Archive for March 2010

Doing the business

March 31, 2010

One question that universities and other higher education institutions may have to address in the period ahead is how they can generate the revenues that will make up for the shortfall in public funding. Clearly it is possible to reduce expenditure on education – in fact, the ultimate ‘efficiency gain’ would be to admit the student and, instantly, hand them a degree parchment and say goodbye. The cost of that would be minimal, but obviously it would not satisfy anyone’s quality expectations. So on the understanding that a student is entitled to a quality education with an acceptable ratio of students to staff, reasonable facilities, good source materials in the library, and buildings maintained to at least a minimum level, I have calculated that the current unit of resource – i.e. the sum of money paid by the government to pay for each Irish or EU student’s education – is now about €250 per student less than the actual cost of providing such an education. So if a university has, say, 7,000 undergraduate students in this category, they are losing it €1.75 million.

We could theoretically deal with this in one of three possible ways: (a) stop admitting Irish or EU undergraduate students, or at any rate reduce their numbers significantly; (b) admit the students, but adapt the programmes to the financial realities and accept there may be quality risks (larger classes, reduced materials, out of date equipment and less well maintained buildings); or (c) develop other income streams in order to subsidise undergraduate education. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the other option, which is to look again at how students are funded, and either adjust public funding levels or else introduce student contributions; none of that seems likely to happen right now.

If you take the view, as I do, that option (a) is not possible for political and indeed ethical reasons, and that option (b) should not be adopted without at least trying to do something better, it seems to me that higher education institutions must all now develop much more vibrant commercialisation strategies. This does not mean that the core activities should be commercialised – nobody is anticipating that Diageo will sponsor lectures – but rather that we need to look much more closely at how we can exploit commercial opportunities in appropriate contexts. For example, we should look at how consulting can be organised and developed as a business, or how university services could be built up as commercial businesses that also look for external customers as part of a business strategy.

The business model for higher education has, I believe, been fatally undermined. We will need to ensure that we protect our educational core activities through revenues secured on the basis of our expertise. And if we do so successfully, we may also be able to use such success to lessen the bureaucratic influence of government over our activities. In the absence of tuition fees, I see no realistic alternative.

The horror of HTML (where it isn’t wanted)

March 30, 2010

I may need to give up on this; but not without a little noise.

Every day I receive some, let us say, 100 emails that are HTML-formatted. Some of these are really just text emails written by people who don’t know any better, or who have left intact the default formatting options of their email clients. Some are from people who think it’s really cool to add little formatting touches to their emails. Some are advertisements from companies that chuck in formatting, photos, even flash stuff.

So here is my plea to the world: Email is a text only communication device. HTML, or indeed any form of formatting or multimedia, is out of place here. Adding it takes away lots and lots of disk space and adds the risk of virus infection. So for heaven’s sake, send your emails unformatted, text only. Please.

Science and the humanities: an eternal battle?

March 29, 2010

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was recently discussed in the Guardian newspaper by the columnist Simon Jenkins. He argues that an attack on the humanities, arts and social sciences set in under Margaret Thatcher, who considered these areas to be socialist breeding grounds, and that since then politicians have maintained a bias towards science funding, with Peter Mandelson in the UK completing this process. Jenkins argues that the universities need to re-assert their autonomy and their support for all disciplines on a fair basis.

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. However, it is not helpful to suggest that there is some sort of academic class war between disciplines; in fact one of the more helpful recent developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research. It is also unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth andf benefits.

However, it is also vital the universities develop a clear policy for the development of their disciplines, and that such a policy should leave no doubt about the equal value of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and their claim to be recognised as vital academic areas. It is in nobody’s interests that there should be hostility between different parts of the academy. To avoid this requires a better dialogue and more transparent decision-making.

Graduation stories

March 28, 2010

Even very non-traditional universities like DCU do some things in a fairly traditional way. Probably one thing we share with almost every other university is the graduation ceremony, where students are formally awarded the qualification they have earned, marking the end of their direct membership of the student community (unless of course they proceed to another programme).

On two occasions I have attended such ceremonies as a graduand – one in Trinity College Dublin and the other in Cambridge. On both occasions the ceremony was entirely in Latin. Indeed the one in Cambridge amused me particularly, because it involved the Chancellor addressing me as his son (not just me, of course) and laying his hands on my head while I knelt before him. No doubt the symbolism was deliberate, and was supposed to resemble ordination; in this case ordination to what would once have been a very exclusive mystical community. I was being ordained – oops, I mean conferred – alongside an Irish student who added to this impression by instinctively adding ‘Amen’ at the end of the Latin conferring formula, no doubt a throwback to the Latin masses of his youth.

Of course since then I have attended many conferrings of others, and in the last ten years I have presided over all of DCU’s graduations. Over that period every single student who had successfully completed their programme of study or research received his or her degree from me, and if they were present at the conferring they received a handshake from me. I have calculated that I have presided at 110 such ceremonies (including those in our linked colleges), and that I have shaken some 23,000 hands. I have felt every possible (and some weird and wonderful) hand jewellery, and have watched people (and I would have to say, mainly women) crossing the stage in some pretty improbable footwear. I have seen and responded to happy smiles, as well as the occasional sullen ‘I’m-only-here-for-my-parents’ look. I have delivered 110 speeches, no two identical. And on Saturday I did all this for the last time: when next in November a student picks up their DCU award in the Helix, they will be receiving it from my successor.

On the whole, I am an informal person, just as DCU is an informal university. Still, these ceremonies have a capacity to pull me into the slightly mystical mood of something being done that is greater than what it appears to be, a rite of passage and a re-confirmation of community bonds that we hope will last beyond the years of study.

A couple of times during my term of office someone has raised the issue of whether these graduations are perhaps not part of the ethos of DCU, but every time the response has been immediate and overwhelming, and has involved a re-affirmation of the importance of these events. I suspect they will always be there, and actually I am glad.

My final outing on Saturday turned out to be an emotional affair for me. First we awarded an honorary degree to Owen Keenan, former chief executive of Barnardos – thereby again confirming DCU’s desire to support social justice as well as enterprise – and then, at the last ceremony, I received an unexpected, and probably undeserved, ovation from staff and graduates that almost left me tearful. I guess rites of passage do matter.

The Roman heritage

March 28, 2010

Today – March 28 – is a significant date as regards Roman history. On this day in 37 AD the new Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus entered Rome to take up his throne. The event was seen as one of great significance and was greeted with major public celebration. The new emperor, who succeeded the eventually despotic and unpopular Tiberius, took a number of early decisions that cemented his popularity. That this did not last long may be clearer when we give him his more common name, Caligula. Within a short space of time he became unpredictable and cruel, a development sometimes now supposed to have been brought about by illness, perhaps syphilis. Increasingly mad, he eventually tried to appoint his horse Incinatus to the Senate. Eventually he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard.

March 28 is also the date on which the Praetorian Guard, this time in 193 AD, assassinated another emperor, Pertinax, who only managed to reign for 86 days. The reason for his assassination was perhaps highly symbolic in the context of current Irish events: the Praetorian Guard had suffered a pay cut.

And also on March 28, in 364 AD, the emperor Valentian appointed his brother Flavius to be co-emperor. Their joint reign came at a turning point in Roman history, with the western empire beginning to fall apart; it would not last much longer.

The history of Rome is, as I frequently discover when I talk with young people, now largely unknown to the general population today, and yet it is hugely important to us. The general structure of western society, including Ireland, owes much to the Roman empire. Concepts of public administration, and the general legal framework, can be traced back to Roman practices and regulations. Furthermore the academic discipline of history was largely formed during that era, as were aspects of science.

It is perhaps time to restore Roman history in the public consciousness, as part of a move to widen our understanding of this important part of what we have inherited.

Irish universities and a tale of efficiency

March 27, 2010

There is, I think, a growing sense of alarm in Irish higher education that when the 2010 global university rankings are compiled, the position of Irish institutions may be found to have slipped; or if not in 2010, then certainly in the following years. As the available funding declines, various metrics commonly used to determine rankings will begin to work against us, from higher student-staff ratios to lower research funding and outputs. We are, as I have pointed out before, talking the language of education and innovation, but we are not paying the bills.

However, if it’s any comfort, we are right up there in another league table: the table of the most ‘efficient’ universities. A little while ago the European Commission published a Study on the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending on tertiary education. In this Ireland was found to have the 5th most efficient university sector in Europe, coming behind the UK, Japan, the Netherlands and Finland, but ahead of such countries as Germany, Belgium, France, Finland and the United States. It must be pointed out that the most recent year in the study was 2005, and given all the cuts we have probably become massively more ‘efficient’ still. In essence the table measures the funding and other revenues received by universities, and then looks at the various outputs achieved on the back of that funding. Ireland does well, and this has been noted in the media.

But what does this mean? Is it being suggested that the silver bullet of higher education is high quality education and research funded by very little? Is the process of pushing through ‘efficiencies’ a limitless one? In other words, can further cuts be applied incrementally more or less for ever without compromising quality? I remember vividly the then UK government’s policy in the early 1990s of applying an annual ‘efficiency gain’ to university budgets, meaning an annual reduction in the core grant. It did not take too long before serious questions began to be raised as to whether the universities could maintain quality in such circumstances.

At one level it is good that we are doing more with less. Maximising performance is always great. But efficiency is not a strategy. It is merely a form of good management, and there isn’t really any credible route to better results via less money. The ultimate efficiency, if this policy were extended logically, would be to give up teaching and to hand out degree parchments on the day the students first register. But I doubt that would impress the world; and that’s whom we have to impress.

Solidarity, or the public sector unions vs the public?

March 26, 2010

RTE News reports that the public servants in the Passport Office who have been involved in the industrial action that has caused massive delays for those wanting to obtain or renew passports were given a standing ovation today at the conference of the Civil Public and Services Union conference in Galway. Clearly the trade unions, fearing that they have been unable to influence events over the past year and in particular to protect the pay and conditions of their public service members, are looking for ways to be more effective at this time. And it is hard to deny that the Passport Office action has been effective. What is less clear is what that effect will turn out to be. Walking past the queues at the office earlier this week I was able to hear some very colourful opinions by members of the public, and it has to be said that these were overwhelmingly negative, mostly unprintable, about the industrial action by the union. There is therefore a risk that the action will actually widen the gulf between the public service workers and other members of society, which is not good for anyone.

I am hoping that talks between the government and the unions will recommence. But I am very sceptical as to whether industrial action can advance the unions’ case right now. I fear that the opposite is happening, and that this may give further strength to the anti-public sector case, including that which has been so damaging to the universities.

Is the internet destroying or enriching education?

March 26, 2010

I was wandering around the room at a reception the other day; you know, one of those receptions where, once you get there, you really can’t remember why you accepted the invitation. Still, networking is everything, and so I sidled up to the first little cluster of people standing around with wine glasses. One of them turned out to be an educator, and he recognised me and rounded on me. ‘One of my students brought me this essay’, he said, ‘and he used your blog as a source for his argument.’ Good man, I thought; but I didn’t say it, because the face of my interlocutor betrayed clearly that he was anything but pleased. He continued: ‘I had to explain to him, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, that your blog is not a primary source.’ OK, I thought, I’ll have to bite now. ‘Primary source for what?’ I asked. ‘He was doing an assignment on higher education values.’ He paused, and then exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, the way the internet is misused. And it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t there.’

OK, I had to find another cluster of wine drinkers to bother, because if that conversation had continued I might have had to hit the man. Of course to be fair, he was right when he said that the internet could not be misused if it wasn’t there. But everything else was nonsense; well actually, that was nonsense, too, but at least it was logically correct, if stupid.

Of course we all know about the capacity of the internet to supply ready material for those tempted by plagiarism, and we know that not everything that makes it online is necessarily correct. But those who make that latter point often imply that in the past, once it was put on paper by a hot metal process every statement was infallible; in truth an awful lot of nonsense also got printed. And in any case, there were all sorts of hyperventilating people who in the 16th century were arguing that unless a monk had sat in a cellar etching something on to pigskin a written text had no scholarly value.

But now there is a whole industry of people shouting about the corruption of knowledge wrought by the internet. One of these is the writer Nicholas Carr, who became famous for criticising student habits with the phrase ‘Facebook is the dorm; Wikipedia is the library; and Craigslist is the mall.’ By the way, he issued that dictum on his blog, where else? Elsewhere he has argued that the internet is killing off ‘concentration and contemplation.’

I confess that it really bugs me when people argue that easier access to information is a great tragedy. Underlying this assertion is the view that knowledge cannot be shared, it needs to be mediated, and this needs to be done by a special priesthood of experts who will be there to tell you what is right and what is wrong. But actually, knowledge reaches its true value when it is provided democratically, openly and freely. Of course knowledge needs to be accompanied by understanding, and this needs to be secured by learning (and teaching), but we need to have much more confidence that in the end knowledge enlightens, educates and transforms. Why else are we in education?

Precaution or caution? Attitudes to genetically modified organisms

March 25, 2010

I see that I have got an honourable mention – actually, I suppose it’s a dishonourable one – in Frank McDonald’s article in today’s Irish Times. The main drift of the article is his opposition to the decision by the European Commission to authorise the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) potatoes. He outlines various views and opinions around the European Union, and concludes that the Commission’s decision is wrong because ‘we still do not know enough to say for sure that such genetically engineered crops are safe.’ Along the way he cites an article I wrote for the same newspaper arguing that a country seeking to establish its credentials as a centre for innovation could not afford to rule out exploring the potential of GMOs. This is what he says about my arguments:

‘Writing in The Irish Times last month, Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski complained that opposition to GMOs “has often been influenced by various campaigns using scaremongering labels such as ‘Frankenstein foods’ ” – before going on, in the next sentence, to indulge in scaremongering himself. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if we are to take the Government’s commitment to having Ireland as a GM-free zone seriously, one of the first steps we have to take would be to advise all diabetics to leave the country as we would have to ban insulin” – a patently ludicrous claim, given the way insulin is manufactured from GM bacteria in secure laboratories.’

I accept of course there is a difference between planting GM seeds in a field and manufacturing GM-derived products in a laboratory, but both come under the commitment to maintain Ireland as a GMO-free zone, so I would argue that there was nothing ludicrous about what I wrote.

But my argument in any case had a wider purpose. Saying we don’t know for sure whether something is safe is a silly argument against exploring it. Almost every product or process ever invented had aspects that could be unsafe if improperly handled. If Frank McDonald’s test is to be the bar we have set, it is a very high one, and GMOs would not be nearly the first thing to be removed. We might start with those we know to be unsafe but which are authorised, such as alcohol and cigarettes. We should consider banning cars, knives, petrol and goodness knows what long before we start bothering with GMOs.

If we are to be a centre of innovation we cannot go about it quite like that. I am not of course arguing that we should not take precautions to protect us from risks we can identify or reasonably suspect, but we should not allow ourselves to be driven by gut fears that we cannot really pin down. There may be GM foods that are unsafe, but there are organic ones also which, if misused, can be lethal. For example, eating a raw potato, whether GM or not, will inflict severe damage on you. What we need to do is to explore, and explore energetically, whether and how we can harness the potential of GMOs to address food failure and hunger across the world. I suspect that at least some of the angst about GMOs is a peculiarly western, middle class pre-occupation. We can afford our attitudes, and we may not be aware how they could damage others less wealthy than we are; not even particularly because we are depriving them of the potential of such innovation, but because we may push the less conscientious development of such innovation their way if we refuse to host a better regulated model.

Time to think again.

Technological university?

March 25, 2010

In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent, the President of the Institute of Technology Carlow, Dr Ruaidhri Neavyn (who is also the current Chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland), argues the case for the establishment of a ‘Technological University’, and expresses the hope that such a recommendation might emerge from the Higher Education Strategy Review Group. This is actually a reference to the proposal made by the institutes that they should jointly constitute such a university built on a federal structure.

There are two issues wrapped up in this proposal. One is the question as to the status within the higher education sector of the Institutes of Technology, and the question as to whether or how they could be given university status. On the face of it this is a matter to be progressed through the mechanisms of the Universities Act 1977, which sets out the process and the criteria for the establishment of additional universities. This in turn might prompt a discussion as to whether the particular mission of the IOT sector will be enhanced or compromised by such a change of status.

The second issue is one of strategic coordination and collaboration, and whether a federal university emerging from the IOT sector might produce gains in the pooling of resources and the alignment of strategy.

It is of course well known that some of the institutes have, separately, been seeking university status, and that there have been strong campaigns to secure this based both on their record of achievement and on local interests and needs. It is also worth saying that, all in all, the institutes have been a success story in the Irish educational landscape, and they have every right to raise questions about how that success can be developed and enhanced, not just in their interests but in the national interest. As university status has an iconic relevance in higher education, it is not surprising that this is what they are seeking, and I suspect that comments from the university sector about how the institutes are doing a great and necessary job where they currently are can only come across as patronising and self-interested. But equally, the institutes must be aware of the feeling in some university circles that they have received great benefits and are often given better support than the universities, for example in the former benchmarking process to determine salaries and in capital funding. Working conditions are also sometimes considered to be far more favourable in the IOT sector, though admittedly with less attractive ultimate career opportunities.

Perhaps what this needs, and maybe what the strategic review can deliver, is a better understanding of how we view university status and what significance we are to attach to it. At any rate we need to have an answer to the proposals that have been put and that continue to be raised, and we also need to ensure that cooperation between the university and IOT sectors is enhanced.


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