Archive for October 2010

Tuition fees: change coming in Scotland?

October 25, 2010

In the aftermath of the UK spending review the Scottish government is having to reconsider a number of benefits and other items of expenditure.  The First Minister, Alex Salmond MSP, refused to be drawn on the BBC as to whether certain universal benefits might be withdrawn should the SNP win next year’s Scottish elections. He committed himself to free bus passes, free prescriptions and the freeze on council tax, but would not comment on any other benefits – thereby leaving open whether higher education tuition fees might be introduced.

The First Minister indicated he would prefer Scotland to have its own tax raising powers, thereby enabling it to form its own judgement on securing an economic recovery.

No criticism, by law!

October 25, 2010

As is known to readers of this blog, the presidents of the Irish universities were recently called to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of Dáil Éireann (the lower House of the Irish Parliament). I don’t here want to return to the subject matter of the discussions on that occasion, but rather to point out a restriction (imposed by law) which could have affected the capacity of the presidents to respond to certain questions. The law in question is the Institutes of Technology Act 2006, parts of which address the universities. Section 53 of the Act provides that the Public Accounts Committee can call university presidents to give evidence before it and that the presidents when called have a duty to appear and answer questions. The section then adds the following:

‘A chief officer, if required under [the above provision] to give evidence, shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such a policy.’

What this provision does is to prohibit, by law, a president from voicing any criticism (in fact, any opinion at all) relating to government policy. Therefore, even if a particular financial issue might have arisen due to government policy, a president referring to it before the Committee would be prohibited from assessing the policy in question in any way. It should be said perhaps that a similar restriction applies to all public servants appearing before the Committee – but even if that is justifiable in the case of civil servants, it is a wholly different matter in the case of universities, which are not established simply to apply government policy and which are autonomous, independent bodies. It seems to me to be a completely unacceptable provision, and not appropriate in a democratic state.

Perhaps we are still better off, however, than some other countries. In the Philippines a number of law professors may be disciplined (including the possibility of being barred from teaching at their university) by the country’s Supreme Court because they criticised a judge of the court for allegedly plagiarising three international law authors in a judgement he had delivered, and called for his resignation. It appears that such criticism is regarded by the Court as contempt (even if the allegation were true, apparently) and it is intending to consider disciplining the professors accordingly.

I have on recent occasions expressed the view that in Ireland we may be too keen to engage in criticism and attributing blame. However, the right to do so is an indispensable aspect of any democracy, and the claim of any public official or politician to be beyond criticism, no matter by whom and in what context, should be unacceptable. Where academics or academic institutions are targeted there is a particular risk to academic freedom that must be strongly resisted.

Of course universities must behave responsibly, and certainly must not get involved in party politics, but they need to be free to defend their position and objectively assess the position of others. It would be good if restrictions on that freedom were to be set aside.


October 24, 2010

In Ireland they are predicting that there will be election next spring, and that the outcome is entirely unpredictable. Quite so. Of course the election to which I am referring is that for the post of Provost of Trinity College Dublin. In early April 2011 the College’s academic staff (and members of the TCD Board and Council) will elect the new chief officer of TCD, who will succeed the present Provost, Dr John Hegarty.

However, this year there is a somewhat different process from the normal one. While the final decision will, as on previous occasions, be based on the outcome of the election, this is being preceded by a more ‘normal’ recruitment process, with an advertisement (appeared last Friday), nominations and interviews, and with the final shortlist then being out to the electorate after a brief campaign.

The College has also published a website for all of this, and this indicates that TCD is ‘committed to attracting a strong national and international field.’ In fact, they are very unlikely to get much of an international (or indeed domestic external) field: the requirement to make the candidacy public in the final stages will on the whole strongly deter external candidates, who will in any case be disadvantaged because they will have fewer connections and links with members of the electorate.

I know there is something attractive about a democratic process and an election, and many European universities also use this selection method. But whether it is an ideal way of finding a person to provide leadership in challenging times is perhaps debatable. Trinity College is a hugely important academic institution in Ireland, and the quality of its leadership is important. To secure that quality, the College needs a field of leading global academics to compete for the post, and its appointments process more more less rules that out. This ought to be the last time that this form of recruitment is used.

As a postscript, I should probably add that there had been much media and other speculation that I would be a candidate for the post, after I had stepped down as President of DCU. In fact I had never indicated to anyone that I would be, and of course I have accepted another appointment; but I might stress that the recruitment method is not the reason why I am not a candidate for the post of Provost of TCD. I say this solely so as to emphasise that my argument above is not based on any sense of personal interest in the matter.

A Northern Ireland view

October 23, 2010

As the fall-out from the UK government’s spending review and from the recommendations of the Browne review (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) continues, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, Professor Richard Barnett, has strongly attacked the shift from public funding to tuition fees.  Speaking on Tuesday of this week to a group of visiting Northern Ireland politicians, he said:

‘What these fees proposals are about is the privatisation of higher education. That is what a small self-appointed group of self-serving universities have been pushing for over a longer period, and they may now well be getting their way in England. They recruit largely from private schools and do little for widening access… These elitist universities don’t understand the widening access issues that we at the University of Ulster are passionate about. We at Ulster believe that all sections of society should benefit from higher education and not just those with deep pockets.’

It is clear that Professor Barnett feels strongly about this, and it is obviously easier for some universities than for others to manage the implications of rising tuition fees; but it is not clear that his comments are fair. Taxpayer support for wealthier sections in society is not a pre-condition for access programmes for disadvantaged students, as his statement appears to suggest. Targeted financial support for the disadvantaged is ultimately a better bet.

Northern Ireland’s position in all of this has yet to be determined by the Assembly in Stormont, and Professor Barnett’s rather strong language is presumably calculated to influence political thinking. There may also be a fear that some of the University of Ulster’s potential student recruits could, if fees were raised considerably, opt to study in the Republic. This may explain Professor Barnett’s suggestion that English ‘elitist universities’ forming a ‘self-appointed group’ are responsible for the idea that there should be student contributions to funding. Whether that is an objectively reasonable comment is another matter.

Ireland’s greatest silliness

October 22, 2010

The only thing that surprises me is that the list doesn’t include Roy Keane, Jedward or Stephen Gately. Oh wait a moment, it did include Stephen Gately.

What am I talking about? Irish broadcaster RTE’s project to identify the greatest Irish person, ever. So how do you think the long list for this project was assembled? Well, of course there will have been a meeting of historians, scientists, writers and philosophers, and perhaps a programme exploring the idea of ‘greatness’ and its legitimacy as a concept. And naturally all living persons would have been excluded from the list. Well actually, no.A survey was done involving a ‘representative sample’ of the Irish nation. The top 40 were then put out to the Irish people as a whole to vote on via the RTE website, and here’s the resulting top 10:

Bono, Dr. Noel Browne, Michael Collins, James Connolly, Stephen Gately, John Hume, Phil Lynott, Padraig Pearse, Mary Robinson and Adi Roche.

I think that further online voting reduced the list to 5, and you either already know who they are or if not, you won’t want to be told. But just look at that top 10: three contemporary rock or pop musicians (and if you’re going down that road, where the hell is Rory Gallagher?); two contemporary politicians and one voluntary worker; two 20th century nationalist politicians/rebels; two contemporary politicians.

This list may give us all sorts of interesting sociological and cultural insights into modern Ireland, but it sure as hell isn’t going to give us the greatest ever Irish person. I am not suggesting that all or any of these people are not great, and many are indeed worthy. But the respondents seem to treat ‘greatness’ in much the same way as they might describe yesterday’s weather or today’s lunch sandwich as ‘great’. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and people are perfectly entitled to have their own perspective on greatness. But if this particular RTE project is to have any kind of merit, then, as one commentator in today’s Irish Times has suggested, it needs to educate and enlighten, not entertain (or indeed bore).

If you look for a vox populi judgment on this kind of thing, you are going to get a lot of contemporary entertainers, and current or recent politicians on whom the roof has not collapsed. There is absolutely no merit in that, and in some cases is an insult to those living people who are on the list. In fact, 20 of the top 40 initially chosen are alive, and of the deceased 20, seven died only very recently. Only three of the top 40 didn’t live to see the 20th century; and of course they weren’t in the final list.

Of course I am not alone in this view. So maybe the project did have a purpose: it started something of a debate on what constitutes ‘greatness’. But you’ll appreciate that better if you don’t bother with the final verdict this weekend.

Cutting university jobs

October 22, 2010

As in Ireland we move towards the December Budget and Book of Estimates, one thing to watch out for is whether the so-called ‘Employment Control Framework’, under which universities and colleges are required to reduce staffing year on year, continues in operation. Since this was introduced, institutions have had to reduce staff numbers by 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010. This reduction has pushed most universities to the point where they cannot be sure that they can properly run all their academic programmes, or run them to normal quality requirements. Further reductions will make require the system to consider other ways of offering higher education, as the existing model will become unworkable.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the University of Dundee has announced that it will cut up to 193 posts for budgetary reasons, with the possibility that further savings will need to be sought later (not least in the light of any funding reductions for Scottish universities that may flow from the UK government’s spending review). Across the UK there will be a number of other universities that will have to take similar or more drastic steps.

A key metric used to identify teaching excellence in universities in these islands has always been the student to staff ratio, in part because it has been the view in academic circles that small group teaching is a vital learning tool. This is now eroding at some speed. We could suggest that it never really mattered all that much in the first place, but that could not easily be done with any credibility; or we will need to start looking at new and less labour-intensive pedagogical methods. Given the speed at which changes are coming at us, we don’t have much time to do this.

Paying the fees, willingly

October 22, 2010

According to a report in yesterday’s Irish Independent, a third of all new students this year in University College Dublin finished their secondary education in fee-paying schools, almost all of which charge fees that are significantly higher than the worst case scenario for university tuition fees. I suspect that the proportion will be lower in other universities, but not by a large margin; my guess is that it would be lowest in DCU.

The UCD data demonstrate a number of things. First, a decade and a half of  ‘free fees’ has not created a properly inclusive and socially equal student body in Ireland. Secondly, even if families who choose private secondary education are the only ones who could more easily afford higher education fees, the income they would generate for the universities would be significant.

As public funding for higher education continues to be eroded, there is an urgent need to re-visit the issue of student contributions, in part so as to ensure that proper support is given to the disadvantaged.

Repayment of allowances

October 21, 2010

For readers not familiar with recent events in Irish higher education, this is a short summary of one particular development that has prompted a lot of commentary. Over a period of a few years, University College Dublin (UCD) paid allowances and bonuses to a number of senior staff, mainly as a form of incentive payment. Under current rules applying to universities, such payments – i.e. any payments departing from the established public service pay scales to which university salaries are tied – require government approval. The payments in question were made without any such approval, and after lengthy discussions between the Higher Education Authority and UCD the payments were discontinued. The whole thing received some recent attention before the Dail Public Accounts Committee and in an account prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

According to media reports, as part of the follow-up to all this, there are now talks between the HEA and UCD about a repayment to the HEA by the university of these allowances, which apparently came to a total of €1.6 million.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot get my head around this at all. Let us assume that the HEA and the government (and many commentators) are right, and the payments should never have been made. If you adopt that position, then you are saying that €1.6 million that should have been spent on students were in fact spent on allowances for managers. Now that a ‘remedy’ is being discussed, it seems to consist of the HEA requiring a ‘repayment’ of the sum – not by those who received them, but out of general university funds – thereby depriving students of this amount all over again. in other words, if damage was done to student interests, the HEA is insisting that this damage should be doubled. Maybe I’m missing something, but to me this seems bizarre.

I might also add the following. In my time In DCU I made sure that we abided by the rules (which was not always a popular position then), and indeed DCU received no criticism at the PAC meting. I took that position so as not to expose DCU to the kind of controversy we have now seen. But to be perfectly frank, the regulatory framework by which I was abiding is a crazy one. Whether incentive payments are made, and to whom they are made, should be a matter for each university and its governing body. The state is entitled to require that each university can account for how it has spent the money, but provided proper procedures were adopted in terms of governance and overall budgets are not exceeded, these issues should not be a matter for regulation at all.

I think the idea that all incentive payments in universities are inappropriate is wrong-headed – though admittedly I would also be of the view that incentive payments need to be based on the achievement of stretch targets given to the recipient. I think it is time that universities were no longer treated like public bureaucracies.

The new and uncertain world of higher education

October 20, 2010

Yesterday morning I was interviewed on an Irish radio station (Newstalk) about the possible reintroduction of tuition fees in Ireland, and various other higher education matters (including academic working hours, presidents’ pay and other delightful issues). Also in the studio was the President of the Union of Students in Ireland, Gary Redmond. Apart from the two interviewers, Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue, we also heard from listeners who were texting in or leaving messages on Twitter; by all accounts the response was lively.

My fellow guest on the programme, along with a good many of the listeners who wrote or texted or called in, was making the case for the status quo: the maintenance of a university system that was free to students and their families and that was based on the existing understanding of what higher education should look like. The problem with this is that the world in which it is set is gone, and will not re-appear any time soon. The state does not have the money to fund higher education, and even if it increased taxes for this purpose (as some suggest), probably none of the additionally raised money would go to universities and colleges: there are too many other holes to plug. Now that we are beginning to get an idea of how much public money will have to be saved in the coming Budget, we must expect more higher education cuts in Ireland; but we must also be aware that the existing model of higher education will then be unviable. It cannot survive.

A similar story, but with different key facts, is unfolding across the Irish Sea. Today English universities will discover what the government’s spending review is going to do to them. The President of Universities UK, Professor Steve Smith, expects England’s higher education teaching allocation to be slashed and reduced by about 80 per cent, while the research allocation could be cut by perhaps 40 per cent. The gap in the teaching budget will then have to be met from tuition fees, which are expected to rise accordingly. Professor Smith believes that all this will force the closure of a number of universities.

How it will play out in Scotland remains to be seen, as the funding of universities is handled by the Scottish government and will itself be influenced by the availability of public funding for Scotland overall.

As all this drama unfolds, the ability of higher education across these and other countries to make a coherent case to the public will become critical. Right now this game is not being played well. The predominant messages from the sector are pretty much along the lines of ‘oh woe is me’, and if there are thoughts of radical reform and a re-positioning of higher education this is not being articulated for the public. In Ireland it is all complicated by several bad news stories about higher education, which have the tendency to reduce public support yet further.

Higher education institutions and pressure groups now need to approach this differently. There needs to be a vision, setting out how a changed system of higher education can help to transform our economic fortunes and assist in social stability. Messages built just around money and funding are not persuasive, because everyone is now feeling the financial pressures, and special pleading (or what might look like it) is discounted.

For universities, it is time to address the ‘vision thing’, and to explain it coherently. For the governments, it is time to abandon the sheer absurdity that universities can survive with dramatically reduced resources and still be globally competitive. And for the public, it is time to take notice: this is your future, too.

The future of time

October 19, 2010

Recently I was talking with a group of students, and I noticed none of them was wearing a wrist watch. This became particularly obvious when one of them, who had told me he would be leaving shortly because he was due to go to a lecture, kept taking out his mobile phone to check the time; and then I gradually became aware that this was how all of them did it. Finally I asked them whether any of them used a watch; and none of them did. They thought my question was a little odd, like asking whether any of them travelled to college on a penny-farthing bicycle.

I like to think I am pretty with it when it comes to modern social and technological trends, but this one caught me out – it had kept up on me without my noticing. And now that I know, it still makes no sense to me. Sure, I would understand that some free spirits might reject the notion of time and deadlines altogether, but none of these students was in that category; to them it was just obvious that if you needed to know the time you checked your phone, which of course you carry everywhere. As for me, even with this new trending fact in my possession, I still find that way of telling the time awkward and counter-intuitive. I’ll stick with my watch, but slightly self-consciously now. I hope this doesn’t mean I have reached middle age in terms of attitude.


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