Archive for January 2011

Really small tutorial supervision

January 26, 2011

Many years ago when I was a student, I visited a friend in Oxford. As I arrived he had just come from a tutorial, at which he had been alone with the tutor (which was normal in Oxford). I had always envied Oxford students their one-on-one tutorials, but as he explained his experience I changed my mind, and I have never again thought of it as educationally good. He had been asked to prepare an essay in advance. He had read this out to the tutor during the session, as the tutor stood looking out the window. When he had finished (after perhaps 25 minutes), the tutor rummaged around on his shelves and then handed my friend a book, opening it at a particular chapter. He asked my friend to read this, which took a perhaps another ten minutes. Then the tutor asked my friend to suggest ways in which the chapter he had just read was relevant to his essay. Then the tutorial was over.

About three months ago I drew attention in this blog to Oxford’s recent attempts to raise philanthropic donations to resource their one-on-one tutorials, and to the possibility that the university might have to abandon them because of the cost involved. Yesterday the Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge University may also end one-on-one tuition (called ‘supervisions’) in order to save £600,000 each year, as part of a general review of costs.

If I were in Oxford or Cambridge I would also be arguing for the ending of this particular teaching practice, but not for budgetary reasons. I think it is pedagogically wrong. As research has shown, the value of small group teaching lies not just, and maybe not even primarily, in the interaction between student and instructor, but rather in collaborative learning between students. For this to be effective the groups have to be small, but they do need to contain more than one student. The teaching methods used traditionally in Oxbridge have probably helped to create a sense of having been through a special learning process, but I would doubt whether they have really nurtured the students’ analytical and critical skills to the fullest extent. It may be, therefore, that financial pressures will force Oxford and Cambridge to make reforms that will, in the end, improve the quality of the learning available there. And if a byproduct is greater value for money, then so much the better.

For the rest of us, however, it may be worth reflecting again (as I have suggested before in this blog) that small group teaching is a major strength of our higher education system. We should not lightly let it go. In many institutions it has already been lost.

The importance of good (political) communication

January 25, 2011

Political careers have been made (and unmade) through good (or bad) communication. People who would struggle to name any of John F. Kennedy’s political achievements will nevertheless quote him saying ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, or ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ Barack Obama’s road to the US presidency undoubtedly began with his extraordinary speech to the Democratic Party convention in 2004. By the same token, Gordon Brown in part failed as British Prime Minister because, coming after Tony Blair, he simply could not match his predecessor’s ability to persuade with his oratory. And now in Ireland, Brian Cowen’s career ended after it became clear he could not or would not address the people to tell them what he was doing, and why, and how it would ultimately benefit them. It is too early to judge whether his policies really were failures (though right now that’s the consensus judgement), but we can certainly say that he failed dismally as a communicator.

Politics is only partly about finding the right policies for the time; it is in equal measure about persuading colleagues, supporters and the people that the policies are right. It is about setting a vision before the public and asking them to share it, and by that device to create a bond of common purpose. People generally will accept hardships and sacrifices if they know what the ultimate prize will be, and this requires skilled communication. If this is not a skill demonstrated by the outgoing Taoiseach, I would have to say that, as yet, I am not persuaded that the other party leaders have it in abundance either. The election campaign may tell us more.

At this time we need what has been called ‘rhetorical leadership’, and it has been identified as perhaps the key ingredient in securing popular support during times of crisis [see for example Ryan Lee Teten, '"We the People": The "Modern" Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period', Political Research Quarterly 2007 60: 669-682]. During this terrible period of upheaval and failure, people need to be inspired and enthused. Let us hope at least some of our leaders are equal to the task.

Academic freedom in a modern democracy

January 24, 2011

As readers of this blog will know – and as you can see in more detail in the two posts below this one – concern has been expressed in Ireland by a number of university and college staff about the future of academic freedom. Speakers at a special meeting in Dublin last weekend on this topic voiced their fears that economic pressures, government policies and university management priorities might conspire to lead to a change in the terms of employment of university faculty, and that the nature of this change could compromise, erode or even abolish academic freedom, notwithstanding the protection afforded it by section 14 of the Universities Act 1997. This section provides:

‘A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.’

This may seem to many to be a very strong statement of protection, but some academics have voiced fears that it was being eroded by various pressures and could potentially be amended or even repealed in legislation now expected to reform higher education.

The concerns expressed by those attending the meeting in Ireland are not unique. An essay collection recently published in America suggests that the academic community is ‘bullied by corporate interests, saddled by the need to curb its rhetoric to match national political agendas, and pressured by the military.’

The main case for academic freedom is that it ensures that scholarship and teaching can support dispassionate debate, unbiased research and analysis and the dissemination of insights that may be unpopular or that someone would like to suppress. The problem for the academy, however, is that this case often looks to the public like special pleading for a group of employees who are, so the argument goes, already uniquely privileged and who sometimes use this privilege to ward off challenges to the quality of their performance. Recent letters to the editor of the Irish Times newspaper illustrate this wider public scepticism, as did a strongly-worded contribution from the floor made at the Dublin meeting by one non-academic participant.

In my view it is right and appropriate to defend academic freedom, because the intellectual integrity of all universities would be fatally compromised if this ideal were to be abandoned or put at risk. But it is also important that those making the case for it do not present it as an argument against change overall, or an argument against the accountability of the academic profession. Academic freedom is a complex concept, and it is not necessarily easy to state what added ingredient it contains beyond the right of free speech available to all citizens. But if these issues are taken into account and addressed sensitively, then academic freedom should be defended as being important, positive, enlightening and liberating for society as a whole.

Meeting of Irish academics ‘to defend academic freedom’

January 24, 2011

A meeting open to academic staff in Irish higher education institutions took place in Dublin on Saturday, January 22, with the aim of discussing what the organisers believe are potential assaults on academic freedom arising from the implementation of the public service agreement (the ‘Croke Park agreement’) of last year. What follows is a note on the meeting prepared by its convenor, Paddy Healy (former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland). The post below this one is the transcript of Paddy Healy’s own address to the meeting. I am hoping also in due course to publish the views on these matters of the universities and/or the Irish Universities Association.

The Academic Gathering to Defend Academic Freedom met at Gresham Hotel Dublin on Saturday January 22. There were  200 academics present from almost all third level institutions within the state.

Paddy Healy delivered an opening address which is carried below.

Prof Tom Garvin was highly critical of the “half-educated administrators” who had taken over our universities and on whom resources necessary for teaching and scholarly activity were being wasted.

Steven Hedley, Professor of Law, UCC warned that the Universities Act (1997), which provides for academic freedom and tenure, could be amended to weaken its provisions.

Dr Paddy O’Flynn,UCD, pointed out that it was essential that all academics join trade unions to effectively respond to current threats.

Apologies for inability to attend and expressions of support for the gathering were sent by Prof Jim McKernan, East Carolina University, Prof James Heffron (emeritus) UCC and Dr Tom Dooley, Dundalk IT

Many speakers explained why academic freedom and permanency to retirement age were necessary to maintain freedom of speech and information to the public, educational standards and fruitful scholarship including research. Speakers included Professor Peadar Kirby, UL;Professor Michael Cronin, DCU; Professor Mary Gallagher,UCD; Martin O’Grady, IT Tralee, Dr Kieran Allen, UCD, Dr Colman Etchingham, NUIM, Dr Kevin Farrell, IT Blanchardstown, Marnie Holborow, DCU, Dr Thomaé Kakouli-Duarte, IT Carlow, Dr Paul O’Brien, NCAD; Prof Helena Sheehan (emeritus),DCU and many others.

Senator David Norris addressed those assembled and expressed solidarity with the Gathering.

Former Taoiseach, Dr Garret Fitzgerald addressed the Gathering and pointed out the need for an association which addressed academic matters only.


It was agreed that a petition would be launched in each institution calling on the governing authority to make a declaration in favour of academic freedom and to remove all threats to tenure and permanency to retirement age.

Such a declaration has already been secured by IFUT President, Hugh Gibbons, and his colleagues in the IFUT Branch at TCD. A motion to the same effect would be tabled at all Academic Councils.

An ad-hoc steering committee was formed to co-ordinate the campaign.

It was suggested that a pledge in favour of academic freedom and permanency should be administered to all political parties in the forthcoming election. This will be considered by the steering committee.

It was agreed that the Gathering would be reconvened in the coming weeks to consider whether further organised work was necessary.

In defence of academic freedom

January 24, 2011

This is the opening speech by Paddy Healy (former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland) delivered to the meeting of Irish academics on January 22 in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

Academic freedom is a necessity in a healthy democracy. Citizens have a need for a diversity of expert opinions to enable them to take informed decisions and to direct their political representatives. The warnings of a possible banking collapse came from outside the banking industry and indeed from outside the regulatory and political system. The warnings of Professor Morgan Kelly and others went unheeded.

Analysis and criticism of social, economic, scientific and artistic policies by academics is the right of citizens. If academic freedom is restricted this flow of information and analysis is likely to be reduced or stopped.

Citizens have a right to objective information on the content of food products, the safety of structures and other engineering systems, on pollution of the environment, on aesthetic matters and on health issues. Academics must retain the unrestricted right to give this information.

Academic freedom and tenure is not just a ruse invented by academics to protect their employment as some letter writers have suggested.

The purpose of ‘tenure’ as protecting a university professor or lecturer against dismissal, as set out in the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel of 11 November 1997, is to provide protection for the independence of university academics in their teaching and research by ensuring that they cannot be dismissed for the expression of unpopular or novel ideas. Savage (Academic Tenure and its Functional Equivalent in post-secondary Education, ILO Working Paper June 2004) suggests that ‘tenure’ might also ensure that those among the academic staff teaching ‘highly technical but not popular subjects’ are also protected ‘so that such learning is not easily removed from the university milieu because of ephemeral undergraduate student demand’. As Savage goes on to point out: ‘dismissal procedures are the key’. Tenure exists in reality if academic staff can only be dismissed for ‘just cause’, such as professional incompetence, financial corruption, sexual or racial harassment or the abandonment of position, proved before a ‘fair and independent body’. One of the more ‘vexing’ questions in his opinion is the effect of ‘financial exigency and programme planning’ and whether these factors can override the guarantees of ‘tenure’.

At a large meeting of academics held in UCD on Thursday last, the representative of the Irish Federation of University Teachers informed us that as a matter of policy IFUT would be making no concessions on the issues of academic freedom and tenure. The President of the SIPTU Education Branch gave similar assurances.

My colleagues and I are encouraged by the declaration of the Board of Trinity College in favour of academic freedom and tenure. We must of course be careful of the meaning of those terms. We are also encouraged by the declared opposition to research by command from above. It would be most appropriate if the governing authorities of other third level institutions made similar declarations.

I would like to congratulate Dr Hugh Gibbons, IFUT President, and his colleagues in IFUT at TCD for their hard work and persistence in securing this declaration.

Academic staff in institutes of technology were believed to have effective tenure through the permanency of public servants until the emergence of the Croke Park Deal. Academic freedom is written into existing contracts. I call on the governing bodies of these institutions to unconditionally withdraw all threats of redundancy to academic staff.

It is important that third level institutions continue to produce graduates who combine a high level of professional expertise with a capacity for critical thought. That is necessary for a healthy democratic society and a successful economy.

The funding model of third level institutions penalises failure of students to progress by passing examinations. This has led to very unhealthy pressures in the direction of lowering criteria for progression. There have been incidences of administrative passing of students. Academics must retain the unfettered right subject to reasonable criteria to say that a student has not reached the required standard. Academic freedom based on permanence of employment is necessary in order that academics can resist unhealthy pressures. If ‘dumbing down’ becomes rampant, serious damage will be done to our society. The qualifications of existing graduates would be devalued. Authorities in many areas such as health, social services and education would be denied a reliable criterion in employing professional staff. Companies seeking to employ graduates would have similar problems. The reputation of Irish qualifications abroad would be destroyed.

Let us repeat here the concern expressed by Savage (above) lest highly specialised but not popular subjects be removed from third level institutions. I would add a concern that creative arts and sociological enquiry would be increasingly de-prioritised through funding mechanisms. I also echo the concern of Tom Garvin that open-ended or “blue sky research” would be deprived of funds in favour of focussed problem solving for commercial purposes. I am reliably informed that the next round of cuts under the HEA Employment Control Framework will necessitate redundancies in addition to non-replacement of staff in some institutions.  Areas of knowledge, inquiry and cultural endeavour must not be selectively deprived of resources. Nor should resources be squandered on a large management layer arising from the inappropriate replacement of collegiality with a command model of management to the detriment of teaching and other academic activity.

There are also serious concerns in the areas of science, engineering, computing, medicine and other health sciences.  There must be no drift towards allocation of academics to research projects outside their own research interest. Genuine research simply cannot be done on such a basis. Institute of Technology staff must not be prevented from engaging in scholarly activity by timetabling for 19 to 21 teaching  hours  per week.

We have no objection to having industrial research partners. But the co-operation must be on terms which do not affect the independence of academic staff. There must be no question of suppressing unwelcome research outcomes or impeding the development of knowledge as has happened in a number of cases abroad.

Academic freedom based on tenure and permanency is an indispensable prerequisite for a healthy democratic society, for the maintenance of academic standards and for the continued flourishing of genuine scholarship in Irish academic institutions.

What are electoral systems for?

January 23, 2011

It never ceases to amaze me how apparently intelligent and enlightened people can justify and support totally undemocratic electoral systems. As I have mentioned before in this blog, the United Kingdom has a system for general elections (‘first past the post’) that produces election results that have almost no relationship with the will of the people expressed at the ballot box. The Irish system (‘single transferable vote’) is entertaining but equally not necessarily efficient in expressing the will of the people, while its multi-seat constituencies positively encourage candidates to fight dirty against the running mates from their own party.

It seems to me that a voting system should have only one purpose: to allow the people to speak and to have their democratic wishes expressed accurately. That’s it. Nothing else is relevant. The system that does this most efficiently is the German one, which distributes parliamentary seats in line with the electorate’s party preferences while also ensuring that each constituency has a member of parliament.

I can think of no valid reason for retaining either the British or the Irish existing electoral systems. And what is proposed for Britain – the alternative vote system – is hardly better. If the countries on these islands want to be able to say they are democracies, they need to do better.

In support of the public university?

January 23, 2011

If one wants to find something good in all the turmoil and resourcing crises afflicting higher education in several countries, it could be that all this has stimulated debate about the nature of higher education and of the principles that give it meaning and significance. Over the past year or two there has been an avalanche of comment and analysis, and some very interesting work has been published. As is well known, we have also had a number of government-sponsored investigations into higher education, such as the Browne review in England or the Hunt report in Ireland. For the record, probably better than either of them is the Bradley report in Australia, but I shall come back to that in another post.

One potentially interesting contribution to the debate has been the UK Campaign for the Public University, which in essence consists of a website with contributions by supporters and a list of those who have subscribed. The website explains that the campaign seeks to ‘defend and promote the idea of the university as a public good’. The problem with the campaign name and the explanation just quoted is that it may be quite hard to pin down what it means. Generally speaking, the term ‘public university’ is used to denote those institutions which are largely funded by the taxpayer. This definition may be hard to sustain, as for example the US ‘public universities’ are deriving less and less of their income from public funding, though often the degree of state regulation has increased.

In fact, reading the comments and articles published on the Campaign’s website, what strikes me is that what unites those who are contributing is more of a sense of what they do not like – and the term ‘market’ tends to pop up a lot – rather than a vision for ‘public’ higher education as an ideal. Is a ‘public university’ defined by its ownership? Or by its structure? Or by its relationship with government? Or by its funding and resourcing? Or by its pedagogy and curriculum? Or all or none of these? The obsession with markets (whether pro- or anti-) serves very little purpose; markets are just distribution mechanisms, and higher education has always been a market, just a different one – in that a limited number of places had to be distributed amongst a larger number of applicants.

It is possible that there never was a consensus as to how higher education should work, but that we were able to get by because it didn’t really matter when there were fewer financial or demographic pressures. But now it matters. The problem is, we don’t have a sense of what we want higher education to be in terms of scholarship and pedagogy, so we keep focusing on structure and funding, thereby really putting the cart before the horse. Reading the materials put out by the Campaign for the Public University I can get no sense of what constitutes their theory of public education. If we are so vague ourselves, we are going to find it very hard to persuade anyone else.

My own view of ‘public’ higher education (for what it is worth) is that it should be open to all, accessible to all and committed to an educational mission that serves society’s social, cultural and economic needs. I believe it should be diverse, and I believe it should be autonomous. I believe it should seek and disseminate knowledge, and that its discoveries should be translated to as wide a use as possible, both commercially and socially.

Brian Cowen, Fianna Fail and Ireland

January 22, 2011

Brian Cowen’s decision to step down as Leader of Fianna Fail, still for now Ireland’s largest party, had become inevitable. I predicted a week or so ago that his decision then to cling to the post was a mistake – for him as much as the party and the country – and it has ended much as I had expected.

But here we are now, and before he goes riding off into the sunset (which he won’t do for a few weeks, as he stays on as Taoiseach until the election), I’m going to say something nice about him to balance all the other stuff right now. It’s not that I think he was the right person to lead the country, as it was clear to me for some considerable time that he lacked the desire and the capacity to create that kind of partnership with the people that every political leader must fashion if they are to survive – something that Bertie Ahern was very good at (whatever about any other failings) – in the same way that Tony Blair was very good at it in Britain, while Gordon Brown couldn’t do it.

But Cowen did understand one thing that, in the long run, is vital to the future of universities: that we are now in an era in which knowledge trumps everything. The other day I heard some economist, I think, on the radio suggesting that we must now return to less ambitious industrial development in which we’ll start chasing call centres again. This is complete nonsense, because we cannot return to that. Not only are we still a very large distance away from being competitive in such contexts (and could only become so by further massive pay cuts), but such investments now routinely go to Asia, and I expect soon to Africa; they are not coming back to us. Regardless of what anyone might think, knowledge-intensive investments and indigenous start-ups are where our only really promising future now lies.

In supporting, as Finance Minister, the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which in turn had been formulated under the leadership of Michéal Martin (possibly his successor-to-be as Leader of Fianna Fail) with the support also of Mary Hanafin (also a possible contender), Cowen showed some ability to understand this vision, which he continued to support as Taoiseach. Admittedly this was somewhat undermined by the cuts in higher education that have also followed, but I would still argue that he leaves an important legacy that may help us into the future. I say that without wanting to deny that other parts of his legacy will seem less attractive.

I have met Brian Cowen on a fairly large number of occasions and have had occasional opportunities to exchange thoughts with him. His career is not going to end in a happy way, and I am afraid he has himself to blame for much of that. But nevertheless, I appreciate an important part of what he did in office, and on a personal level I wish him well.

Old dears

January 22, 2011

So how do you start your emails? Do you address your correspondent with ‘Dear Mary’, or do you say ‘Hi Mary’, or do you just launch right into the subject-matter? And when you’ve said what you want to say, do you finish with the traditional ‘yours sincerely,’ or maybe ‘regards’? Or do you just sign your name, or maybe not even that?

I think I do all of these things, depending on the topic and how well I know my correspondent. I have been known to send 2 or 3-word emails with neither salutation nor valediction; but I have also sent emails that were essentially formal letters dispatched electronically. But now, some commentators are suggesting that the use of ‘Dear’ in a salutation is out of date, and perhaps suggests a degree of inappropriate intimacy. Using ‘Hi’, or nothing at all, would be better, apparently.

For myself, I don’t see that emails need to be seen for these purposes to be totally different from letters and memos and notes. I guess most people still begin letters with ‘Dear Mr Smith’, but we have long stopped signing off with rhetorical flourishes such as

‘I remain, dear Sir, your most humble and obedient servant.’

Custom and conventions change, but there is also usually room for those who want to maintain a somewhat more traditional approach. I don’t imagine they are misinterpreted or that they offend anyone. Though, to be straight with you, if you ever receive an email from me that ends with the valediction quoted above, you can be sure I am being sarcastic.


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