Archive for June 2010

So, is a degree still worth the investment?

June 30, 2010

I’m afraid this is a bad story. I recently was chatting with a very pleasant lady while waiting for a plane, and when she found out what I did for a living she unburdened herself to me. Her husband, now in his mid-40s, had some six years previously decided that he wanted to improve his professional opportunities. He did not possess a university degree, but had shown lots of interest in science at school. Then as the Celtic Tiger was roaring and the Enterprise Strategy Group (remember that?) was telling everyone that they should move ‘one step up’ educationally, he decided he would go back to college. He studied biology, and then, with a very good degree, he went looking for high value employment in the smart economy. Yes, I’m afraid you guessed correctly, he didn’t find anything in which he could engage his new expertise. So he went back to what he had done before, considering the previous three or four years to have been wasted.

In fact, I have a hunch that we may be coming to the end of an era in which a university or college degree was considered to be indisputably desirable and a good return on personal or public investment. As we move towards a degree as the expected qualification for the entire population, having it is no longer so exceptional, and ironically, not having it not such a downer. If we think of a university degree as something that opens doors to special careers and high returns, it is obvious that this cannot hold if everyone has one.

But then again, a degree should not really just be seen as a key to the executive suite, but rather as an educational investment that will provide a more skilled and enlightened population. It is about providing the country with the capacity to solve problems, handle complex technologies, understand cultures, and so forth.

But right now we have a very opaque sense of what it is all for, which also explains why we are so bad at strategising it and funding it. We don’t know what higher education is for any more. And because we don’t know that, we don’t know how to plan for its future, and we start making a bigger and bigger mess of how we run it. Right now the national formula is to scale down the investment, increase the numbers, and control the operation tightly from some central national point. What will that bring us?

It is time for something better. It is time to understand what part of higher education is vocational, and what part is educational in a broader sense. It is time to have a plan about how graduates will develop their careers on leaving education. It is time to state more clearly what we see as the benefits of higher degrees, particularly doctorates. And it is time to engage and motivate those working in higher education so that they can apply energy and skill to their tasks and so that they can lose the instinct to feel nostalgic about whatever went before. It is time, frankly, to stop messing around.

Feeding the ‘smart economy’

June 30, 2010

Nearly two years ago the Irish government published a paper (Building Ireland’s Smart Economy) in which it identified what it called the ‘smart economy’ as the best support for economic regeneration and an escape from the deepening recession. In the paper, the idea of the ‘smart economy’ was explained as follows:

‘The Smart Economy has, at its core, an exemplary research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem.’

Leaving aside for a moment the increasingly irritating use of the term ‘ecosystem’, the general concept is fair enough: that research, innovation and commercialisation come together to create new economic activity. This happens in two ways: more directly but with fewer short term benefits, the intellectual property from some research can be turned into economic value through licensing and spin-outs; and secondly, high value research linking with industry can generate conditions in which both foreign and indigenous investment may create jobs.

But one issue which perhaps has not received all the attention it deserves is this question: which areas of research are relevant here? Could it be any area at all, or do we need to focus on a small selection (given that we are a small country and cannot do everything)? And if we need to focus, which areas should attract our attention?

The ‘Smart Economy’ report did not itself specify exactly where the focus should lie, but it did make frequent references to areas of research that would align with industrial priorities, together with the provision of transferable skills from other disciplines. On the whole it is assumed that Ireland’s focus should be on the areas highlighted by Science Foundation Ireland – i.e. biotechnology and ICT and, more recently, sustainable development. But is that adequate?

Last weekend the Sunday Business Post published an article by TCD Professor of International Business, Colm Kearney. In a nutshell, he argues that the focus on the areas identified by SFI and in other reports is not necessarily right. In particular, he takes the view that the arts, humanities and social sciences (as well as other science areas that have not been prioritised nationally) have lots to offer that could benefit Ireland’s ‘smart economy’ and assist in regeneration. And this is what he concludes:

‘Ireland’s knowledge society must be broadly conceived. It will be inhabited by committed citizens who have access to a broad range of artistic, cultural and recreational opportunities in a sophisticated and tolerant society.’

It is certainly tempting to agree – and it is clearly right that a broad range of disciplines and areas of expertise will help to educate skilled graduates and develop vital benefits from research. But at the same time, Ireland needs to offer a highly focused set of key areas where it can add value to international and local investment. We cannot possibly compete with the best in the world if our priorities are too thinly spread. In fact, it seems to me that the SFI priority areas (the result of a Technology Foresight exercise in the late 1990s) are far too wide now. On the other hand, it is right that we should look more closely at the arts, humanities and social sciences to see what contribution they can make, either in their own right or in collaboration with other disciplines.

The biggest risk we face is that this whole debate has simply been taken over by clichés. ‘Smart economy’, ‘innovation’, ‘knowledge transfer’, ‘ecosystem’ – all of them no doubt ‘going forward’ – have been so over-used that in many ways they are now meaningless. That is why a restatement of priorities has become so important, because it forces us to address matters of substance rather than just churning out slogans. We must move, because we have an economy (and a society) to save.

Universities of the future

June 29, 2010

Guest blog by Robert Cosgrave
Dr. Robert Cosgrave writes on the future of tertiary education at http://tertiary21.blogspot.com/

My daughter is 4 years old. In October 2023 she will probably go to university. What will that university look like? Where will it be? Will it be anywhere?

The 20th century was good to universities, marching them from an elite fringe to the very heart of the information economy. They are the coal mines and steel mills of the information age, with OECD countries counting their output of science and engineering PhDs as keenly as the great powers of a century ago counted their production of dreadnoughts. But there is no guarantee that the 21st century will be so kind. Deep waves of change may carry the institutions to new heights, force them to transform entirely, or move them aside, to join the monasteries and cathedral schools in the history books.

Four great changes will dominate the development of universities in the century ahead. They are global, long term changes, on a scale outside the usual five year horizon of a so called ‘strategic’ plan, or the electoral cycle. These changes are already well underway with such momentum that they are unlikely to be deflected.

The first is demographic. World population is forecast to top out at around 10 billion late in the century. Topping out implies that birth rates and death rates will pass through a point of balance. No longer will each generation be bigger than the last. Conventional ‘college age’ audiences will be declining, and keenly fought over. Universities hoping to grow will do so only with older students. Today, most universities have a ‘Mature Students’ office as a minority interest, at the edge of a campus full of full time young adults. It won’t be long before that is reversed and young ‘first timer’ students are a minority group and the operation of the campus is remodelled to fit with the lives and minds of real grown ups.

The second trend is economic. In this respect, the 20th century was truly remarkable. Per capita GDP increased by a factor of 5 between 1900 and 2000, despite a Great Depression, two World Wars and the Spanish flu, and all the other ailments and woes of the century. A repeat of this miracle would make the world, on average, as wealthy as Norway (one of its richest countries) is today. By 2100, the world will be able to afford near universal tertiary education. India and China are rapidly approaching this transition point, building universities as fast as the concrete can be poured.

But concrete does not a university make. It takes time to turn a smart school leaver into a plausible junior lecturer, and it takes time for research departments in the western model to mature and bed in. The old ‘first world’ model of the university will be hard pressed to scale to accommodate the surge of the new middle class youth of what used to be called the third world. Out of need, something new will take its place. The new ‘gigaversities’ of China, India and Brazil might not command much respect in the staff common rooms of the old NUI, but they will rise to meet that need. In time, they will enter first world markets with degrees that are faster and cheaper than anything we can deliver. My daughters first car may will be a Tata Nano, designed in India. Why not her degree?

The third trend is technological. The death of distance as a factor in education has been predicted since the telephone was invented, but only now are remote classroom tools becoming usable, though fully immersive environments like Second Life are still fringe. Growth in bandwidth and processing power will move these tools into the mainstream over the next ten years, as telepresence suites currently sold to corporates as alternatives to private jets price down into the mass market. Meanwhile, old fashioned jet travel isn’t all that expensive anymore.

In the 1950s my parents had a realistic choice of exactly one university. In 1991, with similar practicalities of cost and travel, I had a choice of four. In 2023, my daughter could reasonably attend any university on earth.

The consequences of this for conventional tertiary institutions, used to steady business from local students, will be devastating. Local students will still come, but increasingly the smart, focused ones will go further afield, either in person via budget airlines, via telepresence, or in a blended format, perhaps meeting for onsite weeks twice a year at a regional campus on a continent near you. Institutions reliant on local students and without a global draw will find themselves relegated, their reputation slowly crumbling as the cream of the crop goes elsewhere.

The fourth trend has potentially the greatest consequences in the long term. By 2023, following the so far solid course of Moore’s law, my daughter will begin her studies equipped with a computer that will have more processing power than her own mind, and, via its connection to the global cloud of networked services, instant access to orders of magnitude more power. While true ‘human like’ self-aware artificial intelligence remains out of reach, this raw processing power is pushing machines into new ground.  Composer Emily Howell, a computer programme, not a real person, has moved on from producing acceptable compositions in the style of Bach or Mozart to creating genuinely new work. It isn’t very good, but give her time. If our creations can even write music, what will be left for us to do but to listen to it?

The historical narrative tells us that workers displaced by new technology riot a little, and then go on to find newer, more fulfilling jobs created by the new wealth.  Many of today’s best jobs did not exist when I was born. The university my daughter attends may prepare her for a job no one today has thought of yet, working at the centre of a network of increasingly intelligent tools and services. But there is no law that says that new technology will keep creating new jobs for humans as it has in the past. It is an open question whether the university my granddaughter goes to, sometime in mid century, will be able to prepare her for any job at all.

LA’s advisory on the legal profession?

June 28, 2010

Should you spend a few moments in the terminal buildings of Los Angeles main international airport (LAX), you will every five minutes or so hear the following PA announcement:

‘You are not required to give money to solicitors. This airport does not sponsor their activities.’

I guess that’s good advice. Maybe the announcement might prompt visitors from Ireland to think again about reform of the legal profession, which is badly needed.

Today’s students

June 28, 2010

I attended two events with several business leaders over the past couple of weeks, and in the course of the discussions on both occasions a number of them expressed the view that recent Irish graduates were not of the same quality and did not demonstrate the same standards as those of previous cohorts a decade or two ago. This view appeared to attract a lot of support, and so if it is held by stakeholders of the university system we may have a serious problem that we need to address.

Two factors appeared to be influencing opinions. One of these was the recent debate on grade inflation; it appears that the allegations made in this context have had some effect in undermining employer confidence in Irish graduates. When I pressed the issue, it seemed to me that the erosion of confidence was not related to any actual negative experience that might be connected with unjustifiably high grades, but was simply a reaction to the allegations made; they were assuming that if this message was being put about it must be true. This demonstrates, to my mind, not only that the debate distorted realities, but also that the university sector was really not good at dealing with it and responding to the points that were made.

The second factor appeared to be a widespread belief that students no longer worked hard at college. The businesspeople I met were largely of the view that students did not apply themselves to their courses as previous generations did, and that as a result they were less well prepared for working life, having got used to a life of idle leisure. I might add that some of those saying this specifically excluded DCU from their analysis, but of course this may have been influenced by my presence.

I was particularly struck by the widespread agreement that this assessment of the quality of our graduates was attracting. I am absolutely of the view that these views are wrong, but I am struck by the fact that we seem to have been unable to make a compelling case, or maybe even make any case at all, for standards in Irish universities. This may also be related to the fact that we are not good at publishing information that would present a more balanced picture, and in particular at getting data that would support our case.

Right now we are allowing it to be suggested to our students and our recent graduates that their achievements are not what they are claimed to be, which for them is a devastating allegation. We owe it to them to establish the real position, and if the criticisms are right we need to correct the problems; but if they are wrong we need to be in a position to establish convincingly that this is so.

Edging towards bonus points for mathematics

June 27, 2010

According to a report in the Irish Independent, all the universities except University College Dublin have now agreed that there should be bonus points in the Leaving Certificate for higher level Mathematics. UCD may also come to the same decision, but it will need to be taken by its Academic Council, which is not due to meet until September.

The issue of bonus points has been covered previously in this blog. While most academics would take the view that this is not the complete solution to low levels of mathematics attainment by secondary students, it is at least potentially part of the answer. What will need to be impressed upon the government, however, is that the situation will not become fully satisfactory until problems at second level have been addressed, including the problem of inadequately trained and motivated mathematics teachers. The risk is that Ministers and officials may think that the universities’ action in applying bonus points at the Leaving Certificate level provides the solution and that no further government action is required. We must not allow that view to gain traction.

Becoming very efficient

June 26, 2010

The latest suggestion that Irish universities have been offered by the government and some others is that they should be able to make further savings (and thus manage funding cuts) by being more ‘efficient’. What does this actually mean? If the ultimate efficiency is what we are after, then of course we should just admit the students and, immediately, hand them their degree certificates without all the awkwardness of teaching and examining. By those means we could get truly excellent results in an amazingly efficient way.

Of course we must accept that the current budgetary environment has implications for funding, but we should stop presenting budget cuts as ‘efficiency opportunities’. I am not suggesting that there is no scope anywhere in the system for cost saving efficiencies, but you cannot know that without analysis.

In the meantime, the same game is being played in England. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has just announced that over the current year there will be £82 million in ‘efficiency savings’ in the university sector. In reality this has nothing to do with efficiency, it is just a budget cut with an annoying name.

The lesson from all this is, I think, that the discussion about how to handle public funding pressures needs to be conducted more sensibly and more honestly. If it is, the universities will be in a much better position to respond constructively.


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