Archive for May 2009

Re-assessing the professions

May 30, 2009

As many readers of this blog will know, I am a lawyer by training. Many years ago when I began life as a student I believed I would go on to be a solicitor. About a year into my studies I decided I would be a barrister instead, and so I embarked upon the necessary activities in the King’s Inns (the professional body for barristers in Ireland) – those ‘necessary activities’ consisting principally of sitting exams and eating dinners (you had a take part in a minimum number of dinners per year, with pretty terrible food). Well, life never goes the way we expect, and by the time I had finished I knew I wanted to be an academic. And of course in some ways I have left that profession also, but not quite – I am just now writing a new academic monograph.

As a lawyer of one sort or another, I became one of that great army of respectable people: a member of the professions. For decades all over Ireland, ambitious parents were anxious that their children would become lawyers, accountants, architects, surveyors, doctors or vets. These were the career choices that would secure a social rank, lots of income, independence and sophistication. This was the life to aspire to. And for decades the CAO points have reflected that, attaching a premium to programmes of study that opened up the gates to these careers. By contrast, you could launch yourself on a trajectory towards being an engineer, a research chemist, even a senior manager in industry on the back of much lower points; these latter career choices often seemed insecure and poorly paid to the same ambitious parents.

The problem is that a country that provides itself with too many people in the professions has to pay a high price. If the most desirable careers are in such areas as law and accounting, then the work that creates the wealth that will pay for all these professionals will have to be done by people who either had lower academic attainments or who were willing to swim against the tide of popular fashion. In Ireland we are only now beginning to take seriously the significance of having an entrepreneurial culture, and more importantly, the need to have actual entrepreneurs to start up businesses or improve them or make them world class. But the effectiveness of any entrepreneurial culture can be seriously undermined by excessive litigiousness (a product of too many lawyers), over-complicated accounting and auditing (too many accountants), problems in the planning processes (too many architects), and so forth. Too many people in a profession leads to that profession aggressively selling the importance of its services, which are then typically directed towards slowing down or impeding the actual business of doing things. On top of that, the professions are notoriously incestuous, and every new generation of professionals tends to spawn another one following in its footsteps; a very significant proportion of students studying a professional degree are the children of parents at least one of whom was also in the same profession.

Of course I am caricaturing a little, and members of the professions are needed to make the wheels of the economy and society turn. But not when there are too many. And not when we tell our young people that those who provide legal and financial and other advice are more important to society than those whom they are advising and who are getting on and doing things. We have our priorities wrong.

It is time for us to think again about what the professions are. They are not there in order to be the pinnacle of the social pyramid. They are not there as an end in itself. They are there to provide a service, in other words to support those whose activities are the primary drivers of progress and prosperity. They are important, but their importance is secondary. A country that does not grasp this will find it hard to recover and maintain a vibrant economy and a prosperous and fair society.


At the end of the runway

May 30, 2009

I had business in London today. For me London is a bit like New York – there is a sense of being in the whole world at once. The sheer diversity of the place radiates energy. But there is a catch. To get to London from here, you have to travel there. And all too often, that means Heathrow. And if London itself is one of the places I really like, Heathrow airport is possibly the place I dislike most in all the world. Everything about it is wrong, as far as I am concerned: from the excessively congested skies above it, to the chaotic lay-out, the 5-mile walks you seem to have to do to get anywhere at all within it, the near-inevitability of baggage loss every so often. And then there is that special disaster area that you have to pass through if you are travelling to or from Ireland, that outlying area of Terminal 1 connected to the terminal itself by those weird walkways which, whatever the weather, are always too hot and sticky.

And they have just managed to make it all even worse. You didn’t think that was possible? No, I mightn’t have, either, but it’s true. For some reason they have decided that they need to separate incoming and outgoing passengers. And to do this they have created separate walkways, but only to a point. In order to decontaminate the outgoing passengers from the incoming ones, they have put a regulated traffic system in place, so that suddenly, without warning, you get locked into wherever you happen to be and have to wait there while the other lot are whisked past. Well actually, not whisked, they meander past quite slowly. While you wait. And while you begin to realise that unless they let you out and on to the next area you’re going to miss your flight. But the officious looking man who is separating you from the incoming lot isn’t at all interested, and only suggests that you could have come earlier and you wouldn’t have had a problem.

I understand that some people actually make their travel arrangements deliberately so as to fly to or via Heathrow. I just cannot get into the mind of a person who would do that. They are a total mystery to me, like birdwatchers or flyfishermen. And I am not alone in my dislike.  The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic (which uses Heathrow as a hub) feels the same way.

Sometimes when in Heathrow I console myself that I won’t be there long. Like hell! Because the chances are that your flight will be delayed, and you’ll only find out when you’re already in that completely soul-less departures area they lock you into, from where you cannot emerge except into the sky. When that will be depends on air traffic control. And they like to keep you there for a while. And today there was the added entertainment of a little baby girl screaming her head off. But then again, who could blame her?

Tuition fees and middle income earners

May 29, 2009

Harvard University got mentioned here yesterday, and today I shall do so again – but in a different context. It’s to do with tuition fees. But before I do so, let me go back first to remind us where we are in relation to one particular anticipated development in Ireland.

As readers will be aware, the Irish government is considering the reintroduction of higher education tuition fees. The Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, indicated in the summer of 2008 that he wanted to examine the fees issue, and since then he has made a number of further comments, clearly indicating that he favours the reintroduction of fees for those who can afford them, but promising also to make then family-friendly in the light of tax increases and other burdens imposed by the current recession.

It is not necessary to rehearse again all the arguments concerning fees, which I have covered a few times before. It may be worth pointing out however that while ‘free fees’ have done little or nothing to support people from disadvantaged backgrounds, they did allow people from what are often referred to as ‘middle income’ groups to go to university without either placing an excessive financial burden on their families or amassing unacceptable levels of debt. To that extent, there is a genuine issue to be addressed, if fees are to be reintroduced, of how this can be achieved without creating unmanageable obstacles for middle income earners.

And this is where my reference to Harvard comes in. Harvard charges some of the highest fees for a university education that can be found anywhere in the world, but it is very conscious of the need to maintain access to its programmes for all people with the necessary intellectual qualifications, regardless of their means. Two years ago it introduced what it described as a ‘middle income initiative’, targeted at all families with incomes below $180,000, but with the undertaking in particular that those with incomes below $60,000 would not be asked to contribute towards the fees at all.

It seems clear to me that, in establishing a framework for fees, we must also pay attention to the need to attract and support those from low income groups, and to ensure that there are no excessive obstacles for students from middle income groups. This can best be achieved by maintaining the state’s block grant to the institutions, while also placing an obligation on universities to ensure that all students are given access and that financial arrangements are made to ensure this is feasible. There will, I think, still need to be a combination of fees, loans and grants (or scholarships), but I believe it will be possible to provide a higher education system that is both effectively funded and equitable.

It is time, I think, for the debate on all this to be moved into the public arena. Right now we still don’t have any idea what the Minister is proposing, or when he is proposing it. This has prevented an intelligent discussion, and that phase needs to be brought to an end.

A place for students

May 27, 2009

Harvard University is one of the finest in the world – perhaps the best – but even it gets some things wrong. According to this article in a Harvard student newspaper, students at the university are not represented anywhere on the key decision-making bodies.

In fact, student participation in key committees and other decision-making bodies is still quite new in most universities. When I was a student in Trinity College Dublin, the first steps had just been taken, one of the by-products of the student rebellions a few years earlier across Europe. Students had representatives on the main Faculty decision-making bodies, and the Students’ Representative Council (as it was then called, now the Students Union) had secured an observer status on the College Board, the ultimate decision-making body. The first representative, SRC President David Vipond  – a member if I recall of the ‘Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist)’ – used his membership to promote his particular brand of revolutionary politics, and I believe was given to wordy political speeches during meetings. I have no idea what happened to him after this – while SRC President he stood for the Westminster Parliament in a by-election in Down South, and got 152 votes. Bless him.

But David Vipond’s antics were a side-show. In my own School at the time, the Law School, students were invited to participate actively in curriculum reform, and the resulting changes were pedagogically both exciting and intellectually demanding.

For much of my career as an academic, I have supported and sometimes been the main proposer of student representation on decision-making bodies, most recently in DCU when we admitted the Student Union President on to the university’s Executive. It has always seemed to me that it is far preferable to hear the student view directly in discussion and debate rather than indirectly in occupations, protests and boycotts. Not only that, but students are our partners in the teaching and learning adventure, and we must treat them accordingly. The quality and sustainability of decision-making often improves significantly with student input.

The article about Harvard was written in 2007. Maybe they have corrected this omission in university procedures since then. I hope so.

Time for an Ethics Forum in Ireland?

May 27, 2009

For those of us who lived in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, we will remember that debates about ethics tended to focus on a somewhat narrow range of topics, mainly to do with human sexuality and reproduction, with pregnancy issues and with the institution of marriage. It was the age of the referendums in which these issues were raised, and the debates around them tended to be a battleground between those who were committed to a traditional view of what were described as ‘social’ issues (which really were not much connected with anything social) and those who wanted to modernise society. On the whole the traditionalists tended to win the debates, but in ways that increasingly suggested that the victories would be temporary.

In the current decade, ethical issues have become much more varied in the context of public debate. It’s a very long time since I have heard any public comment about either contraception or divorce, and I doubt that a serious debate on either could still be initiated, or at least one in which there was any doubt about where the majority stood. The ‘right to life’ issues are still there, including abortion and (reflecting scientific discovery) embryonic stem cell research; but alongside these we have become much more interested also in broader ethical issues around war and peace, world hunger, political and business integrity and the eradication of poverty. Ethics has grown up.

But while our focus on ethics has matured, our capacity to process ethical debates has not. However interesting they may be, the ‘letters to the editor’ pages of the main newspapers are not a substitute for a proper forum on ethics. Given the scale of the issues we have to deal with, and the importance of having a shared outlook on the key moral issues that affect society, it would seem sensible to look at the idea of a more structured national forum on ethics. We have to come to grips with what happened in our past: not just abuse, but also war and violence, exploitation, discrimination, and so forth. But we also need to have a greater capacity to move confidently into the future, at ease with what we are doing and how we are doing it. It is time for us to be innovative as we pursue a path to a successful but also ethical society.

What’s in a name?

May 26, 2009

Here’s a curiosity: a British university has just changed its name, from (formerly) the University of Teesside to (now) Teesside University. Without any disrespect to the institution in question, which has a number of successes to celebrate, this isn’t much of a name change, and I’m not sure what it is supposed to suggest to its stakeholders. The press release merely tells us that the name change (with a new logo) has given the university the opportunity to remind the world about its recent successes.

If you accept that universities, like many other organisations, need to market themselves to the wider world, in order to recruit students, create business links, encourage research interests, and so forth, then the name can certainly play a role. Studies in the UK in the 1990s revealed, for example, that universities named after cities (like Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow, etc) tended to have a marketing advantage over those named after a district or region (like East Anglia, Staffordshire, Central England, etc). On that basis alone, Teesside University might have taken a bigger leap in its recent change. Of course elsewhere in the world, some of the most prestigious institutions are called after neither cities nor regions, but people – such as Harvard and Yale universities. There are examples of this in the UK (e,g, Heriot-Watt University, Liverpool John Moores University), but they don’t suggest that this particular approach to naming has yet broken through on this side of the Atlantic.

The question of the name was a very important one for Dublin City University when it acquired university status in 1989. Before then the institution was called the ‘National Institute for Higher Education’. Every so often we now ask ourselves whether the name ‘Dublin City University’ correctly communicates what we are – a focused research driven university, with innovative teaching programmes and close links with industry and our neighbouring district and region. Frankly, we’re not sure, but the name DCU has become so familiar in Ireland that it would make little sense to change it.

In any case, in a recent survey of students in some countries where Irish universities are keen to recruit students, respondents stated that they knew about Dublin City University more than about any other Irish institution. Even though I am hugely proud of DCU and of our achievements, I do confess I find it hard to know how the survey came up with this result. And it may well be that the name sounds ‘familiar’ to those who, frankly, don’t know about any Irish universities at all – so they go for it in the survey. So maybe we are gaining something from our name.

Overall, all universities will need to become better at marketing, and at understanding what marketing does for them. Above all, we need to be professional about it, and to ensure that we have genuine marketing experts on our staff or advising us so that we can communicate what we do more effectively to our stakeholders. Doing so neither cheapens us nor devalues the activities we undertake; it makes them more widely accessible, which is always good.

Anyway, I wish Teesside University well, and look forward to find out over time what their name change has done for them.

Getting a fix on European elections

May 26, 2009

The other day I was having a conversation with colleagues, and one of them asked the following question: can you name one decision taken by the European Parliament over the past four years? Nobody – I have to admit, myself included – could give a specific answer. Generically I was able to say a few things to do with the confirmation of European Commissioners and the EU Budget, for example, but I could not be specific about any individual decision taken or the reasons for it. But right now there are faces beaming down at us from lamp posts all over Ireland, and their owners want us to elect them. But elect them to do what?

For most people, the European constitutional arrangements are way beyond comprehension. Nobody outside of the circle of those who have studied EU law will have a very specific idea of what laws are made in Brussels or Luxembourg or Strasbourg, or by whom, or in what way. And for that matter, the elected MEPs live a curiously anonymous life. Even when we know them (and that will typically be because they had a prominent role in national politics once), do we ever – and I mean, ever – hear about what they are doing on specific issues right now?

As for the elections, these are somewhat lifeless, because they don’t determine anything significant in any overall sense. There is no Europe-wide agenda that can be influenced this way, no chance to make an informed choice in order to give the European Parliament as a whole a particular political or ideological hue. It is like voting for a county councillor, only less interesting.

For all of its years of existence, the European Parliament has struggled to be something. First it was the Assembly, whose members were nominated and had very few powers. Then elections came in, and MEPs did acquire more functions, and indeed started to exercise them. But what was missing was any sense of significance or purpose that this communicated to the domestic populations of the member states. It is not a coincidence that participation in these elections across Europe is so low.

The real intention behind the concept of the European Parliament is to combat the democratic deficit in its institutional structures, and to allow directly elected parliamentarians to have a say in European affairs. In theory it was always a good idea. But actually, Europe doesn’t work that way: it is a coalition of states, not an aggregation of peoples. The latter may be our ambition, but it is very far from being realised. And so in some ways the Parliament doesn’t actually bring the EU nearer to the people, it just adds another layer and provides sceptical voters with an occasion to be suspicious about what the MEPs are up to; individually we tend to hear about them most when they have misbehaved in some way.

I should now emphasise that I am a committed European, and believe in the importance of the EU. But I am wholly sceptical about the value of the European Parliament. If as voters we want to have a say in what happens in Europe, the avenue for that is the election of our government which represents us there. Of course I shall vote in the election, but after that I do not anticipate hearing much about the Parliament or its MEPs until they climb back on to the lamp posts for the next time. And I wonder whether that serves much of a purpose.

Living with poetry

May 26, 2009

Maybe this is something that happens to all university Presidents, but I frequently get asked to be a member of a judging panel for this and that. On the whole I like to help where I can, but if I have no special knowledge or expertise I do think twice before setting myself up as a judge of quality. So for example, I always turn down requests to be a judge at garden or flower events, since I always kill absolutely anything I plant myself.

However, a little while ago I was asked to be one of the judges in a poetry competition, and as I like poetry (and have attempted to write some) I accepted the invitation. But then I got the entries, and was left wondering what on earth to do with them. As far as I could see, absolutely every one of them was terrible. They were either bits of doggerel where the poets were wrestling with the compulsion to rhyme everything, often really badly, while knocking over all other fundamentals of poetry in the struggle, including meter, imagery, insight and meaning; or they were really somewhat banal prose with unusual line breaks; or they were pretentious abstractions that never really managed to be poetic. But then I decided I just could not judge them, for who was I to say that these were all bad, when I had never published a poem in my life?

In fact, what do we really think poetry is? Is it a verbal or linguistic mechanism that needs to satisfy certain formal requirements to qualify? Does it need to have, or must it not have, any particular function in terms of what it communicates? Indeed, should it communicate in a verbal sense? Is what we regard as poetry mainly a product of our particular culture – in the sense for example that Eastern poetry is different from that of the west? Some questions along these lines are interestingly put on this website. If we were choosing the Oxford Professor of Poetry, what criteria would we employ?

Poetry may be influenced by culture, but it is also something deeply personal. We are affected by it in different ways, and expect different things of it. As for me, I have started to re-read the poems of Philip Larkin, who was in his professional life the Librarian of my former university, the University of Hull; but he is much better known as one of the most recognised English poets of the 20th century. There is something about this man, who was a misanthrope in his personal life but who produced some really deep insights in his verse. If you have never read anything by him, my own favourite poem of his is ‘Church Going‘ (not a religious poem per se, as Larkin was an agnostic).

Of course, you will have your own favourite poets. But for most people, there is a need at some point in our lives to see the poetry in what we experience or long for, and that need is probably something set apart from our rational and objective self. So on the whole, I was probably wrong about all those poems I was asked to judge. Let us all express and appreciate poetry in whatever way works for us. And let us support the poets, whoever they may be. After all, as I have mentioned previously, I greatly admire the work of that wonderful, unique, terrible poet, William McGonagall.

The art of interviewing

May 25, 2009

It is now many years ago since I was first interviewed as a job applicant. The interview took place in the office of the manager of the particular place of employment, and the only people attending were the manager in question and me. As I recall, it lasted for about five minutes. I don’t actually remember the questions he asked me, but I do remember that as I left the office I wondered what benefit he could possibly gain from the encounter, as none of the questions seemed to me to be particularly relevant to anything. Maybe one of the reasons why my memory is dimmed is because, just after the interview began, I developed this overwhelming urge to sneeze. Not wanting to blow germs all over the office, I tried (successfully) to suppress the urge, and it is this struggle with the sneeze rather than the substance of the questioning that I remember most vividly.

A few years later I was interviewed for the first time for a university job. This time I faced an interview panel, but was rather put off by the fact that one of them, an elderly professor, was visibly asleep throughout the entire occasion. I was asked rather general questions by the first two panel members, and amazingly detailed ones by the third – so detailed that at the end of each question I was totally at a loss to work out what exactly he wanted to know. I didn’t get the job.

I am now a very old hand at interviewing. Apart from the interviews that did or didn’t get me jobs, promotions or other benefits, I have been a panel member at countless interviews, and more recently the panel chair at many more. And over that period of time the process of interviewing has become much more formal, and much more process-driven. There are rules and regulations, and guidelines and handbooks. The casual unpredictability of interviews has now largely gone from the system, as has (on the whole) the risk of negligent discrimination in the process. Gone are the days, thankfully, when anyone would even think of asking female candidates about their family responsibilities.

But while we have swept away many of the misuses of interviews, I’m not sure that we really know what we want interviews to deliver or how they can be genuine tools for finding the right answers to our recruitment, promotion and similar questions. A little while ago I was asked to attend an interview panel in another (non-university) organisation. As the panel met, we were given a list of questions that were to be distributed amongst the panelists. We were told to ask the questions verbatim as written down and to ask no follow-ups. We then had to mark the answers according to set criteria and marking schemes. And finally we were told that the successful candidate would be the one with the highest marks, and that this could not be set aside. While in some ways I admired the clarity of the process, I could not see how it provided the panel with any real sense of who would be the best candidate, but more particularly I could not see why the panel was needed at all, since almost everything here was automated. The event took an absurd twist when the first candidate was visibly flustered, and when asked a gentle question by the panel chair he revealed he had been in a minor car accident on the way to the interview. He was put at ease, but before the second candidate was ushered in the panel chair made my jaw drop to the floor when he suggested that all candidates would now need to be asked about their experience in travelling to the interview, for consistency and fairness.

I have moments when I doubt the value of interviews. However much we standardise them, many panelists will find it hard not to be influenced in the end by their superficial impressions of the candidate’s personality, and interview outcomes can be quite arbitrary as a result. On the other hand, I don’t know of any selection method which is both fairer and reveals information that really matters. And so in the end what matters is that interviews are conducted intelligently and sensitively, that interviewers are trained in the process, and most crucially that candidates are put at ease. These guidelines used by Loughborough University in the UK seem to me to be sensible. My own practices in chairing interviews is to attempt to ensure that we are fair, that we are friendly, that we are on time (it is unacceptable, I believe, to keep candidates waiting for long periods), that we stick to relevant questions, and that we allow the candidate to talk (i.e. no long questions or monologues by interviewers).

I must admit that I am much less persuaded that it is a good idea to standardise all the questions and to remove any possibility for individuality or spontaneity, as is suggested by these guidelines. There must be  a middle way between the reckless abuse of the process that might have been more common once, and the one-size-fits-all standardisation that some now propose. In universities in particular an interview – like other processes – should not be stripped of its intellectual potential.

Oh dear!!!

May 24, 2009

No doubt some readers of this blog will find it difficult to care much one way or another, but to my despair Newcastle United went down today – relegated from the Premier League, they’ll be playing in the Championship next season. What a tragedy this season has been – but I hope they’ll hang on to Alan Shearer anyway. Maybe life in the Championship will not be all bad for them, as they’ll be able to sort themselves out a little, which on the evidence of much of this season is badly needed.

And the lessons to be learnt? That rich owners coming in and thinking they know better how management should be structured is a disaster. I suspect that the whole framework governing football (soccer) needs to be reviewed. But while big money is still flowing into the game there may not be much urgency in all that.

There, I needed to get that off my chest. No more posts about Newcastle for a little while!