Archive for February 2010

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.

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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.

Students preparing for work

February 23, 2010

One of the distinctive elements of the programmes offered by my university, DCU, is that they involve a work placement as part of the syllabus. These placements run under the name INTRA (INTegrated TRAining), and their existence has often conferred a benefit on DCU graduates when they are looking for employment: employers often take the view that work placements prepare students much better for their working lives and make them more confident when commencing work. For a while in the past representatives of other universities occasionally expressed doubts as to the academic and pedagogical credentials of such placements, but those noises appear to have died; in any case, other universities are now, in certain courses, also offering work placements.

The question we might ask is whether work placements offer a rather functional business perspective, and whether students who have gone through them may be encouraged to see higher education purely as a device to secure attractive and well-paid employment. We have no information on the latter issue. On the other hand we may see this as a device to ensure that students gain practical skills which will amongst other things allow them to apply their knowledge to resolve problems.

Student opinions are interesting also. Last year, in 2009, the EU commissioned a survey of students across all EU member states, under the auspices of the Directorate-General Education and Culture and coordinated by Directorate-General Communication. This revealed significant differences between the students, with students in some member states supporting the concept of work placements, while those from some other states were strongly opposed.

Work placement programmes are very hard to establish and very hard indeed to maintain. But if we are right about this in DCU, they provide important opportunities for students to dip into the world of work while still undertaking studies. They also can confer self-confidence and leadership abilities.

It seems to me that whatever views any of us might adopt on higher education principles and values, there is room for work placements as valuable tools for student development. Probably all higher education institutions should consider making them available.

Obama has another go at health

February 23, 2010

Public health and the availability of healthcare in an affordable and efficient way are top priorities for people in most countries. Governments respond to that by ensuring that they, too, are seen to prioritise healthcare. And yet it is a political graveyard, whatever country you may want to consider. The only politician that I can remember in my lifetime, in any country of which I have knowledge, making some political capital out of the health brief was Charles Haughey, when he was Minister for Health in Ireland in the late 1970s. He somehow managed to side-step the hot issues and dodge the usual bullets, and was admired and lauded; and for what? He offered every member of the population a toothbrush. Smart move.

Every other politician who has tried health has regretted it. Brian Cowen and Mary Harney in Ireland; Frank Dobson and many others in the UK; Hillary Clinton and, now, Barack Obama in the US. The problem is that everyone wants to be protected and cared for, but without big bills when disease or ill health strikes. And nobody knows how to square that circle. The only way to do it securely is through insurance that has been properly assessed on an actuarial basis, but unless there is some ‘risk equalisation’ (meaning that the cost of insurance is not related to the likelihood of illness) it becomes prohibitive; and if there is risk equalisation it becomes unprofitable for insurers. There is no way of winning in this game.

And yet, as civilised countries, we must find a way of addressing this, as we cannot go back to making people live insecurely in fear of the consequences for them and their families of serious illness. So we must continue to try, and more politicians will have to be offered up on this altar.

Let us hope that Barack Obama – whom the world needs to be successful for all sorts of reasons – is not one of these. After a lot of political jousting over the past year on the back of proposals made by his Democratic Party, he has now come forward with his own proposals for health reform. In the United States this is vital not least because of the large numbers who are currently outside any system of healthcare. If I read his plan correctly, he is hoping to achieve progress through compulsory insurance for all in a setting of a regulated industry with capped premiums (so presumably some risk equalisation). Whether this can work remains to be seen. But much more important right now than whether the figures might add up is whether it can work politically. There would be damaging consequences if this plan fails. So I am not thinking too much about whether this is a viable way of managing healthcare, I am just hoping it is accepted and is implemented, so that Americans can get proper cover and so that Obama’s political capital rises again. These are tricky times, and what happens to US healthcare may affect us all in unexpected ways.

Considering the student experience

February 22, 2010

In the course of this year we are likely, as a country, to adopt many of the decisions and policies that will determine the future of higher education. We will see the publication of the strategic review of higher education (which is chaired by Colin Hunt), and of the Innovation Taskforce. By one route or another we will get further clarity on the future funding and resourcing of higher education. We will see how various new strategic alliances will work in practice. We will see the outcome of Cycle 5 of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. Between all these various processes and decisions, a model of higher education may emerge, either deliberately, or more likely by stealth – because for example we cannot be sure that the funding model will be part of a joined up framework with the strategic review.

But it is possible that what all this may give us, either in a satisfactory manner or not, will be a new structural model for the sector. This may include details of how the institutions will relate to each other, how they are managed and governed, how they will run their budgets and where these will come from, and so forth. I am much less confident that, one year from now, we will have talked much about how all this affects the students and how any reforms will impact on the quality of their educational experience.

Students themselves are arguably playing along with this, by focusing on fees rather than on education. When the government announced in its revised programme that it would not reintroduce tuition fees this was celebrated as a great victory, when almost immediately it was followed by funding decisions that have the capacity to devastate higher education; and the latter development hardly drew a comment from student bodies, never mind a protest.

This may also be  a result of the fact that, on the whole, students are not being invited to play any part in the grand re-design of the third level sector. We do not canvass their views, in any grand sense, about higher education strategy, and we don’t involve them in the overall design. By this we may seem to be suggesting that the classroom, or library, or elearning experience of the student is not part of the same discussion as that which is addressing funding or governance. But in fact they are inextricably linked, and as we address the big sectoral issues we are also taking decisions that have an immediate impact on the student experience.

It is my view that the model of higher education we have on the whole been applying for 100 years or so is about to become non-viable. We will not be able to teach students in small groups, or assess them continuously, or provide them with well stocked libraries, or offer them student support services as before – but this is not something we are discussing with them, or even with ourselves. We are apparently willing to allow a major change in pedagogy without any debate. That cannot be right, and we need to re-prioritise the process.

Casting off the Euro?

February 22, 2010

On 1 January 1999 the Euro replaced the European Currency Unit (a kind of virtual currency that you could trade for certain purposes but which was never legal tender anywhere), and on the same date the Euro became the official currency of a number of EU member states, which collectively make up the ‘Euro zone’.  Today the Euro is the currency of 16 EU member states and five non-EU countries. It is the second largest reserve currency in the world, and the Euro zone is the second largest economy (if you feel you can call it that).

Of course as we all know, Ireland was in the Euro from the start. I wasn’t in the country in January 1999, but when I arrived back in 2000 I was struck at the low level of ‘Euro-consciousness’. Back then the currency in the shops was still the Pound, and when occasionally I asked people whether they knew how much an item they were just buying in that currency would cost in Euro I was always amazed to discover that pretty well nobody had any idea or cared much. When the Euro eventually appeared as notes, coins and the balance on your current account in January 2002, it did so without very much fanfare; people just got on with it and the currency became the money in our pocket. You couldn’t help contrasting that with the convulsions caused by the Euro in the United Kingdom, where it isn’t even the currency.

But the relaxed way in which we adopted the Euro also signifies, I suspect, our lack of any close relationship with it here. In fact, we don’t seem to feel strongly about our currency. When the Irish Pound separated from the Pound Sterling in 1979 there was equally no big noise, and then when we lost it there wasn’t as much as a collective shrug or sigh of relief. It just happened. As a nation, we don’t seem to identify culturally with our currency. But one side-effect of this is that we don’t really debate or think about what it means. I recently asked a well educated friend what the issues were, in his opinion, in being part of the Euro zone, rather than having a separate currency. He thought for a moment, and suggested it was not having to change money when travelling to France.

But in reality that really is the very least of it. The significance lies, on the one hand, in having a currency which is less vulnerable to speculators aiming specifically at our economy, and on the other hand, not having independent monetary tools we can use at particular points in an economic cycle. So for example for much of the over-heated Celtic Tiger years our interest rates were too low because that suited Germany better (but probably worked against us). But then again, as Euro members we haven’t been buffeted around in quite the same way as Iceland has been over the past year or two.

But now some commentators, including David McWilliams, are suggesting that Euro membership is preventing us from staging a quicker recovery, because it doesn’t allow us to devalue our currency in order to become competitive. He has been beating this drum for a few weeks now. But when I ask people to comment, their eyes glaze over and they talk about football. We still cannot work up an interest, and if McWilliams is intending to start a national movement I doubt he’ll manage it. As it happens, I don’t think he is right anyway, but I do believe that we should have a better sense of what this currency union means for us and what we should be doing with it, or without it as the case may be. There are few things that are more important, and we should be much more active in our grasp of the issue. I have seen no significant expert response to the kind of talk McWilliams is promoting, and maybe it’s time there was.