Archive for June 2010

Switching off the internet?

June 23, 2010

Here’s an idea from left field. US Senator Joe Lieberman, one time Vice-Presidential candidate for the Democrats (on the Al Gore ticket) and now an independent senator, is apparently introducing legislation that would allow the US President, in the event of an ‘imminent cyber threat’, to ‘take over our civilian networks’. This has been interpreted by commentators as a proposal to allow the US President to ‘switch off’ the internet.

The Senator seems to be slightly unsure (based on interviews he has given) whether he does mean this or whether he means something else, but it throws into relief again the question as to whether, how and for what purpose the internet should be regulated or constrained. There is a strong global culture now that sees the internet as ‘no man’s land’ and that does not accept that there should be any legal or governmental restrictions on it. Sooner or later there will need to be a formal international consensus on this, not least because governments in many parts of the world see the internet as a threat and may be tempted to censor or restrict it (as some do).

It’s not as if all reasonable people would always insist on a totally unfettered internet. I would know few, for example, who would argue that online child pornography should just be tolerated. So if there are to be restrictions at all, we need to be clear about what should drive these, and how far they should be tolerated, and how the overall free and democratic nature of the net can be preserved. It is time for these matters to be addressed explicitly.

The private option?

June 23, 2010

Recently I got a letter accusing me of arguing for the ‘privatisation’ of Irish higher education. Well, I have also received letters suggesting that ‘you have hidden your shady Hungarian past’ (seriously, I got that in a letter – I was rather sorry it was untrue, it made me sound much more interesting), and that I had falsified my real age (my correspondent suggested I was really 76). So I don’t take such correspondence excessively seriously.

However, if his green pen is still working, my anonymous correspondent concerned about privatisation might want to direct his fire at Paul Marshall, Executive Director of the 1994 Group of universities in England. According to this report on the BBC, Mr Marshall has suggested that a growth in the private university sector could bring ‘access to a form of higher education for all, literally at the end of every street.’ I generally advise anyone who is tempted to use the world ‘literally’ to take a deep breath and then stay silent for a moment – and I’m sure Mr Marshall will on balance agree that not every street (literally) in the UK will have a university on it, no matter what happens.

But I digress;  he is raising an interesting issue. In a nutshell, he appears to be arguing that the British university sector will in the current budgetary climate lack the capacity to admit all those who want to go to university, and that private universities (yet to be formed) might provide the answer. And he suggests that private providers will increase competition and thus quality, and would be a good thing.

I have not seen the text of Mr Marshall’s speech, and so I cannot be absolutely sure what he was suggesting. But if the report is a fair summary, the analysis needs to be rather more nuanced. A reference to a ‘private’ university could mean different things. It could – and more usually would, particularly in the United States – be a reference to not-for-profit universities that are however outside of direct government or state control, getting a substantial amount of their income from full-cost tuition fees; or it could be a reference to ‘for-profit’ institutions such as the University of Phoenix, which is really less a university as we would understand it and more a corporate elearning organisation. But these two categories are fundamentally different.

Ireland does have ‘for-profit’ higher education providers, but on the whole these are on the margins of the system, offering a limited range of programmes which in turn are externally accredited. We also have the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), which offers degree programmes not supported by public money-funded block grants. But it does not operate as a for-profit organisation.

It is on the whole my view that for-profit institutions should be allowed to operate, though they may need some monitoring to ensure quality. But these institutions are not some sort of answer  to current problems. This is so, in my view, partly because higher education should be informed by a public service frame of reference. On the other hand, we may at some point also need to look at a revised model of the relationship between higher education and the state, and this could include at least some universities opting for private not-for-profit status. Right now we need to become more imaginative in responding to current circumstances.

In search of a higher education strategy

June 22, 2010

The Irish Times newspaper reports today that the steering group working on the Irish higher education strategic review is set to recommend ‘the return of student tuition charges as colleges face unprecedented financial pressures’. According to the newspaper, the group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will also recommend the following:

‘Closer collaboration between all third-level colleges with the development of clusters specialising in a smaller number of disciplines: an expanded role for the HEA in managing the sector and linking spending to national objectives and a new workload management process where the working hours of academic staff in both the universities and the institutes of technology (ITs) will be more closely monitored.’

In fact Colin Hunt spoke at the conference held in DCU last week, and in his address (in which he emphasised that he was not presenting an early précis of the report but was speaking on his own behalf) he raised a number of issues, including the lack of transparency in the universities’ workload allocations, the difficulty the Irish higher education system may face in absorbing a major increase in student numbers (from 160,000 today to an estimated 275,000 in 2030), the need to have Irish institutions with critical mass, and the desirability of diversity in the sources of funding.

My concern at the moment is that the issues that may form the subject of the recommendations of the report when it is published don’t necessarily address the major objective of having a higher education strategy for Ireland. The national strategy debate has tended to focus on operational matters rather than on a vision. So that as a country we don’t get bogged down in a debate on what are important but still secondary issues – such as workload allocations, and even funding – we need to formulate a concept of higher education that explains what we are trying to achieve as a country. A higher education strategy is not about filling various campuses with students and researchers or equipment; it is not about hours of work; and it is not even about resourcing. It is about what higher education can do to offer high value learning to students of all ages; how research should be conducted, and on what themes or subjects, and to what end. It is about what higher education institutions can or should do to support and assist our society and community to achieve its full potential and to secure prosperity, inclusiveness and a sense of collective self-respect. We cannot develop a framework for how colleges should be run unless we are already clear what higher purpose these colleges need to pursue.

Of course as a university President I care about funding, resources, staffing buildings, equipment, governance, inter-institutional relations and so forth. But they all take second place to the overall vision, which they must be equipped to implement. The strength of that vision will give life to the implementation of the overall recommendations of the report. It is my hope that the working group will ensure that the vision will be at the heart of the strategy.

Photo #6: finding your way in rural Ireland

June 22, 2010

The photo below was taken about 20 miles out of Dublin at a rural crossroads. I had to get out of the car to make sense of which way I should be going. I couldn’t.

Going somewhere?

Noticing notices

June 21, 2010

I confess I get some particular pleasure occasionally seeing strange or incoherent notices in public places, and I am in the process of putting together a collection of photographs with some of these. But in the meantime I just came across this website with a few examples, some of which are really rather good.

The one that declares ‘Thank you for noticing this new notice’ reminds me of one I saw many years ago in a London park, which had only this written on it: ‘It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice.’ It seemed to me there was a philosopher at work in the parks department.

Croke Park, what now?

June 21, 2010

For any non-Irish readers of this blog, I might just place this briefly in context. In March of this year the trade unions and the public sector employers reached an agreement on pay and conditions in the public service (after negotiations in the Croke Park stadium, hence the title). This agreement was subject to ratification by the trade unions, and the unions involved proceeded to organise ballots under their own rules and procedures. Fast forward to last week: the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ratified the agreement, by a substantial majority.

So all sweetness and light and industrial peace, then? Well maybe, or maybe it will be more complicated. Because while the unions have endorsed the deal, some individual ones have not. One of these is the Irish Federation of University Teachers, which voted against the agreement by a decisive margin. And then there was the Teachers Union of Ireland, which organises staff in the institutes of technology amongst others, and which also voted against. And the Education Branch of the union SIPTU (which organises academics in three universities and other staff in more of them) had recommended rejection, and would have achieved a vote accordingly but for DCU staff, who voted by a comfortable margin in favour and this just balanced the votes against in the other institutions.

But more than that, IFUT and the TUI have suggested that they don’t feel bound by the ratification by the ICTU overall, and will feel mandated to take action against the agreement if necessary (I guess in violation of normal trade union rules about respecting majority verdicts). So what should happen? I have myself suggested that the agreement, or more particularly its specific terms on higher education, is misguided and may produce some problems for the sector. On the other hand, the capacity of the universities to engage the politicians and convince them and other stakeholders that a different path to reform is better may be compromised if they have undermined the overall framework of industrial stability while we seek economic recovery. For that reason militant action against the agreement would be a very dangerous strategy to follow. While the public mood is still one of anger at the antics of those who helped push Ireland into deep recession, it does not follow that it favours those who create obstacles for recovery as they might see it. The public serice-wide action organised previously largely encountered public hostility. Reasoned debate will be better, and is actually more likely to get results.

Academic poetry

June 20, 2010

One of the most intriguing appointments in the academic world is that of the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University – a post held in the past by celebrated poets such as WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. The appointment is by election, and the voters are the members of ‘Convocation’, which includes all graduates and all staff of the university. Holders of the post have often been involved in controversy. The last appointment was made in 2009, but the winner of the election, Ruth Padel, resigned shortly afterwards amidst claims about a smear campaign against her rival, Derek Walcott.

This year’s winner was announced yesterday, and it is Geoffrey Hill. Hill is recognised as one of the most respected poets (writing in English) in the world. His poetic style is quite accessible – he has not abandoned metre and rhyme as many modern poets have – but the poems themselves are full of complex academic and intellectual matters.

This is how Geoffrey Hill has summarised the nature of poetry:

‘The poem is a struggle between truth and metre. . . . It is a meeting between message, rhythm and syntax, particularly the syntax of enjambment, and it is very rare that this combat leads to a triumph for the poet.’

Poets, if they understand the popular mood and are capable of responding to it, can play a major role in presenting the narrative of society at any given time. Geoffrey Hill is a fine poet, and I hope he will inspire a new generation to appreciate the importance of this art form. It is possibly a role we should also wish to see established in one of the Irish universities.

The iPad experience

June 19, 2010

Yesterday I had some business in Belfast, and on the spur of the moment I visited the Apple store there to see whether they might have an iPad (and expecting they wouldn’t, given the run on the device). Amazingly they did, and here I am the proud owner of a WiFi/3G iPad, and this post is written on it.

It’s early days yet, but I am inclined to say that the hype is not wrong. The design, of course, is excellent, but it is also very intuitive to use, and extremely flexible. I would also have to say that, as an ebook reader, it is more user-friendly than the Kindle, and what you are reading has more of the ‘look and feel’ of a book.

One very positive experience has been the on-screen keyboard, which for me at least is usable in much the same way and at much the same speed as a ‘normal’ one. I suspect it may not be so good for those who do touch-typing. However, I also bought (and am here using) an add-on keyboard and charger, which works like any other Macintosh keyboard.

The downside? It’s slightly heavier than I had expected, though hardly so heavy as to be inconvenient. And as far as I can tell so far, the battery life is only so-so – it is running down much faster than the Kindle, though admittedly it has much more processing to do.

My verdict? This is not a ‘tablet computer’, and Apple were right to avoid a name that would have suggested that it is. It is something much better. Having used it now for a day, I am inclined to agree that these devices, and ones like them, are likely to be the computers of tomorrow. If I were you, I’d invest in one.

Southern matters

June 19, 2010

Today, June 19, is the 140th anniversary of the readmission of the American Southern states – i.e. those that had made up the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy – to the United States (the Union), some five years after they had been defeated finally at the end of the American Civil War. Of course the chief result historically of these events was the end of slavery in America and the defeat of those who had advocated or defended it. But the war also left the defeated states in a war-ravaged condition, and mostly they did not regain any degree of economic prosperity for some 100 years. But then again, real black or African-American emancipation took more or less as long to be established also.

I have  long taken the view that familiarity with the American Civil War and with its political, economic, social, cultural and military aspects is of particular benefit historically. It was war in which important principles and values were fought over, in which economic lessons had to be learned, in which great military strategies were first tried out (including the scorched earth strategies that were used by various combatants to such horrific effect in the 20th century), and in which the embryonic signs of future American global influence could be discerned. It was a war of great oratory, and of some larger-than-life characters, including of course President Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the best known figure from the South was General Robert E. Lee, and he pursued a successful and distinguished post-war career as a university President.

The issues and values that were fought over then are still important today, and still require discussion and global action. The American Civil War is very much worthy of continuing attention.