Archive for November 2010

Student contribution to rise to €2,000: introducing tuition fees?

November 24, 2010

As part of its four-year National Recovery Plan (to which I shall return later) the government has announced that the student registration charge will be replaced by a ‘higher education student contribution’ (page 120), and the amount to be paid will rise from the current level of €1,500 to €2,000; this is a smaller increase from what had been anticipated, though still a very substantial one. And in the process we appear to have introduced tuition fees, without any major discussion of the plan.

It may be that this will be explained as an increase of the existing charge, but it isn’t that. First, the name change suggests something different; and secondly, the sum is now higher than can easily be justified by non-tuition costs.

I am, as I have said repeatedly, in favour of tuition fees, but even I am surprised at their sudden appearance. One wonders whether the Greens will support this.

More on this later.

Strategy during a time of turmoil?

November 24, 2010

There are rumours doing the rounds in Dublin right now that the government is planning to publish the report of Dr Colin Hunt’s strategy group next week. This would, I think, be a serious mistake. There is no way that any political time could be given over the next few months to the issues raised in the report, and any value in the report and its recommendations would simply be lost.

In any case, right now I am highly sceptical that the report will contain anything much of value. It would seem to me to be far better to avoid publishing it for now, and then to subject the draft report to consultation within the higher education sector after an election, before finalising it and, perhaps, publishing it.

Horse without a carriage?

November 24, 2010

Every so often a social or cultural issue is pushed into public view for topical reasons, and right now the topic du jour is marriage. What has brought this on is, of course, the announcement that Britain’s Prince William is to marry his long term girlfriend, Kate Middleton. The wedding will take place some time next spring (April 29, if you really must know), watched by goodness knows how many billions around the world, and as the hype gathers momentum the topic of marriage gathers some interest.

Interestingly, the Pew Research Center in Washington DC has just undertaken an analysis of the data and trends around marriage in the US, and it makes for interesting reading. The key findings are, first, that marriage as an institutions is declining, but secondly, that the family remains strong and resilient. Whereas in 1960 68 per cent of all Americans in their 20s were married, by 2008 this had gone down to 28 per cent. On the other hand, while Americans on the whole now had a much broader view of what constitutes a ‘family’ (including cohabitees, same sex relationships and so forth), 76 per cent say that their families are the most important thing in their lives, and over 80 per cent believe that their current family (however constituted) is as close as or closer than the family of their youth.

Assuming that Americans don’t think too differently from the rest of us, what should we make of this? It seems to me that the conclusion to be drawn is obvious enough: the institution of marriage has suffered from the moral, or maybe moralistic, baggage that has often come with it, while the provision of mutual support offered by the family continues to find a resonance. The question for us now is whether the much looser formal ties that underpin a family are good enough, or whether it needs some degree of legal security; and of course this is important particularly in the context of providing an appropriate setting for the raising of children.

Either way, I gather that weddings do have sudden bursts of popularity. A few years ago the catalyst was the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral; and next year it will probably be Ms Middleton’s big day.

PS. I am aware that many readers may not understand the connection between the topic and the title of this post.  That’s what happens to you as you grow old.

The web presence

November 23, 2010

These days, most people who have an interest in a university or college, in whatever context, first encounter it on the internet. A university’s home page on the web is, usually, its main opportunity to make a good first impression.

Today I needed to access all Ireland’s university websites to find two pieces of information; one of these would be very relevant to potential student applicants, the other to a potential philanthropist. I have to say most Irish universities do not come out of this well. Typically their home pages are far too busy and contain too much information under too many headings. The main function of the home page, in my view, is to act as a map that will direct a visitor to where they want to go, and that will do so in a reasonably attractive way. Typically this task is best performed if the page gives maybe nine or ten different options, which can then move the visitor closer to the information they need in a user-friendly way. In fact, Irish universities typically provide around 35-40 clicking choices on the home page, often in confusing separate sections on the page, and often offered in very small print with densely written sub-texts. One university gives the visitor 45 choices. Three universities also do not manage to contain all the links and clicks on a single screen, so that the visitor has to scroll down to see all of it, which on a home page is an absolute no-no.

The one Irish university website that pretty much gets it right is NUI Galway, which has a clean, uncluttered and user-friendly home page, with a reasonable and manageable set of links. The next best is my own former bailiwick, DCU. The others are all in varying degrees a nightmare for the first time visitor.

Apart from Galway’s rather excellent effort, a good model of how to do it is the website of US university MIT.

One hint I would give to university web designers is to keep breathless news announcements to a minimum. Visitors to a website are not really likely to be there in order to enjoy the latest propaganda messages. A well designed news site linked from the home page, and kept up to date, is a much better bet.


November 23, 2010

You may not have known this, but one of the fastest growing new art forms is the taking and editing/manipulation of photographs on an iPhone; i.e. using the phone’s camera to take pictures and then edit them with software on the device. There are websites devoted to the topic, such as this one (from which the title of this post is taken).

As some readers here know, I am a committed (but amateur) photographer, and also having an iPhone I have experimented with this genre. Below is a photo taken in Castletown House, Celbridge, Co Kildare.

Whose grade is it anyway?

November 23, 2010

One of the key performance indicators of higher education is the grade given to a student as part of the examination or assessment process. In order to ensure that the grade is appropriate and merited and is not influenced by improper considerations, various safeguards are built in. These include the consideration of grading by external examiners and boards of examiners, where marks can be reconsidered and adjusted.

However, such processes can become controversial, and indeed can raise accusations of inappropriate decision-making. In one Irish institute of technology recently some lecturers boycotted graduation ceremonies because they were unhappy about the adjustment of marks by appeal boards. One Canadian university has recently been in the spotlight for allegedly forcing a professor to lower his marks.

As the debate over the past year about ‘grade inflation’ has shown, the way in which student performance is assessed is one of the most critical issues in higher education. In order to ensure that grades are seen as appropriate and are respected, the system used needs to be impartial, transparent and intellectually demanding. In this context however, groups and boards can get it wrong just as easily as an individual, particularly if they pay excessive attention to institutional interests.

Occasionally it is suggested that the answer is to make this an administrative process, subject to bureaucratic procedures that will kick in particularly if the pattern of grades arouses suspicion, and more particularly still if grades are coming out too high. On the other hand, academic achievement is not a matter of administrative judgement, and should not become one. Equally however, the grades awarded are not necessarily an expression of ‘academic freedom’: I cannot insist that my marking standards should be applied even where they deviate from those of others.

There is no perfect way of dealing with this, but the one most likely to address problems is the system of external examiners, under which grades are checked by senior academics from other institutions to ensure that the system has integrity. However, this system, which relies heavily on personal and institutional goodwill, is coming under stress, in part because external examiners (now considered ‘employes’ for revenue purposes) cannot be properly rewarded for what they do, and in part because the bureaucracy of assessment is threatening to overwhelm the system. Confidence in higher education depends strongly on assessment working well; we should be aware of that and, therefore, we should be willing to restate support for external examining as a vital element in maintaining a high quality system.

A Green electoral agenda?

November 22, 2010

According to various news reports, Ireland’s Green Party has indicated that it will pull out of the coalition government after the forthcoming Budget has been adopted and will call for a general election for January 2011. Curiously the Green Party’s website does not mention this development, but it appears to be genuine. It is clear from this that the party wants to regain a degree of political initiative in the light of recent developments to avoid being wiped out electorally.

As the Greens have made their opposition to higher education tuition fees such a key issue since the revised programme for government last year we can probably expect to see this feature as a priority in their election strategy; that is not particularly a bad thing, because in all the turmoil the country is now experiencing, it is likely that higher education will, for once, be a key election issue. I disagree fundamentally with the Greens’s approach to this, but I welcome the prospect of a proper public debate about the future of the country’s universities and colleges.

Irish universities: preparing for the worst

November 22, 2010

The Trinity College Dublin students newspaper The University Times has published a letter from the TCD Provost, Dr John Hegarty, to College staff alerting them to the very tricky funding environment that TCD – in common of course with the other Irish universities – now faces. The Provost refers to what he regards as the ‘best case budget for the sector’, and in TCD’s case this would result in a 10 per cent cut in the government’s annual grant allocation; the worst case scenario is a 20 per cent cut. This cut of course comes on top of very significant funding reductions over the past two years or so. The Provost’s expressed hope is that the 10 per cent cut will be applied, rather than the more dramatic reductions. But he also acknowledges that ‘the impact of the financial situation on the quality of teaching and the overall student experience is a cause of grave concern.’

Of course we don’t yet know what we are going to face in the context of the government’s four-year plan to be published shortly. We believe that the student registration charge will rise by a substantial amount, quite possibly above the level of the relevant non-tuition costs, and quite possibly ‘balanced’ by a reduction in the recurrent grant and/or fees paid by the government under the ‘free fees’ scheme. We believe that there will be a further planned reduction in higher education faculty and staff under the ‘employment control framework’. On the other hand we expect that research funding will not be significantly affected.

The universities will need to undertake urgent discussions to see what kind of education model can be sustained under these conditions. It does not seem likely that the existing teaching and learning methods can still be continued successfully to a satisfactory quality standard, but nobody really knows what might replace them. As the financial parameters are unlikely to improve for several years, it is now vital to look at the effect of the changing financial conditions on learning and pedagogy, and to see how an adapted model can allow Irish universities to offer degree programmes to acceptable international standards.

Mary Riordan, RIP

November 21, 2010

Well actually, it’s Moira Hoey (or Deady). If you are not familiar with the cultural history of twentieth century Ireland, you may not know anything about Mary Riordan and her family. She and her husband Tom, their sons Benjy and Michael, their daughter Jude, and their daughter-inlaw Maggie lived on their farm at Leestown in County Kilkenny. Together with other local friends and acquaintances they provided entertainment and prompted national debate, every Sunday evening on RTE Television for much of the 1960s and 1970s. At a time when public debate never really ignited about such matters, they handled complex social and moral issues. And they presented the viewing public with strong characters that became public property. They also launched or maintained the careers of some key actors, some of whom (like Gabriel Byrne and Tony Doyle) became global celebrities.

The series ended in 1979, and as far as I know no re-runs ever took place, and no videos or DVDs of any of the series have ever been sold. Maybe they wouldn’t fly now. The only clip I can find, on youtube, is this one, and to be honest it is not necessarily one that would make the nature of the show clear to those unfamiliar with it. But you can see Moira Deady, a.k.a. Mary Riordan, who died last week, and whose obituary was published in yesterday’s Irish Times.

Nostalgia can distort reality, but I would love to see The Riordans again.

In memoriam the Celtic Tiger

November 21, 2010

In the debates about current events in Ireland, it is often now suggested that the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was all an illusion and that it never really existed, or that if it did it consisted almost entirely of a sleight of hand connected with a property bubble and banking misconduct.

Without wanting in any way to take away from the seriousness of what Ireland now faces, that kind of perspective on the Celtic Tiger is seriously misplaced. Even after all the stuff we are about to experience, Ireland will be an immeasurably richer country, with a wholly different infrastructure and economic capacity, than might have been expected back in the early 1980s. The property bubble was not the substance of the Celtic Tiger, but rather an aberration that resulted from it. Until 2004 or so the bulk of our economic activity was in exports of goods and services, rather than trading in property or domestic consumption. You can trace the transition from this to the more recent unviable distortion of the economy by reading the annual reports of the National Competitiveness Council (which correctly identified what was happening and warned about it early on).

It is worth making this point in order to remind ourselves that not everything that we did, or even that our politicians led us in doing, was wrong. It is just that eventually we all lost touch with reality. But we can, and I suspect we will, return to a more viable version of economic success. Our ability to do that will not be helped by enthusiastically adopting a hugely distorted vision of recent Irish history.


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