum can entail it’s a relatively rare occurrence in Ireland.

It would be very different if we were living in Switzerland. Since 1848 Swiss citizens (until recently, men only) have been asked to vote on all sorts of propositions. So far this year they have had five referendums, and seven more are planned. So for example this past weekend they voted in favour of raising value added tax in order to deal with an underfunding of disability insurance. In November, controversially, they will be asked to vote on a proposed prohibition of the construction of minarets on mosques. Last year, to pick another example, a majority voted against a proposal to liberalise laws on the possession or use of cannabis. All in all, the Swiss vote on matters of general policy and principles (there have been several on neutrality and military policy), as well as matters that are less exalted (my favourite being the referendum on a proposal to use less concrete in Switzerland, appropriately held on April 1st, 1990). I’ve seen a list of all referendums that have been held in Switzerland since 1848, and to be honest I couldn’t be bothered to count them, but I’d say there were well over 500, and 30 since 2006 alone.

In constitutional terms, Switzerland behaves like a kind of super-large village: 50,000 people, or eight cantons, can force a referendum on any issue. And as we have seen, it happens a lot. Most other countries either do not use referendums at all, or else only for very limited purposes, often to do with constitutional amendments as is the case in Ireland. However, even for constitutional amendments most countries do not have referendums, allowing such amendments to be adopted by parliament, sometimes with special majorities.

The use (or otherwise) of the device of a popular vote to determine specific policy or operational issues is the key characteristic of what is described as ‘direct democracy’, where voters are given the opportunity to choose or to reject the policies that will be applied by government. ‘Indirect’ democracy, on the other hand, is a system in which voters elect a government, or a parliamentary majority from which the government will be chosen, which will then implement policies. It is sometimes argued that the distinction between these has been blurred, as even in an indirect democracy the electorate votes for (or against) the policy package which parties place before the people.

The main arguments against direct democracy in a modern state (as distinct from the ancient Greek city-state from which it emerged) are that countries have to thrive in complex economic, social and political environments in which they must demonstrate rational predictability and an overall sense of purpose, which is undermined if the people can cherry pick things they like and reject things they don’t – for example perhaps voting for high public expenditure and low taxes; and that issues may be brought to a referendum which are simply too technical and incomprehensible to allow an intelligent vote to be taken on them. On the other hand the main argument for direct democracy is that it has the capacity to engage the people and make them take more direct responsibility for national affairs.

It may be argued that direct democracy has worked in Switzerland; though any such conclusion may have to be tempered with reference to various illiberal measures that have over the decades been adopted in votes. But it must also be said that the nature of Swiss society is fundamentally different from that of almost any other country.

Here in Ireland the device of the referendum, which is the only way in which the Constitution can be amended, does not necessarily have a proud history. In the 1980s the device was used in a divisive manner to enforce what might now be regarded by some as sectarian social values. And more recently, we have voted on European treaties that were far too technical for such votes, resulting in referendums that had a more general plebiscite nature unrelated to the specific issues to be determined. Right now the overwhelming majority of posters on Irish streets arguing the case for or against the Lisbon treaty actually have nothing whatsoever to do with the treaty, but rather try to chill the blood of the voters by setting out horrible scenarios that are in fact completely irrelevant.

When the current Lisbon vote is over, it may be time to think again, in the context of Irish constitutional law, whether this use of the referendum is necessarily a good idea. Though of course, if we decide to change it, we’ll need to vote on it.

Evaluating quality assurance

September 28, 2009

Last week the European Commission published a Report on progress in quality assurance in higher education. It is worth quoting the opening paragraph of the report in full, as it sets out the case for quality assurance systems.

Quality assurance in higher education is at the heart of efforts to build a coherent, compatible 
and attractive European Higher Education Area (EHEA), in line with the objectives of the 
pan-European Bologna Process. Over the past decade, there has been growing interest, in 
Europe and worldwide, in quality assurance in higher education. With globalisation, 
economic integration and increased academic and professional mobility, there is a growing 
need for the recognition of qualifications outside the country which awards them. The 
“borderless” delivery of higher education has made cross-border quality assurance 
increasingly important. The emergence of so-called “degree mills” (fake universities selling 
fake “degrees” on the internet) makes it vital to distinguish legitimate education undertaken 
abroad from spurious qualifications. Quality assurance helps to make higher education 
transparent and trustworthy for European citizens and employers as well as for students and 
scholars from other continents.

Quality assurance in higher education is at the heart of efforts to build a coherent, compatible and attractive European Higher Education Area (EHEA), in line with the objectives of the pan-European Bologna Process. Over the past decade, there has been growing interest, in Europe and worldwide, in quality assurance in higher education. With globalisation, economic integration and increased academic and professional mobility, there is a growing need for the recognition of qualifications outside the country which awards them. The “borderless” delivery of higher education has made cross-border quality assurance increasingly important. The emergence of so-called “degree mills” (fake universities selling fake “degrees” on the internet) makes it vital to distinguish legitimate education undertaken abroad from spurious qualifications. Quality assurance helps to make higher education transparent and trustworthy for European citizens and employers as well as for students and scholars from other continents.

It would be hard to argue with any of that. However, the report then focuses to quite an extent on the establishment and development of quality assurance agencies in the EU and their role in securing quality assurance. In the conclusions the report suggests that some rationalisation of agencies might be called for, and that the structure of agencies should perhaps more of a European dimension.

The report is valuable in many respects, but it follows the pattern of many quality assurance initiatives in that it concentrates on institutional arrangements rather than the more important question of what it is that these institutions are actually supposed to protect or assure or enhance. As I have noted before in this blog, quality understood as process is not always helpful, in that the main output of such an approach is often bureaucratisation. Even at a national level we have a pretty incomplete view of what constitutes quality, beyond a desire for clear evaluation processes. At an EU level such an understanding is still more remote. Right now it seems to me that we have never really addressed the question of whether a decade or more of quality assurance processes has really improved the actual quality of higher education, however understood. If we don’t know the answer to that, then there must be something wrong with the system we have adopted

Maybe the EU could play a useful role in stimulating a debate on what we want quality assurance systems to deliver in substantive terms, before spending more time fine-tuning the institutional elements. And within Ireland, and in the context of the proposed establishment of a new agency for higher education quality assurance, we should also pause to address this. I am strongly of the view that educational content is for institutions themselves to determine, but any quality assurance system that assesses this content should have a clear and comprehensible remit that is clear on the meaning of quality, and not just the procedures to apply to quality assurance. And we should develop a consensus that more paperwork and more complex processes is not necessarily the same as, or even conducive to, higher quality.

Fordism

September 27, 2009

Exactly 101 years ago today, the first Ford Model T car came off the production line in Detroit, Michigan. Not only was this the birth of an iconic car, it also marked the beginning of mass motor car production, with implications for personal mobility that revolutionised not just transport but also the nature of modern society. It also caused the development of various social theories that go under the title of ‘Fordism‘, which are generally associated with the social and economic consequences of mass production and consumption.

Notwithstanding technological change, economic developments and social upheavals, the major characteristics of modern society that followed from the development of the Model T remain with us today. Cars themselves are produced rather differently now, but the mass availability of consumer products is still a key feature of life. Governments must on the whole prioritise the flow of production in the interests of consumers in order to maintain social stability, and international trade on a massive scale dominates the substance of international relations on the political level.

So,m it can probably be argued that the arrival of the Model T at the beginning of the 20th century has defined us more than most of the political theories of that century. It will be interesting to see whether this remains true as we move into the new millennium.

Scotland, and the question of tuition fees

September 27, 2009

The debate about the reintroduction of tuition fees is not just taking place in Ireland, but is also a hot topic in Scotland. As readers of this blog may know, Scotland has not followed the lead taken in England, where fees were reintroduced and gradually increased after the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the ‘Dearing Report‘). Instead, from 2000 the Scottish government has maintained a system of higher education that is free at the point of entry.

Over recent years Scottish universities have become increasingly concerned about the capacity of the Scottish government to maintain funding for the sector that could match the resources now available to English universities. Now the former Principal of Edinburgh University, Lord Sutherland, has suggested that the relatively low number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds studying at Scottish universities suggests that there should be a re-consideration of tuition fees. It seems unlikely that there will be a change of mind on this on the part of the Scottish government, at least for the immediate future, but the issue may become the subject of a more lively debate there also. No doubt there will also be some interest in Scotland in whatever is decided in this context in Ireland.


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