Archive for August 2008

What does university reform mean?

August 19, 2008

For much of this decade there has been a growing call for universities to reform, or be reformed. In 2001 the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU – now the Irish Universities Association) and the Higher Education Authority jointly published a report written by Malcolm Skilbeck (The University Challenged). This made a number of recommendations for improving the university sector, of which a large proportion concerned structural reform: the improvement of governance and management, the diversification of income through commercialisation and entrepreneurship, the improvement of strategic planning methods and monitoring of outcomes, and so forth.

In 2004 the Government-commissioned OECD report on Irish Higher Education (Review of Higher Education in Ireland) again made a number of recommendations for university reform, many of them concerned with improvements in management and governance.

Throughout this time the universities themselves were undertaking significant structural reforms – most of them undertaken first in my own university, DCU. They included the rationalisation of academic structures, the establishment of devolved budgeting and accounting, reforms of academic planning, and so forth. Some of these reform processes passed off without serious internal argument in the institutions concerned (as was the case in DCU), whereas in other universities there were considerable debates and disagreements; and in some cases the structural reform processes continued for some time.

All of this was accompanied by a fair amount of noise in public, political and media commentary about the need for continuing reform, although it would have to be said that some commentators seemed to be unaware of the reform processes already undertaken or even of the conditions which had preceded the reforms – the call for reform was often a mantra not greatly informed by analysis.

In fact, there is little doubt that reform was needed. Universities were not structurally well suited to dealing with an external environment that was making new and challenging demands of them, from the call to increase participation in higher education to the drive for more academic networking with business and with the wider community. Universities also on the whole did not conform to the emerging principles of good corporate governance.

Nevertheless, it is also arguable that the focus on structural reform took too much attention away from educational and research substance. Some institutions became so focused on – or even obsessed with – organisational issues that it became hard to identify the strategic goals of either those proposing the reforms or those fiercely resisting them. So it is possible that a good strategic analysis of how the pedagogical goals of higher education and the national needs for globally excellent research could best be met was initially not pursued with any real urgency. More recently, these issues have come into focus, partly helped by the processes for awarding resources under the HEA’s Strategic Innovation Fund and by a strongly strategic approach of research funding bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland.

Right now, in 2008, it is likely that university reform will again become an agenda item in discussions between the government and the universities. As part of the strategic review of higher education announced by the Minister for Education and Science, and in the context also of the debate about funding and tuition fees, more questions will be raised about how universities are managing their affairs, the appropriate extent of their autonomy, and how they allocate and prioritise their resources.

It is not unreasonable for such discussions to take place, or for the public to want to see evidence that universities are well managed and are using their resources wisely. But it is also reasonable to say that we must focus more on what we do, and not always on how we do it. I have taken the view in DCU that the structural reforms we undertook in 2001-2002 were desirable, but that we should not aim for further structural or organisational changes for a while if we can help it, so that staff can work in as stable an environment as can be secured. University reform is often used by commentators as code for an assertion that universities are inefficient, customer-unfriendly, wasteful and elitist. In fact like all organisations we need to review constantly what we are doing and be open to continuing change, but almost every review that has been commissioned has concluded that the main obstacle to better performance is the inadequacy of resources. That is where the solution lies; and if we can find the answer to that, it will also be reasonable to require high performance, good value and efficient management, within a context of autonomy and innovation.

Spam, spam, spam!

August 19, 2008

In September 1995 I received my first spam email. And it was a good one. It was sent to me directly from the Martian Consulate, LLC, and it offered to sell me a plot of land on Mars. It promised that the purchase deed would be presented to the first legitimate government of Mars once this government had been established. The land cost $29.95 per square mile – an attractive proposition to anyone having to face land prices in or around Dublin; but not useful for commuting purposes.

Over the years that followed, the volume of spam grew exponentially, but not really in quality; the Martian Consulate at least got my attention, which I cannot say of many of the scams and deals and pills and video offers that followed. And of course it did not take long before the number of spam emails got so large that I couldn’t possibly bother with the content. Just occasionally something might still catch my eye – for example in 2001, when Mother Teresa appeared in my inbox trying very very hard, repeatedly, to sell me something she could not possibly know about…

The extent to which spam has taken over cyberspace is evident from the fact that if you google it, you get 358 million hits. And it is also interesting that when you look at the first Google result, it is ‘spam’ in Wikipedia; there the definition you get is ‘unsolicited bulk email, and not (as would have been the case 20 years ago) ‘a canned meat product sold by the Hormel Foods Corporation.’ Nevertheless, there is a connection between the two: the Monty Python ‘Spam’ sketch referring to the meat product probably led to ‘spam’ being seen as unwelcome repetition, and this led to its use to describe unwanted bulk email.

But now spam emails have become so common that, on any rational reading, they should long ago have totally overwhelmed the internet, so huge is the bulk of the stuff. Many people now will receive far more spam emails per days than ‘legitimate’ messages, though often they will be unaware of this if they have good spam filters; the price to pay being that the latter filters will sometimes syphon off regular messages.

We seem to be powerless to do anything at all about this. The cost of spamming is minute to the spammer, and extraordinary though this might sound, there must be idiots or desperate people out there who will buy products from spammers, or give them their bank account details, or download their virus-laden attachments. If there were not, spam would stop.

I have never ever met a person who has confessed to responding to spam; but probably I have met and know such persons. And if any of them are reading this, then for heaven’s sake, stop! We are all paying the price of your foolish behaviour.

… and the debate on fees continues

August 17, 2008

Another day, another bout of media coverage on tuition fees. On the whole, this is a good debate for the sector, but there are also some red herrings. For my own part, I am increasingly of the view that we need to emphasise and re-emphasise the two most important points in this debate: (a) that the Irish higher education system is horribly under-resourced; and (b) that the current ‘free fees’ framework is actually preventing money from being directed effectively to the lower income groups so that they too can properly access the university sector.

I understand why those who introduced free fees thought this would be a good idea: but since then the evidence has been overwhelming that it has not been, and that the stated goal of increasing participation from disadvantaged groups has not been furthered in this way. Instead, the main effect has been to asset starve the universities while channelling money to the well off. I find it hard to see how this could be justified.

The debate as a whole is welcome, but it is to be hoped that we will not end up with a system that targets the super rich with high income thresholds for the payment of fees. That will not work in practice, will be highly bureaucratic and will bring in only very small amounts of money. It will also create undesirable effects in the cases of those who may well have wealthy families but do not have access to their funds. Whether someone is able to pay fees needs to be assessed in a much more sophisticated way.

It is likely that we will all be able to see much more clearly how all this will go when the university presidents have had an opportunity to meet the Minister and discuss these matters with him.

Arrivals – the continuing story of immigration

August 16, 2008

This morning I was standing in the arrivals hall in Dublin airport, waiting for a friend who is visiting from the United States. It was the usual Dublin airport experience – big crowds, lots of commotion, a sense of excitement and occasionally of tension. My visitor’s flight was slightly delayed, and so I passed the time watching my fellow arrivals-waiters; and suddenly I realised that, at least where I was standing, almost nobody around me was speaking English (or Irish). Right next to me was a young Polish family, and next to them again what I think were Latvians; on my other side, two young Czech men, and then a young couple who were possibly Rumanians. And then another young family emerged from the customs hall, and my Polish neighbours greeted them with great excitement, with a loud ‘Céad Mile Fáilte!’ (Irish for ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’).

We have come a long way in Ireland. A long way from when my German family, with its part Polish roots, was something very very exotic in 1960s Mullingar. Now we have people from every part of the world, and we can experience their view of us and of themselves and their cultural perspective. And this has helped to turn Ireland into a citizen of the world, with on the whole an open and tolerant outlook. Not only that, the prosperity of recent years would have long evaporated without this migration, as companies would have ceased to invest in Ireland because of our rather small available labour force.

There has been some speculation that, with more challenging economic times, immigration would decrease or even cease and migrants would return home. Of course some will, whatever the economic climate. But many won’t, and on today’s rather anecdotal evidence, backed up by some statistics released this week, we will continue to have immigration, and we will continue to need it.

Most countries that have experienced sudden surges of immigration have also experienced various social problems – but so far, on the whole, that has not happened here. The cancer of racism, while not totally absent, has not been widespread, and equally we have done reasonably well integrating immigrant communities (though not always, as some of the school admissions stories told us last year).

But this is now one of the vital national priorities - to ensure that manageable levels of immigration continue so that we remain a viable location for foreign direct investment; and to ensure that we provide a viable social and cultural home for the migrants, and a welcoming indigenous community that does not fear that either its economic prospects or its culture are being excessively corroded. None of this is easy, but there are few things more important for us if we are to prosper in the times ahead.

Social benefits: universal or targeted?

August 15, 2008

As anyone reading this blog – or indeed anyone living in Ireland – knows, there is now a major national debate here on whether tuition fees for higher education should be reintroduced. Leaving aside the specific issue of university fees for a moment, there is a wider issue that this debate touches upon, and which perhaps can do with a little analysis: should social benefits be ‘universal’ (i.e. made available to everyone) or should they be ‘targeted’ (with the resources directed specifically at those most in need of them)?

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

For all that, I might add that I do believe that universal benefits in some contexts are still right. I would strongly favour free secondary education, for example. But there are other areas where they have become of doubtful value and merit.

In praise of small bookshops

August 14, 2008

As readers of this blog will know, I have recently purchased and am using an Amazon Kindle e-book reader – despite the difficulties facing those trying to do so from an address outside the United States. However, while on my recent visit to the US (now concluded) I also took the time to visit several bookshops. I browsed in the usual Borders and Barnes & Noble book superstores, but my favourite shop on this occasion was a small bookstore called Indigo Books, close to Kiawah Island in South Carolina. It is, when compared with Borders, a very small shop, but it has a wonderful range of interesting books, with fiction veering more towards the literary, and some interesting history books, and other books with a local dimension. The owners are extremely pleasant and helpful, and I hope my custom repaid their good service.

In fact, I have a particular liking for small bookshops. There is another such shop in Mullingar, for example, with a similarly interesting collection of books and very helpful service. I find that when visiting such shops I invariably walk out with several purchases, whereas I can go to Borders, or Waterstones, and buy nothing.In fact, if I want to buy a book from a source with huge resources and choices, I will usually now go online to Amazon – where in terms of bulk I now buy most of my books.

So what is it that attracts me to little bookshops? Not the small size per se – I am not a particular fan of small shops generally, and find myself attracted to the big stores with the mega choices. But it’s different with books. What we read is something quite personal, something that tells us something about ourselves and how we relate to the community. And a small bookshop, run by someone who has an obvious passion for reading, makes that link to the community in a particularly satisfying way.

So wherever I go, if I see a small bookshop and if I have a few minutes, you’ll find me in there. And I shall almost never leave bearing the same aggregate weight. And while I hope that internet retailing continues to thrive, I shall always do what I can to support the small bookseller, and I hope others will, too.

On two wheels

August 13, 2008

Over the past ten days or so, I have been on vacation in the United States with my family. We have been staying in a coastal area of South Carolina, where it is impossibly hot and humid at this time of year. Nevertheless, we have greatly enjoyed ourselves, and I for one have been getting some much needed exercise by cycling some 20 miles or so every day – despite the heat, a rather pleasant activity.

What has struck me here as a cyclist is how well behaved my fellow cyclists are. They stop at a ‘stop’ sign, they do not cross a red traffic light, they stick consistently to the correct side of the road, they stop to let pedestrians cross. In short, cyclists here observe the traffic regulations and behave with great courtesy and consideration.

In Dublin, I routinely see cyclists behaving as if the rules of the road did not in any way apply to them. They cross red lights as a matter of course, cycle on pavements, go the wrong way down one way streets, and so forth. Just before I left on holiday, I saw a cyclist in Dublin go through a red light at a pedestrian crossing and collide with a pedestrian just going across the road; and rather than apologise or act guilty, he berated the (elderly) pedestrian. I acknowledge of course that there are many cyclists who do not behave in this manner, but on the whole we do not recognise sufficiently that cyclists can also be a danger both to themselves and to others.

I believe that, in the interests of fuel conservation, far more people should be encouraged to take to bicycles. But it is time that cyclists in Ireland learn that they too must be responsible road users and adhere both to the rules and also to the desirable practice of courtesy towards others.

Fees – the debate continues

August 13, 2008

A day or two since Batt O’Keeffe TD, Minister for Education and Science, put third level fees ‘back on the agenda’, it is not entirely easy to see what the ‘agenda’ may be. According to the latest report in the Irish Times, the Minister may now even be suggesting that fees would be for millionaires only.

There are some worrying implications in such statements. First, there is no point having a framework for fees at all if we are only envisaging a very small number of people who would be asked to pay them. The cost and complications of such an infrastructure would be horrendous, and the game would not be worth the candle. Secondly, there is just a hint in all this that what the Minister may have in mind is a system under which fees are used to off-set the government’s contribution to the sector, rather than to add resources. Any hint that fees will be clawed back would make the whole idea useless in addressing the funding needs of the sector.

A sensible way of looking at fees is to identify three groups of people: (i) those who can afford to pay fees, either because of family incomes or through appropriate loan systems; (ii) those who cannot realistically afford to pay fees; and (iii) those who cannot afford to pay and who may also need additional financial support. There also needs to be an understanding that the purpose of introducing fees is to secure additional valuable resources for the third level sector.

It is to be hoped that the terms of the discussion will be set out shortly in a succinct manner.

Tuition fees and funding

August 12, 2008

After the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe, that third level fees were ‘back on the agenda’, there has been a mixed reaction from politicians, as was to be expected. The reaction has been largely negative from the Opposition, and sceptical from some other government sources.

Nevertheless, it is good that we are to have a debate, and it is to be hoped that politicians will not be driven too much in this debate by a fear of how middle class voters may react. Maybe one way of starting such a debate with at least some point of consensus would be to agree that everyone wants to increase participation in third level education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to secure a world class higher education sector in Ireland, able to compete effectively in both teaching and research.

Whatever may happen in this debate, any benefits that may flow from it will not be felt for a year or two. But in the meantime we have a more immediate problem, and the stated intention by government to impose dramatic cuts on the sector, accompanied by greater bureaucratic controls, will if implemented cause severe damage, not just to universities but to Ireland’s economic infrastructure. To allow us to avoid a recession and to resume significant growth requires a successful higher education sector.

I would want to express my admiration for the Minister for having the courage to raise an issue which, as a country, we really do need to address. In passing, I might also pay tribute to Noel Dempsey, who raised this also when Minister earlier in the decade, and to Sean Flynn, Education Editor of the Irish Times, for his work in stimulating the debate. But we also have immediate needs, and we need to avoid a situation where Irish universities are crippled by financial burden just at a time when we need to support the country in its need to create a strong knowledge society and economy.

There are interesting times ahead.

University tuition fees – the Minister moves?

August 11, 2008

Sean Flynn in today’s Irish Times has a very interesting piece on tuition fees – the Minister for Education is considering their reintroduction. It is vital that we do indeed have this discussion – it is, as I have said previously in this blog, difficult to see how we can address the resourcing deficit for higher education in Ireland unless this step is taken.

As we assess the next steps and undertake this debate, we shall need to ensure the overall funding issue for higher education is properly addressed, seen in the context also of Ireland’s international competitiveness; in other words, fees should produce added value, not replace government funding. And secondly, we need to ensure that there is a proper framework to support those who cannot afford to pay fees.

But this is good news, all in all. I am sure the universities will work constructively with the government in advancing this agenda.


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