Archive for December 2010

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2010

I would like to wish all readers and contributors a very happy New Year, and every good fortune and happiness for 2011. I hope that this coming year will provide us with new confidence and optimism.

Skidby Mill in East Yorkshire, December 2010


University debts

December 31, 2010

As governments disinvest in higher education, and in the absence of student contributions, major financial issues will begin to arise. A few months ago the Principal of Glasgow University, Professor Anton Muscatelli, declared that the university would run out of cash by 2013. And now the latest institution to sound a warning is Trinity College Dublin, with the Provost, Dr John Hegarty, warning that by 2015 TCD would have an accumulated deficit of between €80 and €100 million.

It is understandable that concerns should be expressed about the levels of graduate debt that may arise with tuition fees, but we also need to be aware of the growth of institutional debt. If TCD’s Provost is right, the level of debt that the College may be facing is unsustainable. Universities, even in good times, tend to run knife-edge budgets, and the prospect of having to recover such sums from general revenues would be frightening. It is vital that we do not allow higher education to slide into a situation in which its key institutions cease to be financially viable.

When stupid people become dangerous

December 31, 2010

I am a great admirer of the United States of America, but one of the things that distinguishes the US from Europe – and not in a good way – is the American attachment to the private ownership of firearms. Where this can lead is shown in this wholly weird news story.

Yesterday, December 30, two men walked into a shopping centre at 5 am and started shooting with rifles. Given the tragic incidents that take place from time to time involving unbalanced citizens with guns, it might have seemed to those present (who were forced to scatter and flee) that this was another such occasion. It wasn’t. Rather, the two men had simply decided to ‘have some fun’, and their concept of fun as they planned it was to shoot at some street lights at a time when, they believed, there would be nobody around. In fact one of the shops in the area had just opened, and so there were people present.

I cannot even begin to understand how the ownership of guns can be seen as a human right. Crazy events such as this, involving crazy people, ought to persuade reasonable citizens that gun control is a necessity. You’d think.

The amygdala and world affairs

December 30, 2010

I hope I’m not underestimating you if I suggest that many of you may not know what the amygdala is. In fact, it is part of the brain, and its size may determine all sorts of things and may influence various mental conditions such as autism.

Recent research has also discovered that larger amygdalas may determine the person’s political views: or more precisely, may cause them to be more conservative. If that is true, then being a conservative is not the result of careful thought or choice, but rather of the physical composition of the brain.

That kind of adds a twist to political analysis.

Arguing the higher education case

December 30, 2010

As the argument around tuition fees and higher education funding has got hotter over recent weeks, it has not necessarily become more sophisticated. I fear there is a feeling right now in some circles that the volume of the shouting is more important than the compelling nature of the case being made. As readers of this blog know, I do not believe that ‘free’ higher education is feasible any longer, but I accept readily enough that a good case can be made for it, when properly advanced. All too often however the arguments put forward are rather weak.

An example of this is an article published this week in Times Higher Education. The piece in question was written by a journalism lecturer, Kate Smith of Edinburgh Napier University. It considers the position of Scotland in the context of the current debate there about higher education funding, and it ends with what the author probably considered a rather pleasing flourish, as follows:

‘The wealth of a country is not measured by the gold held in reserve, its strength not by its weapons of mass destruction. Richness and enlightenment comes from the education and character of a people. Universal access to university education is imperative to avoid what Scrooge called “the shadows of what may be”. The Scots are showing this is not just a fairy tale; they are leading the way.’

In fact, there is no logical connection between the somewhat over-the-top rhetoric of the first two sentences and the conclusion that then follows. Nobody whom I have heard in this debate would argue against the value of education. But it does not follow in any way that higher education as a universal benefit is more effective, notwithstanding the out-of-context misquoting of Dickens. A case can be made for universal free access, but it needs to be explained, not just asserted.

Universal benefits provide effective coverage but are very expensive, and the cost is aggravated by the fact that money will be directed at least in part to those who do not need it, so that those who do need it may end up getting less than they should. When in addition the state has declining resources this impact is aggravated.

As a society, we are now at a phase of development where we are going to have to make some difficult choices about higher education. Part of this will be about deciding how important we think it is to have a system that is demonstrably excellent and of a quality that will compete with the best elsewhere. Part of it will be about deciding whether free access for the wealthy is of itself an important principle that will trump all other considerations. Or, if we feel that universality is inviolable, it will be about deciding how we can raise the resources.

I accept that a perfectly good argument can be made for universally free access to higher education. But it is not the case that this is an easy argument or that it could be applied without difficulty. In order for it to be persuasive, those advancing it have to be much more articulate in recognising the problems and suggesting solutions.  Writing about a return to Dickensian conditions, as Kate Smith does in the Times Higher article, is simply silly and gets the debate nowhere.

Academic lefties, pinkos and liberal do-gooders

December 29, 2010

Are universities and colleges full of left wing radicals, ready to undermine the establishment at every turn? Well, that’s pretty much the view of a US organisation called, which says that it is ‘designed to provide conservative activists with the resources, networking capabilities, and skills they need to revolutionize the struggle against leftist bias and abuse on college campuses.’

Campusreform has taken a look at the 100 top rated US universities and has ‘unmasked’ the great liberal/left conspiracies in each of them. None of them escape, though you’d wonder at some of the ‘revelations’. Harvard for example offers courses and research in climate change, apparently evidence of unacceptable liberalism.

My own experience suggests that things are far more balanced than that. In Ireland certainly, the best known academic commentators come from the right or centre right. That didn’t however stop one of these complaining to me recently that all the universities had been overrun by the left.

Does it matter which political views gather a majority of supporters from the academic community? It is of course important (as I have said here before) to guard against indoctrination, but in my experience students are well able to detect political prejudices and to make discounts for them. Everyone else should take a deep breath and let this topic go.

A university president counting the pennies

December 28, 2010

There is an interesting report in the US media about the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before I go into the details, let me just say that this is a well-known and highly respected American public university. It has over 40,000 students, and so by our standards on this side of the Atlantic we’d consider it pretty big. In global ranking terms, the Times Higher league table has it at number 33, which places it above any Irish or Scottish university.

So, what is the story? Well, its new president has been telling the media that for the first few months of his tenure he has only had time for one thing, ‘counting the pennies’. Just as he took up his post the state cut funding dramatically, and what is more, it has only managed so far to cough up around 3 per cent of what it had promised in the first place. The university is in crisis, and the president is cutting costs wherever he can and is contemplating a rise in tuition fees.

All that sounds very familiar, confirming again that our problems are not unique and are also being experienced in many different countries. But then again, look at this. The state funding of the University of Illinois only accounts for 17 per cent of its revenues, and yet the sum in question, at $390 million, is more than what any Irish university receives from the state. So what is the university’s total budget? It’s $4.7 billion, that’s what it is. That’s more than twice what the entire Irish university sector spends. I haven’t yet worked out the Scottish figures, but I expect there is also a mighty gap.

The two stories, read from over here, are about the insecurity of state funding during these turbulent times (and that’s the same over here), and the extraordinary resource gap between the universities with whom we want and need to compete and our own institutions. If anyone is serious about having a smart economy, we need to do things very differently indeed. And we don’t have much time.

It’s a banker’s life

December 27, 2010

Just over 38 years ago I embarked upon a brief career as a German banker, which in the end lasted only two years; at the end of that period I moved back to Ireland and became a law student at a Dublin university. But during those two years I sat behind a bank counter and dealt with customers in relation to such matters as foreign exchange and small loans. My bank opened to the public every weekday morning at 8 am and closed at 5 pm; except on Thursdays, when we closed at 6.30 pm. Chiefly, this allowed customers in full time employment to use our branch services. We had the usual German public holidays, but every year after Christmas we opened the branch again on December 27 (unless this fell on a weekend).

That was 38 years ago. Last Friday (Christmas Eve) I had to visit my bank in Dublin, as I needed to make an international payment by way of a transfer of funds. Stupidly I didn’t look at my watch and arrived at 9.45 am, and so had to wait for 15 minutes for the bank’s normal opening time. Once inside, I was asked to complete a rather long form, which the lady at the counter stamped, and I was then told to join another line for – well, to be honest, I have no idea what for. When I got to the top of the queue, the very polite gentleman at the counter told me he would have to send the form to another office of the bank. However, because it was Christmas Eve, this couldn’t be done until after Christmas, meaning December 30, as the bank would be closed until then. He was very willing to apologise for this, and hoped my payment wasn’t urgent, but, as he disarmingly put it, ‘such is life’. Indeed it is, if you’re dealing with a bank.

The Irish banks’ concept of service was pretty amazing when I opened my first Irish bank account in 1974, and it is astounding now. Even in Britain banks are now much more customer-focused, opening at times convenient to the public and with fewer bureaucratic restrictions. In Ireland we have not reached such insights yet, and the convenience of the customer is neither here nor there. As we have seen recently, new charges are introduced to penalise account holders without any explanation in public, and banks remain closed at times and on days when customers most need them. This is no longer acceptable, and I don’t particularly care if this is all because of some long standing agreement with the trade unions.

I should emphasise that my experience of individual bank employees has almost always been very good – it is not a personal issue, and I have no complaints about the willingness of bank officials to help. But now that the taxpayer owns most of the banks, I hope the government forces through the necessary reforms before releasing them back into private ownership. It is high time.


December 26, 2010

For some reason December 26  appears to be a bad day for entertainers and actors: an unusually large number have died on this day. There are three I want to mention, briefly.

My family home is in County Westmeath, Ireland, and so I have to mention singer Joe Dolan, who died on this day in 2007. If you don’t know Joe Dolan, you don’t understand Westmeath.

December 26 was also the day on which two of my favourite actors died: Jason Robards (2000) and Nigel Hawthorne (2001). Robards was stunning as the crypto-Nixon in Washington Behind Closed Doors (why isn’t there a DVD of this?), and Hawthorne was simply amazing in Yes Minister.

If you’re an entertainer or actor, take care today.

Gathering or distributing the university?

December 26, 2010

Here’s a topic, perhaps, to distract you as you recover from your Christmas dinner.

This last week the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) issued a recommendation to the Privy Council (to whom the task of deciding the matter is entrusted) that the UHI Millennium Institute should be awarded university status. In many ways UHI (which stands for ‘University of the Highlands and Island’) is a project rather than an institution, consisting of a partnership of a significant number of colleges and institutes spread around the West and North of Scotland. The extent of the distribution of its elements is visible in this map on UHI’s website. If the traditional model of a university is a single self-contained campus in one location, this is completely the opposite. If you thought that the existing model of the Dublin Institute of Technology was excessively distributed, think again.

Of course, in the case of DIT the Grangegorman project is based precisely on the assumption that a single location creates a more cohesive and vibrant educational institution. Elsewhere also, multi-campus universities (for example, De Montfort in England) have been consolidating their locations in order to have a single campus.

So what, if anything, should be the principle underlying all this? Is there a desirable model? The answer to that depends of course on how we view the future of higher education, and how we see university programmes developing. It is also connected with questions of economic development and regeneration, as towns and communities often argue that a university in their midst is necessary to attract investment and skills.

There doesn’t of course have to be ‘an answer’ to this – there can be several models and diversity may be desirable. But if there isn’t an answer, there needs to be an idea or a basis for assessment of what is right in each case. We need to have a sense of the economics of distributed universities, and of their capacity to connect subject areas with each other across distances. And we also need to have a proper view on what is reasonable in terms of a higher education presence in regional communities, and whether people from these communities can be offered programmes that don’t force them to leave (with the risk that they won’t return). We need to have a proper view of the geography of higher education.