Archive for July 2010

In praise of science research foundations

July 31, 2010

When I became President of Dublin City University just over ten years ago, the country’s research community was just convulsed in a debate that came from the then recently conducted ‘Technology Foresight‘ exercise that had been commissioned by the Irish government. This had recommended the establishment of a foundation that would coordinate and oversee science research, to ensure that Ireland’s science reputation would stimulate innovation and investment. The reason for the anguish was that it had been suggested that the national research effort would proceed more successfully if it were conducted in autonomous institutes that would draw on the universities’ expertise but would not be part of them.

For a little while there was a kind of stand-off between the universities and the embryonic Science Foundation Ireland, at the time under interim leadership. But then came the appointment from the United States of Bill Harris as the first Director-General of SFI, and he set about creating a constructive relationship between the foundation and the higher education institutions, based somewhat on the model of the US National Science Foundation. Within a short period of time SFI had enticed a number of prominent world class researchers to come to Ireland and had facilitated the nurturing of indigenous talent. We now know that a significant proportion of foreign direct investment over recent years has taken place because Ireland now offered world class expertise and innovation.

Bill Harris was followed by Frank Gannon, himself a prominent researcher with significant experience of research leadership and administration in Europe. Under his leadership SFI’s capacity to create the backdrop for high value economic success has continued. We now gather that he is about to leave SFI for a new appointment overseas, and this creates a setting in which the government will have to take an important decision. There may be some pressure to move the focus of investment away from research, or at any rate academic research, and there may be pressure to dilute the distinctive role of SFI through the creation of a much more broadly based super-funding body.

SFI has created quite specific scientific expertise in Ireland in areas that are at the heart of global industrial growth right now. They are in the health sciences, in innovative convergence between science and engineering or computing, and in other such areas. We will miss out on our share of global economic growth if we dilute our effort.

It is of course important that attention is also focused on research in the humanities and social sciences. But it would be highly unwise to under-estimate the impact of SFI in its distinctive mission on Ireland’s economic opportunities. Arguments that seek to downplay this significance, or suggest that a separate foundation for science is unnecessary, are very risky for us right now. They should not be followed.

Tuition fees and social conscience

July 30, 2010

Earlier this week the Irish Times published a letter in which the writer questioned the support of university presidents (in this case UCD President Hugh Brady) for tuition fees, and in particular voiced disapproval that they might cite social equality as a reason. Instead, the writer argued that support for fees was something typical of ‘right-wing economists, politicians and most of the other heads of the universities.’ Technically this no longer includes me, but I have a suspicion that I might have ben part of the writers rogue’s gallery of alleged rightwingers.

Without wanting to comment on the views of any individual president, it has to be said that the social equity argument for the return of fees is very powerful indeed. The majority of university students come from better off families, and therefore the greater part of the taxpayer’s investment benefits them. By contrast, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are still hugely under-represented. Querying the acceptability of this state of affairs may be all sorts of things, but it is not right wing in nature. Those who take a different view (as of course they are entitled to do) should nevertheless take the trouble to engage with the argument rather than trying to shout down those making a case for fees with silly insults. Having this debate is good, but it needs to be conducted with a little intelligence.

PS. This is probably the last post I shall ever be writing from the DCU campus, as today I shall finally be leaving the President’s house that has been my home for the past ten years. Time flies.

Being the Master

July 30, 2010

One of the side-effects of any significant increase in participation levels in higher education is that a degree no longer sets you apart from the general population. If the official Irish target of securing a 72 per cent participation rate of each age cohort is achieved, then having a degree will be nothing very special. It therefore follows that those with ambition will look more closely at extending their studies to take in a postgraduate degree, usually at Master’s level. And indeed that is what has happened, and over the past decade or so the number of those following this path has increased dramatically. Previously the main postgraduate activity tended to be in business schools, particularly in MBA programmes, but now it is common to have taught degree courses in almost any discipline.

For those who want to develop their portfolio of achievements with a Master’s degree, the jury is actually out as to whether it will necessarily help them very much; it will depend on the degree and the kind of career they want to develop. But a recent article in the Guardian newspaper suggests that some employers are now looking for postgraduate qualification for new recruits in certain jobs.

The question that we may increasingly be putting is whether postgraduate programmes are particularly appropriate for more vocational qualifications, in professions such as law, accountancy and so forth. In other words, we may start to look more closely at the American model of having quite general undergraduate degrees, and keeping profession-oriented programmes at the postgraduate level. It is s model that, on the whole, I would prefer, not least because we should probably stop asking young people to make career choices at the age of 17, when they are often very badly equipped to take such decisions.

Higher education diversity

July 29, 2010

One crucial issue facing Irish higher education over the next while will be institutional diversity. Broadly the question goes like this: we are a small country, so why do we need seven universities that cover more or less the same territory, and a dozen or so institutes with the same mission, and some other colleges? Why not identify a specialism for each and then ensure they are the best they could be in that area? Or maybe, why not identify one or two all-rounder institutions, with everyone else occupying a niche?

At one level this direction could only be travelled if we were to have a wholly dirigiste system of national strategic management of the sector. If we were to specialise in this way, someone would have to direct this process, because it is unlikely that bilateral or multilateral discussions between the institutions themselves would achieve this. On the other hand, if we all occupy the same space, it may be that we cannot achieve national critical mass at all in some key areas, because the expertise would be excessively diluted between colleges.

In some ways DCU might find this discussion easier than some, because it, alone of the Irish universities, has pursued niche status. It has not sought to have a presence across all the major disciplines, and does not address a number of key subject areas that other universities might find indispensable. But of course this position has been reached by an autonomous process of strategic planning within the university, rather than being an output of a national plan.

It is my view that the institutions should collaborate much more to distribute provision in areas where too much duplication does not seem sensible. But I have no faith that a better distribution can be worked out by national agencies, necessarily dominated by civil servants. In the end, autonomy has to trump all that, because it is the guarantor of excellence; but within that autonomy, the institutions should be looking much more openly at the possibilities of adjusting provision, and through that process, ensuring a level of diversity that will in fact be attractive to our external supporters.

Investing in transport

July 28, 2010

Over recent months I have tended to be highly nervous every time it was suggested that we would have an announcement on capital expenditure. The reason? Well, DCU has a very direct interest in one of the most expensive projects for investment right now: the planned ‘Metro North‘, the under- and overground train system that will ferry passengers between Dublin’s city centre, the airport and Swords (just North of Dublin). If built this will run directly past DCU’s campus, and moreover will connect DCU’s main campus with some of its linked colleges. The plans for this venture have already had a profound impact on the university, and dropping Metro North now would have a very debilitating effectb on the university.

Of course there are other reasons – other than DCU’s good fortune – why the government might want to proceed with Metro North. It has been argued by some that the Metro project is too expensive, and that transporting visitors and businesspeople to the airport quickly can be done by other, imaginative, ways. What this argument fails to grasp, however, that this project has the potential to produce massive economic regeneration; in fact, while transporting people is a very important objective of the Metro, it is arguable that it is not the most important one; economic development along this rail corridor is more significant still.

I’m not sure whether, as a country, we have a clearly focused transport strategy. We’re building roads and motorways as if there were no tomorrow, but our rail projects are slow to develop. It is arguable that the railways must once again be at the heart of new economic development, and it is important therefore that we get it right.

Capital investment

July 28, 2010

I have, over recent months, from time to time expressed some concern as to whether Ireland has a clear policy on investing in higher education. I still have major concerns in that regard, not least because there is every indication that universities and colleges may suffer another significant budget cut later this year, making it almost impossible to argue that we are still providing a quality education for students. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge that, in certain areas of capital investment, the government is getting it right.

First, there was the announcement some days ago of the new investment in research through the 5th Cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), which indicated a strong national commitment to a high value economy and a knowledge society. Yesterday, the government in outlining its capital programme for the coming year endorsed the plan to move the various constituent parts of the Dublin Institute of Technology on to one campus, and more generally announced a capital programme for higher education.

In all of this there is a welcome awareness of the importance of investment in higher education. All that is missing now is a realistic plan for resourcing teaching in a way that is affordable but does not destroy the quality of Irish higher education.

The fly in the ointment? The politicians simply cannot resist making silly job creation predictions. This time the promise is that the investments overall will create 270,000 jobs. Politicians really need to be weaned off this kind of talk.

For-profit universities?

July 27, 2010

In an unusual step, the British government has awarded a private, for-profit, institution university level status with its own degree awarding powers. BPP College for Professional Studies, a private London-based college with courses mainly in business and law, will now be called BPP University College. The government may be trying this out as a test case, in anticipation of its apparent policy to have more private institutions involved in higher education.

Perhaps anticipating some criticism of this step, BPP’a Director of MBA programmes has defended the College’s approach to teaching, quality assurance and student support. She also declared herself to be happy with the description of BPP as a ‘sausage factory’. Focusing directly on the students, she argued, and with streamlined processes, BPP may be able to out-manouevre  the traditional public universities, not least because it will not be distracted by the teaching-hostile research traditions of the universities.

All of this is a major departure from normal government policies in these islands to date, in which private and for-proft institutions were given opportunities to develop their own higher education products but under the supervision or control of another degree-awarding body. But now, if we are about to see the arrival of for-profit higher education, we should be thinking through the implications.

Universities as good employers

July 27, 2010

Every year the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education carries out a survey designed to establish which US higher education institutions are best to work for. This year 43,000 staff were surveyed, with a response rate of just under 50 per cent. The questions asked ranged from the extent to which senior university leaders took employee well-being seriously, to questions about the work-life balance.

On the positive side overall, the survey found that even during these more difficult times most higher education faculty and staff enjoy their jobs and are proud to work for their institutions. On the other hand, may indicated they were suffering from stress and could not identify much in the way of a work-life balance. One other (for me) surprising finding is that university staff can be motivated by the same sort of things that are used in industry, such as discounted purchases or holidays, subsidised veterinary care for their pets and even opera tickets.

This blog, by the way, is intending to do a survey on this topic in the autumn in Ireland, and on the whole I expect similar findings: a continuing commitment to university work, but growing disenchantment with the conditions.

Overall one of our problems is that we treat academic employment as vocation rather than profession, meaning that the world expects academics to make sacrifices in order to be allowed to do work that they love. Of course many careers can involve a sense of vocation, but it is not reasonable to treat university faculty and staff as people who do not need to enjoy the conditions and benefits considered normal in other employments. Or at least, not any longer.

To return to the Chronicle‘s survey, the journal has used it also to compile a table of the best higher education institutions to work for. Interestingly, none of the Ivy League institutions make an appearance in the ‘honor role’, containing the top 40 institutions. There is presumably some lesson in there somewhere.

Spreading the research news

July 26, 2010

It is good to see that the UK journal Times Higher Education has given some space to a report on the most recent round of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). Right now Ireland’s reputation for investing in research and R&D is the key factor determining our attractiveness for high value international investment. When the government decided to ‘pause’ investment in PRTLI in 2003 the impact was immediate and severe, as some global companies concluded that Ireland did not have a clear strategy on the knowledge economy and was therefore not a good place in which to invest. Being consistent now at this point, particularly against the backdrop of serious public finance problems, is vital, and both the fact of the investment and its proposed scale are important pointers to our national strategy that should make a significant difference internationally.

I am pleased that the Times Higher picked this up. And yet, this investment decision needs to be communicated much more aggressively. As far as I can tell, no major international newspaper has run this story. And even domestically, the coverage has been quite low key. All of this needs to be stepped up dramatically. There is no point doing the right thing if too few people know about it.

Party time

July 26, 2010

On Saturday I was a guest on Newstalk radio’s Saturday morning show with Brendan O’Brien. One of my fellow guests was someone I had never heard of before until the middle of last week, Leo Armstrong. His claim to fame, and the reason for his presence on air, was that he had organised a meeting (attended by 50, we’re told) to discuss the setting up of a new political party. The news report on the meeting said that several speakers had complained about the political system’s ‘corruption’, ‘cronyism’ and other failings.

I thought that Mr Armstrong, who is 70 years old, was a totally affable man, a somewhat old-fashioned gentleman if that term still means anything. But I absolutely could not fathom why we were discussing his plan, or indeed why his meeting had merited the attendance of an Irish Times journalist and an article the next day. Don’t get me wrong, he is absolutely entitled to explore the potential for a new party, and he is welcome to lead it. But before the rest of us get excited about his chats over a pint in a Kilkenny pub, we would need to see more of his credentials. So far all we know is that he was a serial member of Fine Gael and the Greens, neither of whom he now likes, though maybe he dislikes them less (or possibly more) than Fianna Fail; and that he failed to get elected at the last local government elections, coming last of eleven candidates. On the air I asked him to set out his stall politically and say what his proposed party would stand for. Good question, he agreed; but he had no answers other than his dislike of the others, and his belief that many other people shared his disaffection.

In the end, politics is a mixture of personalities and ideas, and you need to have the right mixture of both to connect with the electorate. I thought Leo Armstrong was a charming man, but he didn’t have the political stature or presence that he would need, and he clearly hadn’t applied his mind to the ideas thing at all at all. So why in heaven’s name was he news? That we were discussing him and talking with him probably tells us something about the state of the political system right now. In particular, it tells us something about the alarming inability of some of the political leaders to communicate their message and through that keep the country focused. If a small meeting in a pub with an ill-defined political agenda makes it into the news, someone should be worried. Pat Cox and Michael McDowell’s teasing the MacGill summer school may be one thing, but getting all excited about the chat over a pint somewhere or other is quite another.

All the political parties need to re-tune their message and engage the wider public. Democracy depends on it.


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