Taking pot shots

Clearly it’s still the hunting season for universities. After last week’s events at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, we have now had the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, offering his views on academic staff performance: and he’s not impressed at all, he says.

What is the occasion for his criticism? Well actually, I have no idea what brought it on, but what he said was in a speech he gave to the conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN). According to the Irish Times, he said he had recently been briefed by some ‘high profile academics’ (actually, tempt me just a little and I’ll say who I think they may have been, or maybe readers may want to guess) and he was told by them that lecturers were ‘teaching for only four hours a week’. This, he elaborated on RTE’s Morning Ireland, seemed very little.

The Minister also managed to connect his views about academic workloads with his previously announced (and somewhat insultingly entitled) ‘forensic audit’ of higher education institutions. Once again he has suggested that universities don’t spend their money well and that academics are work-shy. All this gets mixed into the cocktail of accusations levelled at the institutions at the Joint Committee.

When DCU made its submission last year to the steering group working on the national higher education strategy, the first and most basic recommendation we made was that policy on higher education (and for that matter on anything else) should only be made on the back of sound evidence. Right now the politicians are making loud noises about universities in an increasingly breathless manner based often on nothing more than rumours or anecdotes or individual letters sent to them (which often sound as if they were written with a green biro). This does not take on the status of ‘evidence’, even when it gets put about by two ‘high profile’ academics, who may well have an agenda of their own.

The Minister may want to come and have a look, in any of the Irish universities. He will find academics who now quite routinely have a working week well in excess of 50 hours, and sometimes substantially so. He may want to be briefed on the extent to which these academics spend all day on teaching related duties, before settling down to some research at night. No doubt we have occasional examples of people whose working habits are less onerous, but they are certainly the exception. No doubt there are things we can change. But for heaven’s sake – and this plea is directed at all politicians – stop undermining our higher education system by repeating various way out comments from people with an axe to grind. The strategic review of higher education will, we hope, set out an analysis based on better information and more mature reflection. Wait for that, and then let us have evidence-based political actions. Surely that isn’t too much to ask.

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30 Comments on “Taking pot shots”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Absolutely agree. O’Keefe’s comments were disgraceful and disgracefully ill-informed.

    Colm McCarthy for one of the senior academics?

  2. Vincent Says:

    David McWilliams has a essay on his website which may have a resonance with what you write here.
    At the moment though and up to the next election, FF will be casting about for the next big thing to blame. If I were you I would thank God that it’s this far out from that poll. But for your own sake you all should come out of the cloister and engage with the rest of the population. After all a huge proportion of the population has been handled by you over this past 15 years. So much so, that you really should have better protection than the Nurses and quite simply it’s your own fault this is not the case.

    • Vincent, it is interesting to observe how the general population has reacted in other countries when universities launched campaigns to gather support: graduates did not necessarily come out in support, as they are by then often focused on the quality of primary/secondary education for their families and, despite their own experiences, think higher education is privileged. That said, I agree we need to do more.

      • Vincent Says:

        Yeah well, there is not much point expecting an overnight conversion when the welcome most of us received might be likened to a Tinker at Rockwell. And it might be a help if the Alumni Mag’ was more of a Newsy, gossipy, joyful affirmation of College life and less of a collection of Undertakers congratulating each other.

  3. belfield Says:

    Maybe there was a typo? Maybe you said ‘policy on higher education (and for that matter on anything else) should only be made on the back of sound bites‘?


  4. Iain Says:

    This needs to be said even more loudly. I deal every day with staff who are overworked but totally committed to trying to improve things for their students whilst also trying to wrestle with the other government mantra ‘innovate or die’ when it comes to research. From the Minister’s comments it is abundantly clear that he has no understanding of the situation on the ground in the universities.

    We are currently being pushed to rise up the international league tables, publish more, engage with wider society, start campus spin-off companies, conform to the Bologna process, bring out new degree programmes, increase flexibility of course offerings, work with industry, teach more students, teach more diverse students, attract international students, apply for European grants, seek philanthropic and commercial funding, supervise more PhD students, embed new technologies, develop more project work, produce shared teaching materials, write reports, submit to increasingly frequent quality reviews of programmes and departments, completely reform internal systems and departmental structures, undertake training programmes on teaching and on management…

    and the tragedy of all this is that we have actually done all this over the last several years, whilst Minister O’Keeffe seems to think we’ve been sitting back in our leather armchairs sipping sherry.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Most people, including most graduates I suspect, have no clue as to what academics do. So I’m sure I’m not alone in getting the “Off now for the summer?” remark in June from friends & acquaintances. That the minister falls into this category is particularly worrying.As I understand it he was a lecturer in Cork IT?

  5. […] academics are worried about this. I’m not. I think this is a great thing. I think it’s wonderful. Because […]

  6. Aidan Says:

    This government continues to undermind and attack the whole third/fourth level education sector whilst bleating their usual soundbites to the media on the need to move towards a “knowledge based” economy.

    The Trinity Research Staff Association has recently set-up a website http://www.stupideconomy.ie/ to gather together all academic researchers in a combined effort of protest against being hit by the pension levy (for a pension they are not entitled to) and for a wage cut when they are not public servants.

    They are basically attacking the very sector they hope will move Ireland towards the promised land as a viable base for R&D for foreign multinationals.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Yeah but many, probably most, of us who work in universities are entitled to a pension and are public servants. And I therefore have to take my pay cut like everyone else since- in case you haven’t heard- the government is broke [& possibly getting broker] and desperately needs to reduce spending.
      Clearly researchers have a contribution to make to our future but so have teachers, civil servants, health care workers, the Gardai etc. We can’t all be exceptions and there is simply no way of avoiding these pay cuts. Inevitably it is a crude instrument & there are anomalies (like letting senior civil servants off the hook) but across the board cuts are often easier to get accepted rather than saying “well its -5% for you and -7% for you” etc.

      • Mark Dennehy Says:

        Sure. Just as soon as I see the bank guarantee abandoned, politicians adhering to basic standards of accountability, NAMA consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas, and the country not take on a debt level that our grandchildren will still be servicing, then I’ll agree it’s my problem too and I’ll pay my share.

        Until then, I’ll take my skills and go pay taxes in another state. And that’s the reality you need to face up to. Academics have portable skills, far more so than most workers, and are used to working abroad because that’s part of the normal course of an academic career. Sure, it’s nice to work near family and friends, but when the choice is your children growing up with a comfortable level of financial security, and growing up in a repeat of the worst nadir of the 1980s recession, well, which would you choose?

      • Mark Dennehy Says:

        And senior civil servants being “let off the hook” is not an anomaly in this country, it’s an event with a lot of precedence.

      • Jilly Says:

        Or, the government could have done the genuinely fair thing, and increased taxes for everyone earning over a certain amount. I presume that had they done this, my net pay would have decreased by about the same amount as it has done under the public sector pay cut, perhaps even more. But I wouldn’t have complained because a) it would have been fair, as it would have affected everyone who earns the same amount, and b) it might well have been able to spare the lower-paid workers in both the public and private sectors.

        There is after all plenty of evidence that a large proportion (perhaps the majority) of private sector workers have not had their pay cut. So we in the public sector have been specifically targetted – after a vicious public demonization which is ongoing – despite not having been the cause of the financial crisis, nor having a lesser workload as a result of the downturn. Indeed, for many of us the workloads have gone up even as our pay has gone down.

        I entirely agree with Mark about this. These days, the good times are when I’m feeling angry. On the bad days I feel demoralized and disheartened. I really don’t want to leave this country, but I am beginning to seriously consider it.

  7. Stephen Says:

    Minister O’Keefe is like a local shopkeeper trying to run Google, simply out of his depth – he comes across as a really misinformed imbecile

  8. Mark Dennehy Says:

    Of course, this could be a wonderful piece of good news in disguise. You can see the headlines now: Minister for Education to raise Lecturer salaries by over 500%

  9. maestro Says:

    Apologies for taking this tack, however enough is enough.
    Speak to the Minister’s former colleagues in CIT, ask them what they think of him – !.

    The Minister hails from a time when lecturers in the IoTs were pretty much untouchable, unaccountable, and effectively their own bosses.

    Yet in benchmarking it was the lecturers in IoTs who gained most – University lecturers increase in the second round didn’t even keep pace with inflation.


  10. Ernie Ball Says:

    To my mind, the demonisation of lecturers got its first push from none other than Hugh Brady, President of UCD. Not long after taking office in 2004 or so, he referred to UCD in the media as a “sleeping giant.” Not an “underfunded giant” but a sleeping one.

    The implication, which has been borne out in most of what he has tried to do since, was that the only thing holding the institution back was its cohort of lazy layabout lecturers who needed to feel the sting of the lash.

    Is it at all surprising that this sort of thinking has been taken up first as part of the general demonisation of the public service and now in a precise echo of Brady’s positions?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Brady were one of the “high profile academics.”

    • kevin denny Says:

      I didn’t draw that inference from that remark & I have taught in UCD since 1992. My guess is that the remark was aimed at the people who had run the university and, if so, I think it was a fair comment.
      In fact, I have never got the sense there was any suggestion of laziness on the part of ordinary decent academics, of whom I consider myself one. For example, the big changes that have been introduced like the re-structuring of departments and faculties and the introduction of semesterization (whatever their merits) simply don’t speak to this issue.
      Meanwhile, there seems to be a queue building up of the alleged two senior academics but we really don’t know. Colm McCarthy doesn’t hold a senior position in UCD incidentally.

      • Jilly Says:

        Indeed he doesn’t (interesting that the government chose an economist who doesn’t hold a senior position, I always thought). But then I don’t particularly rate O’Keefe’s understanding of the details of academic job titles or distinctions. In this instance, I take ‘senior’ to mean ‘someone I know’.

  11. Batt O’Keeffe didn’t say ‘senior’, he said ‘high profile’. I think that means academics who appear regularly in the media (and it wasn’t me!). So who would that be?

    • Jilly Says:

      Well, there’s always Martin ‘my dad taught at Cambridge’ Mansergh, but surely even O’Keefe knows that he’s not really an academic. So I’m sticking to my guess of McCarthy.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Two guesses: Moore McDowell and Colm McCarthy.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Demonizing people & personalizing these issues doesn’t get anywhere especially in the absence of evidence. While I don’t speak for anyone else, I am certain that my now-retired-colleague Moore McDowell is well aware of the workloads of academics and their commitment to research and teaching. I would be very surprised indeed if he said anything prejudicial to the universities.
        Actually I have a pretty good idea who one of the individuals is and its someone no one has mentioned here.

  12. belfield Says:

    Odd that, not knowing the details of academic job titles or distinctions considering he was a general studies lecturer in CIT at one stage.

  13. maestro Says:

    no, no, the irony is he was a lecturer in ‘Communication Studies’ 😉

  14. cormac Says:

    This is not the first time our dear minister has shown a remarkable hostility to the universities, combined with a breath-taking ignorance of what university academics do.
    I can’t help wondering just how much research he himself did as an IoT lecturer in communications – perhaps this is the source of the problem. Certainly, it is quite a serious problem if we have a minister for education who has a jaundiced view of the entire university sector.
    I myself , an IoT lecturer, gave a talk to UCC physics this very afternoon- as usual, I found my university colleagues unfailingly polite, interested and extremely well informed. They are also every bit as busy as I am, more so if that’s possible

  15. In this post I focused on Batt O’Keeffe’s willingness to make public judgements about academics and their diligence in doing their jobs; but perhaps I should have focused more on the fact that he was, as he indicates, briefed by two academics. And that is only too plausible, as we have seen other examples of this. Perhaps we should also focus on what makes members of the academic community do this? I think I may just address this in another post…

    • kevin denny Says:

      If you search hard enough you can probably find 2 academics who will say anything. Thats the problem isn’t it about fireside chats instead of evidence?

  16. […] Ferdinand von Prondynski’s blog: Yesterday I looked at the recent comments by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, about academic teaching […]

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