Archive for December 2008

The government’s plan for universities: rationalisation

December 19, 2008

On Thursday the government published its ‘framework for sustainable economic renewal’, entitled Building Ireland’s Smart Economy. The introduction explains that the framework ‘sets out the Government’s vision for the next phase of Ireland’s economic development’. A significant part of the focus is the encouragement of research and development, and entrepreneurship. The government plans to create an ‘Innovation Island’, making Ireland ‘the innovation and commercialisation capital of Europe – a country that combines the features of an attractive home for innovative multinationals while also being an incubation environment for the best entrepreneurs from Europe and further afield. ‘

In addressing the principles underlying government action to achieve this vision, one is explained as the recognition that ‘concentration of research investments is as important, if not more important, than the absolute amount of funding’. This theme is pursued further a couple of pages on where the threats facing the country are listed, one of which is ‘a relatively large number of third-level institutions for the size of the population and a below average spend on R&D, with a need to concentrate investment and achieve efficiencies.’ And a little further on again there is a section on ‘restructuring the higher education system’, which begins as follows:

‘Ireland has a relatively large number of third-level institutions. International research shows that the concentration of investment in research and development is important in advancing research innovation.  In successfully advancing our knowledge capacity, there is now a need to re-examine the roles and relationships of higher education institutions across the Irish system.  Through the last ten years of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), and more recently the Strategic Innovation Fund, impressive new inter-institutional collaborations have been created.  However, the next phase of economic development will require an even greater concentration of resources and expertise. This will involve re-thinking future institutional roles and organisational relationships in higher education to enable the Irish system to reach new levels of research and innovation performance.’

The document goes on to indicate that these issues will be addressed in the forthcoming Higher Education Strategy that will be launched shortly. And one of the resulting action points will be as follows:

‘Higher Education institutions will be supported in pursuing new organisational mergers and alliances that can advance performance through more effective concentration of expertise and investment.’

What are we to make of this? There is no doubt that investment in research produces the best results when it is highly focused and supports agreed priorities. But as the government’s document itself mentions, collaborative and partnership arrangements between Ireland’s higher education institutions have already produced significant concentrations of support for inter-institutional (and interdisciplinary) teams working closely together. There is some undoubted scope for developing such collaboration further – and I suspect that the universities will willingly work with such plans.

I have a fear however that we may get side-tracked into more grandiose restructuring debates around mergers, or that some institutions may in fact be pushed down the latter path. There may be a good case for an assessment of the structure of the sector, including an assessment of the benefits that could accrue from rationalisation. But such a process should not be confused with innovation. Indeed if the latter is our main aim, then restructuring may actually delay or derail substantive innovation programmes, as the focus will shift from substantive innovation to institutional defensiveness and, in some cases, resistance.

I fear also that some may wish to debate the idea that a single Irish university – or maybe two – should be identified that will get the bulk or all of research funding in order to maximise international impact. The result of any such move would be to call into question the viability in terms of excellence of the remaining institutions.

Of course I do not know exactly what the government has in mind as it develops its plans, and it makes sense to wait for more information and to engage in constructive dialogue around the formulation of the new Higher Education Strategy. It also makes sense for individual institutions, and groups of institutions, to continue to look for ways in which collaboration and rationalisation can develop further. But I hope that the period ahead will not be characterised by institutional navel-gazing and defensiveness, and that the government does not take steps that make such distractions more likely. It is important that we all work together to advance the national interest and to hasten our escape from the recession.

UK Research Assessment – some additional observations

December 18, 2008

From the perspective of the UK universities, the outcome of the Research Assessment Exercise is significant in two different ways. First, the RAE has perhaps the greatest impact on reputation of all metrics used to compile league tables; there is evidence that event student choices are heavily influenced by them. Secondly, they help to determine state funding (though the precise impact of these latest results on money is not yet known). In past RAEs there has been some conflict between these two factors, as institutions struggled to work out how best to maximise both money and reputation in the decisions about how many staff to enter: if you entered more staff and scored well, the financial benefits were highest – but if the gamble failed and you scored badly, the negative impact on reputation could be immense. It was all essentially a gamble.

In previous RAE outcomes, the exercise tended also to reinforce the – formally abolished but still alive and kicking – binary divide between ‘old’ universities and ‘new’ ones (the former polytechnics). This appears to have been undermined by the 2008 RAE results. The lowest place ‘old’ university appears to be the University of Wales at Lampeter, at No 83. The highest placed ‘new’ university is the University of Hertforshire, at No 58. Between these two there is a mix between the old and the new. So while all universities above 58 are old universities, and all below 83 are new ones or various specialist institutions, the boundary has become more fluid. And in some subject areas this fluidity is more pronounced, with new universities reaching the top ranks in some areas. In Ireland of course it is different anyway, with the two ‘new’ universities (in chronological terms), DCU and the University of Limerick, either performing to the same standard as the older ones in research, or sometimes out-performing them.

So what do we make of all this? Are such exercises useful? I have no direct experience of the preparations for the UK’s 2008 RAE, but I was heavily involved in managing subject units for the University of Hull (which in the whole has not done well in 2008) for the previous two RAEs. On the positive side, I found that the RAE had driven home in the academic community the importance of research performance as a way of building up an international reputation – so vital for any national university sector that wants to compete in quality internationally. On the negative side, the focus of the earlier RAE cycles was to combat research non-performance amongst academics, and the result of this tended to be heavy-handed methods to compel performance on the part of staff who, even when they did produce output, were never going to set the world on fire. A lot of very mediocre published output resulted, and arguably truly excellent staff were neglected.

I believe it is right to assess research, and I suspect that we shall be moving in that direction in Ireland. But I also think we should learn from the UK’s RAE and ensure that we avoid the mistakes, and the extraordinary bureaucracy, that accompanied the earlier cycles. If we can do that, we may be able to develop our own system in a way that genuinely adds transparency to the system.

Research assessment

December 18, 2008

Today is December 18th, and the UK Research Assessment Exercise results are published. The RAE website is here, and the full results cane be read or downloaded here. I have had a rather cursory glance at these, and there appear to be some surprising results, with some older universities doing less well than expected. The Northern Ireland universities, as far as I can see, have at least in some subjects fared well. I shall try to present a more informed view of the results when I have studied them more closely.

The results are being presented somewhat differently from before, and it is now possible to see in much more detail how units have performed within their subject areas, and in particular what the distribution of staff performance is within specific subject areas.

The debate will now begin again, I imagine, as to how useful this whole exercise is, and the extent to which it does actually promote quality. Here in DCU, we have over the past year or so conducted our own research assessment, and we expect to give some results from that before long. I expect that, at some point, there will be a sector-wide exercise of this nature in Ireland; and when that happens, assuming it does, I hope we avoid some of the mistakes which, in my opinion, were made in the UK.

Debating the future

December 17, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to participate in a debate organised by DCU’s Debate Society. The topic was university tuition fees, and I was one of several speakers (including the Labour Party’s education spokesperson, Ruairi Quinn). It was a lively event, and at the end, as you might possibly guess, the majority of those present voted against the reintroduction of fees.

However, my point here is not about fees, but rather about debating as a student activity. The event was attended by a reasonable number of students, but the room was by no means full. The quality of the contributions was good, but there wasn’t altogether the undercurrent of passion that accompanies really good student debates. For a debating society to succeed, it needs topics that stimulate real bursts of fire, the active participation of articulate and quick-witted debaters, good visiting speakers, regular injections of humour, and lively and full participation.

As a student (in some other university), I was an active debater and a committed participant in the main debating society of that university. We did not always manage to have debates of genuinely high quality, but it happened often enough for students to want to be there on every occasion. It seems to me that this is a really important ingredient of student life, and in many ways a vital aspect of a good education.

Debating is however also a by-product of good teaching – if teachers encourage participation during lectures and other classes and prompt and support debates around topical issues it will help to create the environment in which student debating will prosper. The tendency of university education over the past decade or too to become too career-oriented for the students has not helped this.

The debate I attended was not disheartening. The society seems to be doing well, and the students who were there were keen to take part actively. But I suspect the time is right to encourage a whole new generation of lively debaters to emerge. In the past such students debaters became the political and business leaders a generation later.

California dreaming

December 16, 2008

I think it is exactly 40 years since the Mamas and the Papas released the hit single, California Dreaming. Of course the point of the song was that the singer was somewhere else (not California) in the winter, reflecting on what it would be like to be in California, away from the grey skies and the cold weather. So it may not be entirely right for me to be thinking of the song right now, as I am actually in California (though only for a few more hours). It is a beautiful day here, with a perfectly blue sky and temperatures in the 20s (Celsius).

I love visiting California in the winter, and have done so on several occasions around Christmas – and I even find the Christmas decorations in the warm sunshine quite wonderful. California has a huge budget deficit, and a major energy supply problem, and woodland fires – but somehow worrying about that doesn’t feel the same when you can lie in the sun in December while doing it. And maybe that also explains why, all in all, there appears to be a spirit of optimism here in LA.

There is also a major buzz here about the new political era that people believe is about to begin. Let us all hope that this optimism carries the day and is not punctured, and that it helps to lift us all out of the gloom in the New Year.

Getting the point

December 16, 2008

For the curious, this blog now comes to you from California, where I am attending an event this evening before returning to Ireland tomorrow.

At this morning’s event with President McAleese in Phoenix, Arizona, the President of Arizona State University, Dr Michael Crow, made an interesting point. He said that the best predictor of final school results (SATs in the US, Leaving Certificate in Ireland) was not the student’s talents, learning or skills, but his or her zip code (or post code). If,  his argument was, you determine university access through examination results, you may think you are applying an objective standard that is blind to class, race and background, but in reality you are doing the opposite. So the first step to tackling educational disadvantage at tertiary level is to accept that a points-based system is inherently discriminatory. What is worse, it is discrimination masquerading as even-handed objectivity.

I don’t know, in any scientific sense, whether this holds true for Ireland also. I suspect it does. We know that, nationally, over 50 per cent of an age cohort go to university or college. But we also know that in certain areas (some of them very close to DCU) a significant majority of young people will not achieve the points needed to go to college. Is this because people in those areas are inherently less intelligent? Of course not. So if we apply a points system we are saying that the perceived (but unachieved) objectivity of examination results should trump social exclusion concerns.

I have pointed out in the past that the points system has a number of undesirable effects, including its tendency to push students into subject areas which are not national priorities. I should now add what I would regard the clincher: that it is a framework that entrenches social exclusion.

We urgently need a national debate on this, and to move towards getting something that is better, in the national interest and in the interests of equity and non-discrimination. The time for that debate is now.

A letter from Arizona

December 15, 2008

This blog is coming to you from Arizona. On Monday morning I shall be attending an event hosted by Arizona State University in honour of President Mary McAleese, who is on a visit to the United States right now. At the event President McAleese will be arguing the case for knowledge-intensive investment in Ireland, and others (myself included) will be highlighting the role that universities play in creating the right conditions for such investment. And I shall also mention the mutual advantages that have already been achieved through the strong cooperation between DCU and Arizona State University.

The President will, I am certain, be extremely effective in her advocacy – she is an extraordinarily powerful representative of Ireland’s interests on such occasions.

It will be worthwhile also for the various officials from Ireland who will be present at this event to consider the successes that have been achieved in recent years in Arizona, under Governor Janet Napolitano. The Governor has helped to change fundamentally the strategy of this state. In many ways Arizona has a number of disadvantages. It is relatively peripheral in terms of its location; it has a fairly hostile climate, with desert conditions and temperatures that for several months every year are extremely high; it has not historically had a major industrial presence; it had a deficit of public investment in infrastructure; and until earlier this decade it had a major budget deficit. The geography and climate are of course the same as before, but a lot of other things have changed. There has been a strong focus on public investment within a balanced budget, on innovation and skills, and on attracting and retaining high-tech investment. Two other key people have supported this policy direction: Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, and Bill Harris, CEO of Science Foundation Arizona. 

Like the rest of the world, Arizona has experienced the effects of the credit crisis and the economic downturn. As in Ireland, the state has had to cut or delay funding under a number of headings. However, it has done this in the context of a number of key strategic choices, allowing funding to be developed further for some priority areas and projects. University infrastructure, and education and research more generally, have been supported strongly in the Governor’s budget for 2009.

It is clear that an early economic recovery will be helped – in Ireland as in Arizona – by the resolute pursuit of some key strategic decisions, which will need to involve strong support for higher education. In Arizona it is to be hoped that this policy direction will continue under a new Governor, as Janet Napolitano is set to join the cabinet of President-elect Barack Obama. In Ireland it is top be hoped that that the Government will work with the universities to ensure that there is a funding and resourcing environment that will allow them to succeed as magnets for new high value investment and the development of indigenous enterprise and innovation.

The Amazon Kindle – another update

December 13, 2008

As readers of this blog will know, a few months ago I acquired an Amazon Kindle. This has been something of an endurance test, because the Kindle is only for sale in America to American customers, and as you will know I live and work in Ireland. I managed to get around this as I have a US mailing address, from where I can get things forwarded that are sent there for me.

Getting content on to the Kindle is much more difficult. There are thousands of ebooks on Amazon.com, but these can only be bought with an American credit card. Eventually I worked my way round this also by buying a ‘disposable’ VISA credit card while on a visit in the US and registering this on Amazon. Now I can buy Kindle-format ebooks, at least until the sum on the credit card has been exhausted. Then, if I still have the energy, I’ll need to get another one. There are also website where you can download free Kindle-format books, generally the classics.

So is it all worth it? Yes, I think so. Just about. The device itself is entirely intuitive and user-friendly, and I find the screen to be exactly right; reading is easy on the eyes. The battery life seems excellent – I have been on several intercontinental flights during which I read almost non-stop, without the power level in the battery showing much sign of running down. So I am happy with the device; but cannot help wondering why Amazon makes it so difficult for non-US customers. Apparently a UK version is about to be released; but nothing for Ireland.

In Ireland – if you can get hold of it – the Sony ebook reader is now on sale, at Waterstones. But I have been unable to get a demonstration of one, so I cannot say how good or bad it is. Whenever I go to Waterstones they do not have them in stock.

To be or not to be a university

December 12, 2008

Next year, in 2009, twenty years will have passed since DCU became a university. Before that, it was the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). Formally the change came through the Dublin City University Act 1989. However, that Act had only seven sections, and the main changes it introduced were a change of name and the conferring of degree awarding powers. In many other critical respects, the legislation governing DCU remained the National Institute for Higher Education Act 1980, under which the institution was subject to significant ministerial and government direction. Arguably DCU did not become a university in the full sense until the passing of the Universities Act 1997, from which point it was granted the same level of autonomy as the other (older) universities.

Ireland has throughout recent decades had what is generally described as a ‘binary’ higher education system: there are universities, with a teaching and research agenda and with higher levels of independent governance and autonomy; and there are the others, with various differences of nomenclature and status, generally with a teaching-only academic agenda, lower levels of independence, and more direct government control. Until recently one might have added also that these other institutions don’t generally have degree-awarding powers of their own – but that has been changing.

So between 1980 and 1989 – and arguably until 1997 – DCU/NIHE was on the non-university side of the binary divide. However, it refused to resemble the non-university stereotype, both through the development of a vigourous research programme, and also through its determination to drive higher education innovation at all levels. When therefore the government established an expert international panel to assess the case for university status, this panel indicated that NIHE was already operating at university level and was recognised accordingly, and that therefore it (and NIHE Limerick which was considered at the same time for university status) should become a university. So DCU (and the University of Limerick) slipped across the binary divide into the university sector.

Left on the other side were the Regional Technical Colleges (later to become Institutes of Technology), and various other private or special purpose colleges.

In the early 1990s in Britain, all of the polytechnics became universities; this in essence ended the binary divide in the UK at least informal terms; though it could be said that in practice it has remained, for nearly 20 years on in popular parlance and estimation the ex-polytechnics are still considered separate as ‘new universities’.

So apart from the looming anniversary, what is topical about all this? Well, the remaining binary divide in Ireland is coming under significant stress, and there is not a consensus as to how to deal with that. Influenced probably by the transformation of the polytechnics in Britain, a growing number of the Irish Institutes of Technology are putting forward arguments for a similar change here. One of them – Dublin Institute of Technology – made a bid for university status a few years ago and is doing so again now; as is Waterford Institute of Technology. Others again are looking at ways in which they might move quickly to a new status by various methods; and the institutes collectively are trying to persuade the government to explore the possibility if setting up a National Technological University in Ireland, whose constituent colleges would be the existing IoTs.

It would be difficult in some ways for DCU to resist these propositions, given our own history. But one way or another, if we are to make the case for or against another university (while some key commentators are actually calling for reduction in the number), we need to have marshalled our arguments very effectively. And many of these will have to focus on a question that we, as a country, have never tried to answer coherently before: what is a university? What characteristics must it have, what should its mission be? Can (or should) you have as a university an institution whose academic members are not research-active? What level of autonomy and sovereignty of governance should a university have? How should we measure the degree of external recognition that it has achieved?

It is difficult to say whether the binary divide should stay in place. Whatever the right answer is, higher education needs a general consensus about its mission and the institutional structures in which that mission will succeed. The menu of options being presented to us right now is extensive. But if we are to assess in a transparent and effective manner how the sector should develop, we must make a start. We need to ask, and to answer, the question as to what it is that constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide can or should be sustained.

The vision thing, and how we get out of all this mess

December 11, 2008

The former US President George Bush (father of the current President, George W. Bush) is said to have suggested during the campaign that won him the presidency in 1988 that he was not good at, or much attracted to, what he called ‘the vision thing’. According to the report, what he called the ‘vision thing’ was some sort of strategy for taking his country forward. Bush was more interested in the nuts and bolts of government, and his formula for good government was to have good people in charge; what substantive policies they should pursue didn’t interest him half as much.

Competency as the slogan on your campaign posters is fine, until things start to go wrong. At that point people want to know where you would like to take them and what you can see on the further horizon, and if a political leader cannot give them a sense of that they lose confidence in them. Four years into the elder Bush’s presidency, at a time of economic uncertainty, the American people voted him out and brought in Bill Clinton.

In Ireland in late 2008, we are desperately short of sightings of the vision thing, and this is reflected in the various ambivalent messages coming out of opinion polls, and may also be contributing to the low level of economic confidence. Of course we must all be brought face to face with the problems that we currently face, but continuing doses of pessimism and doom, and the drip-drip of bad news stories without any rallying cries or encouragement to get out and do something, is killing off the determination and optimism which are needed for recovery. It is not just that the government – surprisingly in my view – seems mesmerised by all the problems and crises, the opposition also isn’t helping either when its political adrenalin seems to be flowing only from continuing to build up the worst possible picture of our prospects.

The government appears to have managed the feat of producing insufficient public expenditure cuts while at the same time persuading the public that it has savagely removed the material supports for disadvantage and old age; while the opposition seem completely stuck in the thesaurus trying to find yet more spine-chilling synonyms for ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’.  Lack of confidence may not be entirely what got us here, but it is (if we can find it) what will get us out. And to achieve that our politicians and other public figures need to find, and quickly, a capacity to communicate the strategy for bold innovation: the vision thing.


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