Archive for November 2009

Silliness in Irish universities?

November 30, 2009

My goodness, a symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy recently on the standing of academics in the public sphere seems to have turned into a right old whinge-fest. A report on the event and the contributions made was carried in the Irish Times, and as far as I can tell every one of them used the occasion to moan about how little they were listened to by the general public, the politicians and the great and the good. And I wouldn’t mind, except that virtually all of those mentioned are hardly ever out of the media and are constantly quoted; they included UCD professors Declan Kiberd and Tom Garvin, TCD economist Brian Lucey, QUB’s Liam O’Dowd, ESRI chief Frances Ruane, and NUI Galway’s Donncha O’Connell.

And what sort of things were said? That Irish intellectuals were ‘despised, ignored and denigrated’; that modern universities were run (badly, I think was the implication) in such a way that there was a major growth of ‘silliness’; that academics were ‘failed by the politicians’; that there was an ‘an absence of a strong tradition of media engagement by academics in Ireland over the past 20 years’; that universities were becoming the R&D wing of the state; and more in a similar vein.

Where does all this come from? A quick glance at the opinion pages of Irish newspapers tells you very quickly that they are disproportionately given over to the analysis and recommendations of Irish academics, usually from Ireland but occasionally from the Irish academic diaspora. These contributions cover all shades of academic opinion, but probably with a majority coming from the particular perspectives that were prominent at this symposium. Academics make regular appearances before Oireachtas committees. They are frequently talking to camera during news and current affairs programmes on television. They chair or sit on lots of public committees. Actually, I know of no country where academic opinions are as prominently visible as in Ireland. For heaven’s sake, even I have a newspaper column. Not to mention blogs.

All of this is of course a good thing, and it is right that academic opinions should be heard in relation to matters on which they are expert. It does not necessarily mean that their recommendations must always be followed, but they should get some space. And they do. In spades.

So why all this complaining? What brought on all this hyperventilating? I suspect it is to do with the current state of anxiety about the future of the academy and the ability of universities to maintain a status of autonomy, in a disinterested relationship with key stakeholders. And those fears and anxieties have some substance and need to be addressed, while at the same time we need to look again at how and whether universities should adapt to a changing environment and different external expectations. But they will receive more thoughtful attention if we don’t distort the picture of how academic opinions are received at this time. I doubt, frankly, whether the report of this meeting will do much to advance the cause of the academic community.


Home study?

November 29, 2009

The Irish Independent reported on Saturday that a majority of students are choosing a university or college in their vicinity. University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin all have well over 60 per cent of their students coming from their own city or county or those immediately adjacent; they are, perhaps oddly, Ireland’s most regional universities. The universities with a slightly more balanced ‘national’ student population are NUI Maynooth, NUI Galway and my own DCU.

I’m not sure what, if anything, this tells us about the institutions in question; but overall it tells us that there is a trend for students to seek out a third level institution near them, in many cases probably so that they can live at home while doing their studies. I don’t have reliable statistics to hand, but my impression certainly was when I was a student that my fellow students’ family homes were more evenly distributed around the country.

Then again, maybe this has nothing to do with the recession or indeed any economic trends, but is more the result of university intakes being more inclusive than in the past, with a smaller percentage coming from the higher income groups who would have a tradition (and the means) of living away from home while studying. It is however worth observing that a possible consequence may be that university campus life may be affected, as greater numbers of students leave at 5 pm or thereabouts to get home, with ‘home’ not necessarily being in the immediate neighbourhood of the college.

Developments such as this, perhaps even more than education policy or pedagogical changes, have the potential to alter the nature of the university experience. It is one more element that should make us review whether our institutions appropriately address student needs and expectations.

Utilitarian toy hamsters

November 28, 2009

I’m trying to get my head around this one. According to an Irish Times report, shoppers availing of the post-Thanksgiving shopping sales in the United States have, as the report puts it, maintained a ‘utilitarian focus that has replaced bubble-era excess since last September’s Wall Street crash.’

That’s good to know. And what, therefore, are they buying? DIY manuals? Home oil-changing kits for their cars? Cookbooks for meals under $10? No. What’s flying off the shelves, the same report tells us, are ‘Zhu Zhu pet robotic hamsters‘. Yes, that makes perfect sense.

68 lives on

November 28, 2009

Yesterday (November 27) was the birth date of two persons who, in different ways, were icons of my teenage years and who defined a lot of 1968 for me. But, as I said, they were very different: the first was Alexander Dubcek, the second Jimi Hendrix.

Dubcek was a Czech politician, a Communist activist during the German occupation 1939-1945, and subsequently a rising star in the Slovak Communist Party. In January 1968, after what was in effect a coup against the Czech Communist leader Antonin Novotny, Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and thus the de facto national leader. He initiated a number of (for the time, in an Eastern bloc Communist state) radical reforms, including the right of association and assembly, and the abolition of censorship. He called this  ‘socialism with a human face’, and worldwide his reforms became known as the ‘Prague Spring’. But by the summer of that year the Soviet Union had become alarmed at the impact on the Eastern bloc of the Czech reforms, and after fruitless attempts to get Dubcek to roll them back, the Soviets and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia during the night of August 20, and within days the Dubcek experiments were brought to an end. Dubcek himself remained in office for a short while, but by 1969 he was removed, first to the purely ceremonial job of parliamentary president, and then to the role of Czech ambassador to Turkey. In 1970 he was stripped of all remaining posts and his membership of the Communist party, and for the years that followed he was a supervisor in a Slovak forestry administration.

When 20 years ago the Communist party fell, Dubcek returned briefly to public life, again as parliamentary president, until he died in what some regarded as suspicious circumstances in 1992.

But during that brief period in 1968, for my generation Dubcek represented the possibility and promise of freedom under a reformed socialist system. When the Russian tanks rolled in, for many that became the moment when it became clear that Soviet Communism could not encompass a liberal attitude to personal rights and freedoms.

Jimi Hendrix was born (as Johnny Allen Hendrix) in Seattle in 1942. He showed a strong musical interest and talent from an early age. Having played with several bands in the early 1960s, he moved to London in 1966 where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He has immediate success with the band in the UK, and in 1967 he also exploded on the US music scene. In 1968 he released the album Electric Ladyland, which included the iconic songs ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Voodoo Child’. More than anything else, this album defines the music of 1968 for me. Of course Hendrix became famous for (occasionally) playing the guitar with his teeth, and he is regarded by many as the greatest guitarist ever. He died in 1970.

I don’t know whether Alexander Dubcek and Jimi Hendrix were aware of each other’s existence; and I suspect that many younger people today don’t know Dubcek at all and may not have heard that much of Hendrix. But for me both live on as symbols of 1968 as a year of hope.

Class twittering

November 27, 2009

For those who have wondered – as I have – whether the ‘micro-blog’ site Twitter could be used successfully in teaching, here’s a story that suggests that it could be. According to a report in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, Purdue University in Indiana has set up a program that allows student to ask questions in class by using Twitter on their computers or phones; they can even make their questions anonymous, for those who feel nervous about identifying themselves in case their question is considered stupid.

According to the report, others have tried it also, sometimes with mixed effects. It seems that the important requirement is that the lecturer needs to be forceful enough to stay in control, while also allowing the interaction with students to guide the content. However, as class attendance has become an increasingly difficult issue in universities all over the world, new techniques that might stimulate more interest could contribute to more participation.

Maybe this is worth trying in Ireland?

Day of shame

November 27, 2009

Once again Ireland is in the global news headlines, and the story is one of abuse, betrayal and shame. Thursday saw the publication of the Report by the Commission of Investigation into the handling by Church and State authorities of allegations and suspicions of child abuse against clerics of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. Although as we know this is not the complete report, it is still terrifying to read: terrifying that such abuse could be perpetrated by men in positions of authority and trust, terrifying that the abuse could be covered up and kept from the authorities in order to protect the institutional church, and terrifying that a society many of whose members must have known something was wrong did not come to the help of the victims. I was here, and I lived through some of these times in Ireland, and once again I also am consumed by shame that I was there and saw nothing and did nothing.

Much has been said over the past 24 hours in condemnation of those responsible. I would maybe add two comments. These crimes were committed within the institutional church and covered up by it, but they took place in a society that had for too long practised obsequiousness and had allowed a culture to prevail where many people may actually have agreed that the interests of the church should take precedence over the cries of the victims. Secondly – and this is the only positive note I can sound – the Roman Catholic Archdiocese has now at least the benefit of an archbishop who has shown some sensitivity, courage and integrity in handling the legacy of abuse: I do have quite some respect for Diarmuid Martin, and of course for those priests who followed their vocation with decency.

But for now, the only real response can be one of utter horror and shame, and the hope that the victims may now have the support and love of the community and that, over time, at least some of the wounds may heal.

What do you want from education?

November 26, 2009

Recently I was chatting to a group of intelligent, well-educated and well-meaning people, all of whom have one or more children in secondary schools in Dublin. What, I asked them, are you hoping that these schools will deliver for your children. The optimist in me was hoping for answers around pedagogy, civilised values, knowledge development, life skills, the thrill of science and the arts, that kind of thing. I didn’t get any of it. What did I get? They were hoping for the highest possible CAO points*. That was it.

We really have come to treat education as a board game, where you have to make the right moves and gather points. It is entirely tactical, with almost no intellectual angle. You doubt that? Well, I asked my companions what specific expectations they had of the syllabus in English literature – how much Shakespeare should Leaving Certificate students be doing, for example? And exactly what level of scientific knowledge should their children have acquired by the time they take their exams? Oh yes, they wanted Shakespeare. Was it because he crafted some of what we now know as the English language, and because he disseminated intellectual ideas from the classics to his own day? Not at all – it was because this was an expected part of the syllabus and students know how to prepare for it to get high points.

As I have mentioned before, I have grave reservations about the CAO points system, and its influence on the way in which students work for the Leaving Certificate. This conversation strongly reinforced those reservations. The social and material ambitions of parents for their children are pushing those children into working methods and career choices which are of very doubtful value for the wider society. The points system is turning the final stages of secondary school into a transaction in which student acquire what they are led to believe is the currency that will resource their later lives. And it would have to be said that the universities, as the owners of the CAO project, are allowing this to happen.

I think it is high time we had another look at the whole CAO framework.


* For non-Irish readers, the CAO is the Central Applications Office (which administers university and college entry), and the ‘points system’ is the mechanism by which Leaving Certificate examination results are converted into a points score which determines eligibility for specific university courses.

Free and easy on Twitter? Think again!

November 25, 2009

Long time (or should that be long-suffering) readers of this blog will know that I have a Twitter account, which I use every so often to say where I am or what I am thinking or contemplating. I have to admit I spend very little time wondering whether someone might be upset at what I am writing. That may be a mistake: this year Twitter has come of age and has been the cause of at least two libel cases and a parliamentary apology.

One libel case has been taken by singer Courtney Love’s fashion designer, who felt aggrieved when Love said some not altogether nice things about her (as much as she could get into 140 characters) on Twitter. More bizarrely, a woman who complained on Twitter to her 32 or so ‘followers’ that her landlords were not concerned about the mold in her apartment in Illinois has been sued by the landlords, who are seeking $50,000 in damages. No kidding.

And as for the parliamentary apology, this was in Canada: one member of the Canadian House of Commons tweeted about another that he should ‘grow up, not out’ (the latter being a reference to his, er, alleged body shape), only to find that the outraged member was demanding an apology in parliament, which he got.

I think I’m going to have to go over my own twitterings again. Actually, I won’t, because as far as I know you can’t delete what you have written. Oh dear. If I have offended you, I didn’t mean to. Or maybe it wasn’t even me.

Universities: the industry dimension

November 25, 2009

Some time ago I came across a website (I no longer recall the details) which was running what I thought was a particularly silly survey: it was asking its readers to ‘vote’ in an online poll whether universities should be more like corporations. It was silly in the sense that at that level of generality the question was completely meaningless: more like corporations in what sense? Some modern companies have adopted what we might call traditional academic values and methodologies; and I guess that understanding the ability of well-run companies to manage and maximise resources is something that wouldn’t necessarily harm us.

However, the relationship between universities and business organisations is an important issue and deserves both analysis and comment. It is important in two different ways: (i) is there anything we can learn from the corporate world? – and (ii) what kind of relationship should we have, or allow ourselves to have, with corporate partners?

For this post I shall focus on the second of these questions. I may come back to the first on another occasion, and I might just point out in passing that modern organisation theory applies an analysis to companies that could be helpful to academic institutions, whether they might want to adopt business insights or indeed avoid them. But that’s for another time.

But what about relationships with industry? Just over ten years ago the University of California at Berkeley caused some academic observers to raise their eyebrows when it announced a special relationship with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. The agreement was confined to agricultural biotechnology, and under its terms the company provided the university with $25 million of research funding, and in return it acquired rights in a share of the resulting discoveries. A number of concerns were expressed at the time, with some arguing that the deal created conflicts of interest and the possibility that academic integrity might be compromised by the industrial partner’s commercial interests. The arrangement came to an end in 2003, and was subsequently assessed by a team of outside experts. The resulting report was fairly critical. It found no ethical misconduct, but it questioned whether the arrangement had had any real impact on research output, and wondered whether the intellectual property aspects had been efficiently and fairly handled.

Whether the Berkeley/Novartis agreement was good or not so good, it is now a matter of general consensus at least amongst state agencies and government departments across the industrialised world that academic-industry links are to be welcomed. The major funding programmes of Science Foundation Ireland, for example, are based on the requirement to assemble university-industry collaborations, and in this country most of the high value research centres across more or less all of the universities have such collaborations in place. The major motivation for such relationships is that they may accelerate the commercialisation of discovery, as industry partners apply their skills in financing, developing and marketing products that are derived from the research. The risk, as some might see it, could be that the commercial imperatives applied by the industry partners may skew the research, or that the prominence given to these projects might crowd out the also necessary basic or blue skies research that should have a home in the universities.

There is little evidence to date that industry links have undermined university research, though the risks are always likely to be there to some extent and this requires strong ethics monitoring and a clear university research strategy (that goes beyond industry partnerships) to be in place. An external analysis of SFI and its funded programmes published in 2008 suggested that the industry dimension was positive and should be developed further.

It is probably also arguable that industry links should be developed, where appropriate, on the teaching side. DCU has from its establishment operated a work placement programme as part of all the university’s programmes of study that has had the effect of creating close links with the employers that take on our students, without giving our industry partners any direct influence over programme content or assessment.

Academic and intellectual integrity must always be at the heart of everything a university does; but being ‘networked’ has many benefits, not least that it allows a university to understand better what society’s needs are and how we can contribute to their resolution. Industry links are an important part of that mission.

Action days

November 24, 2009

Today, as certainly all Irish readers of this blog will know, has been a day of strike action organised by Irish public service trade unions in protest at cuts in funding for public services, expected salary reductions and reductions in staffing. As a result more or less all of Ireland’s public and civil service offices and institutions were shut down, from  government offices to schools. Most universities and colleges were also shut, with the exception of DCU and the University of Limerick, where staff voted not to join in the national strike action.

It was impossible to travel anywhere around Dublin today without seeing groups of people picketing workplaces. Some were low key, but many were very active. As I passed Trinity College’s various entrances by car, for example, it seemed to me that there were very large numbers on picket lines, so that access (even if the gates had been open) would have been difficult, and would certainly have required strong nerves.

And even before the day was over, it was announced by the trade unions that another such day was being planned for December 3.

The day of action, and the seemingly strong participation in it, arose from a feeling amongst public servants that they are the victims of mismanagement by others; that government, banks and business leaders behaved recklessly and lost large sums of money, and that those responsible are being protected or cushioned from the consequences and that public sector employees were being asked to pay for all this. Others also believe that the poor are being targeted while the wealthy are protected. A very significant number of posters being carried on picket lines today demanded that the rich should be taxed more in order to resolve the national economic problems.

No doubt the anger, fear and resentment are understandable, and perhaps the day of action provides an opportunity to let off steam and allow people to express their frustrations. Whether the assessment of our problems on which at any rate the picket line posters are based is accurate is rather another matter. According to the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, 4 per cent of Irish taxpayers provide almost half of all income tax receipts, while half of the country’s income earners pay no income tax at all. As for the public services, the claim now is that pay levels for public servants are substantially above what is earned by public servants in other comparable countries and also above what is earned by those in the private sector in Ireland; indeed the claim is that this was the case even before substantial increases were applied earlier this decade through the process of benchmarking. At two picket lines today I saw members of the public expressing their anger at the picketers in fairly colourful terms.

Obviously, tempers are hot, and there is a sense that the work being done by public servants is not appreciated – and so it seems to me that a process of reassuring them that this is not so is a step that needs to be taken. A situation where both media comment and political actions seem to be suggesting constantly that public servants are exploiting national resources for selfish ends has not been helpful. On the other hand, it is not likely that actions such as today’s will strengthen the position of public servants, at least not if the rest of society withhold their backing and sympathy. The potential of strikes is that they will alienate the general public rather than encourage them to feel solidarity.

This may be a good time for all sides to think again about their tactics.