Archive for October 2008

Should we be politically correct?

October 18, 2008

Back in the early 1990s, the British trade union, the National Association of Probation Officers, developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed not to be in line with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy. 

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, an d before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

The National Association of Probation Officers was an organisation highly committed to the maintenance of politically sanitised speech at all times. It did this without the intervention of any even minor amount of humour or self-awareness. And so it was typically representative of the onward rush of political correctness at that time. The political left, in the English speaking world at least, became hugely attracted to the idea that all language should avoid references that were judgemental or discriminatory.

The term ‘political correctness’ actually has a long pedigree. It is hard to be sure where it originated, though we know that Adam Smith used the term (in a critical sense) in his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It was used in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, and then by European radicals in the 1960s – but at that point, gradually, it began to be used ironically rather than approvingly. The term became famous from the 1980s, by which point it was adopted by conservatives to pour scorn on the perceived political purity of the dogmatic left; and as there were plenty of examples of the latter, the term stuck. 

There seems to me to be little doubt that the NAPO approach to speech and discourse in the 1990s was quite simply stupid. I was also regularly dismayed at that time by the apparent need of progressive radicals to sugar-coat everything, so that nobody would ever be offended or challenged. The humorous lists circulating at the time of euphemisms for everything negative or unfortunate (a criminal was ‘ethically challenged’, a disabled person was ‘otherwise enabled’, and so on) were funny because they were also in part true – people did use such terms. And like many other people, I could feel a strong sense of relief when people rebelled against that and produced highly politically incorrect contributions to public debate.

It is sometimes argued that the adoption of the expression by the political right as a term of abuse for those on the left was extraordinarily successful, in the sense that it made it politically incorrect to be politically correct. But not everything about the movement to become more inclusive in public speech was bad. I for one welcome the fact that we almost never allow anyone to use the pronoun ‘he’ as a reference to humanity in general, and that we have stopped using insensitive terms for people with various handicaps. As in many things in life, it is best to observe a healthy and tolerant balance.

Universities in particular need on the one hand to support and protect free speech, but also to ensure that public discourse does not become a vehicle for judgement and discrimination. So while I am glad that the old political correctness is not what we aspire to, I hope we will not lose the benefits which, at least in some respects and contexts, it produced for us.

Assessing the Budget and Estimates

October 17, 2008

Now that the details of the Budget and the Book of Estimates have become clearer, it is possible to say that, on the whole, it could have been worse. Even after all details have been accounted for, higher education will still have been treated less generously than primary or secondary, but that is often the case at times of pressure on public finances. It now appears that the revenues generated from the increased student registration charge will be available to the universities and colleges. This will mean that, overall, the aggregate income between fees, recurrent grant and registration charge will leave the universities with more or less the same income from the State as last year – which, however, means a cut in real terms of over 6 per cent.

There is, as I have noted previously, a fairly generous increase in capital spending, but for the moment I do not know what it is for, and I suspect a lot of it is for building projects already authorised. I also understand that PRTLI Cycle 5 will be announced shortly, although expenditure under it will not be possible for over a year.

The one item about which I confess I am disturbed is the decision to compel the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) to transfer its business to a new State agency created from a merger of three existing ones – HETAC, FETAC and the NQAI. I believe that this move is a mistake, and could lead to an unacceptable bureaucratisation of quality assurance. But I suppose I should withhold judgement until I know more in the way of detail about these plans.

The year ahead – or more likely, the years ahead – will be tricky for universities, and it will be hard to innovate. But we shall address the situation positively in DCU.

Budget and Estimates woes?

October 14, 2008

It is probably better to comment in more detail on today’s announcement of the Budget for 2009 and the Book of Estimates after I have had an opportunity to study the fine print a little more. As far as I can see from the announcement by the Minister for Finance and the accompanying documentation, third level education has been hit in a number of ways – but we must await a more detailed explanation of some of the elements before we can offer a balanced assessment. The Education and Science vote as a whole did not fare too badly, with an increase over 2008 of 2.7 per cent. However, the allocations made through the HEA (i.e. the grants paid to universities and institutes of technology) have been cut in nominal terms by 2 per cent, which in real terms is a cut of not far off 10 per cent. Whether this turns out to be the position will depend somewhat on what happens to the revenues generated by the increase of the so-called ‘registration charge’ to €1,500. If this is clawed back by the government, then things are as stated above. If it (or any of it) goes to the institutions, then the position may be better.

However, it is tempting to identify in this a message to the third level sector that it is not seen as a significant contributor to national strategic aims at this time. Allowing also for the fact that many of the institutions are already in financial crisis, the worse case scenario above would have a catastrophic effect on the system.

To balance this a little, I should point to the sum made available for capital projects (which is quite substantial), and the increase in funding for Science Foundation Ireland. The Minister in his speech also made a passing and slightly veiled reference to the possibility of the return of tuition fees.

Other than that, seems like bad news. We all had to expect a very tough outcome today, but overall the government’s approach to public spending as a whole turned out to be less tough than some had anticipated – so putting into relief the treatment of third level education.

In addition, the Budget documents announce the abolition of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) – though whether this can be done that simply remains to be seen…

I shall make some more informed comments when I had studied the documentation more closely, and when the IUA has had the benefit of a briefing from the HEA.

Universities have a lot to learn?

October 14, 2008

In an article in yesterday’s Sunday Independent, we were told that a report commissioned by the Higher Education Authority was ‘damning in its indictment of universities in the Irish Republic’ for failing major quality standards and expectations. The article also claims that the report ‘noted “sustained systematic shortcomings” where universities had unilaterally suspended quality assurance activities and ignored the IUQB [Irish Universities Quality Board]‘.

It is probably the case that the author of this article got somewhat carried away, for while the report does indeed point to some issues that need to be addressed, the overall tone was far from ‘damning’. For a start, it needs to be stated that this report was commissioned by the HEA, but at the request of the IUQB itself, with the agreement of the universities. The expert group who conducted the review, in their findings, say at the outset that ‘the work done to date [by the IUQB] is impressive and has given strategic impetus to raising the awareness and activity levels in the universities in respect of quality assurance and improvement.’ The report does also refer to and highlight some shortcomings, some of them quite significant, but that is what a quality review is about. The response by the IUQB has beeen constructive and positive.

It is not my intention here to get into the details of this report and its recommendations – that is perhaps for another time. However, it is important that media coverage of such documents should be balanced and constructive, and should not seek out and highlight only the critical passages. This is important for a number of reasons (including the need for good journalism), but one of them is that quality reviews are most effective, and the follow-up most successful, if the emphasis is on constructive engagement and support rather than judgement and blame.

Here in DCU we have, we believe, a very good track record in quality assurance. All of the university, including my own office and my own role, have been quality reviewed by independent expert panels (with a majority external membership), and my senior management team meets every review panel and is involved in the follow up for every singly review. All the reports are published and are available to the general public. We have also persuaded the academic community that these reviews are not intended to damn anyone, but to support them and help them in bringing about and maintaining the highest levels of quality.

We all have more to learn, and there are always things we could do better. Even in the Sunday Independent, I suspect.

PS. Since I wrote this, the government has announced in the 2009 Budget documentation that the IUQB’s functions are to be transferred to a new government-run agency.

The Budget and Book of Estimates – what awaits us?

October 12, 2008

On Tuesday of this week we will know our fate for the coming year. Or rather, we’ll have a bit more information about our fate. Of course we all know the difficulties faced by the Government in putting some order back into the public finances after the major erosion just experienced of tax revenues. And we have been told to expect that we will be badly hit.

For those who may not be aware of the distinction, on Tuesday the Government will announce both the Budget for 2009 and the Book of Estimates. The former deals with changes to fiscal policy and related matters, while the latter sets out what the Government proposes to spend from tax revenues in the coming year. In the past, the two were announced separately, with the Estimates coming first, followed a few weeks later by the Budget. Last year the Government put both together in one announcement, and this year the same was planned again, and was to take place in December. But because of the rapidly deteriorating position of the public finances, and because of the global financial and economic crisis, the Government brought this forward to October 14.

Whatever is to happen on Tuesday has already been decided as I write this – but I hope that it will not undermine the viability of Ireland as a knowledge society. Much depends on that, and in particular our ability to escape from a longer term economic downturn and the erosion of high value, knowledge-intensive investment.

I believe that the Estimates in particular will also clearly demonstrate the futility of the view that Irish higher education can successfully be funded by the taxpayer alone. We need to raise the ambition levels for Irish universities, and to do so with a level of funding that the taxpayer simply cannot afford.We cannot aim to be a leading knowledge economy while maintaining universities funded like those of a developing country.

A dog’s life

October 12, 2008

Today was a rather beautiful day in Dublin, and so I took my dog, Harvey, to the countryside for a good long walk. Harvey is a rescue dog, probably a cross between a German Shepherd and Collie. We got him from the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and he had been very badly mistreated before he came to us. But like many rescue dogs he quickly adapted to his new life, and he is quite a character.

But his history is one of many many reminders that our society as a whole is far tool casual about how we treat animals. Harvey was, as far as we can tell, regularly beaten and hurt before the DSPCA rescued him. And unfortunately, this is not an isolated story. All the time, dogs are mistreated and abandoned in the most appalling circumstances. As long as this goes on, we have failed as a society.

I am writing this here because those organisations, like the DSPCA and their equivalents, that protect dogs and other animals from abuse deserve our support. And there are many dogs in rescue shelters and pounds that need good homes – they are a deserving cause… And if you see an animal being treated cruelly, do something about it.

Taking the case for fees to the Oireachtas

October 9, 2008

Another day, another discussion about tuition fees – this time in front of the Oireachtas (parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science. Five of the university Presidents attended, as well as the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association (IUA). The discussion was lively and occasionally sharp, but also respectful and good humoured. But it was also clear to me at least that some politicians still believe there is an easy way of funding universities with public money and thereby avoiding tuition fees. It was suggested to me in one exchange that tax increases would be preferable to fees – notwithstanding the obvious point that no government would be willing to go to the people and tell them their taxes would be increased in order to give money to universities, and that we would have no certainty anyway that all or even any of such increased exchequer returns would come our way.

However, it was a valuable exercise, as it is important that politicians are informed about the increasingly dangerous state of university finances around the country and the urgency of a solution. As we now expect the Book of Estimates next week to involve a major round of cuts to funding for third level education, it will become difficult to protect students from an erosion of quality in teaching programmes and of the availability of student support services.

There are clearly tough times ahead for everyone – but we need to ensure that the universities are still able to offer the programmes and the research that will make possible an early recovery in the economy.

What is quality in higher education?

October 9, 2008

It would probably not be hard to get a consensus around the proposition that universities should aim for high quality in both their teaching and their research. But it is much harder to identify what quality actually is, how it can be recognised and how it can be measured. This is illustrated by the fact that some of the key policy documents on quality assurance for universities go into great detail about the process by which quality should be assured without ever once saying what actually constitutes ‘quality’. For example, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area issued by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in 2005 makes no attempt to define, describe or identify quality criteria. The Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) on its website has a page of ‘useful definitions in quality assurance‘, but oddly the term ‘quality’ is not defined there. On its website, the British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) does purport to define ‘quality’, thus:

‘Academic quality is a way of describing how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided for them.’

But is that actually a definition of anything? Is quality a ‘way of describing’ anything?

It seems strange that a whole industry dedicated to monitoring and improving quality seems to have no advice to offer as to what ‘quality’ actually is. I once sat next to a senior academic at a dinner; he had been involved in the QAA’s quality assurance process for ten years. When I asked him what ‘quality’ meant, he chided me for asking an ‘irrelevant’ question. He suggested that the institutions themselves could determine what constituted quality, and the task for people like him was to see whether they lived up to their aims. That seems sensible at one level, except that if it were that simple then institutions could guarantee superb quality simply by setting themselves very modest ambitions, and then meeting or exceeding them.

However, because nobody has anything much to say as to what quality is, the temptation is to get out of this dilemma by focusing entirely on process: we cannot say whether what you teach is good quality, but we can ask whether you have followed the 20 prescribed steps when you developed the programme and are counting the answers students have given in the feedback questionnaires. And on the whole, that is how a fair amount of quality assurance has been conducted.

The problem with this is that if your excellence is – publicly – going to be measured on the basis of how satisfied people are with your processes, then you had better have comprehensive processes and stringent monitoring; and if that’s your concept of quality, then you had better steer clear of innovation, because innovation (like entrepreneurship) is risky and may sometimes fail or not enthuse the users at first. It is much safer to stay with your existing offerings and just make sure that all the paperwork is in good order.

We have therefore come to accept that quality assurance is about process, whereas it should be obvious that quality is about content and intellectual innovation. If we are serious about having a high quality higher education system, then we have to start asking questions about content, avoiding the risk of suggesting that there is one standard way of measuring this.

Quality in the universities

October 8, 2008

One of the key developments in the higher education sector over the past two decades is the arrival of what is sometimes called the ‘quality movement’. In a nutshell, the various stakeholders of the universities have been less and less willing to take on trust that the teaching and research in these institutions is of high quality and have sought ways in which this could be independently verified.

In the UK this led to the quality assessment process overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (the QAA), and the Research Assessment Exercise. It has been argued that these two mechanisms may have, at least initially, had a very doubtful impact on quality, though their quantitative impact may have been clearer (not to mention the bureaucratic impact). On the other hand, there can be little doubt that these processes made both the institutions and their staff acutely aware of the need to demonstrate the value of delivery of the universities’ core mission.

In Ireland the universities established the Irish Universities Quality Board, to which the governing authorities of all the institutions have ceded certain tasks for maintaining a framework of quality assurance and improvement. It has had an important role in developing and sustaining a framework of regular and public reports for each university and for academic units and programmes.

I propose to look again in a future post at the success of the Irish model, but it seems to me that a question we must ask initially is the key one: what actually constitutes ‘quality’ in a university, and if you want to measure it, what do you measure and how? These questions appear simple enough, but are in fact extremely complex. The British experience may be instructive, as a good deal of what was done initially to introduce quality assurance mechanisms may have been less than ideal; in Ireland we have an opportunity to learn from that.

So in my next post on this blog, I propose to attempt an answer to the question of what constitutes quality. Then after that, I shall look briefly at how our initiative with the IUQB has worked.

In the meantime, I would welcome comments.

In search of public service

October 8, 2008

Yesterday I had to sit for a while in a government office waiting service so that I could get a particular document. These days I would normally do such things online or over the phone or by post, but yesterday I knew I was going to be in the vicinity anyway with some time on my hands. So I walked in, took the ticket that would give me a number and my place in the queue, and sat down to wait. I thought I really had plenty of time, but after a few minutes it became clear to me that the hour or so that I had would almost certainly not be enough.

In this particular office there were eight counters, with the officials sitting behind a glass partition. Or rather, four officials were sitting there, the other counters were empty. Having not much else to do, I observed them a little, and found that two of them were going through the motions of assisting the members of the public who came up to them, but without any human interaction such as a smile or an apparently friendly word. The third did what she needed to do, but between clients would take a little break, polishing her nails or doing something similar. The fourth was visibly engaged, and she was friendly and supportive and did her job quickly, moving immediately to call the next person as soon as she was ready. And all the while other officials drifted around behind the counters, sometimes talking to the staff at the counters in what looked like social chit chat.

Meanwhile the room was full of people, and most of them probably were members of various minority groups or immigrants or from a socio-economically disadvantaged background. People like me probably do not normally attend in person. Many of those present seemed unsure of themselves in asking for the particular service we were here for.

A decade or two ago the room would have been unpleasant. In fact, the room we were in was modern and reasonably bright and comfortable. But the atmosphere was one of officialdom, and there was a clear sense of supplicants seeking a favour, rather than citizens availing of a service.

It has occurred to me for some time that the ethos of the public service needs to change. There are of course many dedicated public servants with high levels of integrity. But on the whole we obscure the purpose of their work by placing them in organisational structures to which we give names typically ending in ‘Authority’, ‘Office’ or ‘Council’. Officials thus seem to be people in positions of commanding authority, not people with a mission to support or assist or serve. It’s not their fault, this is how we do it.

I think one good way forward is to rename a lot of public sector organisations, and call them ‘Service’ or maybe ‘Agency’, thereby removing somewhat the idea that they are in charge.

I shall return to the theme of the public service in a future post.


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