Archive for February 2009

Dumbing down?

February 28, 2009

Earlier this month in Britain, the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was reported as saying that students who would have failed A-level mathematics in the 1980s were now ‘easily passing’ because of dumbing down under the British Labour Government. At almost exactly the same time researchers from the Institute of Technology in Tralee who had conducted a study on educational standards in Ireland reported that there was considerable grade inflation in Irish universities and colleges and concluded:

Grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards. Weaknesses inherent in the assessment process at third level have enabled an increasing divergence between academic performance and grades awarded.

The kind of evidence used by the Tralee team was that ‘in 1994 the percentage of first class honours awarded across the universities was 7%. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 17%.’

Complaints about grade inflation and falling standards are not new. In Britain they began to get serious circulation in the 1990s, so that every year when A-level results were issued and showed any improvements at all there were immediate shouts of dumbing down. We are now getting similar complaints about higher education.

Most people making such assertions are doing so on rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence. Students getting better results could be put down to one of any number of reasons: under pressure from parents and teachers, students may actually be working harder, teaching could be better, rising entry requirements by universities and the competition for places could be driving students to prepare more for exams; and so forth. Also, if the standards of final school examinations were slipping the universities would see this immediately through falling standards at third level and the need for more remedial teaching in first year. That this hasn’t happened (except in cases where entry points requirements have been lowered) suggests that the charge of dumbing down is not a good one.

If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates. In fact while there may recently have been a shortage of graduates in some sectors, there have been no suggestions that the quality of those coming through is lower than in the past; often the reverse is stated.

If we are targeting better performance by students leading to better results, as we are, we should resist the temptation to assume that something has gone wrong when those better results materialise. It may be the opposite, standards may be rising. From my experience, students nowadays work much harder and are much more aware of the impact of their results on their job prospects. You would expect them to work harder and get better results, which is what has happened.

I believe that changes to the curriculum and working methods at secondary schools are needed fairly urgently, and there is always room for a discussion about higher quality education at third level. But this objective is undermined when we start talking about dumbing down as being the obvious and necessary cause of higher grades. That is a sloppy use of facts and data, and at the very least needs a better qualitative analysis of the reasons for (as distinct from just the fact of) better examination results.


Architecture: preservation vs innovation

February 27, 2009

To state the obvious, I am not an architect, nor do I have even a gifted amateur’s knowledge of architecture. But I have had a lot of dealings with architects, some quite brilliant, and some less so. Amongst the brilliant I would count Andrzej Wejchert, who designed the Helix performing arts centre in DCU. If you look at his firm’s website, you get to see the Helix, inside and out, as the slide show progresses.

But some of my encounters with architects have been irritating. A few years ago I had to argue with the architect who was in charge of the refurbishment of my home – the architect concerned was totally unwilling to let either my wife or me decide how the kitchen should be arranged. What she had in mind was probably an interesting design, but impractical for a working kitchen. In the end I insisted on having my way, but I suspect she thought I was an imbecile or a Philistine or both.

But even worse than architects, in my experience, are people from local authority planning departments. In Ireland, this is because we suddenly came to realise that it is not ideal to destroy the country’s entire architectural heritage, having previously for decades demolished hundreds of valuable and beautiful buildings to replace them with concrete office blocks. When the realisation suddenly dawned that this was bad, the pendulum swung all the way to the other extreme. So for example, a friend of mine living in an early Victorian house was told he could not instal a downstairs bathroom because there would have been none there in Victorian days; and that was the sole reason.

Managing our architectural inventory is a really important task. Our buildings are what see, what we live in, what we work in, what we visit. They define our lives more than most other things. And this being so, they need to reflect who and what we are and to offer us something from our heritage and something for our future. We should sympathetically preserve our old buildings, but not make them all into museums; we should aim to point to the future, in both aesthetic and technological terms, in our new buildings, but not make them soulless and uninviting. And on the whole, we should avoid building pastiche.

It may be hard to say this, but Ireland has a stock of houses and buildings constructed during the decades when the country was poor and uncertain of itself which, in truth, ought not to survive to the next generation. But we also have some buildings that demonstrate confidence and curiosity that works, such as Busaras (the bus station in Dublin), or the government buildings along Kildare Street. And we have the designers and architects who have the imagination, guts and innovative instincts to give us buildings for the future that will stand the test of time.

Investing in high value knowledge

February 26, 2009

In this week’s State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, this is what he said right at the beginning of his speech:

The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation.  The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.  They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.

This passage was quoted on Wednesday morning by Professor Frank Gannon, Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland, at the announcement by Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Coughlan of five major new research programmes being funded by SFI. It is indeed noteworthy that President Obama has emphasised the role of laboratories and universities in helping to find the way out of the recession. And in fairness to the Irish government, its continued funding of SFI’s research programmes (and other research) even in these uncertain times indicates that this is understood and accepted in Ireland.

It is therefore also important to ensure that the university laboratories are set in a secure environment, in which the academics are encouraged and motivated and the students are supported in their learning. The country as a whole will benefit.

And by way of a postscript, I am happy to say that two of the five research programmes that have been funded are led by DCU.

Ireland’s struggle to be a centre for science and technology

February 25, 2009

For the past few years we have all known that Ireland has a problem: we need to be a centre of excellence in which research and development and high value investment can find a natural home; but our indigenous population has been turning away from the subjects – at school and university – that could make this vision a reality: science and mathematics. There are a number of issues: the lack of a proper primary science curriculum; totally inadequate science laboratories in secondary schools; the perceived complexity and difficulty of mathematics and science as school subjects; the demanding nature of these subjects at third level; and so forth.

As I said, all of this has been known long enough; it has been confirmed by various expert groups set up by the government, including the Expert Group on Future Skills, and the Task Force on the Physical Sciences. The latter group made some very significant recommendations in 2002, but the government never even issued a response, and indeed the website on which the report was published has now even been taken down.

Just this week the Minister for Education and Science has announced the establishment of yet another expert group, which will look at how the Department of Education and the private sector can improve technology in the classroom. It is tempting to say that we don’t need more reviews, we know what the situation is. What we do need is action.

One possible measure that has been proposed by a number of organisations, including the employer’s body IBEC, the government’s enterprise and science advisory body Forfas, the Irish Software Association, and Engineers Ireland – that bonus points should be added at Leaving Certificate level for honours Mathematics – has been ‘ruled out’ by the Minister for Education in a Dail answer. He did this despite the fact that it is very doubtful whether this is a matter the Minister can take a decision on at all, since the points system is controlled by the universities themselves through the CAO.

We must urgently get beyond the stage of talking and get on with doing. The risks we run are obvious enough, and recent comments by major companies that they cannot get enough employees skilled in science and technology are enough of a red alert. There needs to be an action plan, and it needs to be announced at once. And though some of my university colleagues disagree with me on this, I think that we should not dismiss the idea of bonus points for mathematics. We cannot afford to see the present trend continue.

Meeting my ancestor

February 24, 2009

It’s a very small world, in a sometimes strange sort of way. A year or two ago I was standing at a check-in counter in an American airport. Because the woman behind the counter had some difficulty saying my name (not an unusual occurrence for me), I said it for her. And as I did so, I noticed that the man in line behind me got very agitated. When I had finished, and as it was his turn, he asked me could I just wait a moment until he had also checked in.

I waited, and when he was finished he asked me whether I was related to the 19th century Prussian general, Ferdinand von Prondzynski. I am not a huge expert in my family history (though I am learning), but I did know the answer to this one. Yes, I said, he was my great great great grandfather. My new friend was now beside himself with excitement, and told me: ‘I played him!’

It turns out that this gentleman was a member of a war games society, who regularly re-enacted famous historical battles. One they had recently tackled was the battle of Königgrätz, fought in 1866, in which my ancestor had played a decisive role. My American friend had ‘been’ Ferdinand von Prondzynski in this re-enactment, and had taken a significant interest in the life, times and views of my great great great grandfather.

The battle brought about some decisive political changes in Europe, and entrenched the growing power of Prussia as a political and military power, and ultimately through Prussia of the soon to be united Germany. It is of course a matter of debate as to how we should evaluate that in the light of events in the 20th century, but it was an important battle. And it was a most unlikely, one-in-a-million chance encounter in an American airport. 

I have done a little more research on my ancestor – but maybe that is for another time.

Concerns for the equality agenda in a recession

February 24, 2009

In the current recession, and with significant issues of funding hitting almost everything, new priorities quickly emerge and old ones can suffer. Monday’s edition of the London Times newspaper reported as follows:

Plans to axe new laws that would increase costs for businesses, including enhanced maternity leave and tougher equality legislation, are threatening to blow open a Cabinet rift over how Labour should respond to the economic downturn, The Times has learnt.

The proposals, outlined in the Queen’s Speech just two months ago, and championed by Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, are at risk after Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, and the Chancellor called for a moratorium on any measures that would add to the current financial pressure on businesses.

In Ireland, funding for the Equality Authority was reduced very significantly a few weeks ago, and as a result the Authority’s chief executive resigned

It is of course exceptionally difficult to undertake dramatic cuts to public expenditure while still maintaining strategic priorities. However, it is to be hoped that one of the casualties of the recession will not be the equal opportunity principle. As conditions worsen, it may be tempting to regard equality as a luxury, and some may even consider it a bureaucratic cost; but in the end equality of opportunity is what marks out a civilised society, and it is an ideal that should not be sacrificed. It may well be that its implementation should be monitored to ensure that it takes account of the tricky conditions in which many employers and other bodies now find themselves; but respect for people regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and other grounds should never be compromised.

The rewards of teaching

February 23, 2009

The most recent issue of the UK journal Times Higher Education carries an interesting report on a survey carried out by the British Higher Education Academy (not to be confused with our own Higher Education Authority). In a nutshell, the results of this survey reveal that many British academics, including many in the most research intensive universities, feel that teaching is neglected in terms of institutional strategies and is under-funded and under-rewarded. The article suggests that academics feel that, apart from the inadequate rewards (in particular the difficulty in making it count for promotion purposes) there are also obstacles, including the erosion of staff-student ratios and the standardisation of curricula.

It seems to me that we cannot correct this by downgrading research, not least because high value research is now critical for the economic recovery that we all need. However, it is also true that we cannot develop research  at the expense of teaching, and that we must ensure that teaching is adequately resourced and properly taken into account in academic career development. The latter issue is now critical, and in my university we are going to look more closely over coming months at how we can ensure that good teachers are recognised and promoted. This is important not just in order to encourage self-esteem for those who are both talented and dedicated teachers, but also to provide for students what they have a right to expect: that their learning experience is a priority for the university.

The dangers of recession

February 22, 2009

I recently came across a political pamphlet which had been distributed at a mass rally. A key passage in the pamphlet ran as follows:

“The end of capitalism is imminent. It has been caused by the natural greed of the owners of capital, and by the reckless behaviour of the banking system, pushing people and firms into excessive debt, and seeking unearned and scandalous personal benefits for the bankers. Capitalism is dead, and we will help to bury it. “

The whole pamphlet was full of righteous indignation about the unacceptable nature of the capitalist system and the pain that its troubles were inflicting on working people; it ended by advocating a popular uprising that would take financial institutions into public ownership and force them to work for the people, rather than for greedy businessmen.

It may be interesting to say a little more about the origins of this pamphlet. First of all, this was not written as a response to current events, it was dated October 1932. Secondly, it was written in German (the above is my translation). And finally, right on the front cover we learn that it was published by the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany, the Nazis. And of course we know that whatever they wanted to do about the events they described, within about three months they were in a position to do it, and much more besides. What followed were some of the most horrific years in human history.

I am of course not suggesting that all those have been attacking capitalism in response to recent developments are in reality fascists. But dramatic economic crises bring all sorts of dangers in their wake, particularly where these crises are accompanied by an erosion of confidence in the key organisational structures of the economy and the political establishment. The conditions today are still, thankfully, nowhere near what they were in the late Weimar Republic, but it is still worth remembering that the risks we run are not just economic and financial.

What is worrying right now is the continuing growth of cynicism and anger, and the strong desire evinced in various public commentary to see someone ‘punished’ for the mismanagement that has been evident. Of course we need a vision and a plan. But as I have suggested before, this needs to be effectively communicated to the wider population. There is much to do, and the time for doing it is now.

Eat your heart out

February 21, 2009

Earlier this week there was a review of student dining at one of Ireland’s universities (not DCU). On the whole the reviewer was not complimentary, either about the quality or the price of the food on offer.

For myself, I remember very little about the quality and quantity of food I ate as a student; somehow the food wasn’t as important as other things, including drink. However, what I do remember is that food, or catering, were issues which once they were raised were guaranteed to produce heated argument, and with a bit of luck militant confrontation with the university authorities. And some of the causes were odd: on one occasion (in 1975 I think) we were willing to go to the wall in defence of the continued availability of burgers, beans and chips in the student cafeteria, a particular offering of food that should have been banned on health grounds rather than protected through militant action. A few years later, when I was a lecturer, I recall being at a general meeting at the university in which senior officers were having to announce a whole series of cuts because of dramatic reductions in government funding (hardly an unfamiliar event today); in the discussion that followed the student representatives demanded to know (as their only question) what the impact would be on catering.

We shouldn’t laugh. Food is important, from the necessary provision of nutrition to the social networking that often happens when we eat. If we believe (as I do) that university is about more than classroom learning, we should aim to make eating on the campus a positive experience. Much of that is to do with providing choice and quality, and making it as affordable as is possible. I believe that the quality of catering in DCU is exceptional, though like others we do have some arguments about pricing. But all universities need to realise that catering is not an unimportant sideshow, and that presentation can be as important as the actual food substance. Overall, what can be more important than the experiences of the senses when encountering food, in stimulating company.

What is required therefore is a catering operation that values and is excited by food and understands its significance in building community.

The significance of governance

February 20, 2009

The UK journal Times Higher Education recently reported on a survey of governors and senior managers in 27 British universities, carried out by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. This revealed that a ‘significant minority’ of both governors and senior managers felt that relations between them were only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ constructive, and in some institutions there was ‘almost no contact’ between governors and academic leaders. More generally, university employees didn’t understand the role of the governing body, either at all or much.

In fact, it could be argued that corporate governance is something that is not well established in higher education. Lest I am misunderstood, I should say first that I believe that, in my own university, it is functioning rather well. But in universities more generally, it would be hard to conclude that. Even on governing bodies, there is often a degree of tension caused by the different expectations of governance perceived by the various groups represented there. Also, the large size of most governing bodies doesn’t on the whole help, although this can be overcome by effective chairing.

In Ireland, the composition of governing bodies and their responsibilities are governed by the Universities Act 1997, and further guidance has been issued from time to time by the Higher Education Authority (for example, in relation to financial accountability). More recently the HEA has also been in dialogue with governing body chairs.

But despite these advances, it is still true to say that governance is probably not well understood in the university community more generally. The absence of such an understanding is potentially serious when accountability and transparency are becoming major issues in the sector. On the whole, the tensions (and worse) that have been observed in some British institutions between governors and senior management have not been a major feature in Ireland. But as public interest, and political interest, in the running of universities grows, it would be timely to make governance, its functions and its limitations better known to staff and students. This may be something that DCU can lead the way in.