Archive for January 2010

The final frontier

January 31, 2010

Today – January 31 – is an important date in the history of space exploration. In 1958, Explorer 1 was the first American satellite to be launched into orbit; though of course it was not the first satellite ever, as the Soviets had launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. In 1961, the satellite Mercury-Redstone 2 was launched and, for only a few minutes, carried Ham the Chimpanzee into weightlessness and space; he returned safely and died of natural causes in 1983. On this day in 1966, the Soviets launched the Luna 9 spacecraft, which was the first man-made device to achieve a soft landing on the moon (though unmanned). And staying with the moon, on this day in 1971 Apollo 14 was launched and became the third manned spacecraft to land on the moon.

Space exploration was something of a backdrop to my childhood. The launch of Sputnik 1 is one of my earliest memories – or rather, it is the first things I can remember that came in the news rather than in my own experience. Indeed it made such an impression on my very young friends and me at the time that one of our number, a particularly agile and fast kid, was from that day nicknamed Sputnik by us.

Today space exploration has lost some of that early glamour and excitement, maybe in part because it has become routine.But still there are occasionally voices that question its usefulness, and we should not listen to them. We enjoy the products of space travel constantly; we watch television programmes beamed from satellites in space, we use diagnostic and healthcare equipment developed in or discovered through space travel, computer chips used in diagnosis were produced through insights gained from the space programme, we rely on satellites for weather forecasting, and so forth. Even if we did not believe that exploration is part of human nature and is always a good thing, we should encourage the space programme for the many spin-offs it provides.

So whether it is conducted by NASA, or the European Space Agency, or the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Chinese or the Indians, we should welcome humanity’s ability to explore and develop, even out of this world.


Time to leave the campus?

January 30, 2010

Many many years ago, when I was a student in Dublin in the College-that-cannot-be-named, I spent a year living in university accommodation. I must confess that this was not a life of luxury. I shared what I suppose you might call an apartment with one other student: we had a living room and a kitchen, and each of us had a bedroom. When I moved in around early October it was all fine and dandy: the rooms were rather quaint and not unpleasant. The kitchen was horrible, mind you; big enough for only one person at a time, and with two gas rings that were not technological state of the art. I remember that you could not always reliably switch the gas off, which made it very interesting. The kitchen had this cooker and a basin dating from the late 19th century (or so it looked), but nothing else – no fridge, for example.

But what I didn’t know in October was that, for three months at least, a refrigerator would be totally unnecessary, because one of the other things this set of rooms didn’t have was heating. There was no central heating system, and moreover you were strictly forbidden to bring in any electric heater. Indeed that prohibition was quite unnecessary, as the electric sockets were old and the wiring tricky, and any attempt to plug in anything that used more electricity than you could get by rubbing your fingers caused all fuses to blow instantly.

The other thing you discovered quickly as the weather turned wintry was that the windows didn’t really fit into the frames, and I remember many a jolly night with a strong wind when you could have flown a flag inside with the windows closed.

And you might also have noticed that I didn’t mention any bathroom. That was because there wasn’t one. And I don’t just mean there wasn’t one in the apartment, there wasn’t one in the building. Actually, I think there was a toilet, shared by about seven apartments. But if you wanted to have a shower, you had to leave the building and go to the next one, where there was a shower unit just inside the front door. When I say ‘door’, I mean that loosely, since there wasn’t actually a door in the frame. So you stood in the shower, on a wooden slatted floor, just inside the open front door with only a shower curtain to protect you.

I suppose it is enjoyable to recall all this, living there engendered a real pioneering spirit, and in a way I pity all those students today living in the lap of luxury with en suite bathrooms and microwaves. What a boring life.

But maybe not so boring, because the University of Victoria in British Columbia in Canada has just had to go to court to try to evict a man, Alkis Gerd’son, who has been in residence on the campus in a student apartment for the past 19 years; which would be extraordinary enough anyway, but in addition Mr Gerd’son isn’t even doing a course at the university. He got in when he was a genuine student, but he just stayed when he finished his programme in 1997. And now that the university has decided it really is time for him to go, he is accusing them in court of discrimination. I guess the heating works well in his apartment.

Want another global league table?

January 29, 2010

As we all know, global university rankings have become a big thing. The game was initiated in 2003 by the Academic Rankings unit of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and because this was the first time there had been any such rankings they attracted some attention. However, before too long commentators became sceptical of the criteria used in these rankings, which in particular are weighted heavily towards institutions whose graduates or staff have Nobel Prizes of Fields Medals. This means that a university, to stand much of a chance of getting a good position in the table, must be large, have a particular focus on science and technology and be quite old (to allow for an accumulation of such prizes and medals). For the record, the highest placed Irish university in this table is Trinity College Dublin, coming in somewhere between 200 and 300 in the 2009 rankings.

Then came the Times Higher Education global rankings, which attracted a lot of attention because the above restrictions of the Shanghai table did not apply and a broader methodology was used. Irish universities did much better, and in the most recent rankings all seven Irish universities were in the top 500, with TCD and UCD in the top 100 and NUI Cork NUI Galway and DCU in the top 300. However, these rankings too have been criticised, in part because  a significant criterion in the table is the (maybe subjective) evaluation of the institutions by peers and stakeholders. Time Higher have announced that a new methodology (not yet disclosed) will be applied from 2010.

Both of these rankings have one thing in common: the universities that dominate them are American and British, though in recent years some Asian universities have improved their positions. This has caused some countries to consider creating their own rankings, though this is unlikely to attract much support elsewhere, as the suspicion will always be that the criteria will be tailored to result in a positive outcome for that country’s universities.

One recent attempt to generate a new league table comes from Russia, and is entitled Global Universities Rankings. And indeed the first thing you see in the table is the emergence of a Russian university, Lomonosov’s Moscow State University, coming in at number 5 in the world, ahead of Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge. The top Irish university in these rankings is TCD at number 230, with UCC at 295. The others make no appearance in the top 500.

Maybe all these league table are just a lot of wind, and we should stop bothering with all this stuff. On the other hand, rankings can influence all sorts of things, including foreign direct investment, so whatever we may want to think, they matter. It is therefore desirable to see a league table with a well thought out methodology that cannot be manipulated by the institutions themselves by any method other than driving forward to create excellence. Personally, I hope that the re-worked Times Higher rankings deliver on that.

Paying for student services

January 29, 2010

Yesterday (Thursday, January 28) all seven Irish university presidents, the CEO of the Irish Universities Association and the CEO of the Higher Education Authority all appeared before the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science. The topic? We were being asked about whether we were spending the student services charge (or student registration charge, now standing at €1,500) appropriately. There was some fairly robust questioning, prompted in part by the suggestion made in a letter from all seven student union presidents that financial information on this had not been consistent and that money was possibly being spent inappropriately on things other than student services.

A fair amount of time was taken by committee members trying to ascertain whether the categories of services for which the charge could be used had been added to by the universities without proper decisions being taken. In reality of course in each university the revenues from the charge are taken together with all other revenues, including fees paid by the state, fees paid by international students, the recurrent grant paid by the state, and all other income; and from that total sum a budget is constructed. Items supported by the charge are not budgeted separately. However, all the universities have ensured that the total revenues from the charge have not exceeded the cost of the services for which it can be used.

At the hearing, the presidents agreed that the student services charge is a ‘fee’. albeit not a ‘tuition fee’. It amounts to a part of the universities’ overall income and helps to pay for core services and activities. It was introduced first in 1996 at the time of the abolition of tuition fees, and probably represented an after-thought by the then government based on the fear that the abolition of fees might create excessive financial pressures for the universities unless there was at least a minor student contribution, which was then described as a contribution to specific student services unrelated to tuition. But once this had been introduced, it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a blurring of the distinction between it and tuition fees in the years ahead. The student services charge always contained within the seeds of the confusion we are now facing.

The position we are in is wholly unsatisfactory and cannot last for long. We have no tuition fees, but we have a student charge that looks like a fee and, in reality, is a fee. As the government reduces its contribution to the universities and raises the student services charge, the inevitability is that it takes on all the characteristics of a full fee, and in this case a fee in which the students are replacing previous government funding rather than adding value to it. It is easy to understand student representatives who assert that this is a subterfuge. All I can say is that we are being quite open in agreeing that this is a fee, while however continuing to emphasise that it is not higher than the cost of services.

But it would be far preferable to have a proper tuition fee, because then we will be honest about what we are doing and how we are funding higher education, and moreover we can then make available supports (such as loans) that will make the fee more affordable. The current framework is not, in my view, a subterfuge (in that nobody is pretending to do one thing while actually doing another), but it is not fully honest either, because it amounts to the reintroduction of fees by stealth. If we want to fund higher education in part by fees or other student contributions (and I for one do), then let’s say that and do it properly.

Improving access to higher education?

January 28, 2010

As has been noted here previously, whatever views one might have on the abolition of tuition fees in Ireland in the 1990s, one benefit that has not particularly flowed from this is improved access to higher education for the under-privileged. While in affluent areas, say in South Dublin, the participation rate is now pretty much 100 per cent, in deprived areas such as Ballymun, Finglas and Coolock (all within quite close reach of DCU) it is still well below 10 per cent. ‘Free fees’ have hardly affected this at all, so the argument in favour of them – that they help the under-privileged – is not borne out by any significant data.

In fact, it may be that the imposition of fees actually helps the disadvantaged. The most recent analysis of participation in higher education in England has shown that, amongst young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, participation has been increasing noticeably, just as fees have been rising. It may of course be that there is no connection between these two developments, but at any rate it tends to show that fees are not a disincentive where there are proper supports.

In Ireland, while we have improved the position of middle income earners, the national effort to improve access for the disadvantaged has only had quite a minor statistical impact. It is vital that we focus on this, because it would be a particular irony if the era of free fees, however long that may still last, were to have entrenched class divides in higher education. Right now that is how it looks.

So here it is: the ‘iPad’

January 28, 2010

A week ago I commented on the technology event that, even without any actual details to hand, was already leaving people breathless with excitement: the expected announcement of an Apple ‘tablet’ device, i.e. a handheld computer with touch-screen capability. Back then the smart money was on it being called the ‘iTablet’ or ‘iSlate’. As I commented at the time, the rumours had to be correct in a general sense, because Apple had allowed the hype to build up to such an extent that they were otherwise in danger of creating such an anti-climax that the whole company could be affected.

And sure enough, on Wednesday (January 27) the new absolutely-must-have tablet was unveiled by Steve Jobs himself: the ‘iPad’. And I have to say that despite the fact that all I’ve seen so far is the company’s own publicity, including this rather neat video, I am absolutely dazzled myself. In many ways it appears to be a larger-than-life iPhone, with the same concept and the same touch-and-feel. Like the iPhone, it will have both WiFi and 3G connectivity, and indeed it will apparently be able to operate all those applications you’ve downloaded on the iPhone. It will of course do music, it will do emails and the internet, it will do games, it will do wordprocessing and spreadsheets, it has a calendar, it stores and displays your photoalbums – you may never have to leave that armchair ever again. But then, as we also anticipated, it will store and display e-books, and to facilitate this Apple is opening its own online bookshop, the iBookstore. This will probably be one of the headline grabbing features, as Apple is thereby taking on the Amazon Kindle directly – and ass against the Kindle, it has colour and a backlit display, so you can read it in the dark.

So how will this go down? Pretty well, I think. The computer magazines are giving it the thumbs-up. And look at the impact on the blogosphere. I’ve just checked: some five hours since the iPad was announced, if I publish this post right now, this second, it will be blog post number 1,062,816 on the iPad across the world. Think of it, the noise from the launch event has hardly subsided and already over a million people have blogged on it. I can only marvel at how late I am.

Apple is good at publicity and marketing, and it is predicting that this device will change our lives. Exaggeration? Maybe, but then again, the iPod and the iPhone changed music and mobile telephony, so maybe they are right here also. But in any case, Apple have been so extraordinarily good as suggesting to us all that they are the designers and operators of the modern world we live in, that some prophecies they now make are wholly self-fulfilling. At any rate, I’ll be able to judge that from the inside as it were. As soon as the iPad ships, one will be shipping to me. Not least because it is remarkably reasonably priced.

Peter Sutherland and the Irish universities

January 27, 2010

Following recent reports on his comments about the Irish university system, Peter Sutherland has now written a letter to the Editor of the Irish Times correcting these reports, or at any rate some interpretations of his comments.

In his letter he denies suggesting that Ireland needed fewer universities, but rather says that we ‘cannot have seven world class comprehensive universities’. He proposes that there should be ‘a small number of comprehensive research universities’, and that the rest should specialise in certain subject areas where they can have critical mass or should see themselves as regional institutions.

There may be something in what he says, although I suspect that most would read such comments as supporting a two or even three-tier system of higher education. In some ways it would not be logical for me to complain, since DCU does not see itself as a ‘comprehensive’ university, though we would certainly not accept that we are in a lower league from any other Irish university, including the universities of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4.

I guess it also is connected somewhat with the concept of ‘world class’, a description which is perhaps used too freely and without much objective meaning, beyond perhaps suggesting a place in a particular range of the global university rankings. But it would be right, I suspect, to look more closely at what Peter Sutherland is saying here, and to ask whether we need to consider what mission each of the Irish universities has or should have.

Balancing teaching and research

January 27, 2010

On my first day as a Lecturer in a particular Dublin university in October 1980, I was called to the office of my Head of Department, Professor Charles McCarthy, and he gave me the following advice which stayed with me throughout my professional life. The only way to have a satisfying and successful academic career, he suggested, was to be both a passionate teacher and a dedicated researcher. ‘Go and teach your students as if the country’s future depended on it – which it does – and then go and publish as much research as possible. And never lose sight of either of those tasks.’ It was excellent advice.

Of course in those days it was also quite unusual advice. Research had not become the essential academic activity it now is, and I would guess that in my Faculty back then barely a quarter of staff would have been doing anything we would count as research, and the proportion of those whose research output would have made an impact in today’s research assessment culture would have been even smaller. Nowadays it is all different, and research has become a core activity in universities, and individual academic performance in this context is key to a number of things, including career progression.

So has all this gone too far? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) think so. In their submission to the steering group undertaking the higher education strategic review, the union suggested the following.

‘The evidence that the teaching role of academics has been undermined is incontrovertible. Academics are increasingly diverted away from the teaching of undergraduates towards the pursuit of research grants and the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that academic teaching benefits from research and we are not arguing for teaching-only academics. However, it is easy to demonstrate how the universities discourage engagement with teaching. This can be seen in the patterns of appointments, the terms of promotion schemes, the rewards and recognition systems. It is made abundantly clear to young staff that teaching is a necessary but somewhat irrelevant activity: not worthy of investment. Older staff, with a commitment to teaching, find themselves increasingly harassed for a failure to join the new world of high level research. Naturally, this view will never appear in an official document from any university. However, we work in the universities and we know.’

I would have to say that while there are issues raised in this extract that merit attention, the argument is over-stated to an extent that weakens its impact. I do not believe that any university officer (including a Department Head) has ever suggested to a young lecturer that teaching is ‘irrelevant’, or ‘not worthy of investment’. Such advice if given would not only be objectionable but also extremely silly, as teaching is crucial to a university’s funding and this is well recognised. I imagine that ‘older’ staff do get reminded (where that is necessary) of the importance of research as part of the portfolio of academic activities, and this will be done not least because all the empirical evidence suggests that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, good researchers are good teachers in higher education. Encouraging those whose careers may have begun before there were as many expectations regarding research is important not least as a way of raising the game when it comes to teaching.

But for all that, it is right to ask whether we always get the balance right. In particular, we need to ask whether we always manage to hold on successfully to what I regard as a critical principle of academic life: that all academics should be teachers and researchers, and that neither activity should be taking place in a ghetto untouched by the other. The academic vocation is about scholarship, which involves the discovery, critical assessment and dissemination of knowledge. Separating these aspects is hugely undesirable.

It will probably always be the case that there will be some – post-docs, for example, or teaching assistants – who will typically at the start of their careers for a while focus on one aspect only. But for those who become lecturers and who enter upon the full-time academic career, there should be no doubt that they should be both teachers and researchers, and they should allow each of these activities to fertilise the other. Universities in turn should organise themselvcs accordingly, so as to ensure that the balance of teaching and research is recognised and protected; NUI Galway, for example, have adopted a learning, teaching and assessment strategy which is interesting in this context. Perhaps the trickiest issue to get right here is how to reward and recognise teaching excellence in a way that encourages academics to plan their teaching as a component of career development and promotion. Some universities have put significant effort into addressing this.

Not every academic needs to pursue teaching and research in exactly equal measure, but every academic should do some of each. I still believe that the advice I was given as I began my career was correct.

So farewell then, Brangelina… (I hope)

January 26, 2010

No, I’m not being mean, or at least not deliberately. I am not hoping that Brad Pitt and Aneglina Jolie will divorce. Indeed, the reality of the situation may not match the rumours, or maybe it does.

But what I cannot deny is that if the couple do separate, it will be such a relief to stop hearing the ‘name’ Brangelina. It is so annoying. If we can get rid of that, then truly the world will be a better place.

Would you like a ‘super-university’?

January 26, 2010

A couple of days ago I wrote on Peter Sutherland’s address at the Royal Irish Academy, in which he was reported to have asked whether Ireland could afford to maintain seven world class universities. It may be worth mentioning briefly his other, related, point (according to the report in the Sunday Independent): that Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. This is how the report quotes him:

‘Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”‘

One must always allow for the possibility that the report was not totally accurate, and in any case it has to be said that Peter Sutherland, one Irish person with real standing internationally, often goes out of his way to make a case for Irish higher education more generally. In any case, what he is reported to have said has been said by others, and has since the 1960s and maybe before been a regular topic of conversation in Irish academic circles. In 1967 a merger between the two colleges was proposed by then then Minister for Education, Donagh O’Malley. It is interesting to reproduce more fully an account (published in an article by Thomas E. Nevin the journal Studies in 1985) of that proposal.

A Commission set up by the government had proposed that the NUI Colleges should become independent universities (this may sound familiar). But before this could be seriously considered the following took place:

‘The Provost of TCD and the President of UCD were called to the Department of Education by Mr O’Malley and told that he was rejecting the Commission recommendation. He told them that the Government proposed to establish a new single University of Dublin with UCD and TCD as Colleges; that there should be one University of Dublin to contain two Colleges each as far as possible complementary to the other, the University to own all the property of the Colleges; and that there should be no unnecessary duplication of staff, buildings or equipment.’

Asa we know it proved impossible to implement this proposal, but from time to time the idea is resurrected, and usually gets a fairly negative response in one or both colleges. Last year’s establishment by them of their ‘Innovation Alliance’ probably represents what for both college heads was the most that they could easily deliver. Whether Peter Sutherland’s comments will drive this agenda any further is, I imagine, doubtful. In the meantime, the suggestion itself must also serve to increase tensions between the two colleges in question and the rest of the Irish university sector.

But why do it anyway? What would a merger achieve that is unattainable by other means, such as a strategic partnership? Indeed, how would a planned merger overcome what is now known internationally to be the complex set of problems that accompany such initiatives and that have made many of them fail, often before they are fully implemented? Peter Sutherland is now mainly based in London, the place where the planned merger of Imperial College and University College London – which was intended to create the ‘world’s number one university’ – ultimately failed. University mergers require a convergence of institutional cultures and an acceptance by the communities of both institutions that they will gain from the initiative; in an academic environment this is very hard to achieve.

It is clear to me that the level of coordinated strategic cooperation between Irish universities – both sector-wide and in sub-groups – meeds to improve dramatically over the short to medium term. But ironically the chance of that succeeding will be impeded by pushing merger proposals and similar initiatives, which will if pursued divert energies from where they are now most urgently needed.

And in addition, as I noted in the previous post, it is far from clear that the size of a university makes a whole lot of difference. In the end it is quality that counts.