Archive for May 2009

Paying the members of parliament

May 24, 2009

OK, I have to make a confession. Today the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, was to be found in our household. Let me emphasise immediately that it wasn’t mine, another member of my family wanted to read it. But my confession is that I did also have a look at it. Just for the pictures, of course. But my eyes were drawn to a comment piece written by the paper’s former editor, Charles Moore, in which he assesses the implications of the row on the expenses of British MPs. You can read the whole thing here, but I want to quote the following extract:

‘And why are MPs nowadays the salaried staff of government? There is a basic conflict of interest in the fact that those whose job it is to guard the taxpayer from the demands of government are more and more dependent on the taxpayer for their existence. Surely, they should be self-employed, with personal, not state pensions.’

What does he mean? Maybe what he has in mind is some mechanism by which MPs become independent contractors earning a fee for their ‘services’ – hardly a great idea, as it will first and foremost strike everyone as a tax evasion measure – which will probably not improve their image. But there is a more worrying thought – that he thinks that members of parliament should not be paid at all by the taxpayer. This strikes me as possible because the title of his piece is ‘Now is the time to obliterate the professional political class.’ It suggests he doesn’t want ‘professional politicians,’ but rather politicians whose main income comes from something else. And he also writes:

‘Labour really does believe in a political class. It thinks that having lots of full-time politicians paid lots by the state is good for them and good for the rest of us. It thinks that if they are paid by the state they will not be corrupt, and that, government being a self-evident good, it is better to have more of it.’

This sounds to me as if he wants to return to the 19th century, when MPs were not paid. If that is so, it’s a daft idea, and dangerous. Not paying parliamentarians means that you will only ever have MPs who are rich; or who have rich backers. I cannot really believe that having an MP beholden to, say, a large company, or even to their own professional income, makes them less corrupt. In fact, the British parliament in the middle of the 19th century was a hive of corruption, with seats in Parliament being bought and sold. If you were to read one of the novels by Anthony Trollope, in particular Phineas Redux or Ralph the Heir, you get a good sense of the sleazy corrupt nature of parliamentary politics back then. Not to mention the absence of women MPs.

There is no alternative in a democratic society to paying members of parliament, and indeed paying them reasonably well. The problem is not, as Charles Moore seems to think, over-payment: it is that an unacceptable framework for expenses was allowed to develop which actually encouraged petty corruption. That all this needs to be cleaned up goes without saying. But not by going back into pre-democratic times.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that our system in Ireland is of a high ethical standard. We must not fall into the same swamp that has become visible in Britain.

External quality control

May 23, 2009

Long before the recent culture of quality assurance arrived in higher education, most universities in these islands would have argued that a key guarantor of quality and standards was the framework of external review. This was in evidence in particular through the system of external examiners, under which all marking of examinations or other assignments would be double-checked by examiners from other institutions. Furthermore, appointments to senior positions would be made with the help of interview panels the membership of which included external assessors.

I have myself been an external examiner in several universities, and have participated in selection interviews as an external assessor. On the whole, my experience has been that this system of externality has been a reasonably effective way of protecting standards. However, it has now been reported by the UK Quality Assurance Agency that external examiners have in many cases voiced doubts about their own effectiveness, and raised questions about the extent to which universities take their views and reports into consideration.

The external examiner tradition still plays a key role in ensuring fairness and consistency in the sector. However, if doubts have arisen as to whether this role is as effective as it should be, then it is time to undertake a more systematic examination and to consider whether the system needs to be adjusted or changed. This is not being helped, it has to be said, by new rules in Ireland on the part of the tax authorities under which both fees (which are extremely modest) and the actual reimbursed expenses of external examiners now have to be treated (and taxed) as salary, which may seriously undermine the system. The time is right, therefore, for a fundamental review.

Separation of church and state

May 22, 2009

In response to my post of yesterday on the report of the Commission on Child Abuse, a number of comments have focused on the issue of the separation of church and state. The concern being expressed, I think, is that the misuse of power and the prevalence of abuse unchecked by any real scrutiny over decades was connected with the failure in Ireland to separate church and state in any meaningful way. It is worth pursuing this further, but in my view (as I shall explain below) this is not the main – or at any rate only – cause of the problem.

The legal standing of churches and religions is regulated under article 44 of the 1937 Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann. This article provides as follows:

1.    The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2.    1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. 
5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.

1.    The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2.    1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
       2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
       3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
       4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. 
       5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
       6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.

There have been a number of cases in which the Irish courts examined the meaning of this article, and its impact in practice. It might be reasonable to summarise the findings in these cases as follows: (i) that no religion or denomination may receive special support or financial assistance; (ii) that no denomination can be accorded any special status; (iii) that no citizen can be ‘compelled to act contrary to his conscience in so far as the practice of religion is concerned and, subject to public order and morality, is free to profess and practise the religion of his choice in accordance with his conscience’ (Walsh J. in McGee v. Attorney General).

On the other hand the interpretation of these provisions is undermined by the tone of the whole document including its religious references in the Preamble, which dedicates the constitution to ‘the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred.’ In addition, the original wording of article 44 (repealed by referendum in 1972) provided for the ‘recognition’ of the ‘special position’ of the Roman Catholic Church.

These aspects of the Constitution are significant, not for their legal effect (which, it was suggested in a judgement by one Supreme Court judge, was zero), but because they imply and reflected an ambivalence in the national attitude. Ireland might not have been governed, in strict legal terms, by the Roman Catholic Church, but in practice it was much less clear. When Sean MacBridge was elected to Dail Eireann in 1947, his very first act was to write to the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, in the following terms:

‘I hasten as my first act, to pay my humble respects to Your Grace and to place myself at Your Grace’s disposal. Both as a Catholic and as a public representative I shall always welcome any advice Your Grace may be good enough to give me and shall be at Your Grace’s disposal should there by any matters upon which Your Grace feels I could be of assistance. It is my sincere hope that Your Grace will not hesitate to avail of my services.’

When a year later the new Fine Gael-led coalition government, of which MacBride was a member, took office, it sent a telegram to the Vatican in which it proposed ‘to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and of our devotion to your August Person.’ This was reflected more recently, as we have just read, in the unwillingness of the Department of Education to address suspicions or allegations of child abuse in Roman Catholic institutions because of the handicap of the Department’s deferential attitude.

In these periods of Irish history, I suspect what was needed in Ireland was not a better legal framework of separation of church and state, but a more emancipated attitude to the relationship. It is perhaps the case that what we had was a national ambivalence rooted in post-colonial problems, which unfortunately created a large group of victims – not just abused children, but arguably women also. It took the country a long time to escape from this position, but arguably that has now been achieved. What we now need to ensure is that the injustices inflicted duiring this time are recognised and, if possible, compensated.

The final victim of all of this is, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church itself. Throughout this period there were also people (including clergy) of compassion and goodwill in the church. Right now that hardly seems to matter, and as the edifice continues to creak and threaten to collapse few of the good things seem memorable to anyone. The final lesson in this is that a deferential attitude by the state and by society to any church is ultimately destructive for the church also. The church will survive, but its position will never be the same again.

Area talk

May 22, 2009

A few days ago I was checking in for my flight at an airport, when a flustered lady pushed her way up to the desk where I was just being served.

‘I need to check in, I am late,’ she pleaded. I stood aside. The woman behind the desk asked, ‘where are you flying to?’ – ‘Toronto, Canada,’ she replied.

The check-in woman took her hand off the keyboard. ‘There are no flights to Canada from here. You are flying via where?’ The anxious passenger responded, ‘Via Area B.’

‘Where are you travelling to first, I mean?’

‘Nowhere, until you’ve checked me in. This is Area B!’

‘Yes, it’s Area B, but I that doesn’t help you. Can I see your ticket?’

The anxious passenger was now coughing madly. My eyes met those of the woman behind the counter, and you could see we were both moving back a little, thinking Mexican swine flu. Through the coughing fit the passenger tried to say ‘e-ticket’ (which she pronounced like ‘EEEEE-ticket’). ‘Look, I was told to come to Area B, or maybe another area, I don’t recall. But this is an AREA, right? You can check me in at this AREA, yes?’

‘I’m not sure you are at the right area, and I do need to see a ticket or an e-ticket number.’

“My flight is leaving, I am not going to any other area, please, you must check me in.’ Coughing lady now dropped her handbag and varied contents rolled out over the floor. I helped her recover her possessions. ‘Thank you, Sir,’ she said; ‘Do you think this is my Area?’

Just then the person at the next desk beckoned me over to check me in, and I do not know whether the anxious, coughing passenger made it to Toronto, or whether she was able to persuade anyone that one area is as good as another. One thing is sure, getting through airports can be a challenge these days. I hope she made it.

Retraining – but for what?

May 21, 2009

When the Irish Government introduced its supplementary Budget last month, amongst the cuts and savings there were some announcements of resources to support those who had lost their jobs or whose employment might be at risk. Annexe F of the Budget sets out the measures that the government is funding (mind you, from existing resources), and which in particular focused on training and education, with a total 23.435 places being made available in the education and training sectors. Overall these have been described as measures that will lead to ‘labour market activation’; in other words, an education and training stimulus.

Neither in the Budget Annexe nor in the Budget speech by the Minister for Finance was there any indication of what kind of training or education is envisaged. There is a widespread consensus that as people lose jobs they should be re-skilled or up-skilled to improve their chances of re-employment. It is hard to argue with that proposition. But I wonder whether, instinctively, we are preparing to train people to give them a way out of the recession of the late 1980s, rather than the current one. Back then education and training, in certain subjects in particular, equipped many people to take up employment in the growth industries of the early 1990s, where multinational companies investing in Ireland needed skilled workers for their manufacturing operations. This time it will be different, and the opportunities to be economically active will be different.

We will still need a skilled workforce in the computing industry, and indeed many of the opportunities will be in employment by international companies; but typically the skills needed will now be more advanced, with undergraduate degrees, but also postgraduate research degrees, likely to be in demand. We will need scientists and engineers with significant third and fourth level qualifications. But in particular, we will also need people who are equipped to create jobs rather than just occupy them. It is not likely that Ireland’s recovery will just be based on investments by global companies, though we can hope that some of that will happen. If we are to thrive again, we will need a far greater number of indigenous entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses and creating both economic activity and employment; and key elements of the ‘labour market activation’ package should focus on that. It will be vital to engage all students in the idea of being entrepreneurs, in diverse areas ranging from life sciences to culture and arts. From what I am seeing in the public discussions on all this, I am not sure that this point has been sufficiently understood.

But above all, we need to leave behind the popular notion in Ireland that the most prestigious, the most desirable employment is in the professions. We will still need lawyers and accountants and architects, but not as many. But we will need to have many more of those who will be their clients. We must become an enterprise nation. And universities in particular must lead the way.

Commission on Child Abuse

May 20, 2009

Today has not been a good day for Ireland. Or rather, what we have had to read today tells a painful, harrowing and terrible story about part of this country’s history. I am referring to the publication of four volumes of reports by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The Commission was established in 1999 by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to investigate child abuse over a period of time in institutions where children had been placed and were in care. Overwhelmingly these were institutions owned and managed by religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church. Eighteen such orders made contributions to a redress fund that was set up in negotiations with the state, and some of them offered apologies, though in very different terms between them. A general apology was offered by CORI (Conference of Religious of Ireland) in 2002.

The material contained in the report published today is harrowing, detailing physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse. The volumes of the report describe a system of childcare that had ceased to consider the human dignity of the children in care, even where there were no examples of the more extreme abuse. But actual abuse itself was, we now know, widespread. And because nothing was done about any of this, even when it was known, the report describes a society that had allowed itself to be corrupted, and one in which tackling abuse and cruelty was seen as less of a priority than the maintenance of the established order and institutional deference.

I spent a good part of my youth and early adulthood in Ireland, and they were happy times for me. But even for me some of this now looks corrupted by what I am reading, at the very least because I was part of a society that did nothing to protect the most vulnerable. No doubt we will be able to reflect more positively on the country’s history again, but right now this is a terrible moment. And it is certainly not a moment for any equivocation or any attempts to defend the indefensible. Church leaders in particular must assess again how they believe they can or should exercise authority, and on whose behalf they believe they must act in the first instance. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has been a breath of fresh air in these matters; but others have shown far less understanding of the position they are in. But the church could not have done what it did without the complicity of society in general.

It is time for reflect on who we are and what values we hold.

Triumph or disaster: the Newcastle rollercoaster

May 20, 2009

If you have any pity, then spare a thought for us poor fans of Newcastle United FC. This coming weekend marks the end of the season. But it wasn’t a season at all. It was a nightmare, a ritual humiliation masking as a competition, tragedy dressed as farce – you get the idea.

And now, whether the club survives in the Premier League depends on just one easy, impossible game. Aston Villa, who can gain nothing by winning this game and suffer nothing by losing it, pose this final challenge for Newcastle.

So why was this season so terrible? Because Newcastle has a rich owner who thought that having his way in imposing his own favourite management structure was more important than winning games. So he lost the club’s brilliant manager Kevin Keegan, and in the chaos that followed managed to have four managers in the one season. The only consolation is that he ended up with the only other plausible one, club hero Alan Shearer.

So if you care nothing about soccer, here’s your opportunity to poke one in the eye to all those interminably boring Manchester United fans and declare that, this weekend, you are supporting Newcastle. It’s the romantic thing to do!

E-learning: looking back on a great future?

May 19, 2009

For the past ten years or so one of the big questions has been whether new online capabilities would transform the educational experience, and in particular whether a large number of students would in future choose to do their learning entirely online. Distance education was already a reasonably well established, if minority, product, with Britain’s Open University in particular having demonstrated that there was demand for it.  In Ireland similar (if more modest) moves were made by Oscail, the National Distance Education Centre. But in many ways the programmes offered in these institutions were quite traditional, though the Open University did make imaginative use of television as a teaching medium. But anyone with insomnia in the 1980s watching the lectures for some Open University course on BBC2 in the middle of the night will have noticed that, while the lecturer may have been standing in front of a camera, but what they did there was quite peculiarly old-fashioned.

Then along came the concept of doing it all online, and the idea of ‘elearning’ was born. Distance education providers started to use online tools, some inter-institutional consortia were established to pool resources and share a platform for online provision, and commercial elearning companies were formed. A decade or so on, the commercial product is well established, though not necessarily as a tool in the education system. But within higher education, the results of all that elearning enthusiasm have been quite modest. The early big-money initiatives have almost all failed, whether state-sponsored or inter-institutional. In Ireland various attempts were made to establish a shared platform for various providers, but none of them came to anything.

Given the speed with which new technologies have been adopted more generally in society over the same period, why has elearning not made more progress? First, many of those who have promoted it have done so on two flawed assumptions: (i) that it is cheaper than classroom learning; and (ii) that both faculty and materials could be transferred easily from the classroom to the computer. In fact, elearning – when it is done properly and to an acceptable quality – is expensive, partly because it requires very high skills on the part of those offering it, partly because both the hardware and the software are costly and in need of frequent updating, and partly because maintaining any sense of learning community across major geographical areas is difficult.

But more important still has been the failure, on the whole, to invest elearning with any real pedagogy appropriate to the medium. It is simply not the same as traditional teaching that happens to use technology. But because, apart from some educationalists who took an expert interest, elearning was often offered by institutions that had made no special effort to develop a pedagogical outlook, the whole thing was often strangely unsatisfactory. There was some sense of what population groups might benefit from online learning, but much less of what that learning should be like, that was different from traditional educational programmes.

In the meantime, the online experience has shot into higher education, but from an unexpected direction. What galvanised student interest was not the ability to do traditional learning online, but the arrival of social networking on platforms such as Facebook. The new online world that students inhabit is community-oriented and highly interactive. If elearning is to be a successful tool after all, this is where the pedagogy will also have to go. In fact, it is arguably time right now to go back to the drawing board and consider whether a new form of elearning, based to an extent on the social networking experience, is the way forward. And if this is to work, student communities will need to be involved in the design of the product.

I strongly believe that elearning has a future. But maybe not the one it had ten years ago.

Who are we?

May 18, 2009

Conversation a few days ago with a visitor, who had stopped at a DCU campus map and looked lost.

Me: ‘Can I help you?’
Visitor: ‘Pardon me, is this Dublin College?’
Me: ‘I don’t think there is an institution called Dublin College. This is Dublin City University. Do you know who you are looking for, or what event you are going to?’ 
Visitor: ‘I have a meeting with the Senior Lecturer, Dublin College’.
Me: ‘That sounds like Trinity College – shall I give you directions?’
Visitor: ‘No, I’ve been there already. I was told to come here.’
Me: ‘Oh? Where did they tell you to go?’
Visitor: ‘Dublin College, North Dublin. I told the taxi driver. He said there is one very good college in North Dublin, I’ll take you there.’ 
Me: ‘I’m afraid we’re not called Dublin College – maybe you mean University College Dublin?’
Visitor: ‘Is that in North Dublin?’ 
Me: ‘No, South Dublin. What is your meeting about? Do you have a name for the “Senior Lecturer”?’
Visitor: ‘I asked for the meeting. It’s about helping Dublin College become a world class institution.’ 

He then gave me a name for the ‘Senior Lecturer’ and I knew where he needed to go. And what conclusion do I draw? Time to brand ourselves better internationally! And I won’t tell you what institution I directed him to…

Securing sustainable higher education

May 18, 2009

The global recession has, amongst others, one common element: cuts in state funding or support for higher education. In most countries over recent months governments have announced reductions in allocations to universities and colleges. There are very few exceptions to this – in fact the only one I have been able to find of any significance is Bavaria in Germany, where the centre-right state administration has told the higher education institutions that, notwithstanding problems with public finances, funding will be maintained.

In some public universities in the United States, funding cuts imposed by local administrations have been so severe that large-scale redundancies are now anticipated, with so far unpredictable results for the quality of teaching and for research. In France, as you would expect, there is a lecturers’ strike about this and other things, but in most countries the worsening financial setting is creating a general atmosphere of gloom and fears about the sustainability of the sector.

It is possible to make some quite contradictory observations about the current situation. The most obvious one is that public money as the sole source of funding for higher education is unsustainable; government decisions on funding, while perfectly rational in terms of the decisions they must take to balance the books for the exchequer, are often unpredictable for the universities, and sudden dramatic cuts can create crises that the institutions, without other available means, simply cannot manage. Public universities also have notoriously little flexibility in relation to the management of costs, which overwhelmingly consist of salaries and pay.

On the other hand, as governments cut budget allocations during a recession, they may also be reluctant to impose additional burdens on the population in the form of tuition fees, so that there is no alternative source of income for the cash-strapped institutions. In Ireland we we know, the Minister for Education and Science has been looking at the possibility of a return of fees, but there have been significant ongoing delays in coming to any final decision.

There are, I think, three important conclusions that need to be taken into account in this debate. First, higher education cannot be delivered with any kind of quality unless the resources for it are reasonably sustainable. In most countries universities operate on very tight margins, so that even in good times they will make extremely small surpluses, if any. Where they are resourced by public funding this is inevitable, as the taxpayer will not readily fund a service to a level higher than the apparent actual cost. A consequence of this is that institutions are almost totally unable, at short notice, to reduce their expenditure. Therefore a system of allocation of public money based on the possibility that funding will fluctuate significantly from one year to another destabilises the sector alarmingly.

Secondly, no organisation can succeed in the long term if it is unable to plan its financial performance. Where a university  draws its income from really only one source, and where it has no control over that source and cannot even influence it by, say, effective marketing; and where in any case it only gets advance notice of income for a single financial year (in our case in Ireland, when that ear is already well under way) – where all this is the case the university cannot undertake anything that could be described as medium to long term planning. It is living hand to mouth, and often it seems that its only mechanism for planning its medium term financial performance is prayer.

In these circumstances, and notwithstanding any ideals one might have about public education, it is impossible not to conclude, thirdly, that in order to secure higher education it cannot be built solely on public funding. There has to be a sensible diversification of sources of income, accompanied by a high degree of operational and planning autonomy.

In Ireland as in other countries, we are facing some very important decisions right now which will determine whether we can maintain a quality system of higher education.