Archive for August 2010

Bye the way…

August 31, 2010

Here’s something a tad irritating (at least to me). Some weeks ago I became aware of the fact that RTE on its website kept referring to forthcoming (or not) ‘bye-elections’. Of course there is no such thing as a ‘bye-election’ (though there are ‘by-elections’ or byelections’), and as it was a slow day I sent an email to RTE pointing that out – very politely, I should emphasise. I got back a response telling me that this is how the government officially spells it, and that it was RTE policy to follow the government lead.

Of course the prefix ‘by’ refers to the subordinate or secondary nature of (in this case) the election. Another example would be ‘by-product’, which is definitely not ‘bye-product’. If there were such a thing as a ‘bye-election’, it would be a ‘good-bye election’ (not a phenomenon we have yet). I think my correspondent in RTE agreed with me, by the way (or should that be ‘bye the way’), but felt bound by existing practice.

Maybe I’m just being pedantic, but I can’t help feeling our official terminology should be less illiterate.

Measuring higher education quality

August 31, 2010

Ever since the quality of higher education started to become a matter of concern in society, people have been struggling with the idea of how, if at all, quality could be measured. There has tended to be an assumption that quality assurance could only be real if there were metrics involved, because without them there would be no sense of objectivity, and furthermore there could be no meaningful targets for the achievement of quality. However, the metrics have tended to focus strongly on inputs (the student-to-faculty ratio being a typical example), not least because outputs (principally degree results) have often been questioned in terms of their integrity.

Of course it is not just the quality assurance process that comes up against this, it arises also when various bodies or media attempt to put together league tables (which, to carry weight, have to be based on an assumption of comparable quality). This ambivalence of all this has recently been illustrated by the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education, showing the really wildly different criteria that are used in various rankings.

But in the end rankings are indicative rather than definitive. However, formal quality assurance processes have to convey a sense of confidence in the objectivity of their use of metrics or other information. Can this be done?

The Irish university sector has fared better than most, because the quality processes of the Irish Universities Quality Board have taken these issues into account and have used a negotiated framework aimed at supporting improvement rather than condemning failure. This gain could be easily lost. It must be hoped that the new framework of the proposed unified agency will work constructively with what has been achieved to date. The important thing about higher education quality is not that we measure it, but that we continually enhance it.

Fear of fees

August 30, 2010

There was an interesting opinion piece in yesterday’s Sunday Tribune, in which the writer, Shane Coleman, considered that some of our current national difficulties stem from the fact that we focus on trivial things or things that we can do nothing about, fearing to address those that really matter and which could and should be tackled. He raised third level fees as one of these:

‘An expert group has recently found that the current funding of universities and colleges is unsustainable and the system needs €500 million next year. It’s patently obvious that the funding crisis can be addressed only by the reintroduction of fees and an end to the current system in which middle-class college students are subsidised by working-class taxpayers. But no political party will go there. It’s hard to blame them. They won’t be thanked for putting forward the hard realities. In the current climate – or perhaps in any climate – any party even sticking their toe in such waters will be gobbled up in a wave of anger and hysteria. Unless and until that changes, we could be facing into many more winters of discontent.’

Of course I am well aware that many readers, and many others in the wider public, will not agree with the view that tuition fees need to be part of the solution to our higher education problems. But in political circles, behind closed doors and off the record, it is a matter of near-unanimity that Ireland cannot address the future of third level education without student contributions; even some Labour politicians will privately agree with this proposition. But most of the same politicians are convinced that middle class voters will punish them if they even mention this; there is, as  I have discovered, a widespread view amongst politicians that working class voters will accept tuition fees without any argument (on the assumption that there is a reasonable grants framework), while middle class voters will not. And it is this, not any issue of principle, that is stopping political action, and is allowing the Greens to adopt a posturing position in the matter. As a country, we cannot afford this. Our education system is at stake.

Higher education and the performing arts

August 30, 2010

When I became President of DCU in 2000, I was immediately drawn into the world of Ireland’s performing arts in various unexpected ways. Construction for the Helix, which was to be North Dublin’s main cultural centre, had begun in earnest, but we were all perhaps a little unprepared for the task of running it and making it pay (or at least not siphon off money from the rest of the system). I was also asked to join the board of the National Chamber Choir; and almost at once I was also having to grapple with the government’s then plans to establish an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts based in (but not integrated into) DCU.

At that time my experience of the performing arts was as a member of the audience. What struck me early on, however, was that the performing arts (like sport) should be playing a huge role in the university’s life; but what also struck me was that we were all fairly ignorant about how the arts work.

In Ireland there are performing arts programmes in at least four higher education institutions, whole others (including DCU) have been playing a leading role in supporting performers and performing groups in practice. In DCU, apart from the National Chamber Choir, this includes Classic Stage Ireland and all the things that go on in the Helix. Quite apart from the inherent intrinsic merit of drama, music and dance, the performing arts use techniques and encourage attitudes that are eminently transferable to other contexts including management.

Right now provision and support for the performing arts in higher education is scattered around the country and is uncoordinated. This slightly chaotic scene has produced significant uncertainty about future funding, about higher education infrastructure for the arts, and about the future of performing arts-focused institutions such the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM, with degrees validated by DCU) or the Gaiety School of Acting.

The arts are also part of what makes a country attractive to investors. To maximise their impact, the current higher education providers of arts programmes or activities should at their own initiative coordinate their efforts much more and offer shared programmes. It is an area that needs to be taken much more seriously.

Looking to the right

August 30, 2010

Conservative, or centre-right, parties are not a rare phenomenon in Europe. In fact, in a majority of European countries they have led governments for the greater part of the period since the Second World War. Right now some of the most influential European countries – such as Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy – are led by conservatives. Given the importance of relations between Europe and America, it could perhaps be supposed that there would be a ready understanding this side of the Atlantic of the policies and strategies of the conservative movement in the United States.

The fact that is is not particularly so probably owes something to the very different nature of American conservatives. On the whole, European (including British) conservatives base their political aspirations on employer-friendly policies balanced by some statutory protection of employees, on balanced trade and budgets, on reasonably well resourced defence policies, and on a degree of social conservatism in matters such as abortion or the protection of families. American conservatives are often rather more whole-hearted carnivores, who use certain issues such as gun ownership, fiscal rectitude, the outlawing of abortion, opposition to non-traditional family arrangements and opposition to immigration as iconic principles that define them and which are non-negotiable in any context. European conservatives on the whole prefer their leaders to be pragmatic (except perhaps the British), while Americans are constantly on the look-out for some charismatic preacher who will lead them to glory. As a result, Europeans of all shades (but including conservatives) on the whole do not understand, and find it hard to relate to, the American right wing. American politics overall are not nuanced and compromise-driven as is the experience in Europe.

For all those reasons, it is hard for people on this side of the Atlantic to understand and come to grips with new conservative movements in America. The Tea Party Movement for example (which I previously discussed here) seems somewhere between alien and just bizarre to most Europeans. And in that frame of mind the whole theatrical stuff over the past few days of the ‘Restoring Honor’ event in Washington, and the flirting between organiser Glenn Beck and former Republic Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, will seem just too mad to most observers here to allow it to be taken seriously.

And that is a mistake. American conservative politics may seem a bit weird to us, or even very weird, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it all or to laugh at it. Glenn Beck may be a peddler of strange conspiracy theories and gratuitous insults, and Sarah Palin may be a less than intellectual and often inarticulate representative of the American right, but in the event of a perfect political storm they could end up in powerful positions, possibly even in a partnership. Their America would be something we have not experienced before, a good deal more rightwing than that of George W. Bush, and a lot less interested still in what the rest of the world may do or think. The presidency of Bush was, as we might see it, so disastrous in part because of how it was run, but in part also because the rest of the world could not work out how to engage with it.

Europeans by a majority are unlikely to become converts to a Beck-Palin world view, but they would be wise to understand what this view represents; while perhaps hoping that the present management in Washington will stay in place for some time.

Taking higher education reviews seriously

August 29, 2010

Yesterday’s Irish Times contained an editorial comment on higher education funding. In fact, amidst the deepening crisis facing Irish universities and colleges, one thing that has been positive is the amount of attention given to the topic by the media. The Irish Times editorial makes some useful points about the funding gap and the importance of a successful higher education sector if Ireland is to achieve its ambitions for a ‘smart economy’.

The editorial refers to the OECD report on Irish higher education, also commissioned by the government and published in 2004. The international experts working on that report took some considerable time and effort to complete their work, and put forward a number of key recommendations. Six years later, almost none of these have been implemented, and indeed that whole report was put away within months of its publication, and it has not been referred to by any minister (at least in my presence) since then. Instead the government commissioned another report (the Hunt report), covering pretty much identical territory, and making at least some recommendations which are the same as those in the OECD report.

Policy review papers are perhaps sometimes seen as a substitute for action rather than the cause of action. They are commissioned, published and forgotten. In that setting higher education begins to drift, as has manifestly been happening in Ireland.

It is now too late for the OECD report. But work should begin on ensuring that the Hunt proposals do not attract the same fate, but are made the subject of an implementation plan. I also still hope (but without much optimism) that our politicians will understand and accept the crisis facing third level institutions. Declaring strong and committed support for higher education, but withholding the funding to secure it, is not a good idea. It is not a state of affairs that should be allowed to continue.

Keeping the dream alive

August 28, 2010

Today – August 28 – is the 47th anniversary of the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ in 1963. The occasion is better remembered as the one on which Dr Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, his plea for racial tolerance, equality and harmony. The event is often said to have prompted the Civil Rights Act 1964.

Today – in 2010 – the rightwing American Fox News pundit, Glenn Beck, is proposing to hold a rally, styled as the ‘Restoring Honor’ rally, at the same location as Martin Luther King’s event: the Lincoln Memorial. The event is described as ‘non-political’, though if you read Mr Beck’s note on his website it is hard to see what the issues are that he is addressing; but his own credentials, and the fact that Sarah Palin is addressing the event, may provide some clues.

There is total incompatibility between the values that were at the root of the march and speech in 1963 and those of today’s ultra-conservative rally. Which set of values persuades America now will have a considerable impact on everyone’s future, and not just in the United States.


August 27, 2010

According to an interpretation of the selection of the 100 best Beatles songs by Rolling Stone magazine, John Lennon (rather than Paul McCartney) was the leading Beatle, and the songs he wrote were the most significant. On balance I would agree, though this is the kind of issue which probably doesn’t get to be determined objectively.

I guess that what is really remarkable is that, some 40 years after the Beatles broke up and 30 years after John Lennon died, this sort of question is still exciting people.

Note this!

August 27, 2010

Exactly 35 years ago I started my second year as an undergraduate law student in a Dublin university. My workload for that year consisted of four ‘subjects’ (no modules in those days), three of which I had been very much looking forward to. But I dreaded the prospect of the fourth. The subject-matter was dry beyond words, and in addition the lecturer concerned appeared only to have a passing interest in it. He had the habit of sitting while delivering the lectures, which he did in a monotone voice reading from a prepared text from which he never deviated, ever.

Anybody proposing to go into legal practice had to take this subject for professional reasons, and so he had a captive audience. Lecture attendance was compulsory, and each session began with a roll call. But it was impossible for any human being to follow the stuff, and so the 50 or so students in the hall would doodle, read a novel, write letters home, do a shopping list, or whatever came to mind to relieve the boredom. The lecturer never looked up from his notes, and what we did seemed to be of no consequence to him.

One thing we didn’t do was to take notes. The reason why we didn’t was because some bright spark a few years earlier had noticed that the lecturer kept precisely to his own prepared notes, and moreover that these never ever changed from year to year. As he could do shorthand, he took them down as dictation, typed them up and sold copies to every incoming second year student. He did a brisk trade, and once so equipped note taking was redundant. There was always the comic moment when the lecturer reached the end of the page, and there was loud theatrical turning of pages around the hall.

The general view back then was that the only thing that really mattered when it came to exam preparation was that you must have a ‘good set of notes’. This did not mean an analytical text that addressed the issues of the course in a critical manner; it meant a near-perfect reproduction of everything the lecturers had said, so you could learn it and then repeat it. Even then, this technique did not necessarily work, as some lecturers expected a much more intelligent approach, but it worked with enough of them to make it valid, by and large.

When I became a lecturer I quickly noticed that most students would write down every word I said however trivial or irrelevant. I swear that some of them started writing when I said ‘good morning’. So at first I would, at certain points in a lecture, tell student to stop writing and just listen and respond freely. As students got used to me they also got used to the idea that I wanted an exchange of ideas, and that I was not Moses handing out the tablets of law. I guess I had assumed that pedagogy had moved on recently and that both lecturers and students were now different. However, recently I was chatting with a very bright young student who told me in passing that he particularly liked a particular lecturer because ‘you can get great notes from his lectures.’ So is this particular practice still alive and well?

It is my view that if lectures are just occasions for a lecturer to disseminate ‘facts’ and ‘information’, then it has no legitimate purpose. Yes, there is scope and need for some information to be passed to the students, but there should be much more to it than that. They should be about stimulating the mind, not filling the memory. I think on balance that if I were lecturing today, I would ban all note taking altogether.

A Green education

August 25, 2010

In yesterday’s Irish Times, the Green Party spokesperson on education, Paul Gogarty TD, described the commitment in the revised programme for government not to introduce tuition fees as being the result of a Green ‘veto’. What are we to make of this? It seems that this particular commitment, which according to Mr Gogarty was ‘agreed readily and without any difficulty by Fianna Fáil Ministers’, was the key demand by the Greens in the coalition re-negotiations. The reason for this was apparently as follows:

‘Mr Gogarty said new tuition charges or Australian-style “study now, pay later” loan schemes could lead to a “brain drain” of students. It would also act as a barrier to those from lower-income groups concerned about building up debt.’

I cannot help feeling that we should have a better basis for settling national policy on this vital topic than a Green Party ‘veto’, which appears to owe little to close analysis of the situation, but is probably more connected with the need for Green TDs to be re-elected in middle class constituencies. In this setting the fees issue appears to have taken on a highly symbolic role for the Greens. The party claims that its policy is based on a desire to protect ‘lower income groups’, but the evidence does not back this up.

But I suppose what I might really be inclined to question is whether a very small minority partner in a coalition government should be allowed to assert that one particular national policy has to be subject to their ‘veto’. If this position is accepted, as Mr Gogarty claims it readily was, by the larger coalition partner, it suggests that higher education is not getting the kind of serious attention that it needs.

It is time, perhaps, to explain to the Green Party what the impact of their decision is and will be. It is time to point out that what we are creating is a middle class education system, but with inadequate resources, and that the necessary supports for the disadvantaged will be neglected if money for the middle classes has to be priotised over the needs of the disadvantaged. It is time to explain that ‘free fees’ have been wholly unhelpful to the poor, while at the same time they have created an unhealthy dependence of the universities on the increasingly unreliable taxpayer.

The Greens appear to be proud of this particular ‘veto’. They shouldn’t be.


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