Archive for February 2010

We are what we speak; or are we?

February 28, 2010

Amongst the various genetic, cultural and personal characteristics that together make us what we are language must be significant. But how significant?

As many readers of this blog will know, I am German by birth. I was born in Northern Germany and lived in that country until I was seven years old, speaking only German. My father came from Silesia, which was German at the time of his birth but is now Polish. His family home was near Opole (which he knew as Oppeln), which was interesting because the language commonly spoken there was a dialect that mixed Polish and German. I have early memories of him using Polish expressions or creating composite words that were both German and Polish. That, together with his liking for Polish cooking, tempered what was otherwise a very German personality.

In my own case, I arrived in Ireland at the age of seven, and over the next six or so years gradually adopted English as my main language – I was 12 when I became aware that I ‘thought’ in English. And  just as that had been established, a year later my family returned to Germany, where I finished school and stayed for another two years to the age of 20. Then back to Ireland, and since then I have lived in Ireland and Britain. The reason I am explaining this – and apologies for the rather boring personal history – is because what all this did for me was the create a certain cultural ambivalence. I still think in English, but just occasionally something may happen that will let loose some exclamation in German in my head. Or in other circumstances, I may be driven to some typical Westmeath expression.

In my mid-20s a then girlfriend told me that I was relaxed, witty and unflappable when I spoke English, but when I spoke German I was tense, serious and determined; and to cap it, she thought I was charming and rogue-ish when I spoke French (which I did occasionally). So she clearly saw me as reflecting certain national stereotypes as I spoke the respective languages. But was that what she was expecting, and therefore determined to see, or was she right? What does language do to us?

Clearly languages are something more than equal or equivalent communication tools. Their very different constructs, the different size vocabulary, the expressions that draw on unique geographical, climate-based or cultural influences all have the capacity to convey something more than just objective meaning and can invest certain apparent cultural characteristics in the speaker.

But what happens when individuals or groups of people are deprived of vocabulary?  A study I read recently of a group of socio-economcally disadvantaged people in an English region suggested that their active vocabulary was as low as 1,500 words (the English language is generally thought to have around 200,000 words in common use and over 600,000 words with a current meaning). How far would such verbal deprivation affect the people concerned, and what would be the impact on their cultural experience?

As was noted by commentators to a recent threat in this blog, language constantly evolves and adapts. But that is not necessarily a progressive trend; language can retrench and be impoverished as easily as it can expand. So it seems to me that we should be concerned when language becomes less sophisticated, or banal, or coarse; because in the end, at least in some measure we are what we speak.


A Rose by any other name…

February 28, 2010

It is amazing what burdens parents are willing to impose on their children when they select their names. A friend of mine at school in Germany was christened ‘Manny-Manny’ (which always sounded like ‘money, money’), and I always pitied him for the giggles his name produced when first encountered. Sometimes it’s just unimaginative: another friend had the surname ‘Michaelis’, and his parents must have spent all of 12 seconds thinking about it before they named him ‘Michael’.

But spare a thought for people who (genuinely) are called ‘Justin Case’, and ‘Barb Dwyer’, as reported by a website specialising in advising on children’s names. Or ‘Paige Turner’ and ‘Rose Bush’.

Some parents should never be let near the Registry Office.

The €10,000 airline meal

February 27, 2010

I kind of like this story. Apparently a passenger who bought a winning €10,000 scratch card on a flight from Poland to the UK on Irish airline Ryanair wanted to have the sum paid out on the spot – i.e. in the air – and when he was told that this was not possible and that he would have to claim it on the ground proceeded to eat the card in anger. And in doing so he lost his winnings.

I guess that there may be several things at work here, some of them no doubt personal to the passenger concerned. But is this also connected with the particular kind of mood that nowadays comes with airline travel, and maybe travel with Ryanair (now Europe’s largest airline) in particular? There is now, from my own experience at least, an edginess to flying, derived in part from all the security measures you now have to go through, and in part from the way in which passengers must now be highly alert to ensure that they understand the sometimes unpredictable conditions and measures that airlines impose on them and which are associated with fees and payments that come up unexpectedly. Maybe the man had misread or misunderstood the terms and conditions applied to the scratch card – maybe he thought he had to eat it to claim the prize. Indeed if that had been the case it would hardly have surprised me.

These days, on my flights between Ireland and Britain, I can never help feeling that the crew member saying over the PA system, ‘enjoy your short flight with us,’ is being sarcastic.

Goodbye Education and Science?

February 27, 2010

Over recent years I have suggested from time to time that it might be right to look more closely at where ministerial responsibility for higher education might ideally lie. What has tended to prompt this suggestion is that the Department of Education and Science always and predictably focuses on primary and secondary education, and in particular prioritises these sectors when scarce resources have to be distributed. This is not surprising, because schools are part of the experience of all households in the state, whereas higher education, while now more inclusive than before, is still seen as something that is socially and intellectually elitist. Therefore successive Ministers for Education, who in addition to doing their ministerial job also have to worry constantly about the next election, have always favoured schools over universities and colleges when the going got tough.

My argument has been that higher education would get more robust support if it were to be detached from the school system and handed to a Minister of its own. This would not be a totally radical departure. For example, in Northern Ireland the Department of Education (which is in charge of schools) is separate from the Department of Employment and Learning (which has responsibility for higher and further education). In Britain Lord Mandelson, as Business Secretary, is in charge of higher education.

After the last general election the Irish Universities Association encouraged the Taoiseach to allocate higher education to a Department other than Education and Science.

So I have noted with interest that the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for the establishment of a Department of Education and Training to replace the current Department of Education and Science. In some ways this proposal is pointing in the opposite direction, as the union is calling on the government to bring responsibility for training back into the same department as other levels of education. But at least the proposal will help to put the spotlight on the Department  in order to assess how well it provides government oversight in areas where it now exercises it. On the same day former minister Mary O’Rourke TD called on the government to create a new department focusing on jobs and training, which represents another variation on the theme of departmental responsibility.

The occasion for all this talk right now is the expected cabinet reshuffle. So as the Taoiseach contemplates education and considers how best to secure a government that will energise and motivate, he may want to think again about the wisdom of leaving higher education in a Department that has tended to prioritise other things. What universities and colleges have to offer the country at this time is enormous, and will tend to determine the pace of economic recovery based on the extent to which they can be a magnet for knowledge-driven foreign direct investment and domestic start-ups. The complexity of this agenda is almost certainly better handled in a government department that is not constantly fixated on matters to do with schools.

The Taosieach should use this opportunity to send a strong signal about the significance of Ireland’s higher education sector – which is in any case needed urgently in order to reassure investors and entrepreneurs. The time is now.

Basically, we have an ongoing situation going forward

February 26, 2010

I was delighted to see a letter to the editor of the Irish Times in today’s paper by my DCU colleague Patrick Kinsella, commenting on the use of the word ‘ongoing’ in that newspaper’s columns. His main point is that the ‘word’ is ugly and, more significantly, usually unnecessary in the context of the sentence in which it is used.

I fear that unnecessary fillers have become a regrettable part of modern language. I have to listen to a lot of speeches and read many reports, and they are full of ‘actually’, ‘basically’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘if you like’, ‘in the end’ (which it almost never is).

And then we have all those expressions which are just extremely irritating, such as ‘going forward’, or ‘out of the box’. And we have the annoying habit of turning nouns into verbs, such as ‘to impact’, or ‘to deplane’ (which my spell checker accepts, shame on it).

Worst of all, I think there are many people who use all the above words and expressions because they believe that they create elegant prose. Heaven help us!

Changing higher education by stealth

February 26, 2010

Irish higher education has until now been based on a number of assumptions, some of which are quite old and venerable, while others are of more recent origin. The key assumptions are that there should be tuition that allows the student to develop independent thinking and that monitors his or her progress through individual encounters with tutors and through small group teaching; that consequently the student-staff ratio needs to be such that these methods can be effectively employed; that academic staff should have a balanced workload that usually involves both teaching and research, and that the latter should wherever possible inform the teaching; that the assessment of students should evaluate their success in engaging in a n intelligent critique of the subject; and that consequently this should involve continuous assessment as well as examinations.

If this is a fair characterisation of our higher education system, then it might be added that it is viable only if either student numbers are not too large, or with greater mass education resources are available to apply the above approaches to the larger population; and these resources allow for an increase in staffing that is, at least marginally, greater than the proportional rise of student numbers, as teaching gets more complex with greater participation. This is the case both because handling larger numbers and breaking them down into smaller groups is difficult logistically, and because with greater participation the levels of academic ability will be more mixed, requiring considerably more staff input.

In fact the opposite has happened, and with greater student numbers the unit of resource – i.e. the sum paid to universities per student – has fallen quite dramatically. This already serious issue has now been aggravated considerably with the recent more dramatic funding cuts, together with the reductions in staffing forced on the system by government decisions regarding the public service more generally.

The net effect of all of this is that we will have no option but to reconsider and progressively abandon the previous assumptions and methods. We can no longer hope to use small group teaching or individual tutor support. I do not believe that current resourcing models will allow continuous assessment methods to be used in future. And we are increasingly helpless in dealing with mixed ability issues in our classes. The result of this is that higher education is changing, but not through strategic decision-making but by stealth. The new methods, whatever they may be, are already likely to be questionable on pedagogical grounds; but in any case no such methods are being deliberately planned and evaluated. What we are witnessing is a random and chaotic movement leading to a decline in standards. We need to recognise this now, and address it before it is too late. Recovering lost quality is very hard to do. We must not get to that point.

All the decisions which have led us here have been driven by government, but have prompted no real response on a strategic scale. It is time for us to tackle these issues properly.

Universities: the need to present better information

February 25, 2010

I recently attended a meeting attended by people some of whom worked in universities and some who did not. We were discussing the future of the Irish university system, and a number of questions were asked about key performance indicators showing activities and outputs from the sector. Nobody had any of the figures to hand, nor could offer even a rough estimate. Since then I have been trawling the websites of the universities to see if I could assemble the data that way, and I had to conclude that I cannot. Some metrics for the sector as a whole are published and made available by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), but others are not. Some details that are published are fairly successfully hidden away on the institutions’ websites; so for example I wanted to find the most recent audited accounts for one particular university, and by searching persistently for about 30 minutes I did eventually find them – but most would have long given up by then.

One of the charges that have been levelled at universities in recent years is that they don’t release and publish and draw attention to key information in a timely manner, or indeed at all. Taking the same university again, I tried to see whether I could on its website get information on student progression and retention; or the gender an racial/ethnic breakdown of staff generally and according to grade. Well, if this information is available there, it is so well hidden I could not find it.

It is fair to say that, probably, we have all been bad at maintaining openness and transparency in these ways. Getting key information to a wider audience is part of what we need to do in confidence building if we are to have broader public support. We must not see the disclosure of information as a threat, or something to be defensive about, but rather as an opportunity to engage our stakeholders. Doing this also avoids the perhaps even worse suspicion or fear that we do not publish such information because, in fact, we don’t have it ourselves. In which case one might wonder how we are able to devise our strategies.

Time for effective city government

February 24, 2010

If you are an ambitious sort of person you may want to take an interest in the post of Mayor of Dublin, for which there will shortly be an election. It is an important post, with significant influence over planning, development and services, and with an annual budget of approximately €70m. What, really? No, wait – that’s actually Dublin, California, where the term of current Mayor Tim Sbranti ends this coming November. Dublin has a population of around 50,000. If you were to be even more ambitious and take an interest in the job of Mayor of New York, you would be playing with a budget of  $22bn, though admittedly you would be under pressure to get that figure down somewhat in the current times.

So what about our new promised Mayor of Dublin, Ireland? What will he or she be able to do, and how much will they have by way of resources to do it? The latter question is easy to answer: zilch. Although the announcement yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government suggested that the Mayor of Dublin will have a ‘range of substantial powers’, I am struggling somewhat to see what they might be, and how they could be at all meaningful (never mind ‘substantial’) in the absence of any discretionary budget whatsoever. The proposed legislation, published yesterday as the Local Government (Dublin Mayor and Regional Authority) Bill, sets out various responsibilities for the mayor, but these are about general strategy and policy, with little in the way of a direct ability to manage and develop.

All of this is part of the general ambivalence in Ireland about local government. We have local authorities, but they are viewed in many circles with some suspicion, and many of them didn’t do their reputations much good over the past decade or so by being key players in the promotion of the property bubble. The new office of Mayor of Dublin is to give some coordination to a strategy for the city, but this generally good idea is made almost worthless by circumscribing the powers of the mayor and refusing him or her any budget. What we need to do is to decide whether we want a centralised system of government with all power and control emanating from central government offices, or whether we want to devolve power to local areas. International experience on the whole suggests that the latter, if properly monitored, is desirable as a way of regenerating towns and cities and brining decision-making closer to the people affected by it.

It is time for us to decide whether we want this, and if we do, to put real local government in place. Starting in Dublin.

Closing Ireland’s school readiness gap: the ‘Preparing for Life’ programme

February 24, 2010

Guest blog by Dr Orla Doyle
Senior Researcher, UCD Geary Institute

Environmental conditions brought about by poverty are often detrimental to healthy child development. Childhood disadvantage can result in a number of negative outcomes later in life, including low educational attainment, poor mental health, and delinquency. Increasing evidence suggests that targeted, early intervention can reduce such socioeconomic disparities in childrens’ skills and capabilities and subsequently improve their life chances. A new experimental programme operating in a disadvantaged area of North Dublin is set to provide further evidence on whether such early childhood intervention schemes can be effective.

Preparing for Life‘ is a five-year school readiness programme which works with families from pregnancy until the child starts school. The programme provides a range of supports including weekly home visits from a trained family mentor, group parent training, and developmental toys.  The rationale for this intervention is found in the work of Nobel laureate James Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Heckman is one of the chief advisers of the ‘Preparing for Life’ evaluation team, based at the Geary Institute in UCD. His work demonstrates that early intervention lowers the need, and thus the cost, of later remediation programmes. His work is based on the premise that ‘skills beget skills’, and that the earlier a child receives a foundation for learning the easier it is for the child to learn, leading to a self-reinforcing ability and desire to learn more.

A key strength of ‘Preparing for Life’ lies in the experimental methodology applied to evaluate the programme. As parents are randomly assigned to a treatment and control group, receiving different levels of supports, any differences between groups can be attributed to the intervention itself. The programme began in 2008 and will continue until 2013, with the first results launched in early 2011. It is hoped that this major project will not only generate best practices in scientific methodology, but will make a direct difference to the lives of children in disadvantaged areas of Dublin.

Tuition fees on or off the table?

February 24, 2010

As we all know, the Irish government parties – Fianna Fail and the Green Party – reached an agreement last October in their revised programme for government to exclude the possibility of reintroducing tuition fees. But if this was an attempt to kill off the idea, it was an ineffective one. First, there has been all that fuss about whether we have fees anyway in the form of the student service charge. But now we also gather, courtesy of a report in the Sunday Times, that the steering group overseeing the strategic review of higher education is to recommend that a student contribution should form part of the higher education funding model.

Assuming this is accurate, how will it be received? It is hard to see how the government can get out of the corner it has allowed itself to be boxed into in relation to fees. So if Fianna Fail in particular feel that they might want to run with this proposal, presumably they could only do so in a new government; but would they find it easy to go into an election with a commitment to consider fees, which would probably be unpopular with some key voters?

To make the case for tuition fees easier, the universities themselves need to become better communicators about this. It seems to me that the following issues need to be faced in public debate:

• better information on how universities spend their money and use their resources;
• the consequences of the decline in higher education public funding;
• the relationship between tuition fees and the objective of widening participation;
• the financial pressures on various sections of society that would flow from fees;
• the potential for targeted support for groups needing help from fee income;
• a commitment to admit students on ability only, and that nobody would have to forgo a university education on financial grounds.

I may of course have missed other important issues connected with tuition fees – comments on this would be welcome. Starting tomorrow, for the next few days, I intend to address each of these issues separately, in order to present a view of what issues and dangers we face and whether and how these would be addressed by tuition fees.