Archive for November 2008

Offline at a great height

November 30, 2008

Two days ago I was sitting in a plane on my way back to Ireland. The doors had been closed and the cabin crew were making the usual safety announcements. I imagine they were the usual ones, though if I am honest I have to admit I’ve kind of stopped listening to these. In any case, on this occasion my attention was focused on my neighbour. He was holding his mobile phone, and turning it nervously around in his hand. It was visibly not switched off. He saw me looking and said, ‘I’m waiting for a call’. I pointed out to him that he was supposed to have switched it off. He mumbled something unintelligible and continued fidgeting with the (still powered on) phone. As the plain taxied to the runway, he continued doing this, hiding it whenever he thought he would be seen by a member of the crew, and then taking it out again.

I have on the whole become sceptical whether having the phone on can really be a safety issue. If it were, cabin attendants would surely demand to see each phone to check it was off, or more more likely still we wouldn’t be allowed take it in the cabin. But nevertheless, I was astounded at my neighbour, who continued to fidget with the phone until long after take-off, at which point I lost interest.

Well, maybe good days are coming for him, as reports are circulating that airlines are hoping to be able to offer mobile services during flights. I suspect that roaming from a few miles up will be even more expensive, but I also bet that there will be plenty of willing customers. I dread the whole thing. As it is, it is becoming impossible to avoid being a victim of passive phoneitis, with loud but inane phone calls now being standard in absolutely every setting. It’s not just the disturbance, it is the sheer irritation that at any rate I feel at the thought of all these people who simply cannot switch off; well actually, they can switch off intelligence, courtesy and sophistication, but not the sheer triviality of most mobile communication.

My grandmother used to say that it is only when we stop talking that we realise we have nothing to say. And if we stay silent long enough, we can begin to communicate properly. And so I can say to any airline considering this that mobile services in the air will not entice me one little bit. Wireless internet, now that’s another matter. After all, I have standards. Double standards.


A reprieve for ideology?

November 28, 2008

I have been very interested to observe the debates going on in Britain in the aftermath of the UK Government’s ‘Pre-Budget Report‘ that was issued earlier this week. When considered together with other measures and steps the government took previously, from the nationalisation of Northern Rock onwards, it has led some commentators to ask whether, in Britain, ‘Old Labour’ has returned and buried ‘New Labour’. And from that they conclude that old-fashioned ideology may be back, with a seriously redistributive party (Labour) battling it out with a free market one (Conservatives).

It’s hard to be sure about all this right now. After all, some of the ‘Old Labour’ measures were following the earlier lead of US President George W. Bush, not perhaps a socialist by anyone’s definition; and yet Bush spent more public money (and not just on Iraq) than any President in US history. And in any case, current times are just so – well, strange – that it is difficult to say that any pattern of behaviour we observe is really part of a pattern that can be reduced to ideology. I’ve been listening to senior UK government officials suggest they have (or think they have) a strategy for the financial and economic crisis, and it seems some are happy for this to be given an ideological slant by the media – but in reality there isn’t much ideology there, just a sense of desperation that something needs to be done to get things moving again, and this just happened to be the ‘something’ that came to mind.

In fact, I rather doubt that the ‘slash-taxes-now-and-much-more-taxation-later’ approach will achieve anything very significant. Taking a few pence off retail items (while knowing that this is for a limited time only) will not, I imagine, create a consumer boom, though it will have a strong (i.e. negative) effect on the exchequer. I just can’t see that working. Neither can I see much sense in UK opposition politicians screaming at their government to force the banks to lend more money, now that the taxpayer has given it to them. As I understood it, lending money where there were doubts about the ability of the debtor to re-pay is how we got where we are in the first place.

But leaving all that aside, I can’t see anything in this hotchpotch of policy-making and policy-opposing that has any real ideological profile. Which is a pity, in some ways, because I wouldn’t mind seeing someone step forward with proposals for resolving our current problems based on a frame of reference that is likely to produce calm consistency in decision-making. But for those who think that, after all this time, what is happening is the old cry for public ownership of the means of exchange, I would say don’t celebrate yet. Whatever may be happening, I seriously doubt anyone doing it had an open copy of Das Kapital in front of them.

Transforming the public service?

November 26, 2008

The report of the Task Force on the Public Service was published and launched by the Government today. The report’s title is Transforming Public Services: Citizen Centred – Performance Focused. It is a significant report, and takes its agenda in part from the OECD review of the Irish public service issued earlier this year, and which I mentioned in a previous post in this blog.

The title is, in many ways, quite revealing: the focus is on process, such as how to manage under-performance, how to make the work of the public service more accessible to citizens, how to coordinate the civil and public service, and so forth. These are all important topics and deserve attention, but it seems to me that in many ways they are in the second row of what needs to be transformed. There is a more pressing ned to clarify what it is that we, as a society, expect of the public service, and what we want it to deliver. How it is delivered is important, but cannot properly be addressed until we know what it is that we want delivered.

I would still welcome the report, however, and hope that its implementation will proceed. But we need to have a more fundamental debate in Ireland about the mix of public and private organisational and social and cultural aims that we would like to see pursued in Ireland, and how then we can ask ourselves how the state and its agencies can achieve that for us. During the recent US election campaign President-elect Obama addressed these issues much more succinctly than we have done so far; we also need to tap into that sense of idealism to which he refers. Public service as bureaucracy – even efficient and value-for-money – is not the whole story.

The Europeans

November 25, 2008

Every so often the European Union conducts surveys to ascertain how the citizens in the member states feel about EU membership. The most recently published of these was conducted in the spring of this year (2008), and it has some interesting findings about Irish attitudes. We are amongst the most enthusiastic Europeans: 73 per cent of us believe that EU membership is a good thing – the second highest percentage in Europe, just behind the Netherlands at 75 per cent, and equal to the citizens of Luxembourg, and just ahead of the (aspirational) views of the people of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, not yet in membership but feeling 72 per cent positive about the prospect. On the other end of the list, some of the newer member states have hardly got their foot in the door and their citizens have already become major Eurosceptics: only 29 per cent of Latvians, and 32 per cent of Hungarians, think their membership is good for the country.

Curiously, while the Irish are amongst the most positive, when this is boiled down to specific issues it’s all just ho-hum for us. The survey asks what issues arising out of EU membership matter to people, and in other countries large majorities say they like the Euro, the say it gives Europe in the world, peace and stability and so forth; and others cite the negatives, such as loss of identity, waste of money and bureaucracy. And us: well, we don’t seem to care too much about either the good or the bad things; we’re not particularly enthused by the positives, and not particularly bothered by the negatives. It seems we like being in Europe, but we’re not absolutely sure why.

It’s this kind of woolly vagueness about Europe that probably dooms the increasingly problematic Treaty referendums. We’re OK with where we are, but we don’t have a sufficient feel for the European project to want to go anywhere else with it.

Some pro-Lisbon commentators in Ireland have blamed the government for the defeat of the proposal in the referendum in June of this year. I have to say I don’t buy that. I think the problem is that Europe has moved to develop a constitutional framework for the Union without having worked enough on shared constitutional values. I would suggest that if Lisbon had been put to a vote almost anywhere else it would also have suffered the same fate. I don’t actually believe that a strong anti-Europe groundswell is forming in Ireland, more a growing puzzlement as to what it’s all about and where it’s going. I suspect that a two page statement of values (depending of course on how framed) would stand a much better chance of success at the polls than dozens of pages of intricate text that, frankly, nobody is going to read.

Furthermore, a Treaty which has the following key statements in its preamble (where in fact you might have expected some philosophical underpinning of the strategy) isn’t going to set the world on fire:

(b) In the seventh, which shall become the eighth, recital, the words ‘of this Treaty’ shall be replaced by ‘of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,’; 

(c) In the eleventh, which shall become the twelfth, recital, the words ‘of this Treaty’ shall be replaced by ‘of this Treaty and of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union,’ .

In fact, what Europe needs to develop much more strongly is a vision – not so much a vision of enlargement and empowerment of institutions, but a vision of our place in the world and how Europe can make a difference for the better.

Of course I have been unfair above in my comment and my quote. The ‘real’ Treaty is the consolidated version – i.e. the amended original Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, as it now reads (or would read) after the Lisbon amendments. But here we almost shoot into the opposite extreme: the first few articles are so brimming over with values on really everything that the impact is lost. Think of something modern and liberal, and it’s mentioned there somewhere. As you get into it, you almost expect to see a statement there as to the conduct of referees in the UEFA Champions’  League. It’s simply too much, too ‘motherhood-and-apple-strudel’, too unfocused.

I believe strongly that we should have voted yes to Lisbon, and feel that we have done ourselves some serious damage. But I also believe this was unstoppable, and I don’t think that it’s the government’s fault (while not denying that the campaign was not well run). I suspect that the Irish really were the proxy voters for the rest of Europe, who would mostly have voted the same way. And I was not impressed with the tut-tutting that came from other European leaders after the June referendum.

I believe that a functioning and visible European Union is hugely desirable, as we stand to get sidelined between the growth of the major Asian countries in the East and a perhaps resurgent United States under President Obama in the West. But we won’t get that as Europe is paralysed between weak and technocratic leadership at one level and insecure nationalisms at another. And because we can’t expect all that to come out of Brussels right now, we should make a start in Ireland. Not by trying to explain Lisbon (which is a lost cause), but by taking a lead in he debate on real values and areas for a European priority focus. We need a European (and Europe-wide) strategy that is visionary and makes some difficult choices. We need new life for a new European project.

I wish it could be Christmas every day

November 24, 2008

Today between meetings in Dublin city centre, I was able to marvel at the Christmas lights and decorations, and listen to songs and carols coming out of loudspeakers everywhere. Yes, it’s November, and for those going about their shopping this has been the scene for the past week or two. Christmas was formally launched somewhat earlier this year in Dublin, to stimulate shopping during the recession; and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, next year, Roy Wood or Slade were to accompany my cup of coffee some time in mid-October.

Oddly enough, I haven’t yet come across that absolutely essential sign of Christmastide, the long complaint about how unacceptably commercial Christmas has become. Or the diatribe about how Christmas songs wouldn’t be so bad if only they wouldn’t play Cliff Richards or Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas‘. Or the soul-searching about whether it’s politically correct to celebrate Christmas at all – you can’t really have Christmas without that, it’s traditional.

So I must now ‘fess up and admit: yes, I rather like all the kitsch that ushers in Yuletide every year. I like all the lights, the rampant commercialism, the oh-so-naff songs, the hassled shoppers, yes even Cliff Richards and Rudolph. And if you’re one of those always complaining about all of that, then hey, I like you too, because you belong here. And so here, exactly one month before Christmastide really begins, season’s greetings to all of you!

Is small group teaching doomed?

November 24, 2008

In the university system in these islands, one of the basic points of consensus, at least in pedagogical terms, is that learning is most effective when teaching is conducted in small groups. This has had its most pure form in Oxford and Cambridge, where traditionally tutorials (or ‘supervisions’ in Cambridge) were conducted on a one-to-one or maybe one-to-two basis; and while this Oxbridge system may be ideal, it is generally recognised as being unaffordable for most higher education institutions. However, small groups of somewhere between five and eight students provide an environment in which the interaction between tutor and student, and indeed between the students, can significantly enhance the learning experience.

In fact, small group teaching at that level has become quite rare. When I was a student in the 1970s in Trinity College Dublin, we did have eight (or so) students in each tutorial or seminar, but by the time I left the norm was already eight or nine; and when I began lecturing in the same institution two years later I was told that groups smaller than 15 were too labour-intensive to be affordable. When I was in Hull in the 1990s, it was actually being suggested in some official papers that small group teaching was elitist and pedagogically suspect, but you could sense that there may have been resourcing considerations at the root of that suggestion.

Now as we face further and increasingly severe cuts in Irish higher education funding, we have to start facing the reality that the money we get cannot pay for small group teaching in any systematic way. We need to start addressing the impact of this and explaining it more coherently than we may have done so far. What we are experiencing right now is a fundamental change to our understanding of how we should design the student’s learning experience, but this is being done by stealth and without any real consideration of the educational principles and consequences involved.

It is time to address the matter more systematically. The arguments about how we teach and learn most effectively are not familiar to the public, or even the politicians; they need to be.

The end of days

November 23, 2008

For some (mainly evangelical) Christians, a key aspect of their belief is based in eschatology: that after various horrific events (which they believe are predicted in the Bible) there will follow ‘the Rapture‘, when Christ will appear in the skies and ‘born again’ Christians – both dead and alive – will meet him there, while others will be consigned to hell and eternal damnation.

I wouldn’t wish to comment on this particular set of beliefs; I am a practising Christian myself, and am of the view that we need to be tolerant of other people’s faith and theology. However, I was also made aware of the potential dimensions of such beliefs when, earlier in the past week, I heard a radio interview with an evangelical woman from Alabama who identified the recent US election as a prelude to the Rapture, and who if I understood her inferences correctly seemed to be viewing Barack Obama as the antichrist.

There is undoubtedly (or there must be, I cannot speak from experience) something uniquely comforting in knowing that we have possession of all truth and are certain as to its meaning. But it also places us in a position where we may either gloss over, or misunderstand, or seriously compound the complexities and anxieties of the world. For me, faith is about mystery and discovery, and about trying to understand what we can never quite know. It is also about compassion and tolerance.

There has, over recent years, been a lively debate about whether religion is a force for good or evil in the world. I doubt, notwithstanding the strong views of participants in this debate such as Richard Dawkins, whether that is really a very interesting question, because religion like most things is as good or as bad as we humans make it. But I am inclined to accept that where religion has been used in explicit terms to guide political decision-making it has easily become something dangerous – though to be balanced, the same can be said of atheism.

I genuinely feel for all those who cannot, on the basis of their religious beliefs, be happy about the outcome of the recent US elections. But on the other hand, I cannot help being relieved that this is not how the majority in America assessed matters. Even as a practising Christian (in my case, an Anglican), I feel much more comfortable with the idea that politics must be secular, and that the Kingship of Christ (which Catholic and Anglican Christians celebrate today) is not of this world.

So should our religious principles – where we have them – be private only? I would say, yes and no. I don’t think any of us should be expecting our particular outlook on faith to be reflected in law or government action. But we should live by it ourselves, and apply it to our dealings with others, in tolerance and friendship.

Memory lane

November 21, 2008

I am intending to watch the movie Get Smart shortly. I’m afraid I am old enough to remember, and remember enjoying, the original TV series: here’s the theme tune. All I’ve seen so far of the new movie is the trailer, but I was delighted that the phone box is back, and the tune. I hope I’ll find the whole experience enjoyable. Often I find that updates don’t work for me, so I hope this is different! Or maybe I’ll conclude that the whole thing, including the original series, was just too silly, and that I’ve grown up. I hope not.

Ireland as a world innovation hub

November 21, 2008

Today’s Irish Times had a report indicating that the government wants to make Ireland ‘the most attractive place for companies engaged in research and innovation’. We are told that the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, has been working on a plan with ministers and with the major government agencies dealing with economic development.

This is an entirely laudable plan, and it is the right thing to do at the current time. Even after the economic downturn has had its full impact on costs and other aspects influencing competitiveness, Ireland will still be a high cost economy in international terms, and we will not get many new investments in manufacturing and low-level services; those will go further East. Being a centre of innovation is the only realistic prospect for future growth and prosperity, and in fairness this is something that the Taoiseach himself has recognised since he was Minister for Finance.

What is perhaps missing from these preparations is active engagement with universities. Whatever plan will emerge will not be successful unless universities work closely with it, and that should mean that they are included in the discussions and the design of the plan. It is even more urgent now that universities should be seen as partners in these processes, and not just agencies for implementing them.

Open plan universities?

November 21, 2008

I recently visited a university in the United Kingdom, and was interested to hear that they had introduced open plan offices and even ‘hot desking’ for some of the academic staff there. It is a move that would seem, I suspect, to be highly counter-intuitive to most academics. The traditional academic working environment is the single office cell, in which the individual keeps his or her books and papers, and where meetings with students can take place in a confidential setting.

The journal Times Higher Education first ran an article on this phenomenon in 2005, in which it referred to research that had been undertaken on it. Academic staff in universities where this new model was being tried out were interviewed, and invariably hostile; they felt that the environment in which they were being asked to work was ‘a little like being in a call centre’, and that it was ‘like moving from a grown-up atmosphere to a classroom atmosphere.’ The authors of the article concluded that for open plan arrangements to work in universities a whole new attitude to and etiquette for academic work would have to be adopted.

More recently the same journal took a closer look at an experiment with open plan arrangements in Sussex University. The intention behind this experiment was to see whether the office lay-out and use would encourage greater collaboration and interdisciplinarity; but the response of staff working there suggested ti did not achieve that effect.

I confess that I am personally highly sceptical as to whether open plan offices can be made to work in universities. I guess that all sorts of arguments could be used in favour of them, in theory; but in practice it simply goes so much against the grain of the traditional understanding of academic life that it simply wouldn’t work. On the other hand, we have to understand that, in many universities, space is now a very scarce resource, and if we are not about to knock down internal office walls we do need to have a better sense of how we can use space effectively and what kind of intellectual and pedagogical model we want our use of space to present.

I would vote with the existing type of arrangements; but would also suggest that universities have become lazy in organising the use of space, and that we need to get better at it, and that in order to do so we need to have a debate about how our use of space can best serve the academy’s and society’s needs.