Archive for June 2009

‘Free’ higher education: the quality dilemma

June 30, 2009

Today’s Irish Times carries an opinion piece by a Gerard Horgan, described only as someone who ‘works in the education sector.’  The article, entitled ‘Free education can benefit all of society’, takes issue with the idea of the reintroduction of university tuition fees, principally on two grounds: that fees will hurt those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that they will lead to increased indebtedness of students.

I am sure this is a well-intentioned piece of writing, and as I have mentioned before, I am myself not hugely comfortable with the principle of tuition fees. But the arguments he uses here are weak and the analysis is incomplete. In particular, his contention that people from ‘impoverished backgrounds’ will be affected is actually silly, as one thing that everyone is agreed upon is that the current supports for such persons are inadequate and that any system of fees will continue to exclude persons from such backgrounds from the obligation to pay them. Indeed, one of the key arguments for bringing back fees is that people from socio-economically disadvantaged groups can actually receive more targeted support, as money currently funding wealthier students can be redirected. The problem, as I have mentioned previously, is not with impoverished students, but rather those from middle income backgrounds, and it is here that some analysis will have to be carried out.

The argument about indebtedness is a more serious one, but here there is considerable experience in other countries with how to provide financing that is sensitive to student needs and does not financially cripple people at the start of their careers.

But the key point we cannot escape from is that the taxpayer, represented by the government, is clearly unwilling, and now probably unable, to fund higher education to the extent that it needs to be funded to maintain quality. For each student an Irish university enjoys a per capita level of funding which is only about half of what is available in the UK, and a fraction of what a US university on average can expect. That is unsustainable. There is a choice, of course, and the state could pick up this bill properly: but only if taxpayers, as voters, were willing to see income taxes rise to fund this, and if the funds so collected could be ringfenced. This would be a positive scenario, but realistically it will not happen.

There is still a debate to be conducted around this, and there are important issues to be debated, but the contributions to this debate need to be somewhat more sophisticated than this one.


Developing rhetoric

June 29, 2009

As a young boy I had, I believe, a very bad stammer. I don’t really remember this – I was very young at the time – but I believe I received some treatment for it; in any case the problem was overcome and my speech was fine. However, there is a legacy: there are a few words which, if I am at all self-conscious when I am saying them, make me stutter, for example ‘theological’ and ‘logistical’. If I know I am going to say them I become self-aware as the difficult word approaches, and then I have to work to get the word out. It’s not a big deal. I keep my verbal comments about logistics to a minimum. But the other legacy for some years was that I was nervous about public speaking and would avoid it. I had no problem speaking with friends or chatting in a group, but if someone called for silence and all eyes turned to me I would become scared that I would stutter, and so I avoided such occasions.

When I was a student in Trinity College Dublin in the 1970s, I was on one occasion persuaded to participate in a debate. I was really worried about whether I could do this, and so I assembled what I thought was a clever speech, wrote it out on a typewriter, and when my turn came I read it out from the paper. I must have been dire. I was one of a team of two. We came last. When the judges pointed out that my team mate delivered by far the best speech of the evening, I realised that my speech must have been catastrophic. In my determination not to repeat that, I found the secret of success for me: if I am going to speak, I won’t speak from a prepared script. Think about it in advance by all means, and structure the speech in my head; but no script. And that has worked for me. I am occasionally told that I speak well, if you’ll forgive the arrogance of that statement.

Anyway, the point of all this is that rhetoric – the art of persuasive speaking – is such an important skill in the academic environment. Few academics are trained in it, and if we’re honest not all of them do it well. Too often we believe that the intellectual cohesion of what we say should be enough, and that our skills in communicating it are of no great importance, or possibly even a sign that the academic pedigree of the content is deficient. I have never bought that: I believe that as lecturers we must be able to inspire, impress and entertain; these rhetorical devices help to engage the student and make the subject-matter memorable.

In other professions rhetorical ability is also important, and is often neglected. For example, we all know of a small handful of politicians who can make us sit up and listen, but most political speeches are a cure for insomnia. This is not helped by the fact that, in our system, parliamentary debates chiefly consist of either handing out wild insults and engaging in boorish behaviour, or when that is done, settling down to wholly tedious (if often worthy) speeches. But as Barack Obama has shown, the ability to communicate with skilful rhetoric is a powerful way of ensuring that citizens remain committed to the democratic political process.

In this particular phase of history, good communication is vitally important. When economic and social conditions become complex, the ability to communicate effectively is vital, not only for politicians, but for anyone who has a message to send out that can promote confidence and determination. Effective communication is not a dark art, it is what allows ideas to be disseminated and to grow. We should care more about this, and should ensure that speaking and rhetoric are skills that are valued by society. And we should train more academics to deploy these skills.

Debating innovation

June 28, 2009

A few days ago on June 18 the Oireachtais (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science held a session on ‘Business Innovation and Research’, and heard presentations from invited persons on the topic of research as a driver of economic development. One of those invited was Professor Frank Gannon, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland. From the report (which can be read here) there was a lively discussion. It makes for interesting reading, because the politicians present were making a serious and constructive attempt to understand the significance of investment in science research, and while the questions were probing they were not hostile.

Two issues did arise that are worth a comment. One of the members of the Committee asked the following question:

‘Professor Gannon touched on the issue of outcomes. What is the overall budget of Science Foundation Ireland since it started in 2003? He said its focus was on knowledge which would be useful in the economic context and spoke about jobs in terms of the people working for the organisation – the researchers, scientists and the leverage jobs created. However, has SFI a measure of the number of jobs it has provided in the real economy as a result of the investment in researchers and scientists? I am keen to see what the outcome of that investment is.’

In the discussion that followed the question referred to above, Frank Gannon indicated that any statistics that could be compiled in response might be suspect, but the questioner encouraged him to seek them, referring to any such data as ‘qualitative information.’ As unemployment has now gone back up to 10 per cent, it is probably tempting for us to revert to seeing job creation as the key yardstick for assessing the case for or outputs from any investment. But that is a mistake. It is highly unlikely that, in many contexts, we will ever again be able to translate public expenditure into jobs in such a direct way. That is not to say that investment in research cannot result in employment, but rather that it will not do so directly. The number of researchers employed in a research programme is a direct consequence, but in the bigger view that is neither here nor there. The real effect is that critical mass in research will create an environment in which corporate investment in the areas where that research is strong will become much more attractive. So for example, the kind of investment we will want to chase will now often be in the biopharmaceutical sector; any company contemplating such an investment in Ireland will probably do so only if they are satisfied that high level research is being conducted in Ireland and that relevant PhD graduates will be available. The latter graduates will also increasingly be needed for indigenous start-ups in that sector. So our research programmes may create little direct employment, but will be indispensable for investments that can create many jobs.

The other issue that was raised in the discussion was the fear of failure. As a country we have worked ourselves into a mindset where, whenever something goes wrong or a mistake is made, we want to identify the person responsible and do something to them which is described as ‘holding them to account’, but which in  reality is subjecting them to derision and scorn. The effect of this is that many who are guiding our key decision-making base their actions on caution and the avoidance of risk. At this point in our national development that could be deadly. We need to innovate like crazy, not just in small businesses and large companies, but in the public service, in politics, and indeed in the universities. We must stop wanting to punish failure, and initiate a new mindset that understands that we must try new things, not all of which will work; and that the correct response to failure is to learn from it and start again. Let us bring the blame game to an end.

Assessing Ireland’s public expenditure

June 28, 2009

During the past week the International Monetary Fund issued what is know as a ‘Staff Report‘ on Ireland, setting out the IMF analysis of the Irish economy and a set of recommendations. In the report we find the following passage on the need to regain control over the public finances:

With the large looming deficits, the task of consolidation presents formidable
challenges. The needed consolidation comes at a moment when the economy is undergoing
substantial contraction and prices are likely to fall for a number of quarters. The
consolidation will help the recovery only if it generates confidence that a fundamentally-
strong reorientation of government priorities is under way. If not done right, the downturn
could worsen. This, in turn, will require a substantial effort to scale back the scope of
government activities and to improve the efficiency of government services. The tax base
must be broadened, while limiting the impact on unit labor costs.

‘With the large looming deficits, the task of consolidation presents formidable challenges. The needed consolidation comes at a moment when the economy is undergoing substantial contraction and prices are likely to fall for a number of quarters. The consolidation will help the recovery only if it generates confidence that a fundamentally-strong reorientation of government priorities is under way. If not done right, the downturn could worsen. This, in turn, will require a substantial effort to scale back the scope of government activities and to improve the efficiency of government services. The tax base must be broadened, while limiting the impact on unit labor costs.’

This assessment is substantially in line with the stated intention of the Government to focus, in the Budget later this year, on public expenditure cutbacks rather than further increases in taxation. It is in fact probably a matter of consensus amongst most economists that this is the correct approach. The problem is that the gap between revenues and public expenditure is now so large that the further cutbacks that are needed to address this will have to be dramatic.

The temptation at such moments is to go for random cuts across the board. However, it is arguable that a reorientation of the public finances could well have hugely damaging side-effects unless they are part of and the result of a fundamental re-assessment of what we expect exchequer funding to deliver. Some of the issues that should be addressed by way of a fundamental policy re-assessment include the capacity of the taxpayer to provide adequately for demand-led services such as healthcare, the affordability of universal benefits, and the capacity to fund higher education on public money alone.

The problem we currently experience is that in these areas it is almost impossible to control public expenditure. Yes, the government can decide to reduce spending on the system of public healthcare, but this could be shot out of the water almost immediately if, for example, the new strain of swine ‘flu were to spread widely as some are predicting, or if the ‘winter vomiting bug’ becomes particularly severe, or if any number of other conditions were to take hold. Declaring a limit to public expenditure on health is a purely notional thing, to which the factors that will in reality determine the cost of healthcare pay no attention whatsoever. The same is true of the social welfare budget. Education costs can be controlled, but at the price of visibly declining quality.

It seems clear to me that we have a framework of public expenditure that now appears to be no longer viable. Rather than attempting to impose harsh (but often unachievable) expenditure cuts on this framework, it would make sense to conduct a fundamental review of what we feel we need to fund and how we should fund it. And it also seems to me that this must include a review of the affordability (and efficacy) of universal benefits.

Public expenditure to pursue and achieve important social goals of health, education and welfare is a vital ingredient of an equitable society. But that counts for nothing if the method of funding ceases to be workable and economic chaos threatens to be a consequence. We need to ask much more fundamental questions about public funding, and we need to ask and answer them now before any further expenditure decisions are taken.

Could this scam really work?

June 27, 2009

No doubt many others receive regular emails promising them millions of Dollars/Pounds/Euros. On the whole the quality of these scams has declined, to the point where they seem so obviously laughable that you would wonder whether it’s worth anyone’s while writing such stuff. Below is one that I received today. Given its incoherent message and illiterate style, and the fact that anyone reading it would be doing so without any prior context, it would seem totally unbelievable to me that anyone at all could possibly take it as genuine. And yet it was written and sent, so presumably the author thought otherwise. Can there really be suckers out there who would fall for this?

For anyone wondering, the objective here is to make you give them a copy of your passport. Everything else is just padding around that.


International credit settlement
Office of the director of operations
Mr Mark Farraday
Overseas Bank International plc.


This is to officially inform you that we have verified your contract/inheritance file and found out that why you have not received your payment is because you have not fulfilled the obligations given to you in respect of your contract/inheritance payment.

Secondly we have been informed that you are still dealing with the none officials in the bank all your attempt to secure the release of the fund to you.

We wish to advice you that such an illegal act like this have to stop if you wishes to receive your payment since we have decided to bring a solution to your problem.

Right now we have arranged your payment through our swift card payments Asia Pacific, that is the latest instruction by the new elected President Federal Republic of Nigeria. President Umaru Musa Yar’adua (gcfr) on his speech when swearing in as the president Federal Republic of Nigeria.

This card center will send you an ATM card which you will use to withdraw your money in any ATM machine in any part of the world, but the maximum is (five thousand dollar per day).

So if you like to receive your fund this way please let us know by contacting the customer care service card payment center and also send the following information;

Your full name:

Your phone and fax number

Your age:

Your current occupation:

A copy of your identity card:

Your country of origin:

Your address where you want the ATM to be send:

Customer care service.
Rev. Michael Iwo
Integrated Payment Department.

[followed by ‘contact details’]

Studying through the recession

June 26, 2009

An item this week in the Belfast Telegraph reported that, as the recession affects employment and job prospects, more people are opting for university degree programmes, and in particular postgraduate (and post-experience) degrees. In this particular case, students were reported to be causing a surge in demand for the programmes of the Business School of the University of Ulster; I expect that the experience is similar across business schools in the other universities in Ireland.

In fact, though we have not yet been able to quantify this, the recession has significantly affected student behaviour. The signs are that we’ll find a much lower drop-out rate amongst all students, and greater attendance. Nobody would want to suggest that the recession is a good thing, but its impact on student preferences and behaviour may actually be beneficial.

But it is also important to note that this is a time for universities and other higher education institutions to provide access to education and training for those who have lost jobs or whose jobs may be at risk. The announcement by the Minister for Education earlier this week of additional funded places in higher education for the unemployed (well, part-funded) should prompt all universities to focus on the need to re-activate the labour market by providing higher levels of education to those who may benefit from them.

Perhaps what we all need to do at this time is to re-discover a sense of community and to do what we can to show solidarity. DCU intends to play a major role in that process.


June 25, 2009

The UK National Union of Students has, amongst its key campaigns, one called ‘Mark my Words, not my Name’. This campaign is designed to persuade or cajole those higher education institutions not yet using anonymous marking for examinations and assessments to do so. The purpose of the campaign is to prevent bias, conscious ore unconscious, on the part of examiners. For example, the NUS campaign asserts that there is evidence that students from ethnic minorities fare worse in examinations in those institutions where there is no anonymous marking, compared with those where there is. But even where such evidence cannot be found, the argument is that anonymous marking gives students greater confidence in the impartiality of the system. It is the case of justice being seen to be done.

I have now been in two universities where anonymous marking was introduced while I was there, and an external examiner in another two in the same circumstances. In each case there was considerable resistance from some faculty to the change. Sometimes staff feel hurt – particularly where the staff in  question have worked hard to ensure fair examinations and impartial assessment – that notwithstanding their work for the students, they should come ‘under suspicion’ in this way; and sometimes academic and administrative staff are concerned about the (undoubted) additional administrative burdens. But I have also heard opposition based on the argument that anonymity would prevent examiners from crediting students who were known to be good or who were known to have problems. It needs to be said, however, that the latter is strong argument in favour of anonymous marking: bias in support of a student is just as wrong as bias against.

I suspect that for some academics anonymous marking is just one more piece of evidence that they are not appreciated or trusted, and this creates for them a strong sense of resentment, which I have seen come to the surface in debates on its introduction. It is therefore important to introduce this change sensitively, and to remove the idea that where anonymous marking is called for it represents an implied vote of no confidence in them.

But for those institutions which have not yet made this jump, it is perhaps worth remembering that the introduction of secret ballots in parliamentary elections in the 19th century was vehemently resisted by some liberals. The argument ran that a democratic vote was the ultimate statement of the power of the people, and those exercising it should be open and transparent in doing so. This view was influential until eventually the Chartists adopted the secret ballot as one of their six principles. In the end the secret ballot was introduced in Britain and Ireland in 1872.

In all these matters it is important that the wider society protects people – whether voters or students – from undue or unacceptable pressures and from the fear of disadvantage. It can be hard for academics to accept this, but this is a necessary step for a modern university. And to their great credit, in all four institutions of which I have knowledge, in the end all academic staff (and administrative staff) were engaged constructively in the project to make it succeed. And that will have been good for the reputation of our institutions.

Blogging Presidents

June 24, 2009

A few weeks ago the Irish Times ran an article on this blog, and since then a number of people have written to me or spoken with me about it, in particular with these two questions: (i) has it been a good idea? – and (ii) how long can I keep doing this?

The answer to the first question is, on balance, yes. It seems to me that while university presidents do manage from time to time to stand in the public spotlight, more often than not people have only a limited idea as to what they really do. It has struck me for a while that, as a group, we should be out in the open a little more, and share a little more about what we do and what we think. I am not the only president to do this (though I think I may be in Ireland): in the United States quite a few maintain blogs. Some of these are clearly intended for internal communication within their institutions, such as this one. Other presidents use it to publish a diary of events, both public and private. Others again blog in order to report on and analyse significant developments in higher education and how these affect their institutions. One observer of US presidential blogs suggests that such forays into the public domain are not always welcomed by university lawyers and PR officers, who fear the their presidents will do ‘some terrible damage to their institutions if [they] are let loose to say whatever they want to say on the institutional website.’ Whether this blog confirms such fears is for others to say; but I don’t (yet) regret starting this undertaking.

My guess is that a far greater risk is that a blogging president will simply be boring. Or that she or he will find it hard to navigate the tricky borderline between being vacuous and being offensive, or perhaps will even manage to be both at the same time.

As for the question of how long I can continue, we shall have to wait and see. Unlike most blogging presidents on the other side of the Atlantic, I do this on a daily basis. If I did not maintain that discipline, I would probably stop very quickly; and indeed some US presidential blogs have petered out after a while; I even found two who never got beyond the first post. So I set aside 15 minutes a day to do this, and on the whole keep to that. There will come a time when I shall have totally emptied my brain of all content that can be made bloggable, but (at least as far as I am concerned) I haven’t got there yet: your mileage may vary.

I do however have some plans for innovations here. I intend to invite one or two guest bloggers on to the site to do occasional posts, and shortly I shall also be publishing a series of interviews I am doing with key figures in the world of higher education and public life: starting with an interview with the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD – more on that shortly. But other suggestions are also welcome.

And finally, my apologies for this rather self-indulgent post; and my thanks to my band of readers – I confess there are more of you than I had anticipated when I started this blog just over a year ago.

Apple reflections

June 24, 2009

Today’s UK Guardian newspaper carried an article on Steve Jobs and Apple, reflecting on the driven nature of the company’s CEO. There are of course many people in Apple Inc, and indeed many whose contribution to the company’s fortunes and the quality of its products has been vital. But few companies are so closely identified with their CEO as this one is, and reports on his health and outlook on life have an immediate impact on its share price and on the confidence of its customers. Right now the talk is on whether he has recovered from his illness and is ready to return to the company.

As some readers of this blog will know, everything you read here is written and managed on Apple equipment. Right now I am sitting at my iMac; a few hours ago I was considering readers’ comments and publishing them, and responding to some of them, on my iPhone. Shortly I shall be taking my dog on a final late night walk, and while I do so I shall be listening to a particular podcast on a science policy theme on my iPod. I am wholly committed to Apple, and shudder when occasionally I find myself having to handle the equipment of other companies. And yet, if I am honest, there is nothing that this iMac does that could not be done equally well on, say, a Dell, or even a computer that someone could assemble for me in their garage from parts bought in any computer shop. And recently I gave an HP netbook as a present to a family member, and in trying it out beforehand was impressed with its features. But there is something in the Apple range that keeps me loyal, even if I could not always explain what that something is.

Some of it is the design. I loved the original Apple Macintosh in the mid-1980s. But in the Jobs-less era from the late 1980s and into the 1990s I grew disenchanted; the various LCs and Performas or whatever the models were called still had the neat Apple operating system, but the machines looked like any old IBM-compatible box, and I just lost interest and bought a PC. Only when Jobs returned and with him the unique style did I also restore the Apple brand to my home and office.

Perhaps the ‘something’ that makes me an Apple man is this: when all is said and done, Apple is more a concept than a piece of technology. What you buy into is the feel of the equipment and the philosophy of the community that has gathered around it. Not for nothing is Apple the company that popularised the desktop icon (yes, I know – it was developed by Xerox, but Apple brought it to your office). The whole Apple concept is iconic, awash with symbolism and ritual.

I may be jumping a little far now, but there is something of interest here for any modern organisation, including a university. DCU’s mission, for example, is strongly linked with a sense of identity, and with the idea that it doesn’t just offer a suite of educational programmes and research projects, but a particular concept of what we are in our time and our place. And I suspect that our success somewhat depends on our being able to convey this distinctive image, both to ourselves and to others. That isn’t a trivial or superficial thing: identity and community are everything, and I would like to think that access to DCU is also access to a particular outward-looking community.

I wish Steve Jobs well, and hope he returns to Apple at the end of the month, refreshed and invigorated. I’ll be watching.

Boldly going … nowhere

June 23, 2009

Well, it was one of those ‘did-she-really-say-that’ moments. I was watching BBC2’s Newsnight earlier this evening, and heard tonight’s presenter, Emily Maitlis, introduce an item as follows. ‘Newsnight will boldly go,’ she said’, ‘where no programme has gone before.’ And then she added: ‘But please don’t write to us complaining about the split infinitive.’ Bless her.

Well, I hope nobody has written to the BBC, because of course there was no infinitive at all, and hence no opportunity to split one. But what bothers me now is that perhaps nobody even noticed that, and that there are indeed armies of people working themselves into a lather about something that never happened. Of course, there’s the old saying that when it comes to split infinitives there are are four types of people: those who understand the concept and care about it; those who understand the concept but don’t care about it; those who don’t understand the concept but do care about it; and those who don’t understand the concept and don’t care. I belong to the second group, by the way (while on the whole I won’t split infinitives, I don’t care about what others do). But I had always believed that there were no members of the third group; and now maybe I am wrong.

But the real point of all this is not that split infinitives are an important topic for conversation (well, that’s not absolutely true, the topic was once a last resort for me at a monumentally boring dinner when I had completely run out of topics for conversing with my taciturn neighbour). The point (and it is actually a serious one) is that the English speaking world has lost any remaining grip on grammar. Of late I have tried to raise the subject in various circles, but almost always find that everyone thinks that the whole concept of grammar is simply archaic. I understand that schools no longer teach it.

Grammar, however, is not a framework for useless rules. It is about the structure of language and the construction of meaning. An effective language is not just a method for stringing words together in the hope that the aggregation of these words will reveal a meaning. It is a way of conveying something in both words and structure, and an effective structure will assist the communication of nuanced meaning. But all that may be lost. One of the (educated) people I have raised this subject with volunteered that ‘if I was you, I’d forget about this, as English has no grammar.’ No fan of the subjunctive, then.

In fact, as we try to use technology to provide various kinds of linguistic support (such as machine translation), grammar becomes more important. And if the use of grammar is anarchic, it may become impossible to develop accurate software for this.

Of course I learnt English as a second language, and acquired it through various language learning devices that included studying the rules of grammar. Maybe I’m just annoyed that, in the end, it may all have been for nothing; unless there is a rebellion, and grammar is restored.