Archive for October 2009

It’s all a lottery

October 31, 2009

You know the way it is: you are in the shop, you only want to buy a newspaper, you’re already late for whatever it is you need to do next. You get to the check-out; just one middle-aged man in front of you. But, oh dear! The man is asking the sales assistant to check his lottery tickets, to see whether he won anything. No, nothing, Is the sales assistant sure? Yes, totally. So what does the man do? Cut his losses and get on with his life? Absolutely not! He needs another lottery ticket. And when he has that, three scratch cards. No, make that four. Actually, five. And then, could the sales assistant check the last ticket again, he feels sure he did win something.

Well, one thing was sure, I was standing behind an addict. Quite apart from the obvious obsession and the need to keep buying and checking, the man was sweating, and as he handled the various tickets and scratch cards his hand was shaking. This was, frankly, not someone who should be entertained for this kind of purchase.

When the Irish National Lottery got into business in the mid-1980s I did buy a few scratch cards and I entered the lotto two or three times; and again, nearly ten years later, I did the same when I lived in England and the National Lottery started up there. Between the two jurisdictions I have probably spent £30 or so over 25 years – actually, over 15, as I haven’t bought any during the current decade. I am happy to say that this investment has yielded a return of £20 exactly (well, I am mixing the UK and the former Irish Pound, but you get the picture). So I am not an addict, I had some modest winnings, and have contributed £10 net to what are always described as ‘good causes’.

In many ways the lottery could be said to be a good thing, providing resources for community and social needs. Ot could it? Apparently lottery ticket purchases have gone up by nearly 10 per cent since the start of the recession, as people attempt to escape from the financial reality of their lives into the fantasy prospect of big winnings. And who does this? Disproportionately the disadvantaged and the poorer sections of the population. In fact, it could be argued that the lottery is a tax on the poor.

I am not sure enough of my ground to suggest that we close down the lottery. But I feel sceptical enough about it to suggest we should have another look at the case for it, and assess what social impact it is having. It may be funding good projects, but if the price is to make addicts of the poor, it is too high.

Re-naming hallowed ground?

October 31, 2009

Sorry, it’s one of those moments when I have to say something about events at Newcastle United FC. As some readers may know, the club has not been having a happy time with its current owner, Mike Ashley, and fans have been in revolt ever since he forced Kevin Keegan to quite as manager.

But however inept his performance as owner may have been to date, this week he wandered into quite new and mine-strewn territory. Earlier in the week the club announced:

‘Newcastle United now aims to move forward on and off the pitch. The Club aims to maximise its commercial revenues; this includes renegotiating its Club sponsor and kit deal, which expire at the end of this season, as well as welcoming offers for the stadium naming rights for next season.’

Stadium naming rights? Does he even begin to know what can of worms he is opening there? As every Newcastle supporter knows, St James’s Park is one of the key iconic places in England’s North-East. Generations have converged on it on Saturdays and other match days. Of course the stadium itself has had to change radically over the years, as standards have moved on and new expectations have grown regarding safety and comfort. But what has kept the link between today’s stadium and past generations of supporters is the name, St James’s Park.

The idea that it might be re-named, and indeed for commercial reasons, has united supporters in fury. I find it hard to see how Ashley will not be forced to back down; or else be run out of Toon…

An academic bonus?

October 30, 2009

Right now the word ‘bonus’ – when applied to special payments that supplement salary – has become a dirty word, suggesting greed and abuse by corporate managers at times when their organisations are failing and people are losing their jobs. So it may seem counter-intuitive for higher education institutions to experiment with bonus payments at this time – but that is what has been done at Kent State University in Ohio. Apparently 820 academics are due to get bonuses of around $2,500 based on progress the university has made in student retention, research income and philanthropic fundraising.

These bonuses are not, however, comparable with discredited practices in the financial world – they are not strictly performance-based; they could perhaps more accurately be described as a kind of profit sharing scheme, whereby a better than expected performance by the university is reflected in one-off increased payments to staff. The university has implied that the existence of the bonus system has incentivised staff to work harder and that it has contributed to improved results. Others are more sceptical, and suggest that while the bonus will be welcome by recipients, it is hard to see how it made any contribution to performance.

In Ireland none of this is possible under our tightly controlled pay frameworks. Nevertheless, as these come under scrutiny and are analysed to assess whether they are fit-for-purpose, one question we might at least ask is whether pay could, in whatever way, be used more deliberately to motivate and encourage staff and thereby improve institutional performance, assuming that such payments are available to a wider body of staff and are paid in a transparent manner. It is at any rate worth asking the question.

Higher education, and shifting the geopolitical balance of power

October 29, 2009

How countries and regions respond to dramatic economic circumstances can have significant longer term effects on the global balance of power. Two historical developments, for example, shaped the world’s political make-up for the later 20th century: the financial fall-0ut from the First World War, when US dollars moved in to bankroll some of the key European combatants, including Britain; and the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Second World War, while significant in that its outcome temporarily side-lined Germany as a major power, merely reinforced what was already a fact in international relations, the supremacy of the United States. Furthermore, the decline of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demonstrated that military muscle not supported by economic power was actually a handicap rather than a support, a point underscored also by the rise of Japan and (West) Germany in the 1960s.

The current recession, which may or may not be coming to an end in global markets, will probably also have a dramatic effect on the balance of power, and this time it is higher education that may be a key factor. In itself that is not new. The ability of the United States to consolidate its global economic dominance in the 1950s was hugely supported by major investment in higher education, and by the tendency of the US to attract and retain talented scientists and academics from across the world to add excellence to its universities. When we see the global university rankings, we see don’t just higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures.

The question now is whether those rankings will still look the same in 10 years time. Well, to save time let me say that they won’t. The position of Asian universities will have improved dramatically, as the key countries there are channelling big investments into their higher education systems right now. As the US Chronicle of Higher Education has observed, investment by countries like Singapore in new world class universities demonstrates a sense of driven purpose. But this is coming at a time when the major western countries in the North America and Europe talk the language of higher education development while simultaneously withdrawing the resources. The same article in the Chronicle warns that the University of California system, containing arguably the best cluster of public universities in the world, is now under serious threat due to funding cutbacks. In Europe the rankings show no sign that any national sector other than the British is on the rise – while the British sector itself is about to be hit hard by cuts. In Ireland, as we know, we are heading directly for the precipice, with no apparent recognition of the importance of a properly resourced higher education sector for our longer term economic prosperity.

I believe that the US will turn itself around and continue to drive global excellence in its higher education – certainly the Obama administration has recognised the urgent priority in this. But in Europe? And Ireland? I have significant doubts whether we have the understanding or the will to do this. And if we don’t, we are in a community of nations doomed to slip into the second tier and stay there. It’s not too late to correct this, but there isn’t much time, either.

Professor Murphy’s Law

October 29, 2009

Yesterday wasn’t the best of days – lots of annoying things, lots of things going wrong. In the middle of it all a colleague, in commenting on one of the things that had happened, said it really was ‘Murphy’s Law’. Ah, I said, so what is Murphy’s Law. ‘Easy’, he replied: ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.’ And the origins of that adage? ‘Traditional Irish’, he replied.

Well, my mother had a tea towel once with all the different variants of Murphy’s Law, and these were surrounded by shamrocks and leprechauns and other folksy Irish stuff; and maybe my colleague grew up with that tea towel also.

In fact, the Murphy of ‘Murphy’s Law’ was never found outside a thatched cottage somewhere in Mayo, but rather was Captain Edward Murphy of the US Air Force. He was an engineer, and when something particularly foolish had been done in the course of a rocket test, he is said to have remarked: ‘If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.’ By the time the results were reported by the air force, his statement had become known as ‘Murphy’s Law’, and it stuck. And very quickly new versions of it were disseminated, including the one mentioned by my friend (which in fact is the best known popular version of Murphy’s Law). My personal favourite is: ‘It is impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.’

And now, according to Times Higher Education, Professor David Watson, of the Institute of Education in London, has come up with an academic version of Murphy’s Law, including such obviously correct statements as:

• The first thing a committee member says is the exact opposite of what she means (“I’d like to agree with everything the vice-chancellor has just said, but…”; or “with respect”…; or even “briefly”).
• On email, nobody ever has the last word.
• There is never enough money, but there used to be.

I would add a couple:

• Every email sent to more than one person is always read by at least one person from whom you wanted to keep it confidential.
• No meeting ever ends at the agreed time.

Any other suggestions?

Turkish delight?

October 28, 2009

As I have mentioned in this blog perviously, I was not hugely impressed with some of the arguments used, on both sides, during the recent referendum campaign in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty. But perhaps the most outrageous slogan used was found on one anti-Lisbon poster: ‘Hello Lisbon, Hello Turkey, No Way’. This was outrageous for many reasons. Its basic suggestion (presumably that the Treaty would pave the way for Turkey’s admission into the EU) was nonsense factually, but that’s not my main gripe. Rather, what I abhor is the racist innuendo. The voter was to be seduced into the fear that voting yes would hasten the arrival of Turkey in the Union, with the subtext being that before we could say ‘mass migration’ hordes of Turks would come gunning for our jobs.

Lest I am misunderstood, there are perfectly reasonable questions that can asked before anyone decides on Turkey’s membership; but that was not the point here. This campaign seemed to me to want to adopt a position on largely racist grounds. Another approach with the same subtext is sometimes used by others wanting to stop Turkey’s accession: that unlike every other EU state, Turkey is not a Christian country in its religious and cultural origins. Turkey, we are being told, has a population that could subvert European culture – white Caucasian culture. Its citizens, already used to doing menial jobs in some European countries that the local workforce will no longer touch, would suddenly gain full rights.

Thankfully the posters did not do the trick, and I would like to think that this demonstrated once again that the Irish are not as open to political racism as some might have feared. But all this shows nevertheless that Europe needs to be more explicit in saying that it does not define itself in line with a neo-aryan outlook, and that its main purpose is not to maintain a particular set of ethnic cultures and to keep out others. I for one hope that it will not be long before Turkey is a member state of the EU.


October 26, 2009

I was recently invited to attend an inaugural lecture by an academic who is an old friend of mine, and who had just been appointed to a professorship in his university (not DCU). His lecture was a tour de force on aspects of law and society, and the whole thing was most enjoyable and stimulating.  But what struck me almost as much was that he appeared (as did the senior university officer who chaired the event) in a gown. And so I was transported between intellectual admiration and a feeling I was sitting by the set of Goodbye Mr Chips.

However, I should be honest about myself. When I delivered my very first undergraduate lecture in 1980 as Trinity College Dublin’s brand new Lecturer in Industrial Relations, I did so in a gown. It’s not that this came naturally to me, but I was encouraged by my Head of Department to do so, and so I did. And I even kept it up for a while, until I thought that this was simply too daft for words.

But then again, as I watched my friend I did have just a moment when I thought that it was really rather nice, a moment for intellectual tradition to be clothed formally. But it only lasted for a moment. Those times are gone, really.

You’ll still find me in a gown at graduations. We owe that to the students, and probably more still they owe it to their parents. But not otherwise.

But perhaps the bigger question we need to address is what value we place on academic traditions – or whether the whole idea of tradition may be intellectually stifling.


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