Archive for February 2009


February 19, 2009

When I began to publish this blog in June of last year, a number of people contacted me to congratulate me on being so thoroughly modern (for a 50-something university President, at any rate). They were dead wrong. I was horribly behind the times. Rather than starting this fairly wordy blog, what I should have been doing is showing my presence on Twitter. Mind you, at the time I had no idea what Twitter was; I only became aware of it a month or two later when I noticed that a friend of mine was talking about being on it. So I looked into it, and being the kind of person I am I immediately joined.

I should pause here and explain the concept. Some call it a ‘micro-blog’: it’s a site that allows you to broadcast short messages of no more than 140 characters, and these can then be read by anyone, but more particularly by those who have declared themselves to be ‘following’ you. You can enter these messages on the web, or on your phone or PDA device.

Once I had registered I was stuck. I was up for this, but when I sat down to twitter the first time I couldn’t work out what I was doing it for. I was brand new, so nobody was ‘following’ me, and it just seemed daft to send a text message out into cyberspace with no particular audience in mind. So for a while I sent out some, it has to be said, pretty half-hearted twitterings. But I began to do something else with Twitter: I started reading other people’s thoughts, quite at random. Not the great and the good, but just unknown people I happened to stumble across. And suddenly Twitter became a window to the world, via the small thoughts and experiences and little triumphs and tragedies of people I don’t know except in snatches of 140 characters or less. And some people started ‘following’ me, even though heaven knows I wasn’t giving them much.

I am beginning to ‘get’ Twitter, and more to the point, I am beginning to like what it does. I give blogging fifteen minutes or so a day, and now maybe I’ll add 2 minutes for Twitterings. I hope I’ll get good at these little broadcasts; I’d like to do something original there, and am working on it. You can find me here – but come back when I get better at it, I hope soon.

On the road to God knows where

February 19, 2009

It is said that Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel remarked recently that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. In fact, there are many reasons for suggesting that Ireland’s current difficulties provide an opportunity to re-consider our economy, our political habits and our society. People are generally willing to think more radically when the status quo isn’t working as well as it should. So we need to ask ourselves where we are going; and we need to use the debate prompted by that question to set out a vision. Armed with the vision, we are more likely to be willing to make sacrifices, and we are also more likely to be able to contribute to the process that will lead to our destination.

So far we haven’t done much of this. What’s going on right now is a kind of national firefighting, with teams of people pouring water over conflagrations here and there, and others running around shouting, and others again in shock looking at the charred remains of some of the fires that wouldn’t go out. You get the picture.

Much of the public commentary, and I think a good deal of the chatter at the bar over a pint, is about the Horrible Bankers. Without wanting to take away from the truly amazing story of what some of these good people apparently considered right and proper in conducting their business, at this point it’s a sideshow. Putting the men from the financial boardrooms in the stocks and throwing rotten tomatoes at them may be perfectly justifiable and even fun, but right now it doesn’t help us at all. We need to move beyond the firefighting and finger wagging and get to the vision thing. We need to know where we’re going next and how we’ll get there.

A few people have started making suggestions about a very different form of society and economy than the one that brought us the Celtic Tiger. Higher taxes (at least for the rich), public ownership of this and that, cast iron regulation of the other, are amongst the things on the menu. The Boston versus Berlin thing is also being resurrected, but it’s a little tricky because Berlin is also in a bit of chaos right now and Boston may, in the Obama era, be rather unlike Boston.

The serious point of this post is that when you want to recover from a crisis you need a strategy, not merely tactics. And the strategy requires a vision. And it may be time to suggest, gently, that cutting public expenditure is not a vision (even if it is right), and may not even be a tactic. Nor is raising taxes. Some of the big questions we need to be asking now include: who will be creating this country’s wealth in five years’ time? To what extent and in what way do we expect to distribute that wealth? As we keep talking about innovation, what kind of innovation do we want Ireland to be known for, and how can we harness that innovation to generate both growth and jobs?

Some of these questions are put and addressed in the Government’s plan, Building Ireland’s Smart Economy. But on the whole that document is too busy, and perhaps contains too many detailed ideas without setting it in the context of an overall vision. And most important of all, that vision, when we have it, needs to be communicated directly to the people.

Going for broke

February 18, 2009

A week or so ago a British government official, the Director General for Science and Research Adrian Smith, was reported as saying that a number of UK universities were ‘facing bankruptcy’. He was basing this warning on the government’s delay in lifting the cap on ‘top up’ fees, currently standing at £3,000. In other words, he was saying that unless the universities could charge fees above that amount their income would not be sufficient to avoid insolvency.

That should perhaps be put in perspective. Let us take an average size mid-ranking British university: let us take Lancaster University, which as it happens has roughly the same number of students as my own institution, Dublin City University. For the academic year 2007-08 Lancaster received from the English funding council a recurrent grant of £43,653,000; this translates into €49,391,000 at today’s exchange rate. The recurrent grant awarded to DCU during the same year was €35,540,000. In addition Lancaster was able to charge a top-up fee up to the permitted maximum of £3,000 per student; deducting from this the Irish student registration charge would still mean that Lancaster, in addition to the €14m or so that it received in its recurrent grant over and above what DCU received, also could charge some €20m in fees above the level paid under free fees to DCU. In other words, in that academic year Lancaster was roughly €34m better off than DCU. And in this state it is considered at risk of bankruptcy.

The comparison with Lancaster is arbitrary, but is nonetheless typical for the UK.

It is worth mentioning this because the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, in announcing his ‘forensic audit’ of third level finances implied that the Irish universities might not be providing value for money. While we should of course be open to any such audit, and while recognising that the taxpayer has a right to know that money invested in higher education is well spent, it is nevertheless remarkable how the Irish university sector has been able to stay afloat in the context of such wholly inadequate resourcing. Nor should it be surprising to see that most Irish universities have been sliding into deficit, in some cases a very substantial deficit.

It has been my policy in DCU to run a balanced budget, and we have been able to do so, in increasingly adverse circumstances. But this isn’t necessarily just good news. The resources needed to run a higher education institute offering degree programmes of high quality and world class research are far above those allocated to us here, so that if we have to work within the budgets available to us we must lose the battle to compete on quality and excellence with universities in other countries. Nor is this an agenda that we can think about, assess and analyse for a while until we get to some answer.

As readers of this blog will know, I have been arguing the case for tuition fees – introduced forthwith – as an answer to this problem. But let us put that aside for a moment and say that any solution is a good solution if it allows us to pursue quality and excellence in a sustainable financial environment that is secure from occasional government decisions to withdraw funds or restrain their growth below inflation. If that’s on offer, we should take it. But what we cannot do any longer is to pretend that we can muddle through with a declining income from our main funder and still seek to be in the upper reaches of the global rankings. That cannot be done.

Some universities in this country may soon be technically insolvent. Some are facing accumulated deficits in relation to which there is no realistic prospect that they can be clawed back any time soon through a running surplus. This system is in crisis, and we need to move from discussion and analysis to solution. And soon.

Really great bad poetry

February 17, 2009

There is no shortage in this world of bad poetry, or of doggerel that someone is trying to pass off as genuine art. But when poetry is really bad – I mean, really bad – it can take on a sort of grandeur that we can admire; and nobody achieved this better than the unique and wonderful William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish handloom weaver who, inexplicably, came to believe he was a poetic genius. He is often described as the worst poet in the English language, and there is a sort of ambition in that claim that suits his style.

McGonagall had no understanding whatsoever of the key elements of poetry. His main assumption appears to have been that poetic stanzas must contain rhymes, and that the obligation to rhyme should trump everything else, from meter to meaning. But in pursuing this ideal he created a kind of nobility of nonsense that you just cannot help admiring. The opening salvo of his oeuvre was a hymn to the dissenting Protestant minister and poet, the Reverend George Gilfillan. This clergyman would have been long forgotten by now but for McGonagall’s masterpiece, which I must now reproduce in full.

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen doss not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

McGonagall sought Queen Victoria’s patronage – in verse of course, including the following:

Beautiful Empress, of India, and Englands Gracious Queen,
I send you a Shakespearian Address written by me.
And I think if your Majesty reads it, right pleased you will be.
And my heart it will leap with joy, if it is patronized by Thee.

In these current difficult times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art. Surely McGonagall’s time has come again.

Undergraduate, postgraduate – what’s the difference?

February 17, 2009

One of the curiosities of my education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed an undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree was a BA in Law, and the notionally postgraduate degree I was doing, the LLB (Bachelor in Law), could at the time be studied alongside the BA. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you the reason was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of that university.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some have four-year ones.

We also need to address the question whether it is appropriate to study a vocational subject – such as law, accounting and medicine – at undergraduate level at all, or whether this should be done exclusively at postgraduate level.

There is of course a strong case to be made for diversity of mission, purpose and method between different universities, and it would not be difficult to stifle that by adopting too strict a classification for all this. But equally there needs to be an equivalence, with respect for that diversity of content and method, of standards. We need to make it possible for our students and other stakeholders to understand what it means when we provide either undergraduate or postgraduate degree programmes, and for the standards set for each to be verifiable.

The role of universities in economic development

February 16, 2009

Three or so years ago a delegation from a major European city was on a visit to Dublin. The mayor was there, several city officials, a couple of businesspeople, two (if I recall) members of parliament for that city, and some others. Their hosts were an Irish state agency. I was invited to address the visitors over dinner, the topic being what Irish universities have done to support economic development.

So I told them a little about the Irish university system, and I described what we were doing to support the economy: from teaching those who would become skilled graduates in important fields, through managing incubation centres, through linking with industry R&D labs, to spinning out companies. I gave some examples from my own university, DCU. I summed up by saying that the two critical ingredients that enabled universities to play this role were (a) the capacity to compete with universities in an inward investor’s home country by having recognised centres of real world class excellence, and (b) strategic autonomy and the ability to be entrepreneurial and innovative. It was clear from the discussion that the universities from our guests’ city would need to be reformed fundamentally for them to be able to do any of this.

Afterwards the mayor, an extremely affable man with a good sense of strategy and a pleasant witty manner, came to thank me for my talk and for the very interesting insights I had provided (he said). I expressed my appreciation and asked him whether he would look again at the conditions under which his universities operated. He looked staggered at the question, and answered emphatically that he certainly would not, that they needed to know their place as agencies of government and not get any notions that they could autonomously develop their own strategies. I told him that he must therefore expect to see the long-term decline of his city (which he had described over dinner) continue.

The idea of universities as educational agencies following a national plan is not an unusual one in Europe, and indeed there are occasional shades of it here in political discourse. The Universities Act 1997 gave universities in Ireland a degree of autonomy, but more than once I have heard politicians musing that this may have been a step too far and should be revisited. But in fact the autonomy of universities – and by this I mean autonomy beyond what we have now – is a vital ingredient for national success and in particular for stimulating the local economy. For example, the role of DCU is generating economic activity in the North Dublin and Fingal area is pivotal. And more generally, universities have been indispensable in virtually every recent bid to persuade major global companies to locate R&D in Ireland. Universities need to be able to move fast in taking decisions and need to be able to deal effectively with corporate and other partners.

Even when our costs have moderated a little due to the recession, investments in Ireland by companies setting up call centres or basic manufacturing units will not return – those days are over. Our hope for the future lies in much higher value investments and successful indigenous start-ups. These require successful and autonomous universities. Our future as a country is tied up in this. We must get it right.

The Labour challenge

February 15, 2009

103 years ago today – on February 15th 1906 – the modern British Labour Party formally came into being. There had been various precursors, including the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee. But on this day, a few days after the general election of that year that produced a landslide victory for the Liberal Party and the first significant number of MPs for the Labour Representation Committee, the latter MPs met and decided to adopt the name ‘the Labour Party’, with Keir Hardy as its first leader. The Irish Labour Party was formed six years later.

The British Labour Party, which in some ways was more of a movement than a political party in its original state, adopted its constitution in 1918, and this included a statement of aims and values set out in Clause IV. This was drafted by Sidney Webb and read:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

As is well known, the original Clause IV was dropped and replaced in 2005 by a different wording that makes no reference to common ownership of anything. The new version reads:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

The problem with such a formula is that it can mean pretty much anything and could be endorsed by most political parties, at least with just a little interpretation. And therein lies the problem for democratic socialist, or social democratic, parties everywhere: how to be distinctive, and how to make a case for being elected that is based on something more than a claim of competence.

The Labour Party in Ireland, in a recent key policy document, produced by its ‘21st Century Commission‘, set out its agenda as follows:

“Government is, or should be, about change and social progress. Government should be the instrument through which our society is changed and renewed. Through which disadvantage and injustice are corrected. Through which prosperity is protected, not just for the few but for the benefit of the community, and through which society ensures that there is opportunity for all.”

There are clear echoes in that statement of the new British Clause IV.  But beyond such aspirational values, the clear defining argument that runs through the document is about the role of government and of that state, with a recurring subtext that free markets have failed and need to be controlled. Perhaps the critical statement, on page 14 of the dcument, is:

“The Labour Party stands for a dynamic, positive role for the State working through responsive and accountable public institutions at local, national, and international levels. We insist that, in expressing the democratically determined public good, the State can be an enabling, civilising and bonding force. The State is central to the creation and distribution of wealth through the investment, development and management of the country’s assets and resources. It is also responsible for the provision of effective, high quality and accountable public services, regulation of markets for the public good and a fair taxation system.”

The challenge for all centre-left parties has for some time been to define what they actually stand for, and during the years of spectacular economic growth that proved difficult and led to well-meaning but not terribly substantive statements about community values. After the recent economic shocks there is a newly visible tendency to dust off some more statist principles and emphasise the policies of regulation and redistribution, and the occasional toying with renewed commitment to universal benefits. Current opinion polls in Ireland suggest that this may be striking a chord with the electorate.

In the longer run, however, it seems unlikely to me that a return to Clause IV-type policy statements will secure the future success of democratic socialism. Alongside the growing popularity in Ireland of the Labour Party there is also evidence of fairly widespread public hostility to the public service. Voters may be uneasy about the current administration and its policies, but that is what it is: in Ireland the beneficiary is the Labour Party, in the UK (with very similar popular sentiment on the issues themselves) it is the Conservatives. People are worried and inclined to favour change.

I believe that successful centre-left parties are a vital ingredient of a stable and democratic society. But what that means in policy or ideology terms is still far from clear. Labour Parties should not allow themselves to be distracted by the current economic turmoil; it is unlikely to lead to a popular taste for nationalisation or democratic centralism. Many parties, including the Irish Labour Party, have recognised the need to secure a modern political definition of ‘socialism’. But, I think, they haven’t found it yet.

Don’t sing it to me

February 14, 2009

I must confess, I quite like lists.  When I was a teenager I could hardly contain my excitement every week when BBC radio would release the latest pop charts and Alan Freeman would feature them on his Sunday afternoon ‘Pick of the Pops’, or we could see them mimed on ‘Top of the Pops’. But I liked lists of all kinds – like the one from 1971 I discovered recently in some old boxes I kept, ‘the top 20 international airlines with the best on-plane toilets’ (truly); by the way, Swissair apparently had the best. And of course for the last couple of decades I have had to maintain a professional interest in university league tables.

But the type of list I like best is a chart of the worst songs ever. Apparently awful-music experts like to distinguish between ‘worst songs’ (which is an attack on the songwriter) and worst recording (which is what the artist made of it), but that’s too pedantic for me; I like to mix and match.

In 2006 the broadcaster CNN invited its viewers to write in with their least favourite songs. The song that topped these charts was Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having my Baby’. I have to admit – and you can see it here – it is indeed terrible; the song addresses his wife or partner, and he seems to feel the need to shout at her in the song, and the combination of mushy lyrics and excitable shouting is not a winner. Another song that features in the top 5 is Charlene’s ‘I’ve never been to me’, which used to get some air time on BBC Radio 2 when that station seemed largely to be on a mission to play every over-sentimental song that they could lay their hands on; if I understood the song correctly, the poor woman ran out of ‘frilly faces’, and while she’d been to ‘paradise’ she had ‘never been to me’. In fact, if you want to find a common theme in the songs identified by CNN viewers as the most annoyingly irritating, it’s sentimentality. Something maybe to remember as we embark on the challenges of Valentine’s Day: whatever romantic thoughts are in your heart, for heaven’s sake don’t sing them to your loved one, they might vomit.

As for me, what songs do I dislike most? For a start, quite a lot of the oeuvre of Rod Stewart, but that may be because I find the man tooth-grindingly annoying. And though I am an absolutely committed Beatles fan, there are two or three Paul McCartney songs that make me want to lie down in a darkened room. And the worst ever? Well, there are many contenders, but for me Dean Friedman’s ‘Lucky Stars’ is gold standard pure unadulterated awfulness.

So who would be on your charts?


PS: Oh, I forgot ‘Happy Everything’ by Maggie Moone, in which she offers her love a box of ‘happy everything’ – which intriguingly seems to include ‘a smile that’s on a bale of straw’ – see if I am right here.  This was a Eurovision song entry, which reminds me that the Eurovision Song Contest provides a rich vein from which to mine truly frighteningly bad songs.

Higher education strategy – some further thoughts

February 13, 2009

As we proceed in Ireland with the strategic review of higher education announced by the government, it may be instructive to look back at a seminal report that was published in the United Kingdom just over ten years ago. The report in question, Higher Education in the Learning Society, was commissioned by the British Government under John Major in 1996 with Labour Party support, and the report was published in 1997 after Tony Blair’s Labour government took office. It was produced by the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing; it became popularly known as the Dearing Report.

Right at the beginning of the report, the Dearing Committee set out what it regarded as the key elements of a vision for higher education. These were:

  • encourage and enable all students – whether they demonstrate the highest intellectual potential or whether they have struggled to reach the threshold of higher education – to achieve beyond their expectations;
  • safeguard the rigour of its awards, ensuring that UK qualifications meet the needs of UK students and have standing throughout the world;
  • be at the leading edge of world practice in effective learning and teaching;
  • undertake research that matches the best in the world, and make its benefits available to the nation;
  • ensure that its support for regional and local communities is at least comparable to that provided by higher education in competitor nations;
  • sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones;
  • be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole;
  • be explicit and clear in how it goes about its business, be accountable to students and to society, and seek continuously to improve its own performance.

These are valuable starting points for any coherent consideration of higher education. There are, it seems to me, two themes running through these elements, and they are (i) the need to give proper support, encouragement and stimulation to students; (ii) the need to engage with society in its broadest sense; (iii) the need for high standards of integrity and accountability; (iv) the need for world class research; and (v) the need for uncompromising excellence in all matters.

It seems to me that on the basis of the Dearing report, and of the challenges we know we face in Ireland, in our own forthcoming strategic review the following questions should be addressed:

  • How can we ensure the highest quality and excellence in Irish higher education?
  • How can universities and colleges be motivated to adapt and change to meet society’s expectations and requirements today?
  • How can we secure much better participation in higher education by people from disadvantaged backgrounds and groups?
  • How can we secure the highest levels of intellectual curiosity and rigour on the part of faculty and students?
  • How can we ensure that the work carried out in universities benefits society to the greatest possible extent?
  • How can the university sector be helped to be effective and internationally competitive?
  • How can autonomy and financial sustainability be ensured in the university sector?

Addressing these issues will allow Ireland to have a strategic vision for its higher education sector, which is now urgently needed as part of our move towards a knowledge society.

Can we still enjoy university life?

February 12, 2009

Today I had a conversation with a young Irish academic who was troubled by the choice he had made of planning his career in the academic world. He had made this choice believing that he would be able to lead a life of intellectual challenge, good conversation and stimulating debates. He would see students develop their skills and would find his feet with his own research.

What was troubling him was that the reality was, in some sense, as he had hoped it would be, but there was in his words a ‘constant dark under-current’. He loved his work, he found himself being stimulated by some very bright students, and he had managed to publish his first two articles in refereed journals (the gold standard of university research output). But beyond that he felt there was doom and gloom, a sense that what he did was not appreciated by society, and the constant threat of the next bureaucratic hurdle.

I have some sympathy with this colleague. But more importantly, I think that we need to do better in motivating and supporting people like him, particularly as they embark on their careers. No matter how hostile the environment may seem to be, we must give people a sense of optimism and hope,m and we must give them the assistance of a supportive community.

I suspect that many people still believe that academic life is rather easy. As in any profession, we do have some under-performers. But the overwhelming majority of academics are dedicated and idealistic people (although we sometimes manage to beat the idealism out of them), who want to live up to and who do live up to the expectations we have of them, and who work exceptionally hard. Their concern is that the rewards (and I don’t mean money) are scarce.

Academic communities have historically often struggled not to let ideals be smothered by cynicism. Right now we are facing challenges that some may think threaten to defeat us altogether. We must not be mesmerised by these – right now is the time to plan boldly and to act decisively, and to convey a sense of purpose. We must also allow ourselves the occasional celebration and fun.

Nobody can pretend that an academic career is going to be all plain sailing, nor should we become too defensive when external stakeholders raise questions about how we teach and research; but we can work together to ensure that it remains a uniquely satisfying career.