Archive for September 2008

Photography: going for retro

September 17, 2008

I have mentioned this before in this blog: one of my relatively few hobbies is photography. I should say right away that I lay no claim to excellence. I suppose that for me it was the same as for most people, we take a camera and we click it at something, the purpose usually being that we want to remember the scene, or the people, or the object. If lighting is not good, we use a flash (thereby creating the harsh light and exaggerated shadows that will ruin any photo). We spend no time at all composing the photo, we just point and click.

But then one day I decided to do some close-up nature shots, and I began to realise that photography, particularly when accompanied by a reasonable camera (and more importantly, a good lens) can be more ambitious and more artistic. A few months later, and I had bought a good digital SLR camera and two or three good lenses, and I was able to explore the possibilities a lot more. Some of the output can be seen here. There are by the way two camps in the world of digital photography, Nikon users and Canon users: I joined the Canon crowd.

More recently, I started going backwards in time – I purchased an old East German Praktica camera, bought some rolls of film and started shooting. I now vary my photography between digital and traditional, though in film I only use black and white (preferably Ilford XP2 film).

I have not yet been doing this long enough to offer advice to anyone. But three quarters of good photography lies in the composition of the image. A good photograph needs something to interest the viewer – an expression, unusual shapes,  interesting lighting conditions. These days, many other flaws in an image can be corrected with software. But a boring photo is still boring even after it has been edited.

A good photo should engage the emotions, not just the capacity for visual recognition. When it does that, it is one of the most powerful artistic devices.  But most modern compact cameras are just too easy to operate, and as a result encourage people to point at something and go. My Praktica, which has precisely zero automated functions, and which has a nasty habit of tearing the film as it is rolled thorough, still produces quite wonderful images. 

There isn’t a ‘right’ way of participating in photography, but there are good reasons for encouraging young people to take it up, and to use it to articulate a vision, and not just record a scene. But there is everything to be said for experimentation and originality, and for the idea that art need not be for the elite; it can be everywhere.

Too much research?

September 16, 2008

One of the curious aspects of the statement made yesterday by the Minister for Education, at least as reported on RTE, was that he wants ‘a situation where money is targeted at the undergraduate and not other areas like research and development’. Implicit (or in fact, quite explicit) in this statement is the suggestion that too much money has been invested in research. And if he meant to say that, he is calling into question some of the key planks of the government’s policy on industry and R&D over the past two or three years. He would seem to be suggesting, on the face of it, that the Strategy on Science, Technology and Innovation is a mistake.

Notwithstanding the apparent drift of what the Minister was saying, I cannot actually believe he really meant to suggest that; but it may well be how this is picked up elsewhere, particularly amongst those who might be considering an R&D investment in Ireland. It may be beneficial, therefore, to consider saying something that re-balances yesterday’s statement.

What the Minister was probably suggesting was that core resources from the HEA – not counting the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) – should be targeted to benefit undergraduate students; and if that is so, it would be easy to agree that this should be so. But on the other hand, research support (when properly given) does not undermine that.

We have moved beyond the stage of an economy that can thrive on investment in labour-intensive industry. We are too expensive for that now, and increasingly such investment is heading for other, more low cost, economies. We now need to attract technology and science-intensive high value investment, and to stimulate innovation driven start-ups. The activities of both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland will increasingly require as a back-drop a lively R&D culture, connected with higher education institutions. That is already how higher education is being positioned in other countries, particularly in Asia and including China.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that universities need to be promoting vibrant research, in order to be hotbeds of innovation in the national interest, and also to be magnets for high value investment, and further to add value to undergraduate teaching. The latter point is important: the key differentiator between average and world class teaching is the quality of the research undertaken in the institution. It is true of course that a good researcher will not necessarily automatically be a good teacher, but it is clearly the case, from all the evidence available, that high quality research raises the quality of the teaching also. This is generally considered to be true both in the case of traditional, discipline-based research as argued for example in this paper, and and more generally here.

Furthermore, as was noted in one of the comments made in response to my last post, research students and postdocs often provide additional teaching support that gives students much more direct teaching and learning support than they could otherwise get.

Overall, there is clearly a need to have a more informed public debate about the value of research and its benefits, and in particular the contribution it makes to the value and quality of teaching and learning. Universities will need to prompt that debate, to ensure that there does not emerge an unhelpful struggle between these two key missions of higher education.

The Minister explains further…

September 15, 2008

Last month, as we have discussed here several times, Mr Batt O’Keeffe, Minister for Education and Science, put the issue of tuition fees back on the agenda. Subsequently he indicated that he was personally in favour of reintroducing them, albeit for wealthy students (or students from wealthy families) only. I have indicated before that I applaud the Minister’s willingness to engage with this agenda, which is not politically easy; he has shown some courage.

Nevertheless, there is some way to go before it can be clear whether what is perhaps being planned will really help the higher education sector. Just this Monday the Minister suggested that the government has generously funded the sector, increasing its funding – he suggests – by a third in three years. It is difficult to know what to make of that statement, because I cannot tell what the Minister is counting here – I presume he is including high value research programmes, which welcome though they are do not provide any additional discretionary funds. They are ringfenced for research projects, and indeed require subsidies from core university funds. The grant and fees paid by the government for students has, in real terms, been in serious decline for a number of years.

My fear is that this suggestion by the Minister may be a warning that the government may claw back the money raised from fees, which would be a disastrous approach.

The other point he made which would give me some concern is that money should not be targeted at research and development. If he has been correctly quoted (by RTE), then this is a serious problem: university R&D will be the primary mechanism for attracting new high value foreign direct investment. It would be very dangerous if it were thought by potential investors that R&D is no longer a policy priority for the Irish government. He also seems to put in doubt the government’s support for postgraduate education, which again would be very dangerous, and would be entirely incompatible with the government’s Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI).

There are interesting times ahead!

Online social networking

September 14, 2008

It must be about 2 or three years ago that, at a meeting here in DCU, a colleague came up with a rather breathless denunciation of the social networking site Bebo. I think that most of those present had never heard of it before, and I confess that I was one of those. But apparently at that time several universities – not DCU – were banning access on university-owned computers or in libraries because over-use was clogging up the system.

I went from the meeting to have a look, and shortly afterwards signed up for Bebo – I felt I needed to know more about this apparent phenomenon. And not long afterwards I signed up for Facebook and MySpace. And while I cannot say that I spend hours every week chatting (or doing whatever) on these sites, I do use them. And even one or two other, less well known, ones.

No doubt it can be problematic for network servers if there is excessive traffic through social networking, but on the other hand we tell students all the time that the social and community experience of university life is or should be a vital part of their experience. Of course, we may wonder whether online networking could actually undermine face-to-face interaction on the campus, but we’re in the age we’re in and should harness rather than resist the new technologies and the new fashions.

My plan for this academic year is to try to use social networking sites proactively to communicate with groups of students and to get feedback from them, all done appropriately of course. And I shall ask someone to do a review of how we can use the current taste for social networking in a pedagogical context, to add value to the learning experience. That must surely be possible.

A drinking culture

September 14, 2008

It’s Sunday morning. And every Sunday morning, were you to take a walk in Albert College Park next door to the DCU campus, you would see it was the morning after the night before. Every Sunday morning, throughout the year, you will find empty beer cans, vodka bottles, whiskey and other spirits scattered around the park, with a particular concentration in the children’s playground next to the campus. Every Saturday night this is the meeting place for a significant number of local young people, and what they primarily appear to do is to drink. Seeing them every so often, the average age is perhaps 17.

Albert College Park is not some horrible exception to the rule – the scene is replicated all over Dublin, and I am sure, beyond. And it tells us something pretty bad about the society we have allowed to emerge, and are doing very little to contain. It is not just that these young people are drinking to excess, but also that as they do so they are likely to terrorise the local residents.

But before anyone gets all high and mighty about these youthful miscreants, just ask about where they are getting the impetus. All over Dublin, and all over Ireland, people of all ages are doing what they regard as important – they drink. And I don’t mean that they sip a glass of wine; they drink pint after pint of beer, or shots of spirits. And eventually they leave and off-load the consequences of all this on society.

We have to come face to face with reality: as a country, we have a serious drink problem. We are being talked about, not just here, but elsewhere in the world, as this article in the New York Times shows. It is a problem with serious consequences for all of us, as we have to deal with the medical issues, the destruction of property in drink-fuelled rages, dangerous driving on the roads, the terrorising of innocent citizens. And we have to face the reality that, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, we are doing absolutely nothing about this.

And through a mixture of cause and effect of this drinking epidemic, we are losing the concept of society. As we drink, society disintegrates, and as it disintegrates we drink more. It may be that we think we are having fun in drinking groups – but fun isn’t worth much if you can’t remember it in the morning. Instead, the drunken stupor is robbing society of genuine social interaction.

This can’t go on. It is just too destructive. And sooner or later, someone has to be brave enough to do something about it.

And the Newcastle show rolls on

September 13, 2008

I realise that some people reading this blog may not find the ups and downs of Newcastle United FC totally fascinating. But just allow yourselves to survey the scene. Here we have a big football (soccer) club, with a proud history and perhaps the most loyal fan base of any club anywhere. But we also have decades-long under-achievement, and in recent years a constant soap opera – usually involving the manager – that keeps far too much attention on matters off the field.

But we also have one or two love affairs between the fans and some key individuals who capture the mood and lift the spirits. Perhaps the most notable of these have been (first) player and (then) manager Kevin Keegan, and the record goalscorer for the club, Alan Shearer. In January of this year Keegan returned, unexpectedly, for his second spell as manager, and for once players and fans were happy. Keegan is one of the game’s romantics, preferring style and flair over defensive tactics, and these are attributes that are loved on Tyneside. In Newcastle city and area, the club is everything to local morale, and Keegan embodies it.

Until he fell out with the club’s current owner, Mike Ashley, and felt that because he did not have proper control over the recruitment of players he had to leave. Fans were outraged, and today’s first game since all this happened was accompanied by major protests and actions by supporters, with the clear message that the owner and his management team were now not wanted any more. And in the midst of all this the team lost today’s game, a home fixture they should have won.

As it happens, today’s lucky winners were Hull City FC, which also has a little bit of my loyalty, as I worked in Hull for 10 years. So if this outcome was perhaps a salutary lesson for the owners, I am glad the the beneficiaries, since there had to one, were Hull.

But apart from the ongoing drama at Newcastle – and just now it seems that a happy ending is only possible with the return of Keegan – there are maybe some issues here for the sporting world. Games such as football/soccer have become hugely expensive, and clubs can realistically only prosper with some very wealthy owners who have the personal resources to put millions into the club each year. Naturally many of these owners will be businesspeople, who will apply their normal practices and expectations to their football ‘business’.

There is no reasonable alternative to this mix of business and sport, the egg can no longer be unscrambled. But it may be time for some reflection on what kind of owner conduct allows a club to thrive on the pitch. One of the lessons the Keegan saga should be that the manager needs to have proper backing, and needs to be fully in charge of the game and all aspects that influence the players and their success or failure.

It will be interesting to see how this saga ends. Actually, as this is Newcastle, it is unlikely to end. But we may find out what the next amazing development will be.

Under-performance in universities

September 11, 2008

In the course of this Thursday I attended several meetings involving prominent people from government and industry. A recurring theme of the discussions was under-performance in the university sector, and it became clear that some of those present had strong views about this. It was felt that lecturers had only a few contact hours with students per week, and not much else to do, and that they often did not pay significant attention to student needs. They also assumed or believed that most academic staff disappear for months during the summer to enjoy extended holidays.

Not many academics would recognise this description, and most would be offended by it. But on the other hand we need to be aware of the fact that what I heard is a widely-shared perception in the outside world, and this needs to worry us, not least because it militates against significant support for universities when it comes to debates about funding and resourcing.

Academic life is not what it once was. It may indeed be true that, a few decades ago, someone taking up an academic career could expect very significant personal autonomy in their work, and a workload that would not be excessively taxing. Those who did no research of any significant volume – and that would have been a large majority – might indeed have expected to take much of the summer off. In short, it was not an uncomfortable life for many.

Those days are long gone. Academic life is now high pressure. Universities expect faculty to have a challenging workload in their teaching, and to be available to students at regular times for consultation and advice; but they also expect them to further their research and to have regular publications as a result, in high quality journals or published by renowned publishers. It would be rare now for an academic to take a summer holiday of more than three weeks.

But if we are honest, we would also have to admit that in higher education – as in most professions – there is a small number of people who do not perform to those standards, and we must expect that as part of the movement to increase university accountability for the expenditure of public money more questions will be asked about this. It will also be expected that we have ways of managing those (we hope rare) cases of visible under-performance.

If we are to attract support, both from politicians and other stakeholders, we need to take this agenda seriously. But we also need to be strong in defence of the dedication and commitment of the overwhelming majority of academic staff, who now work in what is often a stressful environment and who have managed to maintain and enhance the quality of our system.

Reform of the legal system

September 10, 2008

It was reported recently in the Irish Times that a judicial committee was recommending the establishment of a new court of civil appeal in Ireland. This is a welcome recommendation, as its implementation would help end the severe congestion of the legal system, leading to long delays in appeals. 

There is probably a need for a more root-and-branch analysis of our legal system. We have inherited a common law framework which, in many ways, has served the country well, and certainly there have been many fine legal practitioners and judges who have helped ensure that we have a system that recognises and protects the main ingredients necessary for both a democratic state, a fair society and a functioning economy. However, it is a legal system that on the whole was developed in the 19th century, and aspects of it need serious overhaul.

It is arguable, for example, that the time has come for a professional judiciary – rather than one where judges are appointed to the bench after a long career in practice. We need a system of legal training that makes lawyers more familiar not just with the law, but the areas of life and work that they will have to adjudicate on. We need to organise the legal profession in such a way as to cut out restrictive practices. We need a courts system that is organisationally resourced sufficiently to dispense justice speedily. And we need to ensure a more realistic pricing of the service.

We also need to develop a way of ensuring that cases that ought to be resolved by other means – generally alternative dispute resolution – do actually go that way. And we need to have an understanding of legal processes amongst the general population that discourages people from unnecessary litigation, the costs of which are generally borne by the rest of society.

These are big objectives. But the time has come to discuss them, not perhaps in a piecemeal way (which is how our law reform process has tended to go), but in an overall analysis of the system and its problems.

Tuition fees … again

September 10, 2008

Today’s Irish Times brings us the news that the Minister for Education and Science is ‘personally backing’ the reintroduction of fees, and that the timescale for this may be shorter than some commentators had assumed. The Irish Times report says that he will bring the matter to a cabinet meeting within six months.

My first response would be to say that I am impressed that the Minister is continuing to address the issue. His original announcement brought some strong opposition, and his perseverance is a good sign. Whatever the solution may be to the issues facing the sector, they will be found only if there is a degree of political courage here, and the Minister is showing a good deal of that. This is a good sign.

I am also pleased that the Minister is looking at different models, and that he is considering both the impact on the disadvantaged, and at the Australian loan model. All that is good.

My only quibble: the Minister is continuing to talk about millionaires, thereby perhaps suggesting that he is envisaging a framework with a very high income threshold. This would be very hard to administer and would yield very little in revenues.

But for now, this is a good news story, if it is followed through well.

Foresight – what will we need in 2028?

September 9, 2008

According to some of those who enjoy trying to interpret the writings of Michel de Nostredame (better known by the Latin name of Nostradamus), the year 2028 could be significant for all sorts of reasons. Some say he predicted that the Third World War will begin (or end) that year, others that he expected the second coming of Jesus then, and others again that the world will end on that date. In fact, while many of those trying to interpret his work come up with very different predictions, the year 2028 appears in many of them as a critical date.

Well, it is a critical date for DCU, because for the past year or so we have been conducting a ‘Foresight’ exercise which is designed to suggest some possible scenarios for the world in 2028 which we might need to take account of in our strategic planning. We consulted a number of experts and ran a working group in which we involved some key people, both from inside DCU and from elsewhere. In the event the group concluded that there were several possible ways in which the world could develop by 2028 – in terms of politics and geo-political trends, in terms of technological progress and innovation, in terms of the environment, in terms of social trends, and so forth. We will be publishing the outcomes from this in November.

Of course none of us can see into the future. If we had asked a similar selection of people in 1988 to predict what the world would look like today, many of them would have got it quite wrong. But for all that, some of the decisions taken in DCU around that time relating to research and teaching priorities turned out to be well judged, and as a result DCU was able to make a very substantial contribution to Irish society over the past decade or so. We hope to be able to do that again in the years to 2028.

However, if you are reading this blog and have some views as to what 2028 might look like, and what the main concerns will be with which universities may be able to help, I would be very interested in hearing them. When we publish the outcomes of this exercise, I shall summarise them in this blog and link to the overall document, so you will be able to compare your predictions with what we came up with.

I don’t believe that the DCU group made much use of Nostradamus, however.


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