Archive for November 2009

Future health

November 24, 2009

When the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, was Minister for Health he memorably called this particular cabinet brief ‘Angola’, because of all the unexploded political landmines he felt it contained. In fact, very few politicians have found the stewardship of the country’s health system to have furthered their careers, with the possible exception of Charles Haughey, who was able to remain focused on policy initiatives and service improvements while there. Most politicians in charge of health appear to be quickly overwhelmed by the combination of intractable problems and vocal vested interests. And just in case anyone thought that this was a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the same is pretty much true in the UK, and as we know even Barack Obama is struggling (though perhaps with some success now) to make health reform work for his administration in the United States.

But difficult though health policy and its implementation may be, it is right at the top of everyone’s list of priorities. Right now the global health system is having to deal with H1N1 influenza, as well as the various other diseases and pandemics rampaging through parts of the world. We also know that ageing-related health issues will need to be addressed for demographic as well as social reasons. We know that the relationship between health, diet and lifestyles needs to be explored further. In short, health is everyone’s burning concern. And in that setting, we have not really worked out yet how best to structure the healthcare systems in our countries, and how to pay for them; the demand-led system of universal benefits, when applied to healthcare, has not just become unaffordable but actually unmanageable – but we struggle to work out how we could do it better.

One aspect of all this that will need a lot of attention is health research. This is important for two reasons: first, we should be addressing in high value research the key issues that are having an impact on people’s health; and secondly, we should harness the economic benefits of healthcare research as a magnet for high value investment by companies in this field, including some of the biggest blue chip companies in the world. Although these are two different reasons, they actually point us in the same direction: that we should focus on certain programmes of research where as a country we have or can reach critical mass, and we should present these areas as ones that should attract international industrial investment in Ireland. Some of these areas are already clear, such as cancer research (where the National Cancer Institute has brought together the key players from the North and South, with US partners); others show potential, such as Diabetes; and others again support health research and treatment, such as medical diagnostics (with DCU’s Biomdedical Diagnostics Institute playing a particularly important role).

All this is likely to be helped by the new strategic plan of the Health Research Board, which has prioritised research in certain key areas and has also highlighted the importance of translational research, meaning research with a programme for its use in improving or solving health-related issues.

It is important for us to think of health as an opportunity as well as a problem. Ireland has some real excellence in health research across all the universities and other institutions (such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland), and therefore can both make a contribution to addressing global health issues and gain an economic benefit from doing so. It is, as they say, a no-brainer.

Higher education funding crisis: not just in Ireland

November 23, 2009

As we prepare for what is universally expected to be bad news for higher education in the coming Budget/Book of Estimates, we may or may not find consolation in the fact that there are similar fears in England. Last Friday Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), suggested that a ‘golden age’ for university funding and development was now coming to an end, and that universities in England were ‘going to see a rebalancing of financial contributions to higher education from the tax payer, from students, from graduates and from employers.’ From the context of the story, I gather that ‘rebalancing’ does not mean a redistribution of the same funding between these different sources, but rather an overall (and perhaps severe) reduction.

In Ireland as in the UK, we shall have to ask some fundamental questions; but the most obvious one seems to me to be whether we can continue to aim for significant increases in higher education participation rates in these circumstances. This latter question is also tied up with the issue of whether we can aim to maintain a position in the global rankings if we continue to pursue volume growth but without resources. Even if we feel that the rankings don’t matter, we need to remember that on the whole they reflect quality-driven performance indicators, so that the implication of sliding down the tables is that quality is eroding.

I personally support the highest possible participation levels, subject to adequate entry qualifications; but it may realistically not be possible to continue with that agenda for now.

The higher education debate – where is it, and who is participating?

November 22, 2009

I really must not take myself too seriously, so please read the next sentence with a grain of salt. But I guess I could argue, tentatively, that this blog has provided a forum of sorts for a debate on higher education, where the participants are not only the great and good (if you are reading this and believe you are great and good, my apologies, and of course you are welcome, too). But the blog is a minor contribution in the overall scheme of things, and there are also others which, in different ways, also raise questions about the future of our sector.

But I rather wonder whether we need more than this. Right now the major assumptions which have under-pinned higher education in these island for the best part of a century are being questioned, and influential voices are calling for something which, while its contours are not yet clear, will at any rate be quite different. The view is being expressed that universities need to be more responsive to and prepared to address the major issues and problems of society and the economy, and that academics need to have a working environment which more closely resembles that in other employments; it is probably fair to say that the traditional understanding of individual academic autonomy no longer enjoys general support in society.

Of course we are part of society, and we need to address concerns and criticisms when they emerge. The problem is that the debates on the future are largely by-passing the higher education community. Some key recommendations on the future of the sector are currently being debated by the Steering Group for a new National Strategy for Higher Education, which has two senior academic representatives but is otherwise dominated by civil servants. Discussions are also being conducted from time to time by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, which obviously is made up of politicians. There are occasional workshops and seminars, but again these tend to be very high level events.

There is an urgent need to have a debate that gives a voice to the university and college community more widely, thereby ensuring that the debate is an informed one, but also allowing the community to take part in a process which in the end must convince them if there is to be a successful process of change.

I am a strong believer in strategy, and believe that academic institutions like other organisations must be skilfully led through necessary periods of change. But they must also be properly engaged at all levels, and change must not simply be implemented by edict, but must be debated, explained and justified. I think that we do need change, but not any change, and in particular not the kind of change that is really the product of a drive to bureaucratise higher education and impose tighter central controls.

Therefore, the time is right for a better debate within the third level institutions on higher education reform, involving rather more of the community in the sector than has been the case so far. This could involve a number of different initiatives: online discussions, workshops and conferences with good representation, publications and reviews, and so forth. It may be something that I shall push during my final year in my current role.

Tuition fees by the back door?

November 22, 2009

There has been a certain amount of media coverage of the claim by Trinity College Dublin Students Union that at least some of the student registration charge, which is intended to pay for student services, is being used by TCD to pay for other things through the general budget. The TCD Students Union apparently has claimed that some €310 of the total charge of €1,500 is being used by the college ‘in lieu of HEA cuts’. According to reports in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, TCD has denied this and has stated that the charge only covers 80-85 per cent of the total cost of relevant student services.

I cannot of course speak for Trinity College, but I can say that in DCU the actual costs of student services have always significantly exceeded the income from the student registration charge; so if it is a question of demonstrating that the charge is not greater than is warranted by the costs of the services provided, it will not be difficult to establish this conclusively. But that probably isn’t the whole issue. In part, what this little row is about is whether in the context of a system that promises ‘free fees’ (however misguided such a promise may be) it is acceptable to require students to pay what is now a fairly substantial charges for services. And as government funding is cut, it is understandable that students may be asking whether the student registration charge is being used for general funding purposes to make up for some of the now missing money.

I suppose that in the general setting of budget cuts and operational restrictions on universities, it is difficult for any of us to turn down this charge. And yet I have been and am uneasy about it. It helps us all to fudge the issue of funding and to kick real solutions ahead of us. It also needs to be said that if there is a student registration and services charge, then the rate should be determined by each institution on the basis of the audited costs of student services; there should be no bar on different charges between institutions. And definitely, the amount should not be set by government.

We need to take a whole lot of fundamental strategic decisions about the future of higher education. So let us stop fudging the various issues and address the financial problems we now face. And if there are to be tuition fees (which I, as readers will probably know support), then let us be straightforward about that and introduce them – but trying to part-introduce them by subverting an existing measure seems to me to be unacceptable.

Hello to you!

November 21, 2009

Today, as I am sure all readers of this blog know, is World Hello Day – a day that is allegedly observed (at least by someone) in 180 countries. It began as an initiative to overcome the global pessimism that was generated by the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War in 1973, and since that time a number of people have worked tirelessly to keep the idea alive.

And how do you observe World Hello Day? Simple: you greet at least ten people you do not know, thereby encouraging global peace. So you can walk down a city centre street, identify your ten targets and say Hello to them – but you may need to be careful, as not everyone might welcome the unsolicited greeting. Indeed you need to be alert to someone popping out from a doorway to alarm you with their own unexpected Hello.

But in the meantime, one pleasant use of the concept is that you can make a list of those whom you do not intend to greet, even if they do turn up right in front of you today. Like Thierry Henry.

But then again, let’s shake off all those inhibitions to which we are so prone on these islands, and let’s hasten on world peace with our ten unsought Hellos. But maybe don’t do it when I’m around. In fact, I may be staying indoors today.

The decline of email?

November 20, 2009

In a post I wrote in July of last year I celebrated the availability of email as a communications tool and described how it had changed my working (and indeed social) life. Back then, and maybe until last month, I assumed that email would continue to grow and would also play an important part in the students’ learning experience. Indeed an Australian report of 2003 placed some emphasis on the academic uses of email.

But in this most unpredictable age, things may turn out differently. Last month at a meeting here in the university some colleagues explained that they had found that the use of email by students was in steep decline. Whereas in the recent past announcements issued by email would have reached the target audience quickly and reliably, their experience now was that a majority of students would not read the information in a timely manner or at all. Email was no longer a reliable communications tool.

At first this seemed highly counter-intuitive to me. I do not believe, on the whole, that technology is ever ‘un-adopted’. Once in regular use it is developed and improved, but not abandoned. So how could this be happening to email?

I suspect that it is not that students have  moved away from electronic communication, but rather that they have moved to other platforms. It is interesting, for example, that about half of all messages I get from students now come via Facebook rather than email. It is in many ways the same thing of course, but using Facebook allows the student to integrate their more formal correspondence with their social networking. Many students who are hoping to talk to me seem to wait until they see me log in on Facebook and then grab me there with instant messaging.

So if I am right, what we are seeing is not a move by students back to the age of paper and quill pens, but rather to newer and (for them) more exciting formats for electronic communication. This also shows that modern technology doesn’t stay modern for very long. And it suggests that we need to develop our online tools so that they have the look and feel and functionality of what students are used to and like in their social lives.

So if you’re an academic and you are not on Facebook, think again. You need to be where your students are, at least some of the time.

Hand games

November 19, 2009

For a period during my teens I played a lot of handball and got really rather good at it. For those who don’t know it, the quickest way of describing it would be to say that it’s like a trimmed down version of indoor soccer played with the hands rather than the feet. Back then, I was a prolific goalscorer. And from that vantage point, I can tell you that Thierry Henry’s skills at handball are excellent: his move to control the ball with his hand before scoring was a classic. The only slight problem is that he wasn’t playing handball.

OK, so what am I talking about? If you don’t know the answer you are not Irish and have not seen any Irish news media over the past 24 hours. No harm to you, here’s the brief explanation. Last night the Irish football (soccer) team played its last qualifying game for the World Cup in South Africa next year. It was the second (and final) game against France; the first leg had been played last Saturday in Dublin, and last night (in Paris) Ireland needed to win the game in order to qualify. Things were going well, with an Irish goal courtesy of Robbie Keane, when just before the end the ball fell to French player Henry, who handled it deftly and allowed team mate Gallas to score. The goal should have been disallowed and Ireland should have had a free kick, but the referee didn’t see it and allowed the goal, and Ireland were cheated out of their place in the World Cup.

In case you think this is a partisan account, let me quote Thierry Henry himself:

‘It was a handball, but I’m not the ref. The ball hit my arm, fell in front of me and I played it. The ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.’

Well of course, all sorts of people are asking the referee. And there is now a campaign for a replay. What has happened here is that an admitted foul was the basis for an undeserved French win. It really should not be allowed to stand. The people should rise up in anger! I fear justice will not prevail, but we should never let it go by default.

We are what we speak

November 19, 2009

Today I had occasion to visit both a post office and a Garda (police) station. I should maybe add that there was no connection between these two, and that I was at liberty to enter and leave the Garda station by my own free will (in case you were worried). But they did have one thing in common: notices in the Polish language. Well, of course they also had notices in English, and some in Irish; but what struck me was that there were several in Polish.

We don’t yet know whether the influx of Polish (and other central and Eastern European) nationals in the course of the current decade is a temporary demgraphic phenomenon or whether these immigrants will stay for the long term; and if they do, we cannot yet tell how integrated they will become, and therefore to what extent their language needs will be reflected in public notices. But for now there are Polish newspapers, Polish masses in some catholic churches, and Polish notices in my local post office and Garda station.

In fact, how far do we expect languages to go beyond being a tool of communication, to become a cultural anchor for their speakers? In fact, which is more important, communication or culture? And where language is a tool of cultural identity, what does it tell us? My own first language was German, and indeed it was the only language I spoke until I was 7 years old and my family moved to Ireland. I then had to learn English fast, and indeed I became quite fluent in it after about six months. And since then I have, more or less at least, been fully bilingual, though I am more comfortable in English. But those people who have known me for a while and who understand both languages sometimes tell me that I am ‘different’ depending on which language I am speaking; they say I am more precise and less humorous in German. I don’t actually believe this, and I tend to think that people absorb the national stereotypes and simply expect to hear them in the language; but the stereotype may not be objectively true of any particular speaker.

But my point is this: to what extent do we need to identify with a language as a personal point of reference, an indicator of who we are and what we stand for? In my own case, the language I speak most fluently is definitely English, but does it define me? And if it doesn’t, does this open up a gap in my life? In Ireland of course this topic raises the question of whether the decline of Irish as a commonly spoken language has created cultural problems, or whether the localised version of English is able to provide the anchor needed.

Over a year ago I wrote a post for this blog about the spread of English as the global lingua franca.  It seems to me to be clear that whatever may be the shifts in geopolitical power over the coming century, linguistically English will sweep all before it – it is already making inroads even in China. So do we still need to learn anything else? The answer is yes, because we need to understand the culture and personality of those nations with whom we are in contact, even where we can adequately communicate with them in English. And as a country, we need to have the capacity for that understanding beyond the three or four most widely spoken languages in the world. That is why I am alarmed when I hear occasionally that we cannot afford to have university departments in Ireland that specialise in certain minority languages. That is a dangerous approach – the linguistic arrogance in the world of English speakers can be a source of tension and conflict. While we should certainly present ourselves as an English-speaking country (because of the advantages this brings in global trade), we should also make every effort to have centres of excellence, particularly in our universities, that provide us with some knowledge of other cultures and traditions.

For my own part, I think I am going to learn Polish, which is in any case the language of my ancestors.

Becoming a doctor

November 18, 2009

Perhaps this title for the post will mislead some readers, as I am not about to discuss medical education; though that could be for another time. Rather, I want to muse briefly on the the way in which people proceed to a PhD (or other doctorate) by research.

My own PhD began in 1978, when I was applied to the University of Cambridge to do research in law. For the following two years I lived and worked in Cambridge, enjoying the really very fine city, but maybe not appreciating quite as much the cold and windy winters. But it also gave me the first opportunity to experience interdisciplinary discussions, as there was a very lively community of scholars from all areas in my college (Christ’s College). However, I would have to say that beyond conversations with my supervisor I never had any training whatsoever in research methodology. I just gave my supervisor a work plan, and then disappeared into one of the libraries in Cambridge that were relevant to my topic.

In the 1980s, when I was Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, I recruited and supervised a number of PhD students myself – five or six in all, if I recall. Again, none of these had any structured training, and while all my students made it to the end successfully, I also had to assist with two students supervised by other colleagues, who did not take to the work and who found it difficult to pursue their research without methodological training.

All this changed in the 1990s, during which decade I was in the University of Hull in England. The initial change came as research councils began to require universities to have formal training modules in research methods for all funded students, and from this a framework emerged for research degrees. At the same time, some universities began to develop so-called ‘taught’ PhDs or other doctorates, in which there was a programme of instruction in the subject-matter of the degree which, with accompanying exams, would account for a substantial percentage of the overall credit, with a shorter thesis at the end.

There is, I think, room for doctorates that are based on the old PhD model (with methodology training) and for others that are more structured and are based on specific topics and disciplines. But as we increase the admission of doctoral students, we may need to pause to ascertain what the career prospects of all these doctors will be, and in what areas they will fill a national need. The phase during which we simply keep adding to the numbers may need to come to an end, replaced by a more strategic development of such programmes. It may be the case that structured taught doctorates may now meet a greater demand in certain areas than PhDs of the traditional variety; but again we need to look more closely at this agenda.

It is an appropriate time to develop a coherent strategy on doctoral studies.

Open access to knowledge?

November 17, 2009

One of the movements that is beginning to get a toe-hold in the academic world is the drive for open access to research. Currently the output of most research is published in academic journals which are then made available to subscribers, whether in print or online. The publishers of these have a captive market, their customers being mainly university libraries, and the subscription rates have in some instances been ludicrously high. As university budgets decline and library costs escalate, many have been unable to maintain the full range of subscriptions that would give faculty and students proper access to leading research.

In this setting a movement has grown over recent years to develop an open access framework for research, protecting intellectual property but giving access to published output. The European Commission has also recommended the adoption of an open access framework. The significance of all this should not be under-estimated, and the movement should be widely supported. There is a real chance otherwise that the scholarly community will become unable to participate in the development of research and in the life of the global research community.