Archive for April 2010

In memoriam

April 30, 2010

It’s been a rather sad, and even shocking, day. This morning I attended the funeral of former TCD Provost Bill Watts, who died earlier in the week. He became Provost just after I joined Trinity College as a lecturer in the Business School. During the years that followed I must have been something of an irritant to him, as I was the TCD branch secretary for two terms of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), the trade union representing academics in the College. During both of those terms there was strike action, and on the second occasion I was on the picket line and managed to get most of the staff out. How times change! But while we were on opposing sides in those disputes, I respected Bill enormously, and became very fond of him. He was not, as they say, a ‘people person’, but on the other hand he was very interested in people and a very astute leader. He was in charge during some really difficult periods and he had a very sure touch; TCD benefited greatly from his very decisive but also well thought out leadership. The funeral in Trinity today was very well organised and would, I think, have pleased him, and the tributes paid were both generous and genuine.

And then, this afternoon, came the news that RTE Radio 2FM presented Gerry Ryan had been found dead in his apartment. Gerry and I were very good friends as students. We were not modest: recently Gerry described us as the two brightest people of our generation. But he was always able to make me laugh, an effect I know he had on many others. He had a particular type of irreverence which was totally infectious, and he was able to apply it to himself as easily as to others. He was a world class broadcaster with an easy going ability to connect with others.

Bill Watts and Gerry Ryan were very different people, but I shall miss them both. May they rest in peace.



April 30, 2010

There it is again. Once again we are being told that we have too many higher education institutions. This is how the Irish Independent yesterday reported comments by Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA):

‘Ireland has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive, the head of the State’s third-level funding body has warned… Mr Boland said the number of HEIs had to be reduced in the interests of creating institutions that have a reasonable critical mass of students and can compete globally. Mr Boland added the system of funding and regulation must be reformed to encourage and specifically support this consolidation. The HEA chief also called for an end to unnecessary duplication of provision within the system.’

This topic has been covered in this blog before, but it may be worthwhile reiterating one or two key points.

First, it is impossible to say on what basis we would have ‘too many’ universities. As I pointed out previously, measured against the size of our population Ireland has fewer universities than most developed countries. Ireland (the Republic) has 7 universities, serving a population of 4,460,000 (according to 2009 estimates). In other words, we have a university for every 637,000 people. The United Kingdom has 132 universities for a population of 61,113,205: one for every 463,000. Germany has 250 universities for 82,060,000 people: one for every 328,000. France has 269 universities for 65,073,000: one for every 242,000. Switzerland has 45 universities for 7,739,000 people: one for every 172,000 people. And the United States has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.

Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that larger universities are able to compete more effectively in the global environment. In the most recent Times Higher Education global rankings, most of the top 10 universities are relatively small by global standards. Princeton University, coming in at number 8 in the rankings, has 6,708 students, while Caltech at number 10 has only 2.245; both of these would therefore be smaller than any Irish university. The number 1 university, Harvard, is smaller than either UCD or TCD. In fact, not a single one of the global top 10 universities would, if in Ireland, be the largest institution. Conversely, not a single one of the world’s 100 largest universities features in the global rankings at all. In short, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that larger universities perform more strongly than smaller ones; if anything, the evidence goes the other way.

Thirdly, the history of university mergers is not helpful. Many of them have failed. Indeed, the only one of any note that took place over recent years that seems to have worked is the merger between the University of Manchester and UMIST, though even there it would be fair to say that the merger has not produced the improvement in the league tables that had been predicted. Most mergers cost a lot of money and take a long time to settle down, if indeed the merger succeeds at all.

The problem here is that we appear to be developing a national policy based on asserted benefits which are in fact totally unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. We need to ensure that these plans and ideas are subjected to proper scrutiny and not just blindly accepted.

All of this is annoying also because calls for mergers distract from the discussion, which I agree we should have, about the appropriate distribution of provision and the avoidance of duplication. Here too the case is not as simple as might at first appear. But I shall return to that in another post over the next few days.

A matter of 4 billion Euro, give or take a fiver

April 29, 2010

Yesterday’s Irish Times published details from an internal report prepared by the Higher Education Authority (HEA)  suggesting that higher education institutions would need a capital investment of €4 billion in order to accommodate the additional students now expected to be recruited over the coming decade, and in order to bring the existing stock of buildings to an acceptable standard. This sum, it should be emphasised, is not the amount needed to provide sufficient funding for the cost of actually teaching the students, it is just the investment in infrastructure that is needed to make the teaching possible in the first place.

I have not seen the report, and so I cannot judge whether the calculations are correct; but I certainly know that we now have serious building, equipment and infrastructure problems across the whole sector, before ever admitting any additional students. But far from anyone investing in any of this, the signs are that capital budgets are about to be slashed to near-nothingness, just as the pressure comes on to take in more and more students without any new funding to pay for them. This is, as I have already pointed out, a perfect storm producing a likely catastrophe.

In the meantime the Higher Education Strategic Review, which could produce some sort of forum for debating these issues, is not complete and there is as yet no report or any sign of one. Whatever the right national strategy may be for higher education, what we are facing right now isn’t it. Realistically, we either need substantial new funding streams ( inevitably including fees), or else we need to scale down the sector. But rapid unfunded growth with no capital support is not the way to go!

Loose lips sink ships

April 29, 2010

You cannot – or at any rate, I cannot – help feeling sorry for Gordon Brown. Everything he touches now seems to turn to horse manure. The bright idea of his advisers to send him out amongst the people has turned into a nightmare story about the British Prime Minister, thinking he was out of earshot of everyone, being recorded (and then broadcast) complaining about a voter who had just questioned him. And then the whole thing is, in my view, compounded by the totally daft decision for Brown to go and visit the same voter at home to apologise in person.

Gordon Brown is, I think, a complex man doing a job for which he is not a natural fit. But he is not a bad man, and for that matter he is not a bad politician. Silly and all though yesterday’s gaffe is, it shouldn’t matter; except to the extent that it exposes some terrible campaign management and a catastrophically bad sense of political judgement.

I do however wonder about the ethics of the broadcasters publishing these comments in the first place. And I wonder about the self-righteousness of some of the responses. And I am horrified at the train wreck that is this Labour campaign.

The casualisation of the academic profession

April 27, 2010

While searching for something completely different the other day I came across a fascinating internal document issued recently by another university, not in Ireland. The document is a guidance note for Faculty Deans, to be used by them when appointing casual academic staff. So for a start, what kind of appointments are we talking about here? The document notes that it applies where staff ‘are employed to perform work that is ad hoc, intermittent, unpredictable or involves hours that are irregular.’ You might think that this will be a fringe part of the employment portfolio of the institution. Not so, apparently, for it goes on to state that such appointments ‘now make up, at least in volume terms, the bulk of all recruitment activity’. Furthermore, the purpose of the guidance note is to ensure that the university concerned does not enter into legal commitments and responsibilities going beyond a casual and limited relationship, and that the termination of that relationship will not be subject to complexities or long notice periods.

Temporary, part-time and casual appointments are not of themselves new in academic life, and in some settings they are actually desirable. For example, they represent an effective way of bringing practitioners in as teachers on professional courses without having to turn those practitioners into permanent academics; but until now the assumption has been that such appointments are additional to and support the core work of professional academics. Also, casual appointments can provide part-time employment for people doing research degrees, or taking a sabbatical.

But right now in a number of countries the funding crisis affecting higher education is forcing institutions to alter their staffing structures fundamentally, not necessarily by design but nevertheless in an emphatic manner. The financial liability created by a permanent full-time appointment is often now unmanageable in terms of organisational risk assessment. In addition in Ireland, the ’employment control framework’ imposed on higher education by the government is actually at least for now prohibiting universities from making any permanent appointments at all; if you add to that the requirement to cuts jobs and the availability of funded early retirement, the entire structure of the academic profession is being changed, and not even in a long term process. It is almost instant, and within one academic generation universities will be quite different places unless there is a fundamental shift.

It is true that we need to be realistic. The idea of an academic profession consisting more or less entirely of long term employees in secure posts has gone and won’t return. This is not because of any malicious intent by university managements or the state, but because much more of a university’s portfolio of activities is now project-based (particularly in research) with a limited life span. Universities need to have the capacity to be much more flexible than they used to be. But on the other hand, the complete casualisation of the academic profession would have deadly consequences for both the student experience and the capacity of universities to have longer term strategic aims – quite apart from the fact that there will be, and there already is, a flight from the profession on the part of qualified younger people. Universities are not hubs of convenience that people can drift in and out of without much formality; there is no academy in that model.

The task for us now is to set out much more clearly and much more publicly what this process is and what it entails, and then plan and campaign for something more viable and offering more effective academic outputs. What we are now drifting into, without much of a fuss, is neither sustainable nor desirable. We cannot just get on with it.

What kind of smartphone are you?

April 27, 2010

Technology rules not just what we do these days, but who we are. The gadget you take out of your pocket or briefcase when making a phone call, or when taking notes at a meeting, or when checking the score in the latest football game, will tell everyone exactly what kind of person you are.

An interesting perspective on this was considered yesterday in BBC2’s Newsnight programme. Their economics editor Paul Mason looked at the impact of social networking on the British general election; but as part of that he pointed out that social networking was now largely conducted on mobile devices, and for many that meant Apple’s iPhone. Politicians on the other hand were still largely Blackberry users, and this meant that the nature of their mobile device use was fundamentally different from that of the politically engaged general public, who were more likely to be iPhone junkies. Blackberrys, he suggested, were modelled on the idea of distribution of command and instruction, whereas iPhones were based on interactive opinion building and information sharing.

And so what does all this mean? It seems that who we are is now increasingly connected with the technology we use. The gadgets become extensions of ourselves and we become extensions of them; they are part of our intuition rather than just instruments of utility. Companies that ‘get’ that, as Apple undoubtedly does, will dominate in the future. And people who ‘get’ that will be the dominant political forces. And right now in the UK, there is at least a chance that the mood of this election will have been fashioned by Twitter, Facebook and the iPhone. Interesting.

From student selection to student recruitment: the question of numbers

April 27, 2010

In 1991 I moved from my post as Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin to that of Professor of Law in the University of Hull. Although Hull was (and is) a medium size regional university, it had (and has) a vibrant Law School that was punching significantly above the university’s weight in all matters except research (something we corrected very quickly in the early 1990s). It was a popular destination for law students, and in those early years the task of the student admissions officer was to make a selection of the best applicants.

However, as the 1990s progressed the student admissions scene in England changed. For demographic and other reasons, the older (i.e. pre-1992) universities found themselves having to compete in the UK system known as ‘clearing‘ for students who had typically failed to get their first choices and who were looking for something acceptable as a replacement. And all of a sudden the task of the admissions officer changed from selection to active recruitment. It now became a matter of fine-tuning promotional literature and taking care to have it distributed widely, of school visits and of similar actions; and students were no longer always competing for places, often we were competing for the students.

The change that occurred in England in the 1990s, and which arrived in Ireland some time around 2004, is a significant one. Formerly student selection was an expression of the elite nature of university education, and was connected with the fact that there were only enough places for a minority of those intellectually qualified to be students. With higher education expansion it was always inevitable that, at least during some years, universities would be chasing students rather than the other way round. This puts student applicants more in the driving seat, but it also creates problems. Universities end up adjusting the currency of the transaction – in Ireland the CAO points – in order to secure the necessary numbers, only to find in some instances that the students are unable to cope when admitted.

There is, it seems to me, a need to look closely at the number and qualifications of applicants to see what the most appropriate number of student places might be. Wherever places cannot be filled without  what I might describe as excessive marketing, it may be that the student numbers being pursued are too high. I am a strong believer in making higher education available to people from all backgrounds, and our access programmes in particular suggest that there are more disadvantaged people out there who should be supported in seeking a university place. It must also be borne in mind that the CAO points system seriously distorts preferences for particular programmes. But in the end we should be alert to the fact that excessive recruitment is a sign of saturation.

I suspect that the Irish university system now has undergraduate numbers that are as high as they should be, and possibly even slightly higher than is ideal (leaving out the resourcing issues completely). We should, I believe, make still more efforts to recruit from disadvantaged areas, and our access programmes should be supported for further growth. But these students should probably not increase overall numbers, but rather balance the socio-economic distribution. It is time to be smarter about policies for higher education participation.

Mobile communications

April 26, 2010

I think this was a first, at least in my experience. This morning I saw a motorist turn a corner while holding two mobile phones, one to each ear, and apparently operating the steering wheel with his legs. Furthermore, he seemed exceptionally animated in this ‘conference call’, and his eyes were swirling around the place, but paying little if any attention to the road.

It may not be an everyday event to see someone operating two phones at once while driving, but it’s not at all rare to see drivers with at least one phone held to the ear. This has now been illegal for some time, but based on my entirely non-scientific observation it seems to be a growing phenomenon again. Buying and installing and using hands-free equipment in cars is not difficult at all. This is one law which should, I believe, be enforced rigorously.

Student charters

April 26, 2010

A recent development in the United Kingdom has been the establishment of a working group to produce guidance for developing student charters. The initiative comes from David Lammy, Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property, and the group is to be co-chaired by the President of the National Union of Students and a Vice-Chancellor representing Universities UK (Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University). In announcing the group, the Minister explained the intention behind it as follows:

‘The most important element of higher education is its students. As we said in Higher Ambitions, to make the right choice about where to study and to get the best out of their time at university, students need good quality information about what to expect and what’s required of them. Today’s announcement is the next step towards a better deal for students. Since the introduction of variable fees, students have rightly become more focused on the return they get from their own investment in their future. Higher education is a two-way process involving a partnership between the student and their institution and it is fitting that the membership of the group reflects this.’

The idea of a student charter is in part a reflection of the changing nature of what it is to be a student. Where students make a financial contribution (as of course they also do in Ireland through the Student Services Charge) they may expect that what they get for this – and for the wider taxpayer investment – should be set out in a transparent manner. On the whole this case has been accepted.

The problem is perhaps that the charter concept fundamentally alters the student-staff relationship as traditionally understood. Put simply, this was based on the idea that student needs are met on the basis of staff goodwill. This has allowed the majority of students to receive guidance and support way beyond what any reasonable charter could determine. On the other hand, some (though one hopes a small minority) of students have not received the support they should have been entitled to expect, and have not always had clarity about how (or sometimes whether) this could be remedied. A charter – with provisions on complaints procedures – creates a higher level of transparency.

There is a part of me that regrets that it should be necessary to create such a formal legalistic relationship between staff and students. But I also believe that we must not be vague about what students have a right to expect and how they can secure it if there is a problem. The best response, I would think, is for universities to be proactive about developing such charters in consultation with students, to maximise the potential for effective and collaborative staff-student relations.

Urban symbols – Photo #3 of 2010

April 25, 2010

The photo below is of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I took it two weeks ago, on the occasion of a visit to the city to watch Newcastle United play (and win) a match against Blackpool.

The Theatre Royal was opened in 1837. The impressive architecture illustrates the prosperity and confidence that the industrial towns and cities of Northern England felt in the period of the Industrial Revolution. The area was decimated in the era of manufacturing decline later, but there has since been some recovery, and the architecture of Victorian Newcastle is still impressive.

The theatre in the meantime has a lively programme and is enjoying some success.