Archive for August 2010

The Newcastle story

August 25, 2010

OK, I haven’t written about Newcastle United FC for a while, and you won’t expect me to be completely silent on events… For those who don’t know what this is about, a little bit of background on the life and times of this football (soccer) club. Two years ago the sky fell on Newcastle, as the owner fell out with the much loved manager, Kevin Keegan. Keegan left, and a completely chaotic season followed, at the end of which the club was relegated from the Premier League to the (then) Coca Cola Championship. In the meantime the owner, Mike Ashley, was trying to offload the club but couldn’t find a buyer, the fans hated him, the biggest players left. Fatalistic fans were already talking about further relegation to League One.

And then it all changed. Newcastle’s players bonded in adversity with each other and with the caretaker manager, former Ireland international player Chris Hughton, a steely determination set in, and the club started winning games. Actually, winning them again and again. Until at the end of the season Newcastle easily came out on top of the Championship and were promoted back to the Premier League. Then, ten days ago or so, in the opening game of the new season, the club faltered against Manchester United at Trafford Park, and some were already predicting they would be relegated again. But just for now, no-one is saying that, because on Sunday last Newcastle annihilated Aston Villa, beating last season’s number 6 club by 6-0. Maybe things are looking brighter at last.

For me, the Newcastle story is a romantic one, of enthusiasm and determination in adversity, and the desire to do something and be something in and for a city that lives and breathes football. Of course there are still all the questions about where international soccer is going: the inflated salaries and transfer payments, the mountain-sized egos that the modern game has produced, the role of super-rich owners who don’t know how to respect the game, and so forth. But there is also the sheer excitement at seeing these dramatic struggles, and the joy of watching the game when it is at its best.

Go, Newcastle!

Accessing higher education

August 25, 2010

Last week the Irish Times published an article by a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin, Ross Higgins, which made a case for action to address the under-representation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds at Irish universities. He argued that existing access programmes (actually, he only specifically mentioned the TCD one – by no means Ireland’s largest – but that’s Trinity for you) had under-performed:

‘Trinity College Dublin deserves praise for its access programme to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education. But, sadly, this programme and others like it have failed lamentably in their core objective of opening up college entry.’

The solution proposed is an adaptation of the so-called ’10 per cent rule’ applied since 1997 in Texas, under which the top 10 per cent of each final year class in high schools (i.e. secondary schools in our system) are guaranteed access to university.

First, the comment on access programmes is highly questionable. They may not have reached their full potential, but they have hardly ‘failed lamentably’. The largest such programme – that run by DCU – accounts for 10 per cent of the annual intake and has been hugely successful in changing attitudes in some of the schools and communities that have benefited from it. There has been research into the UCD access programme conducted by the Geary Institute which has also shown the impact of that university’s programme. The throw-away comment on such programmes suggests that some further research on the available evidence might be useful.

As for the Texas ‘10% rule’, I must confess I am not convinced it would work. In Texas itself, where the law was passed in order to advance racial equality of opportunity in higher education, the impact was not clear – indeed there was initially almost no evidence of increased participation by the key disadvantaged racial groups, whiole at the same time university presidents complained that it had in some cases removed almost all discretion as to whom to admit.

In Ireland it is difficult to see how this particular initiative would work. The key issue is not a reluctance of universities to admit disadvantaged students, but the effect of socio-economic disadvantage on expectations and choices. Furthermore, the Texas ‘10% rule’ does not provide students with support or resources, the lack of which is the main inhibitor right now.

Ensuring an appropriate socio-economic mix in our universities is clearly an appropriate priority, but it is not easy to achieve. It requires careful collaboration with schools and communities, starting at primary level,  and significant resources so as to make higher education a realistic option for students. The by far most appropriate tool for achieving this is the access programme, but this needs to be properly resourced. This is where our challenge lies.

Higher education’s strategic needs

August 24, 2010

According to today’s report in the Irish Times, the strategic review report group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will suggest that Ireland’s higher education system needs another €500 million annually to cope with an increase in student numbers derived from increased demand and a government desire to raise higher education participation levels further. However, even if the government were to accept this and had the resources to pay it, that would merely fund additional numbers at the same rate as currently applies to the existing cohort. While such funding may seem the best that could be on offer given the current state of the public finances, we have to realise that it is completely inadequate as a basis for securing an internationally competitive university system; to achieve that we would need another 30 per cent or so more.

While for all sorts of reasons it is clearly difficult for this to gain wide acceptance, for the sake of this country’s future we really do need to grasp the fact that there won’t be enough public money to support a high quality higher education system. This either means that we should now accept that Ireland will have a much lower quality system that will not really be able to support our ambitions to be a ‘smart’ knowledge economy, or we need to look again at how we fund it all. In that sense the Hunt report’s conclusion about student contributions must be right.

But there is a bigger issue here. All around us the traditional understanding, principles and assumptions of higher education are being taken apart, whether as a result of economic developments, changes in public attitudes, government policies or new knowledge insights. I doubt that in 10 years time the global higher education landscape will look exactly like it does today. In this setting a strategic review of higher education needs to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of education, methods of learning, the scope and nature of research, and the role of universities and colleges in society and in the economy. Funding is important, and structures are also in some way, but they should flow from our understanding of how higher education should change. It is this kind of analysis I would have wanted to see as the basis for recommendations for change, and at least based on what we have seen so far that seems to me to be missing. I hope there will be more of this in the report when eventually it is published.

The future of higher education: who does what kind of research?

August 24, 2010

Today’s Irish Times newspaper contains more on the anticipated report of the strategic review group on higher education. One of the recommendations, apparently, will be that research should have a ‘much sharper commercial focus’, meaning that there should be a greater financial return for the taxpayer. Research should also be more closely aligned with the needs of the state and of the private sector.

I am personally not opposed to the idea that there should be some greater strategic focus in Ireland’s funded research, as we simply cannot be world class at everything and need to focus our resources. However, this is already being done, in the sense that research funding is now increasingly made available in a thematic way and with an emphasis on critical mass through inter-instiotutional collaboration. I would however regard any attempt to control the research agenda of individuals and groups within the higher education sector more directly as wholly misguided; so I would hope that what is being suggested here is nothing more than a continuation of what is already in place. As for securing a greater return, at one level that is already happening, in spades: the ability of the IDA to attract knowledge-intemnsive foreign direct investment is almost wholly based on the development of research excellence in Irish universities through research funding. But if the suggestion is that the funding should generate a quicker return in both capital value and revenues it is misguided: these are long term investments, and the value generated by the intellectual property will not increase exponentially overnight. Also, longer term returns will be needed to secure the institutions – the return to the state is, as I have just pointed out, the additional success in inward investment.

The report will also apparently say things about what kind of research should be done by which type of institution, with universities doing both ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, while institutes of technology should focus on ‘applied’ research that is ‘closer to market development’. I have become increasingly sceptical about the distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, as the development of knowledge has blurred the lines between these considerably. In fact, I would not really know what to make of these recommendations in the context of today’s best practice.

There is, perhaps, a view in all of this that the oversight of research by state agencies should be more directive, and if so, this is likely to be counterproductive. The state is of course entitled to make its funding of research contingent on certain conditions being met, but this must be balanced against the need to encourage and support academic creativity and innovation, which will often produce very valuable results. A better way of looking at research would be to emphasise its significance for national prosperity (and therefore its importance in each higher education institution), and the importance of coordination of the national effort. But it should not trespass on the intellectual autonomy of researchers or the ability of institutions to develop strategic research objectives. A process of central planning by bureaucrats will not yield results.

Chasing university places

August 24, 2010

As I have argued before, it now looks increasingly inevitable that the trend of recent years of a annual increases in the number of university places will come to an end. As public funding is cut, and crucially, as more and more teaching posts are taken out of the system, it is becoming impossible for universities to contemplate further increases in the student intake. This development, however, is coinciding with a significant increase in student demand, so that the impact may turn out to be a major increase in points and in the number of applicants who cannot find a place.

This development is not unique to Ireland. In England the head of UCAS (the British equivalent of the CAO) has warned that upwards of 150,000 school leavers will fail to get a university place this year. Meanwhile in Ireland he CAO’s website crashed yesterday, having fallen victim to a malicious cyber-attack early in the day, while it became clear that points for a variety of course were rising. All of these things help to pile on the pressure.

Our key concern must now be that the growing mismatch of supply and demand does not produce socially undesirable results. We need to ensure that access programmes are reinvigorated, and that university places do not disproportionately go to the children of wealthy families. We also need to ensure that young people are offered viable and attractive substitutes for higher education programmes. We should also look again at what level of participation in higher education is most suitable for this country in our current circumstances.There are many challenges ahead, but also many opportunities.

Educational anguish

August 22, 2010

Nobody could suggest that the Irish are not interested in education. I know of no country in which the annual final school examination results get as much coverage and as much in-depth analysis as is the case here. The quality of our schools, our higher education institutions and our students is the subject of public and private discussion in Ireland to a far greater extent than anywhere else. University stories of one kind or another (not always flattering of course) can be found in our media on a regular basis. Secondary school students write national newspaper columns. As a country, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of education and of its significance in the achievement of our national ambitions.

Then why, one might ask, if we are so obsessed with education, are we getting it so badly wrong right now? The entire national discourse is about how standards are falling, funding is inadequate, teachers are de-motivated, the secondary school curriculum is out-dated and not fit for purpose, our national literacy and numeracy is declining fast, universities are in debt, the system is being bureaucratised, graduates are leaving the country, employers are dissatisfied with our educational standards, subjects vital to national recovery are being neglected.

In the face of this general dissatisfaction it is easy to become fatalistic about it all; or else we may become mesmerised by it and fail to act at all, because there just seems to be so much that needs to be done. Or we may become hyperactive ‘fixing’ things that ironically are not particularly broken (as I think is threatening to happen regarding higher education) while neglecting things that are.

It seems to me to be a good idea to start with something we know has gone wrong: my gut feeling is that as a priority we need to address the cocktail of problems arising from the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system (which are closely related). The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.

In fact, most educationalists tend to agree that the points system is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what might replace it, and therefore nothing much happens. Politicians in particular seem to find it easier not to question it. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, drew some criticism from the education editor of the Irish Independent, John Walshe, when she indicated that the points system is the ‘fairest way’ of selecting students for third level programmes. In fact it is manifestly neither ‘fair’ nor functionally useful, but as so much of the educational edifice has been built around it, it is easier to let it be. Easier, but wrong.

The points system is the property of the universities (through the CAO), and if they act together they can introduce fundamental reform that might correct the distribution of students in higher education programmes and cause an over-due reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and pedagogy. Like everyone else, the universities seem to be paralysed by the whole thing and are unwilling to act. But the time to do so is now.

Taking the tablets

August 22, 2010

Two months have passed since I acquired my Apple iPad, and so I have had a little time to explore whether this is the future of computing, or indeed of entertainment and mobile-everything. The verdict so far: I’ve been taking it everywhere, and have been using it principally as a notetaker at meetings, as a mobile internet browser and as an ebook reader, probably all three in equal measure. I occasionally (but more rarely) use it as a music device or as a viewer for video content, or as a tool for presentations (when linked to a projector). The combination of document creation and editing, and reading books, somehow makes it a perfect tool for an academic, as far as I am concerned.

So am I persuaded? Absolutely. There have been a few moments when not everything is as intuitive as I would like; for example, it took me longer than it should have to work out how to transfer documents between the iPad and my Macintosh, and indeed it somehow annoys me (not sure why) that I have to do this via iTunes. I also had to learn to switch off all wireless functions whenever I wasn’t using them, as they run down the battery much faster. But on the whole these are minor gripes. Overall, the device is doing everything for me that I wanted it to do, and as an ebook reader it is as close to perfect as I could wish for.

So what about the competition? Obviously, Apple didn’t invent the tablet concept, though it certainly has turned it from something that frankly wasn’t finding a market to something that is now visible everywhere. But there is no reason why others shouldn’t get in on the act. So far, I don’t see anything. But there are announcements. HP ha announced two different models for 2011, and LG (a company which often impresses with the visual style of its gadgets and equipment) has declared that it will shortly launch something that will be much better than the iPad – you can read a prediction here that it will fail in that perhaps rather bold ambition. Apple itself may be unveiling a new iPad or two early next year.

Competition is always good. And this user of a tablet at any rate is persuaded that the market for this kind of device is going to be big. Very big.

Mathematics not adding up

August 21, 2010

On Wednesday of this week the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, issued a statement congratulating students on the Leaving Certificate results. In this statement she also used the opportunity to address the issue of bonus points for Higher Level Mathematics, as follows:

‘The Tánaiste has made her preference for the introduction of a points bonus for achievement in higher level mathematics clear and has written to the higher education institutions in that regard. The higher education institutions are, as a result, currently considering the question. Some institutions have already confirmed their intention to introduce such a points bonus and the question is under active consideration in others. Further details will emerge over the coming weeks, when institutions have completed their internal considerations.’

However, the ink had hardly dried on her statement (or whatever the equivalent computer age metaphor might be) when the Irish Independent reported that two universities, University College Cork and NUI Galway, had decided not to back the proposal. A decision by UCD is still awaited.

This means that, whatever the universities’ position on bonus points will be, it will not be a united one. For myself, while I remain to be persuaded that bonus points will make a significant practical difference, I am aware that key stakeholders of the universities (including the government, but also industry) are very anxious to see that this change is adopted; and I am not sure how wise it is to reject that.

It remains clear that this country’s ability to attract investment will depend to quite an extent on having a population that is recognised as being highly numerate and science aware. Therefore any steps that could prompt students to pursue higher maths are welcome. The absence of a clear and joint approach by the universities in this matter will not do us any favours.

The TUI and to not introducing fees [sic]

August 21, 2010

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) issued a press release this week welcoming the  statement by the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Mary Coughlan TD, in which she re-affirmed the government’s decision not to reintroduce higher education tuition fees this side of the next general election. The TUI represents secondary teachers and lecturers in the institutes of technology. This is the opening paragraph of the union’s statement:

‘The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has welcomed the Tánaiste’s confirmation that third level fees will be not introduced for the lifetime of the current government. The union, which represents teachers and lecturers in second level, further and higher education, is now calling on all parties to not introducing fees.’

The content of this statement is not surprising – and while I would not agree with it, it is their perfect right to make this case. However, the grammar might raise a few eyebrows.

I’m telling you, they’re out to get us…!

August 20, 2010

One of the fun but crazy aspects of modern life is the conspiracy theory. If there’s a major contemporary event, there’ll be some paranoid conspiracy theory about it – whether it’s JFK’s assassination, the not-so-dead afterlife of Elvis, the significance of fluoride in water, that kind of thing. Someone I knew once in Cambridge – an otherwise brilliant man – always told friends in hushed tones that ‘the sprays’ were out to get him; nobody ever knew what he was talking about, but everyone found it better just to nod sympathetically.

But perhaps the most active (and frankly, craziest) peddlers of conspiracy theories are the more extreme rightwing groups in America; there’s nothing to beat them. From their absolute conviction that Barack Obama is a Muslim, to their belief that the government is spraying chemicals into the air to poison or subdue them, there’s nothing so weird or so stupid that they cannot believe it. This website provides some further examples.

Maybe we need to polish up our own talents in these matters. Given recent Irish history, surely there must be fertile ground here for something zany.