Archive for April 2009

Re-baselining jargon

April 21, 2009

Actually, I don’t know what the above title of this post means. I have googled ‘re-baselining’ and found several examples of its use, but no indication of its meaning; I cannot even tell the meaning from sentences in which it appears. But I know it’s a word, in at least someone’s opinion, because the spellchecker on my computer accepts it.

But whatever it means, it has been banned by the UK’s Local Government Association, as it is included in a list of jargon not to be used by British local authorities. Some of the words and phrases are banned because they are clichés: these include ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘horizon scanning’ and ‘value added’ (though not, to my dismay, the terrible ‘going forward’ which has become such a verbal tick with many people). Others are banned because they are impenetrable, such as ‘predictors of beaconicity’ and ‘coterminous stakeholder engagement’. And ‘re-baselining’.

At the same time British police have also been instructed to stop using what is being called ‘ploddledygook’ (with reference to Enid Blyton’s policeman ‘Mr Plod’), and to avoid phrases in reports such as ‘exited the vehicle’ when they meant ‘got out of the car’.

Universities are also notoriously fond of jargon, and like most jargon users often don’t realise they are even doing it. We often bombard school leavers with marketing talk that includes ‘modular’, ‘continuous assessment’, ‘dissertation’, ‘learning outcomes’ and the like – not to mention a whole mountain of incomprehensible acronyms like APEL (‘accreditation of prior learning’, if you must know – and don’t ask me why the ‘E’ is there…). And when you get on to a university committee, if you’re not familiar with the jargon you might as well switch off, because none of it will make any sense whatsoever. But if you wish, you can consult this very helpful glossary of such stuff offered by the University of Sussex.

Speaking in impenetrable phrases is not a sign of sophistication or advanced excellence, it is a sign of intellectual laziness and of a failure to understand that we must be accessible as well intelligent. I think I’ll start right here and draw up a list of words and phrases I’ll stop using. Suggestions for entries are welcome.

Oh, and if you know what ‘re-baselining’ means do let me know, and I’ll have learnt something.

The problem of bullying

April 20, 2009

According to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (‘Bully Online‘), 20 per cent of calls an enquiries they receive about bullying are from higher education. The same website also draws attention to a survey which found that 40 per cent of academics believe they have been the victims of bullying. A more recent survey had even more dramatic results, with half of the nearly 10,000 respondents (all academics) reporting that they had been ‘subjected to some form of bullying or personal harassment during their career’.

Findings of this kind are not new, and moreover there is no evidence that anything is getting better, despite the growth of anti-bullying (or workplace dignity) policies that have been put in place in many institutions. There is reason to believe also that findings in Ireland would be similar.

So what is it that makes university workplaces apparently so prone to bullying behaviour? Part of it is, I think, connected with the rather robust culture of academic discourse, in which sharp exchanges are the norm. It is notable that a majority of those who say they have been bullied state that this is by another member of staff, rather than a person to whom they report or who is in some sort of position of authority over them. This kind of ‘robust’ behaviour is also now common on email and other online communications, where the harshness of what is said often appears even more aggressive than it does when said face to face.

There are some important lessons to be drawn. First, bullying is unacceptable. Academics have no less an entitlement to respect and courtesy than do people in other professions. Secondly, people working in universities should consider carefully how they communicate with others, particularly when they disagree with them, and should ask themselves whether they use hurtful or insulting language unnecessarily; this does not mean that people need to compromise on their professional opinions or views, just that they need to express themselves in a way that avoids aggression. And thirdly, we need to look at whether anti-bullying or related policies are really doing the job they are supposed to do, and indeed whether they might themselves occasionally (though probably rarely) become weapons in the hands of bullies.

DCU is currently working on a new policy with new procedural aspects, and I hope that this will make a positive contribution to creating a better and more supportive atmosphere in which people can work with confidence.

The search for a new economic order

April 20, 2009

Ever since the wheels began to come off the global economy last year, there has been a lot of chat about whether there should be a new model of economic policy, both for global trade and within individual countries. Furthermore, all this happened while, in an iconic moment, the Bush administration in the United States was replaced by that of Barack Obama. Much of the commentary focused on the assumption that we were experiencing a major crisis of confidence in capitalism, and that what would now happen was that free markets would be replaced by a highly regulated system. The recent G20 summit in London spent some time on all this, with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, in particular emphasising the need for regulation (and threatening to walk out if his approach was not adopted).

There are a lot of lazy assumptions in all of this. One of them is that the world economic order before last year was based on totally unfettered markets. Furthermore, the view that George W. Bush was a free market leader is also highly questionable; his administration was economically one of the most interventionist in US history, and presided over an intricate set of regulations, particularly post-Enron. In fact, it could be asked whether the experience of the past few years tends to show that regulation actually does not always work very well. After all, after the events at Enron and Worldcom, people were led off in handcuffs, and yet this appears to have had a minimal effect on the big bonus earners in parts of the financial sector.

Nobody can reasonably presume that nothing needs to change now. Clearly it does. But it must be questioned whether the Franco-German view of regulation (which may be no more than bureaucratisation) is the right way to go. Setting up new regulatory offices whose main effect will be to slow down decision-making and ensure it is increasingly risk-averse is almost certainly not the answer. On the other hand, encouragingthe  people holding the world’s financial levers to take crazy decisions, sometimes based on nothing more than their aspirations for another bonus is also not right. It seems right that we must look at ways in which the conduct of key persons in industry and in the financial sector can be guided into ways that benefit society.

But that won’t bring about recovery. Perhaps the newly unveiled strategy of the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Peter Mandelson, represents an interesting basis on which to consider a new role for governments to help steer both local and global markets. His strategic document published todayNew Industry, New Jobs – sets out a more activist agenda for government in order to identify and support growth areas that can generate employment and prosperity. There is also an interview in the London Independent newspaper in which he explains both the opportunities and risks. In short, what is being suggested here is that growth does need at least some element of strategic planning which looks at future trends and needs and identifies areas to be targeted for growth and support. That may be a more urgent exercise than coming up with even more intricate models of regulation.

Educational quality: the student to faculty ratio

April 20, 2009

We know that the global university rankings compiled by the magazine Times Higher Education use student-staff ratios as one the key criteria for the league tables. Interestingly, the only Irish institution that makes it into the top 100 on that basis is Dublin Institute of Technology. And we also know, in the context of the continuing budget cuts in Ireland and the anticipated further reductions in public expenditure later this year that the position of Irish universities in this regard will erode further; indeed, quite apart from the budget cuts there is now the public sector recruitment embargo that has, with some modifications, also been applied to higher education.

In fact, even in much better times the student-staff ratio in Ireland has been bad by international standards. And it is probably fair to say that neither our politicians nor, if we’re honest, the general public really believe that in terms of academic faculty we are under-staffed. There are however not just global rankings affected by this, there are also major pedagogical considerations. In principle the Irish system of higher education has subscribed to the British model of teaching that uses the lecture as a tool for communicating and disseminating information and an evaluation of that information, and small group teaching (in sessions variously described as tutorials, classes, seminars, demonstrations, supervisions etc) to undertake discussion, critique and analysis. Small group teaching is also used to allow students to develop their presentation and communication skills.

These latter sessions only have intrinsic merit if they are genuinely conducted in small groups. If you take the Oxbridge model, ‘small groups’ ideally consist of one student, but perhaps two or three are also acceptable. That was never a viable option in Ireland. When I first began lecturing my tutorial groups typically consisted of eight or so students, but I am told by academics from around the system that it is far from unusual to be teaching to upwards of 15 – at which point it clearly is no longer a small group session.

Maybe such education is no longer affordable. But if it isn’t, we need to undertake a proper pedagogical analysis of what could be an acceptable alternative; and we may also need to persuade the international educational community that the student-staff ratio is not an appropriate criterion for compiling international league tables.

But what we should not do is to imply some ongoing commitment to staffing levels that permit small group teaching while at the same time standing by as our ability to undertake that is eroded beyond a point at which we can still actually do it. We have, I think, reached that point, and we had better get serious about developing a model of higher education that can hold out a realistic promise of a quality student experience within our existing and likely future constraints.

Left in the Americas

April 19, 2009

Twenty years ago I had my first real encounter with Latin America. At the time I was working on an employment law project that had a Latin American angle, and I received some funding that enabled me to travel to Quito in Ecuador and spend some time there. For anyone who has not been to Quito, it is not easy to describe it in a way that does real justice to the atmosphere. It is an extraordinary city, that really has three different parts. There is the Spanish old city, which is beyond incredible. Not all of it was in what you might call good repair, but you could see the almost overwhelming grandeur of it everywhere, including the church La Compania, with its however-many tons of gold spread along its interior walls, the extraordinarily atmospheric San Francisco monastery, or the Plaza de la Independencia with the presidential palace. Amidst this often faded grandeur there were huge crowds of people, and even when I was mugged there I could not lose my sense of wonder and amazement at it all. The second part was the business district, a modern neighbourhood with high rise apartments and offices that could have been anywhere. And the third the shantytowns, some of them rising above the city along the Andes. I shall never forget Quito.

When I first came there I was not sure exactly what to expect, but somehow imagined that it would be a mixture of Spanish and (US) American, with the latter dominating. It was much more complex than that. Yes, there were signs of American influence: the road signs were all in the US style, as were the modern buildings, the shopping malls and the fast food. But then again, to my surprise very few people (including taxi drivers) spoke English. I had expected to get by perfectly in English, but found myself having to learn Spanish quickly – and mercifully Latin American Spanish is much easier and more intuitive to pronounce than the rather guttural (and to my ears not so attractive) European Spanish. But when you spoke with the local people, even when they didn’t speak English their cultural compass was set to ‘El Norte’.

This sometimes tricky but strong link to the United States was further developed when some years later (in 2000) Ecuador adopted the US Dollar as its currency.

The complexity of this North-South relationship was everywhere to be seen in Latin America – certainly so in the other countries I visited, Colombia and Venezuela. More recently two of these countries, Venezuela and Ecuador itself, became part of what some thought was to be a wider movement of socialist and US-sceptic nations. They (and Bolivia, and to some extent Brazil) elected left-wing presidents who took a more jaundiced view of United States influence and who looked around for other allies and friends. As Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in particular sought out allies in places such as Cuba and Iran the stage seemed set for growing hostility between these countries and the United States.

And yet as so often, it’s not that easy to assess what is happening. In particular some of the easy assumptions were thrown over by the election of Barack Obama and his adoption of a rather different approach to relations with Latin America. It became clear fairly quickly that Chavez was finding it difficult to maintain a consistent approach to the US – sometimes indicating that the Obama presidency could change things, only then to call him an ‘ignoramus’. Just this week all this has been thrown into relief at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. A handshake between Chavez and Obama, and the Venezuelan President’s website is talking about an historic moment with the capacity to change US-Latin American relations. The White House website has also published President Obama’s speech at the summit, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in a rather quirky exchange with journalists talks about the possibility of a conversation between Obama and Chavez. And of course the US President has also raised the prospect of a new relationship with Cuba.

In fact, the dramatic fall in the oil price over the past months has seriously dented the capacity of Latin America’s new left to pursue its agenda (much of which is funded by oil exports), and this may be leaving them more receptive to Barack Obama’s overtures. The new US administration in turn seems to want a different relationship with Latin America. And the combination of these things may produce a significant thaw, notwithstanding the somewhat mercurial nature of the key Latin American politicians at this time.

In fact, Latin America  deserves a break, both from the sometimes very unenlightened policies in the past of its powerful Northern neighbour and from what has too often been the appalling record of its own politicians of the left and right. I grew very fond of Ecuador all those years ago, and I still am, and it has been a painful sight to observe the political theatre there over the years, and the major financial problems encountered more recently. I hope that a new era is dawning.

Café society

April 17, 2009

Thirty years ago this month, while on a visit to Germany, I went into an old and well known coffee house in the Westphalian city of Münster, Café Schucan – located on this street. How to describe this establishment? Well, let your mind imagine what a turn of the century Viennese café might look like, and you have Café Schucan. Large, wood panelling everywhere, slightly dark, the strong smell of coffee, a big counter with the most amazing cakes. I had known it as a teenager when, for a few years, I lived not far away, and in 1979 I was returning for a visit to the area I had left five years earlier.

Almost inhaling the atmosphere, I walked in, ordered a coffee and a slice of mouth watering ‘Torte’ at the counter, and took my seat. Shortly after I had been served,  an elderly gentleman walked in and sat down at the table next to mine (which had a ‘reserved’ sign on it). He was wearing what a Victorian might have called a ‘frock coat’. Nobody took his order, but within a couple of minutes a waitress arrived with a tray, containing a bottle of champagne with a champagne glass, and a selection of cakes. When she had placed these items in front of him, she handed him a newspaper, which she had opened at an inside page. The gentleman sat there, taking sips of champagne and little pieces of cake and, without any apparent focus or concentration, shooting an occasional glance at the paper. After a while, without a word, and as far as I could see without any inconvenience of payment, he stood up and left the café. The sheer routine of his movements and those of the staff suggested this was a regular event. I have no idea who he was or what had been his life, but his visit to the coffee house was like a glimpse of some other long disappeared society.

Last year I had the occasion, for the first time in many years, to visit Münster, and I was horrified to find that Café Schucan has gone, a celebrated piece of cultural history that has vanished. I don’t know what happened to the elderly gentleman, but as he must have been 80 or so when I saw him he may not have lived to see the coffee house closed. I hope it was so.

We’re all going on a holiday…

April 16, 2009

For the past four days I have been away from the university, taking a break – and as I write this I am on my way back. Last week, however, I was at work as normal – but when I was at a function the person I happened to be talking to started the conversation by saying: ‘I presume you’re on a break’. ‘Why would you presume that?’ I asked. ‘Well, it’s the Easter holidays,’ she responded.

I don’t know about other academics, but this kind of conversation always has the capacity to irritate me profoundly. I keep discovering that there are many people out there who believe that if the students are on holiday, then all university staff (including the President) must be also. There is, it appears, an assumption that university faculty and staff have four or so months vacation every year, during which time they do nothing of any consequence as they laze on the beach or pursue their hobbies.

This was never true in any real sense in the universities. Even when I began my lecturing career in 1980, in my first year I took a total of three weeks off. During the time when there was no teaching I settled down to do my research, complete administrative tasks and prepare my courses for the coming year. I would readily admit that some took rather more time off than that, but absolutely nobody was gone over the summer for the whole time. And noawadays, in times of much greater pressures, very few people in DCU would be able to or want to take more than three consecutive weeks off, at any time of year, and many academics take less than the statutory minimum holidays per year.

This is not necessarily the case across all higher education institutions, and I am aware of the fact that outside the university sector some higher education institutions are more or less closed for two or more months during the summer and at other times of the year. But that it decidedly not the case in the universities.

What this reinforces is that the academic (and university) life is not a life of low pressure and comfortable lifestyles. As I have mentioned before, that has not been the case for a very long time. But in the public mind there is still a suspicion – quite unjustified – that university staff under-perform in terms of their dedication and commitment to the job.

As the regular questions I get from well-meaning people about whether I am ‘off’ demonstrate, we need to get better at showing the public how we work and what we do. At this time in particular, we need the confidence and support of the wider society.

And when university staff do take a vacation within these constraints, they should do so unapologetically: some rest and recreation is as necessary for them as for anyone else.

‘Fake’ colleges

April 15, 2009

Today this blog is coming to you from Yorkshire. I am just on a brief visit to England, and one of the major news items right now concerns the alleged use of ‘fake’ higher education institutions as a cover for migrants to the UK whose main objectives are to carry out terrorist actions. Leaving aside the specific circumstances of these concerns and allegations, there clearly is an important issue which, in a global setting, has never been properly addressed: how can we distinguish between reputable universities and colleges on the one hand, and those that are suspect on the other?

And it is not just a UK issue. In Ireland we have had occasional news stories about institutions claiming to be universities or accredited institutions that in fact either don’t properly ‘exist’ at all or which are not serious education providers. Sometimes such organisations claim to be respected Irish colleges, despite the fact that some of them list addresses elsewhere. Examples of institutions whose credentials have been seriously questioned are ‘Dublin Metropolitan University‘, and ‘Warnborough College‘.

But beyond that, there are also organisations that openly hand out fake degrees, even advertising them as such. For example this website offers fake degrees, some of them ostensibly awarded by Irish universities and colleges. 

As higher education becomes more globalised, there is an increasing flow of migrant students considering higher education opportunities in countries where, unassisted, they have no easy way of distinguishing between respectable and fake institutions. This is not a problem that individual countries can resolve. The Irish government may be disturbed by institutions like the two listed above, but neither of them is actually based in Ireland, and so they cannot easily be restrained. It will therefore be necessary to have coordinated international action to ensure that verifiable quality standards are satisfied before any institution can advertise itself as a bona fide higher education institution, and the use of the title ‘university’  and the awarding of qualifications described as ‘degrees’ should in particular be controlled. Unless this is done, genuine universities may find themselves being questioned because of the activities of bogus institutions.

Speaking freely

April 14, 2009

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I attended a debate at an Irish university. One of the speakers that night was to be a British politician who was a supporter of the former Conservative (and just turned Unionist) Enoch Powell. Just as the politician in question rose to speak, a group of students jumped up and started shouting, ‘no free speech for Fascists!’ This went on with rising volume, and in the end the man was unable to begin his speech, and the debate ended in confusion. The group concerned – which I believe (though I may be misremembering this) was organised by the ‘Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist)’ – expressed itself satisfied.

Different cause, same tactics: as many will know, a UK academic, Professor Len Doyal, was recently prevented from delivering a speech during a debate at the UCC university hospital in Cork by a small group of protesters, who objected to his support for euthanasia. This time the chant was, apparently, the Rosary. At any rate Professor Doyal was unable to speak and had to be escorted from the hall. And just to complete the picture, some time ago the British revisionist historian David Irving was unable to deliver a speech in NUI Galway in the face of major protests.

I don’t propose to comment here on the causes espoused by any of these speakers. My question is what the status of free speech should be in today’s society, and if there are limits, how do we identify these and who decides.

Freedom of speech is almost certainly the cornerstone of democracy. The right and the ability to say what we want to say, however uncomfortable it may be and whatever the consequences, is indispensable to freedom more generally. All dictators will seek to restrict free speech and the free availability of uncensored information as their very first measure.

The problem with free speech is that some groups in society who are strongly committed to their own policies or messages easily become allergic to  freedom of speech when exercised by those who oppose them.  The ‘no free speech for Fascists’ slogan was a convenient basis, occasionally, for seeking censorship of a whole array of views that were anywhere on the political spectrum from just right of the extreme left; I remember it being argued once that Denis Healey (then a Labour Minister in the UK Callaghan government in the 1970s) should be prevented from speaking as he was a ‘Fascist’. And I’m afraid that, whatever my views may be on euthanasia (and I have very strong reservations about it), ‘Youth Defence‘ has other targets in its list of demons that I would find worthy of support. or at least of dispassionate analysis. I would cvertainly not want this group to determine what may or may not be debated in Ireland.

As the opening examples illustrate, these skirmishes are more often than not fought out on a university campus. Universities have a particular obligation to ensure the availability and dissemination of information and views. And yet they are also guardians of values such as tolerance and respect for minority rights, some of which are resisted by those seeking to exercise their freedom of speech.

So how do we overcome all these contradictions and dilemmas? I think it is my view that if we have any confidence at all in the maturity and durability of our democracy we should allow freedom of speech without restriction. I say this in part because once we restrict this right, we are bound to be on a slippery slope. If we allow, say,  Youth Defence to set the agenda on euthanasia, we may be suggesting to them that they can do the same on other topics, and free speech becomes whatever the various bullies out there allow others to say. We must accept that freedom of speech will sometimes protect those who are saying objectionable things (including support for euthanasia), but we should feel that our society is strong enough not to be seduced by them. I believe that we should always err on the side of free speech.

Translating research

April 14, 2009

Under DCU’s last strategic plan, and also under its new plan that will be published shortly, the university commits itself to giving special support to ‘translational research’. This concept originally came from medicine, but has more recently been applied increasingly to other fields also. Broadly it means that the research undertaken should have the capacity to be used in practical contexts to support social, business, health or other needs. We have supported and developed the concept in particular because we are aware that the taxpayer, having made a major investment in university research, is expecting this to have an impact and to make a visible difference to society.

On the other hand, the academic profession has also maintained its historic commitment to basic or pure research, which is conducted at least initially for its own sake rather than because an application for it can be envisaged. A very good friend of mine, a successful professor in a major world leading university, has occasionally suggested to me that the most important research that an academic institution can host is ‘useless research’.

How we deal with both basic and translational research may become a highly significant issue. The public investment in research is being maintained right now through some very difficult times and it has become necessary for politicians to explain why this is being prioritised. This requires them to be able to say what benefits society will experience as a result of academic research. There is of course a major benefit flowing from basic research, but it is hard to explain this in a setting where public investment is expected to yield tangible results in the short term.

No serious university will ever withdraw from basic research as a fundamental academic activity. But in all its forms, research in universities is not some form of self-indulgence, it is something we do in order to produce important benefits for society. Planned translational research is therefore of great significance in demonstrating value and convincing the general public that research matters. Getting this balance right will in all probability determine whether public money continues to flow to support and develop Irish academic research. Without that research, we are destined for national mediocrity. We must not let that happen.