Archive for July 2008

Learning by rote

July 31, 2008

I believe I am about to say something heretical, so please do not be alarmed. But I have to confess that whenever someone speaks dismissively about learning by rote – as happens all the time – I feel uneasy. On the one hand, like pretty well everyone else I believe strongly that learning is something much more, and much more important, than just acquiring data and facts. New pedagogical methods offer much richer insights to students than would have been available in the past.

But on the other hand, data and facts also matter. For example, I am always truly amazed when, in some meeting or other, it becomes necessary to determine the answer to 7 x 8, and everyone reaches for their calculators. And how many people these days can recite literary or poetry quotes from memory? And recently I asked a small group who were in discussion with me what the dates were of the First World War – and nobody could answer correctly.

It seems to me that education is about understanding and appreciating, but also about learning. Learning is greatly facilitated by the development of memory, and having at one’s immediate disposal a good selection of key facts is a vital tool in the development of judgement and decision-making.

By the time I was 13 years old I could at will (and I still can) recite the main arithmetic tables, I could recite from memory some 150 or so poems, and I knew a large number of dates in history. And I can say that I still use a good deal of this knowledge in my daily life and work.

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist fuddy-duddy, but I strongly believe that we are failing to educate and train young people today if we are not giving them the opportunity to acquire these skills. Access to the internet and other sources of information is great, but it is not a substitute for knowledge that we hold ourselves and that we can use as needed.


Paying the Bills

July 30, 2008

This is a tale about bureaucratic chaos in a utility. It is also (I swear) a true story.

The utility in question supplies me with energy in a property I own (away from DCU). Some time ago, I noticed that the bills I was getting could not be correct – they were based on an energy consumption which was way above what I was using. Eventually, after reading the meter myself and several phone calls to the utility, they admitted that they had been reading the wrong meter and had been charging me for someone else’s energy use. But they declared themselves unwilling to refund anything: because they had never read the correct meter, they claimed they could not actually tell how much energy we had used, and for all they knew – they said – we could actually have used more than what we were billed for. I pointed out that I was only in the property for a few days every year, whereas the family who lived in the property for whose consumption we had been charged was there full-time.

Well, when on one occasion I explained all this to the very pleasant man (called Bill) in their customer relations department, he assured me he would look after it, and I should for the moment pay no more money until it was sorted out. Reassured by Bill, I did nothing more, and in fact forgot about the whole thing until, a year later, I got a notice telling me I was about to be cut off for non-payment. I immediately rang the company and asked for Bill. I got Bill, but as it turns out, not the same Bill. We’ll call him Bill II. Bill II was very different from Bill I. He was surly, and frankly didn’t believe a word I said, and knew nothing about the promises made by Bill I. He looked at the file and declared it told him that I had been charged for the wrong property, and that I owed the company a considerable amount of money because I had been under-charged. In fact, when I dug a little deeper, it transpired he had come to the conclusion that I had to pay both the money from the wrong property (which I had paid, wrongly) and the charge for my own property. When I protested that this was nonsense, he declared that he was under no obligation to put up with such language and that I was harassing him. He then hung up.

About ten minutes later I got a phone call, and it was Bill I. As he was my friend, we chatted about this and that, his son’s (unsatisfactory) school results and what he might do career-wise, the terrible summer we were having. And then he apologised for Bill II, who had briefed him and who, he confided, was ‘highly strung’. Bill I was helpful as ever. He had no idea why it hadn’t all been resolved, but he would get on to it immediately, and in the meantime I should pay nothing. I made a mental note to send Bill I a Christmas card and a note with some career advice for his son.

However, it turned out that highly strung Bill II had not passed on the baton, for I next got a curt letter from a collection agency, who were going to get my outstanding money from me – which inexplicably had now increased by over €100. I tried to ring Bill I, but was told that there was nobody called Bill in the company’s customer relations department – did I mean William? OK, let’s have William. William (of course called Bill by his friends and customers, therefore Bill III) was someone entirely different, and refreshingly honest. ‘Our way of sending out invoices is total crap’, he offered. He would get this sorted out at once, he knew how to do it. And in just a few days I received a cheque in the post, with a ‘refund’ of a sum I couldn’t recognise at all. It was more than I had ever paid them in the first place (and therefore definitely more than I was due).

I rang and asked for Bill, and got Bill II. Something life-changing had happened to Bill II, because he was now polite and cheerful, and offered the view that I had been badly treated and deserved the refund I had got, and shouldn’t query it. When I showed signs that I would query it, traces of the old Bill II emerged, and he indicated that some customers were never satisfied. He would send me a new bill, but I should cash the refund in the meantime.

The new bill never arrived. In fact, no bill arrived, for ages, new or old. I was (modestly) using energy, and could not imagine what was actually going to happen. Then, back in DCU, I received a letter addressed to my office but not to me – it was to a Mr A. Shindig (name changed slightly to protect the innocent). Nobody here knew anyone by that name, and so the letter had been passed around a bit before anyone decided to check with me. The envelope contained a letter threatening to cut off the energy supply to my property, and Mr Shindig was told in no uncertain terms that he was a vagabond and a rogue for not paying his bills – or rather, for not paying my bills.

So I rang the company. Should I ask for one of the Bills? Yes, I did. I just asked for Bill. And Bill answered. No, no Bill I had ever come across before. It was Bill IV. Bill IV looked into my file, and told me that I owed them a lot of money, and that I was seriously delinquent in not paying up and not even contacting them. I pointed out they were writing to Mr A Shindig, and that was not a sure way of getting me. ‘You have a point’, Bill IV said graciously. Who is Mr A Shindig, I asked. ‘Good question’, Bill answered, ‘I was wondering that myself’. Bill IV has promised to look into all of this, and has advised me not to pay anything, and to ignore the threats from the collection agencies.

So that is where we are now. I spoke to Bill IV three weeks ago, and I have heard nothing since. I am expecting a knock on the door, with court documents for my trial for non-payment. If you do not hear from me again, it will not have gone well. Please call Bill for me.

I know it’s only rock ‘n roll…

July 30, 2008

The story goes that, back in the 1990s, when the band Primal Scream were asked to appear on the BBC show ‘Top of the Pops’ they declined. At the time they were touring Ireland, and to appear they would have had to fly over to London for the day, do the show, and return. They would have had to fly in to Luton airport, near London. They refused, allegedly saying that they wouldn’t fly to Luton because ‘it isn’t rock ‘n roll’. They were banned from ‘Top of the Pops’ as a result, and the whole episode was a great PR success.

I have nothing against Luton airport myself, and have used it a good few times. On the other hand, image is important, and style is often seen as a good interpreter of content. This blog is written (as I have mentioned before) on a Macintosh computer, and Apple has achieved its recent phenomenal success by understanding and working with the effect that style has on people’s perception and appreciation of functionality.

Universities are in the first instance institutions that need to protect and enhance their reputations through rigourous intellectual integrity. But even for us, how we present ourselves is important – whether the campus is clean, whether the buildings are well designed, how good the leisure facilities are, and so forth.

I am not actually sure what has happened to Primal Scream. But I hope they would be willing to perform in DCU and would regard it as adequately rock ‘n roll.

University funding – again…

July 29, 2008

The resourcing and funding problems faced by the Irish university sector are continuing to get media attention – with a front page article by Sean Flynn in yesterday’s Irish Times, and various items in newspapers and on radio programmes. It is sometimes hard to work out whether the issues we are experiencing are being effectively communicated to a wider public, but at least the financial position of universities is now getting significant media attention.

Currently, we are being told by the government that we should expect a cut of 3 per cent to the grant we receive from the State for 2009. It needs to be said that a cut of 3 per cent is not a cut of 3 per cent, as the rate of inflation experienced by universities needs to be factored in. Secondly, this cut will hit the sector after several years of successive reductions in funding in real terms, which have already thrown several institutions into serious financial crisis (though not, as yet, DCU).

What we are therefore facing is a pattern of government decision-making that seems to suggest that teaching (as distinct from research, which has been more generously funded) in universities is not a priority. There may be a view in some circles that there is still a certain amount of poor management of resources and some waste in the sector, but a number of external investigations in recent years don’t bear that out; and in any case, even if it were true, universities don’t have the basic management tools under the law to address under-performance, if it were identified. In fact, it is almost certainly the case that under-performance is less of an issue in universities than almost anywhere else in the public sector.

In the end, what this tells us again and again is that we will not be able to address the financial problems in the sector until the issue of how we structure the funding is properly tackled – including, inevitably, the reintroduction of tuition fees and a proper framework of grants and scholarships for those who cannot afford the fees.

Skills shortages in Ireland

July 29, 2008

This morning I was interviewed by Newstalk, an Irish radio station. I was asked why (apparently) companies who need to recruit skilled employees are increasingly turning to nationals of other countries rather than Irish people.

There are two key reasons for this phenomenon. It has been suggested that one reason is that skilled Irish people are pricing themselves out of the job market by making excessive salary demands – so employers turn to applicants from other countries whose expectations are more modest, particularly in times of economic uncertainty. There is probably some basis for this view at the current time.

More significant, however, is that the career aspirations of Irish young people – often informed by their parents’ ambitions for them – are not necessarily in sync with current national needs. So for example, we have known for a few years now that the growing number of job vacancies in the ICT sector cannot be filled with skilled Irish people because too few graduates with the necessary qualifications are coming through the education system. Ever since the problems earlier in this decade, students have been moving away from university programmes in computing end electronic engineering, despite repeated public statements from a number of sources that vacancies in this sector are growing.

For now, major companies in the sector can satisfy their recruitment needs by targeting skilled people from other countries. But if we continue to be unable to meet labour demands in this area, companies may conclude that Ireland is no longer the place to invest. It is therefore high time that the government, together with the secondary and third level sectors and with industry advice, address this growing risk for the country.

Getting the speed limits right

July 26, 2008

All over Ireland – and many other countries – every hour of every day, thousands of drivers completely ignore the speed limit, whatever it may be, and drive at whatever speed they fancy. People are constantly taking the most absurd risks with their own safety, and more significantly with the lives and safety of countless others. Here on the campus of Dublin City University – where we have a 30 km/h or 20 mph speed limit – I regularly see drivers (almost always young men) tearing past at 50 mph or sometimes more. When I stop them, as I sometimes do, and lecture them on this, what they say to me is usually unrepeatable. I let them drive on but occasionally see to it that their cars are clamped…

However, I cannot help feeling that one of the disincentives to careful driving are the speed limits themselves. Today I was approaching a toll plaza well known to Dublin drivers, and noticed again that a speed limit sign requires drivers to proceed for the last 100 yards or so before the toll booths at 10 km/h (about 6 mph). This is walking speed. I tried to do it today, and I can report that the cars behind me were not amused. And I cannot blame them. It is clearly idiotic to impose a speed limit that nobody is even going to consider observing; by having this limit, drivers are actually encouraged not to take speed limits seriously, and the result is that they drive well in excess of limits elsewhere that are rational and essential for safety. The same is true occasionally where there are 60 km/h speed limits on open roads, for absolutely no apparent reason; again, drivers ignore these.

Road safety has become a pressing issue in this country, and we need to stop reckless and mindless behaviour by drivers who seem to become insane once they are behind the steering wheel of a car. But part of the programme for getting this right must be to ensure that traffic regulations are also sensible.

The ideology and reality of markets

July 26, 2008

For ten years, while I was Professor of Law at the University of Hull in North-East England, I lived in what is usually described as the old ‘market town’ of Beverley. Beverley does indeed have a market. The centre of the town is dominated by the old market square, going by the name of ‘Saturday Market’. And indeed today, as on every Saturday throughout the year, market stalls will have been erected and the casual shopper will be able to purchase a wide variety of goods, from fresh fruit and vegetables, through electrical and consumer good, to textiles and footwear – with lots of other things in between. People will come from the surrounding countryside, and in some respects the scene will not be that different from what it has been for hundreds of years. Markets such as this were usually established in the Middle Ages when the monarch granted the right to local noblemen (usually), so that people from something like a six-mile radius could purchase goods that would have been produced locally.

A ‘market’ in this sense (and in pretty much any other sense) is a place or an interaction where buyers and sellers of goods or services meet to agree a price for the transaction. It works best when there is ‘competition’, that is where there are several buyers and sellers, thereby assuring a reasonable rate for the exchange based on its objective value. Or put another way, a market is a distribution mechanism for goods and services, designed to ensure that the price is objectively reasonable.

As the analysis of trade became more sophisticated by the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of a market acquired more and more significance in the emerging economic theory. The basis of modern market theory was in particular expressed by the philosopher Adam Smith, in his famous book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), in which he argued that a free market was both the most efficient and also the most benign way of securing and sustaining prosperity.

In England supporters of the concept of free markets as an economic and political tool were by the 19th century styled ‘Liberals’, and in some contexts the label of ‘liberal’ still has that meaning. Indeed ‘liberal’ ideology not only pursued free market goals in economics and trade, but also in personal morality and conduct, as liberals disliked restrictions and regulations and taboos in these areas, thereby providing the bridge to what most people nowadays consider a ‘liberal’ outlook.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about markets as a form of liberalisation or even liberation. Hegel and Marx both were opposed to the free market concept – a particularly interesting critique of Adam Smith can be found in Marx’s Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (1861); although it might also be added that the concept of ‘market socialism’ emerged later in the 19th century.

By the 20th century – and the late 20th century in particular – the market had for some become a major ideology in the economics sphere. Markets were no longer just rational mechanisms for the exchange of goods and services, they were a mystical concept with opaque but unstoppable powers. The expression that you could not ‘buck markets’, which was popular in particular in the British Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and in the writings of some of the high priests of the intellectual movement underpinning Thatcherism and Reaganism (particularly F.A. von Hayek), suggested that markets were not trading or policy devices but forces of nature. The ‘market’ became the God of the capitalist West, set against the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet-style planned economy based on Marxism.

Of course all things must pass, and this particular form of market ideology did, too. And as the ideological battlegrounds of the Cold War disappeared from view after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the certainties of market ideology were also somewhat diluted.

Perhaps the early 21st century is a good time to re-assess markets. I have had a long interest in the idea and use of markets. It is arguable, for example, that you could trace the development of social policy through law by using market metaphors of supply, demand and distribution. And closer to my own current professional life, you could look at universities and education and ask whether markets can provide a useful tool for the development of policy. Furthermore, the restraint and regulation of markets is of major significance in almost all modern activities, and deserves close attention.

In other words, markets are not just locations (as in Beverley) or activities, but a market is also a metaphor for the analysis of policies, activities and conditions.

From time to time in this blog I shall develop this thinking a little further. This is a selfish activity, as I am working on a book on this general topic, and I am looking here for feedback and stimulation. So I am hoping for comments here. Maybe I also need to write a piece on plagiarism, so that I remember to give proper credit to any inspiration I may get.

E-book readers – a PS

July 25, 2008

Two days ago I posted a piece on books and e-book readers. Well, today I ordered an Amazon Kindle, having discovered that I can do so after all. As I said, it won’t change my views on the functionality and aesthetic beauty of books. But then again also, I acquire gadgets, therefore I am.

I’ll offer some views on this device when I have taken possession of it.

I am also hoping to get my hands on an Apple 3G iPhone next week…

What now for science?

July 24, 2008

In my last post on this site I mentioned that, for my final school exams in Germany (the Abitur), I was tested orally in Philosophy and Physics.  In my Physics oral I had to conduct an experiment measuring radiation with an ionization chamber. Everything went very well, and I was able to demonstrate what I needed to demonstrate. The examining panel of 25 or so contained about six scientists – all the others were teachers of other subjects. Afterwards the French teacher (who was one of those present) told me that the scientists had been hugely excited by my presentation. ‘I couldn’t see what the fuss was about, myself,’ he added; ‘after all, nothing happened that I could see; the dial on an instrument moved, and that was it.’

At the time I was very good at Physics, and my teacher spent some time trying to persuade me to study it at university. But in the event I first became a banker (I have the German qualification of ‘Bankkaufmann’), and then a lawyer, and then a lecturer in industrial relations. My Physics teacher kept in touch for a while, but he thought that I had betrayed the profession by not pursuing my potential. ‘Any fool or scoundrel can be a lawyer,’ he wrote in his last letter to me; and of course he was quite right.

Of course society needs people with a whole array of experiences, qualifications and skills, and not everyone has to be a scientist. But on the other hand, as we assess the issues that are likely to require urgent attention in the near future, many of them require us to have scientists so that we may address them satisfactorily. These issues include the problems we face in public health, in transport, in communications, in protecting the environment, in developing sustainable energy, in securing adequate food supplies for the world, in protecting endangered species of animals and plants, and so forth.

In the meantime, many developed countries (including Ireland) have experienced a drop in the number of young people wanting to study science at university. Furthermore – and these matters are related – those with science degrees often find that in their places of employment there is a ‘glass ceiling’ not unlike that which affects women. Scientists disproportionately rarely make it into the top levels of business and management, and even when they are successful they often earn much less than those with other qualifications, and indeed sometimes than those with none.

There are no instant answers to these problems, but there are some things we know we need to do. We need to make research careers more attractive; we need to ensure that schoolchildren are able to learn science with the help of proper, state-of-the art science equipment and laboratories; we need to address the gender imbalance amongst those studying science; we need to ensure that science is taught by those with genuine expertise and a real passion for their subject; and we need to ensure that mathematics is taught well at school. These are just some of the things we need to get right.

In Ireland, the key problems were assessed in a comprehensive way by the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, chaired by my predecessor as DCU President, Danny O’Hare. The report was published in 2002, and while it identified a number of problems and issues, it also concluded that these could be overcome by prompt action. Six years later there has not even been a formal government response to the report, though one was promised in 2004.

It is fair to say, however, that governments in Ireland and elsewhere have acknowledged the importance of science to our future, and funding to support science research in particular has been generous. But this funding will become ineffective – and indeed hard to spend at all – unless we ensure that the pipeline of world class scientists grows and is then maintained. While this is not an easy objective to fulfil, it is not an impossible one, either, and we know fairly well what needs to be done. We just have to get on and do it.

In the meantime, in this age of interdisciplinarity there are also many new opportunities for interaction between the sciences and the humanities. To link my last two posts, the topic of ethics in science is becoming more and more significant, as society seeks to ask deeper questions about which discoveries are worth pursuing and which ones need more cautious treatment. But successful and innovative science is something we will need in plentiful supply if we are to be confident about the future of this planet. The moving dial on the instrument is telling us things that are vital to our future.

Ethics in business

July 24, 2008

I am constantly amazed at the low level of interest seen in Ireland in broader questions of ethics. We seem to equate making a judgement on ethical issues with calling for someone’s head, as if ethics is just a question of condemning what others do wrong, rather than what kind of society we feel we ought to have. This has produced some stunning lapses of morality in our business world.

It is time that we elevated discussions about ethics above the level of personal judgement and condemnation, and looked instead at what kind of society we want, and how we would expect to see that reflected in the actions and decisions of people at work – and not just in top management positions. My university has recently established a Institute for Ethics which will focus on such issues and which, I hope, will stimulate a national debate. The time for that has come.