Archive for October 2009


October 24, 2009

On this day in 1917 – at least if you follow the Julian calendar – the first incident took place in Petrograd (which had been, and is now, St Petersburg, and which for 70 or so years afterwards was Leningrad) that was to result in the Soviet Revolution. Just to make it as confusing as possible, it is either referred to as the October Revolution, or Red October, or else the November Revolution (because according to the Gregorian calendar it took place in November). But of course, whatever you call it and whichever calendar you use, it unleashed events which profoundly altered history. The system of Soviet Communism that followed it, and which at least for a while governed much of Eastern Europe, had a huge impact not just on those countries, but on western concepts such as the welfare state. But it also produced enormous hardships, including starvation and totalitarian dictatorship, and eventually it collapsed economically, some time around 1989, also around this time of year (if you take the fall of the Berlin Wall as the defining moment of collapse).

And so, in the early years of the new millennium, how should we now assess the Soviet revolution and the political system that followed it? I still find that very hard to say. One particular communist leader, Zhou Enlai of China, is famously said to have remarked when asked about the impact of the French Revolution that it was ‘too early to tell’. And in some respects that is true of 1917. It is difficult to see it objectively in the light of the many victims of Stalin’s brutal rule and in the light of the oppression that was inflicted on Eastern Europe. And yet, communism in government in the East led to significant social reforms in the West that have defined modern concepts of democracy. The East-West debates that defined political discourse during my youth sharpened ideological perspectives that allowed governments to pursue a much more distinct vision than is sometimes the case today.

I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union just before its demise, and on the one hand mostly found it to be bureaucratic and drab; but I also on occasion found it to be unexpectedly cultured and philosophical, in a way that we were not in the West.

I am sure I would have hated to live in the Soviet Union, and I wholly deplore the oppression and brutality that characterised some of its political actions. But I cannot quite bring myself to regret that the October Revolution happened. Not quite.

Contributions to the debate

October 23, 2009

Here are two important comments that were added by someone today to previous posts – it’s good that lively and intelligent debate continues here.

Under the post Blogging Anniversary, a reader has added:

‘Because I am fluent in all languages when it comes to understanding things said about foods I wish to consume, I understood quite well when the man behind the counter explained, in German, that the drink never comes with cream, anyway.’

Absolutely! And here’s what the same person wanted to express in the discussion on An Bord Snip Nua:

‘Up to 20 percent of the metals can be lost in a crusher.’

These are valuable comments made to enrich the debate on difficult subjects!

And while on the subject of Waterford…

October 23, 2009

My recent post on this blog about the number of universities in Ireland sparked something of a debate about the campaign to have Waterford Institute of Technology given university status. Over recent years various groups and organisations from Waterford and the South-East of Ireland have argued the case for a university in the city, and indeed there is an online petition.

This particular debate has, with its emphasis on the regional interests of that part of Ireland, perhaps obscured the wider and ultimately rather more important question of what constitutes a university, and whether the binary divide we are still just about maintaining between universities and other tertiary institutions has continued justification. It could be suggested that the conversion of the former polytechnics in Britain to universities helped to establish a settled position that within the overall category of ‘university’ there is room for institutions with very different missions, and that (for example) excellence in research does not need to be a condition. And I hasten to add that Waterford Institute of Technology has achieved some considerable research success.

The arguments for a university in Waterford, as expressed by various local interest groups, have been well articulated. The case against has perhaps been made less explicitly, but on the whole has been based on the view that the institutes of technology have a special mission that includes a commitment to sub-degree level teaching in close coordination with local business needs.

I am raising the issue here not so as to express a view myself, but because I am interested in seeing what the views on this broader issue of university status might be amongst readers of this blog – should they be willing to express them.

In the meantime, some of the issues, and some of the contributions to the debate on Waterford, are set out comprehensively on the 9thlevelireland website.

In the end, absolutely everything is local

October 23, 2009

It has been interesting to monitor the reactions to Enda Kenny’s proposal last weekend to get rid of the Seanad (the Irish Senate). Although the Fine Gael party has now endorsed the move, this was not achieved without some heated discussions along the way. But amidst all the objections that have been raised, from within Fine Gael or from elsewhere, I am not sure whether the one from Senator Paudie Coffey was the strongest. Here’s what he argued:

‘But [the Seanad] does have a role at the moment. If the Seanad was abolished in the morning that would be one less voice for Waterford. I have mixed feelings to be quite honest.’

Hmm. You may try a guess as to which proud city Senator Coffey comes from. And of course I have no problem with a strong voice, or set of voices, for Waterford. But lobbying for Waterford is not one of the Seanad’s key functions. Indeed, if we look at it strictly, that’s not a function for the Seanad at all. It might, under its constitutional framework, be seen as a chamber that considers the issues of the day from the perspective of the vocations and interest groups that are supposed to nominate senators; or else we might say it should take a national perspective. But it is definitely not there to provide partisan support for Waterford.

Of course local communities deserve representation and support, and it is right and proper that TDs (members of the Dáil, the lower house) should take their representational role seriously. But in Ireland all too often whole national issues can dissolve in the glare of local interests. It may be that the time is now right for us to think again about how we give political expression to these. And perhaps the Seanad, if it survives, should be one place where there might indeed be ones less voice for Waterford.

Customers, consumers, traders? What are students?

October 22, 2009

Just over a year ago I raised the question of whether it is appropriate or helpful to think of university students as customers. Are they buying something from us (or is the state doing so on their behalf), and if so, what does that suggest should be their attitude and ours to the ‘transaction’ between us? Across the Irish Sea in the UK, this is a question that is being asked with increasing frequency. In part this is because in England (and Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland) tuition fees are now payable, and indeed are rising. This has prompted the question whether students, conscious that they or their families are paying, are becoming more demanding as they insist that they receive the appropriate service.

I dislike the latter way of looking at it. In fact, I dislike it a lot. I believe that students have rights when they enter a university, and that these rights are not in some way different because they either do or do not make a financial contribution themselves. They have a right to expect a good education, just as they have a responsibility to contribute active participation and effort. Education is a process experienced in partnership between the student and her or his tutors. It costs money, and somebody has to pay it (though in Ireland we don’t appear to have grasped that yet, properly), but the exact identity of the purchaser isn’t critical, it seems to me: the beneficiary, with all rights, is the student.

In the UK the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has now entered this debate, and he has suggested how students should approach their courses:

‘It’s a change in culture and attitude that we want to encourage. As students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more and are entitled to receive more in terms, not just of the range of courses, but in the quality of experience they receive during their time in the higher education system. If there is a degree of passivity then, I hope, that without rejoining our student population to take to the barricades, that they become pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience. Therefore teacher quality and the quality of the teaching experience is going to become more important.’

Lord Mandelson’s speech contains further reference to the changing assumptions of higher education, to the prospects of reduced public spending and the need for universities to diversify their income while also expecting closer scrutiny and control – themes with which we are now well familiar in Ireland. But what this shows is that the shifting patterns of funding and the current tight budgets are having an unpredictable impact on financial and operational autonomy for universities. It is clear enough that the old assumptions are dead, but we don’t yet have new ones. If we are to have a confident and internationally competitive system of higher education, we need a greater consensus around this. Let us hope that our own current strategy processes will help to deliver that.

Is Apple also going for e-books?

October 22, 2009

As I have mentioned before, I seem to have become some sort of global authority for the Amazon Kindle, and so I thought I would also draw attention to the fact that it may soon have a powerful rival. Of course I should acknowledge in passing that it already does have rivals, in particular the Sony Reader. But there’s another one coming, or at least that’s what the rumour is. And it’s from Apple.

For some time now there has been chat in cyberspace about Apple’s plans for a ‘tablet’ computer – in other words, a touch screen flat computer. However more recently the view has emerged that when (if?) it emerges it will principally be an e-book reader and a (rather large) iPod. It will probably be bigger than the Kindle (maybe more like the Kindle DX, which is not being sold yet for customers outside the US), and it will have at least some functionality beyond the Kindle.

It must be stressed that Apple have said nothing about any of this. But their most recent announcements have fuelled speculation, because it appears that some new product is due by the end of the year, and for various reasons the tablet/e-book reader is seen as the most likely option.

What will this do to the market? That’s hard to say. The Kindle is by now very well established, and it has gone global. Nut then again, nobody could doubt that once the Apple marketing machine gets going, it packs a powerful punch. And it would probably be (as Apple products are) very user-friendly. And, presumably, have a colour screen. And right now the company is on a high, having beaten analysts’ revenue and profit forecasts in its most recent financial statement.

So I would watch this space!

Awash with universities?

October 20, 2009

Maybe it’s time to nail one increasingly common assertion: that by international standards Ireland has too many universities. Of course it is not altogether easy to say what one might mean by ‘too many’, but maybe one way of tackling this is to compare the number of universities with that in other countries.

Ireland (the Republic) has 7 universities, serving a population of 4,460,000 (according to 2009 estimates). In other words, we have a university for every 637,000 people. The United Kingdom has 132 universities for a population of 61,113,205: one for every 463,000. Germany has 250 universities for 82,060,000 people: one for every 328,000. France has 269 universities for 65,073,000: one for every 242,000. Switzerland has 45 universities for 7,739,000 people: one for every 172,000 people. And the United States has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.

What point am I making? That on the statistics alone the claim about Ireland is not borne out. Even if one were to add the Institutes of Technology (which would be misleading), the figure for Ireland would still only be somewhere in the middle of the above list. On the data alone one would have to conclude that Ireland has relatively few universities by international standards.

As it happens, there are good arguments for looking at the possibility of creating strong strategic links between clusters of institutions in Ireland, and it is in the national interest to ensure that our university sector collaborates very strongly. But the view that has been expressed in various official documents – including the ‘Smart Economy‘ paper issued last December by the government – that we have more universities than do other countries is simply wrong. And, I suppose, that reinforces the point I have made before, that we need to ensure that our policies are evidence-based.

Vox pop

October 20, 2009

Over the last three days I overheard two things that, in different ways, seemed to tell something about the times we’re in. The common element is banking.

First, overheard on Grafton Street, Dublin – teenager begging at the side of the road with the shout: ‘Any spare change for NAMA?’ [On second thoughts, maybe he really was collecting for NAMA…]

The second occasion was in a London cafe, where two middle aged ladies were in conversation as follows:

‘Do you remember our French neighbour, Monsieur Chouin?’
‘Yes, indeed.’
‘Do you remember I told you he had voted for the BNP [British National Party, see my previous post] at the European elections?’
‘Yes, terrible.’
‘Yesterday he told me it was all a big mistake, he thought it means “Banque Nationale de Paris”.’

Leaving aside the total weirdness of that exchange, I could not help wondering what would now be considered the lesser evil at the ballot box, a banker or a right wing extremist. I’d say it would be a close call.

Lazy, greedy academics?

October 19, 2009

Marc Coleman, of Newstalk radio, just recently invited me to appear on his radio show – unfortunately I had to decline as I was genuinely unavailable; but that’s maybe as well, because I am going to have to take him to task here.

In this last weekend’s Sunday Independent, he wrote an article in which he praised the response of private sector employees (but more particularly, his own response) to the economic crisis, and compared that unfavourably with what was going on in the public sector. He had a more specific target: academics in the university (which we won’t name here, but you can read it up) where he does some part-time teaching. He teaches 80 hours per year, he says, and gets paid a modest four figure sum for his troubles. But what about the people who have full-time jobs in the same college? Well, this apparently:

‘… Full-time lecturers elsewhere in [the college] who do less lecturing each year can earn salaries of €90,000 or higher. And some do no lecturing whatsoever (and the standard of their research is highly questionable).’

Okaaayyy. But it’s worse than that, much worse. While he slaves away at the academic coalface in this unrecognised way (except by the students, who love him to bits in their assessment), what do the college authorities (damn them) do? This:

‘Despite that, [that college] can drop my course in order to save money to fund the huge salaries of lecturers who need not do any lecturing, cannot get fired and who often spend three summer months of the year doing nothing.’

The trouble is that someone is bound to believe all this, and before you can say ‘HEA funding formula’ will be pressing for even greater cuts so that these layabout academics will be forced to relinquish their gold-plated BMWs and swimming pools and join the ‘real world’, wherever that is.

Of course I am not suggesting that nobody in the universities under-performs. I am not suggesting that academics should be protected from pay cuts at the current time. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t be accountable for the money we spend. But I am suggesting that the caricature painted in this article is rubbish. The overwhelming majority of university staff work very hard indeed, don’t abuse the system (any system), take few holidays and get no special benefits. And they are the people whose continuing hard work will be decisive – if we let it be that – in Ireland’s recovery.

Come on, Marc, maybe it’s time to stop dumping on academics and university staff.  Or if you must dump on them, do it with the facts. If you can.

A *really* open university

October 18, 2009

Have you heard of iTunes U? Well, if you are interested in learning in innovative ways, you should have a look. You can read about it here, but the basic concept is that universities can upload content for distribution on iTunes, generally for free. You will need to have iTunes (which is also free), but that’s all. On the front page of the iTunes Store, scroll to the bottom where you will find a link to iTunes U, and after that you are right into the content. I have gone straight into the ‘Saturday Scholars’ programme of Notre Dame University, and am finding it really interesting. And very appropriately there is something from the UK’s Open University being featured there as well.

Right now what you find here is free content, much of it fairly random, that major institutions are making available on this platform. But of course the obvious question immediately is: might this be the future, or at least a future, of higher education? Could this be a platform for online accredited education, so that while today you may just be availing of interesting information and knowledge here, tomorrow you may be using this platform to get a BA (or whatever) degree.

Of course online elearning is hardly new, but what makes this interesting is that it is being promoted by the very market-savvy Apple Inc. Big university elearning initiatives have more often than not failed. But maybe this is different. If it is, we may of course get worried quickly about the dominant status of Apple in such an endeavour, but for now we might just look at the potential.

I remain of the view that the desire of people for a campus, classroom experience will continue to drive students into physical university spaces, though no doubt using more and more new technology while there. But there will always be some for whom that is not an ideal or possible choice, and for them this may be heralding a new framework. We’ll have to wait and see.