Archive for February 2011

Oscars with an ‘F’

February 28, 2011

Two families I know each have dogs called Oscar. Whenever anyone talks about ‘the Oscars’, I first instinctively think about the two dogs, both of whom are rather charming and intelligent. On the other hand, whenever I watch the ‘Academy Awards’ I don’t always come away with that impression. Too much formula, too much playing safe, too many highly scripted ‘impromptu’ speeches, too many laboured jokes.

Last night’s ceremony did provide some light relief. The awards came in pretty much as anticipated, but one of the awardees broke an absolute American TV convention of never saying the ‘F’ word on air. Melissa Leo, in her acceptance speech on receiving the best actress award for her role in the film The Fighter, said ‘When I watched Kate two years ago, it looked so f***ing easy’. Since then she has fallen over herself apologising. It has been good for youtube though, with lots of people putting the clip online.

People watching the ceremony from these parts probably wouldn’t even have noticed. Take a short ride on a Dublin bus, and the ‘F’ word shoots through the air from all sides as if you were in crossfire from expletives-armed machine guns. Actually, it’s not even an expletive any more, it’s just a sentence filler. ‘How are you today?’ – ‘F***ing great!’ – ‘That’s f***king brilliant.’ – ‘I’m getting off the f***ing bus now, goodbye.’ In fact, you kind of feel startled if someone says something without the ‘F’ word.

Maybe we should all be more relaxed, though. Swearing is not something just discovered by this generation, and expletives used in earlier periods of history were often much worse. It would be nice if the wider population could be a bit more original in assembling their sentences, but that’s perhaps a question of education and culture rather than a case for the morals police. In the meantime, Melissa Leo’s career has had a whole additional shot in the arm. That’s one Oscar awarded everyone will remember.


Education and social exclusion

February 28, 2011

One key change in the way in which we view higher education has been thrown into relief by the funding crisis in most western countries. As resources have dried up, university representatives (including me) have warned that poorly resourced institutions cannot compete globally and will not be recognised as being at the cutting edge of scholarship and innovation. Interestingly, over recent months there has been a tendency on the part of some politicians and business leaders to respond by saying that world class excellence may be incompatible with an inclusive approach to teaching and may be inappropriate at this time. This in turn has been driven by the policy of widening access to higher education and increasing the levels of participation; and it is assumed that to do this requires more flexible entry standards and a willingness not to be ‘distracted’ by a research agenda.

This was first brought home to me at a meeting I had about three years ago with local government representatives and voluntary organisations from Dublin City University’s neighbourhood, when I was the university’s president. I had arranged the meeting in order to consult local stakeholders about the DCU’s strategic plan, and in order to ascertain what they felt they needed from us. To my surprise the most passionate contributions came from those who were arguing (at a time when DCU had just entered the global top 300 university rankings) that we had lost our way and had diluted our support for the community by pursuing a high value research agenda. We were, they suggested, a ‘teaching institution’ and there was no need to ‘run after all those research deals that won’t make any difference to anyone here.’

My fear is that this particular outlook is gaining ground in Ireland, sometimes pushed by people whose main agenda is to justify cutting funds for universities. It is of course true that not every university can pursue research in exactly the same way. DCU’s research agenda, while (I would argue) highly successful, was certainly not the same as that of Harvard. But the idea that high value scholarship is a luxury that we should leave to other countries would, if it gained ground, damage not just Ireland as a location for innovation, but also the interests of those whose representatives I was addressing three years ago. The next generation of young people in Ireland will need to graduate with skills and with knowledge that is typical of the world’s leading universities. Industries that a decade or two ago recruited employees with undergraduate degrees will today often look for those who have done postgraduate programmes or research.

There will still be a need for diversity, and for institutions with different missions. But there will be no demand for lower standards and cheaper education. Indeed, while there is no conflict between social inclusion and educational excellence (provided universities that consider themselves to be the elite are pushed to remember their social obligations), there is a particular need to fund social inclusion programmes well, so that their students can be properly supported and their graduates can take their places in the new careers and businesses of the future. The idea that there is a pleasing convergence between budgetary restraint and progressive social policy is an idiocy that needs to be corrected at every opportunity.

Photograph: time flies

February 27, 2011

One of the few joys of passing through Dublin airport is that sometimes – depending on which gate you are using – you get to see the original airport building, completed in art deco style in 1941. Still in use for some airport operations, it is a particularly good example of the best architecture of that era.

New day for Ireland?

February 27, 2011

I am about to go to bed for tonight, and as I do so the current seat count in the Irish general election is Fine Gael 46, Labour 26, Sinn Féin 11, Fianna Fáil 12, Independents and small parties 12. There are still 61 seats to be filled, and right now the predictions made across the media are all consistent and suggest Fine Gael will be by far the largest party, but short of an overall majority, and that a coalition with Labour (which also did well, though not as well as might have been predicted a few months ago) is the most likely outcome. Fianna Fáil will probably return fewer than 20 TDs, representing a catastrophic meltdown of its vote. The Greens have gone; a few years ago someone suggested that their votes would, in the end, be biodegradable, and so it now appears.

The Irish electorate was clearly determined to punish the parties forming the outgoing government, and to do so comprehensively. It is part of the current political narrative, and the future will reveal to what extent this is history or mythology – that an incompetent and corrupt administration, too close to bankers and developers, walked the country into an economic disaster and then sought and agreed an unfair remedy for it in the form of the EU/IMF bail-out. In this narrative other parties were innocent and the people were victims. It is possible that this narrative is not totally correct, but right now there is no mood in the country to question it and sentence is being pronounced accordingly.

I suspect that nothing much is about to change, and the new government will largely continue where the discredited one left off. I also fear that the new Taoiseach will be no better at communicating with the people than the outgoing one. But perhaps the election offers the chance for psychological renewal and for a new determination to go forward and achieve recovery. The country does deserve that.

Exit strategy

February 26, 2011

Next Tuesday, I shall be embarking upon my last month (at least for the time being) as a full-time resident in Ireland. In a few weeks I shall be taking up my post as Principal of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. I shall maintain a base in Ireland and will visit regularly, but inevitable I shall be less informed and my more immediate interests will focus mainly on Scotland.

It is my intention that this blog will continue, but if it is to maintain a significant Irish higher education dimension (alongside the Scottish one that will now be developed) I shall require help. I am hoping that there may be a reader or two here who will be willing to assemble Irish stories and comment for the blog from April 2011. I shall also be inviting guest bloggers who will contribute from time to time. Some posts from other parts of the world will also be welcome from time to time, and those interested in contributing should let me know.

If any reader is interested in joining the team that will, I hope, be running this blog, please contact me at

Resourcing excellence

February 26, 2011

Today we shall probably get a better idea of who will form the next government in Ireland. Once the new administration takes office it will have a number of priority issues on its agenda. It may be tempted to think that higher education is not one of them, or worse still, that any issues regarding it can be addressed by stepping up regulatory restrictions and bureaucratic controls. None of that will improve the standing of Irish universities, or help them to attract knowledge intensive investment to Ireland.

The new ministers will need to bear in mind that companies with an innovation agenda will choose a location in which they can most easily tap into a labour force with specialist skills and a research community with high value specialist expertise. If they cannot find that here, they will go elsewhere. And having that here is, more than anything else, a question of resources.

Right now in the United States some well known universities are facing significant financial pressures also. But even allowing for these, here is what they can avail of. The University of California at Berkeley is very worried about the loss of state funding. In fact it has 35,000 students, and after funding reductions have taken effect it will receive $300 million, or €218 million, in state funding (which works out at €6,228 per student). UCD, Ireland’s largest university, has 24,000 students and receives approximately €125 million in the recurrent grant (or €5,208 per student). However, when you add other sources of income and look at the overall budget, the picture gets more extreme. Overall, UCD’s annual budget is in the region of €350 million. The annual budget for Berkeley is around $1.8 billion, or €1.3 billion. So even with new financial pressures, UC Berkeley has more than twice the resources available to it on a pro rata basis than those available to UCD (and other Irish universities).

Mergers and other similar measures will not help in this in any way – on the whole they cost money and dilute excellence. As I have said in this blog before, there is no substitute for proper resourcing, and there is no framework for higher education excellence provided on the cheap. If we really mean to have a knowledge economy and society, then the government’s approach needs to change fundamentally. Also, those who believe that it will be possible to fund higher education satisfactorily solely from public money may need to think again; we need to be internationally competitive.

At the heart of the campus?

February 25, 2011

Right now a controversy is raging in the United Kingdom, as many readers will know, about the future of public libraries. Libraries, under threat from funding cuts being experienced by local authorities, have become a kind of icon in the struggle to find a new kind of society that maintains decent values and is yet affordable in these straightened times. And yet, a vox pop survey carried out the other day by a British radio station on a typical English high street did not come up with a single passer-by who had been inside the local library within the previous month.

This finding was on my mind when I met a small group of students who were proposing to interview me for a student magazine. In passing I asked them how often they used their university library. Of the five present, one said he used it very frequently, another said he was there occasionally (principally just before an exam), and the other three could not recall when they had last been in it. ‘It’s all on the web now,’ one of them offered.

I don’t know of any academic who would not put in a spirited defence of their library and of the need to resource it generously. And yet, how many of them use it? Is it that we are addicted to nostalgia that keeps us from making realistic judgements, or are we right to defend libraries even though many have lost the knack of using it?

No doubt some of this depends on what subject is being studied or researched, but in the end I would be aghast at the idea of leaving behind the idea of the university library as the heart of the intellectual community. But it may be the case that we need to re-conceptualise it, and gain a batter understanding of how a library, as a centre for books, information technology and other resources, can be at the centre of learning and scholarship today. If we don’t do this and do it well, it will not be long before someone starts to think of the library as an unnecessary extravagance; and then we will really have lost something.

Critical carnage

February 25, 2011

What kind of meaning do we need to derive from good, or even acceptable, theatre? What should it tell us about human nature and morality? And what about all this if the drama is comedy?

These are all issues that have been taken through the arts and letters pages of the Irish Times recently. The discussion was prompted by a play currently showing in Dublin’s Gate Theatre (having previously been a major success in the West End and on Broadway): The God of Carnage, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton. For those who have not seen it, the play tells the story of a meeting between two couples to discuss the fall-out from a physical attack by the son of one couple on the son of the other. The two sets of parents intend to reach an amicable settlement, but as the initially civilised encounter progresses they gradually strip away layers of composure and eventually civilisation. All of this is in the form of a comedy, and the play includes moments of extreme wit and slapstick.

I might add that I saw the play this week, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but also one that prompted some discussion. This discussion in my household followed an earlier set of exchanges in the newspaper. It began with a critique of the play by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole  agreed that the play had an excellent cast, ‘roller-coaster dialogue’, ‘gorgeous designs, and ‘lots of laughs and intimations of some kind of underlying intellectual seriousness.’ So a good play, then? Not at all! In fact, O’Toole concluded that it was ‘among the crassest pieces of theatre I have ever seen’. The reason for this was that it was ‘morally tone deaf’. Why? Well, to cut to the chase, because it mentioned Darfur. One of the protagonists is an expert on the civil war there, and this is used once or twice in the play as a theme in the increasingly aggressive dialogue. And Fintan O’Toole doesn’t like that one bit. This is how he summarises his point:

‘The effect of Reza’s attempt to build a tower of moral importance on a swamp of banality is to shrink to nothing the difference between genocide and middle-class people behaving badly.’

But if that was the verdict of the critic, the cast was not necessarily taking this lying down (or even slumped over the sofa, vomiting, as was the case in the play). One of the actors, DCU graduate and Father Ted alumnus Ardal O’Hanlon, in the wonderful words of another letter writer to the Irish Times, ‘came down off the stage and savaged [the] critic.’ Writing to the newspaper, O’Hanlon suggested of O’Toole:

‘Might I respectfully suggest, as one of the cast, that he missed the point of the play by miles and, might I add, that a person of such a delicate sensibility should stay well away from the theatre, not to mention town centres, in future.’

The point of the play, he suggests, is that people can lose their veneer of civilisation and become capable of saying and doing shocking things – and the Darfur reference helps to provide the contrast between lofty ideals and social concern on the one hand and the reality of human interaction when it breaks down on the other.

There is, I believe, a serious point being made in the play, and it is not the first play to present its argument in the form of comedy. It seems to me that O’Toole thinks that theatre must never cut the cord between human outrage and a sense of serious proportion, and that outrage must therefore never be allowed to settle down alongside an exposition of human banality. For myself, I cannot even begin to see why our anger should be so deliberately mannered in assailing the world around us. Or rather, I thought that this view of things had been left behind some time around the emergence of Monty Python.

For all that, the critique and the responses have demonstrated one other, very welcome, fact: that theatre still matters and that it can focus debate. Maybe something that those considering further cuts to the performing arts might consider.

Academic plagiarism and the wider world

February 24, 2011

Academics are used to discussions about the nature and implications of plagiarism, both on the part of students and occasionally by staff. But just occasionally plagiarism that had its origins in academic exercises creates waves in the wider world. This week has provided a major example. The German Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has had to give up his doctoral title in the face of allegations that he used but did not credit some of the sources in his PhD thesis. The thesis in question was submitted in 2006 and was later published in 2009. The actual extent of the alleged plagiarism is small in the overall context of a 1,000 page work, but as he could not refute the allegations he was forced to hand back his doctorate. For now at least, he will retain his government post, but he may find that his career has been seriously affected.

His is not the first non-academic career to have been hit by allegations of academic plagiarism. Last year a candidate for the post of Governor in Maine was seriously affected by allegations of plagiarism, which prompted him to fire on of his own staffers who, he said, was responsible for providing the allegedly copied materials.

Within the university sector an Australian vice-chancellor, David Robinson, had to resign a few years ago when the media picked up cases of plagiarism on his part that had been established some years earlier.

As universities often struggle with plagiarism by students, it may be worth reminding them that when they are found to have plagiarised this has the potential to leave a trail that can seriously damage them later in their professional lives. It is a matter to be taken seriously.

Academic employment uncontrolled

February 24, 2011

Regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with an Irish government programme applying to higher education called the ‘Employment Control Framework’. A new chapter may be about to open with regard to this particular idiocy,  and so I feel I should say just a few more words about it.

First, a short summary of what this is all about. When in 2008 the Irish economy began to run into serious difficulties, the government imposed a recruitment and promotions moratorium in the public service. At first it was said that this was to apply to the higher education institutions also, but when the universities pointed out that it was incompatible with various provisions in the Universities Act 1997 establishing university autonomy they were told that a special. slightly more flexible scheme would be worked out for them. To cut a long story short, after various drafts had been circulated and some fairly heated negotiations had taken place, the ‘Employment Control Framework’ was born.

The ECF did two things. First, it imposed a staffing reduction target on the institutions, requiring them to reduce the number of those in employment (and separately, also pay costs) by 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010. Secondly, it prohibited all promotions and pay increases. In addition, the framework imposed restrictions on appointments even where the savings targets had been met. It did exclude posts from the restrictions where they were not funded by public money, or temporary posts funded by research grants.

In the event, the targets were met by the universities within the timescale. However, this has not been without consequences. In the absence of any redundancy framework, staffing reductions can only be made where vacancies occur. Such vacancies are, by definition, not strategic, so that staffing cuts have been taking place in areas where the universities may not be able to afford them. Secondly, the cuts have in particular applied to staff on fixed term contracts, for obvious reasons, thereby depriving institutions of younger colleagues. As academic employment is highly specialised and transfers within institutions are almost always not realistic, this has led to some areas of strategic importance becoming very vulnerable. Irish universities already had a very unfavourable student-to-staff ratios, and these have been further damaged by the framework.

This time last year the assumption was that the ECF would terminate in December 2010. In fact, the sector still does not know for sure what will happen next, but the signs are that the framework will continue, and may even be extended to posts not funded by public money. Whether this means that current staff numbers will be maintained at the December 2010 levels, or whether further reductions will be applied, is something we don’t know. But here are some of the implications.

• First, staff levels are now pretty much at the limits of sustainability. Further reductions will call the viability of some programmes into question.
• Secondly, the prohibition of promotions has generated a major morale issue, but also created operational problems as senior staff retire but cannot be replaced at that level, with implications for devolved leadership.
• Thirdly, if externally funded posts are to be included universities will be unable to accept contracts and projects that will generate non-exchequer funded revenues, as Professor Colm Harmon has argued recently on this site – which would be crazy.

But most importantly of all, the ‘Employment Control Framework’ is a bureaucrat’s dream but is operationally useless.  Universities accept of course that they must live within their means, and accept that they cannot escape the general cost saving imperative at this time. But how they spend their money must be a matter for them, and the micro-management of their staffing decisions is totally incompatible with the statutory framework for higher education. By applying the ECF the state does not save any money whatsoever, it merely removes independence. In fact, the ECF is actually preventing universities from diversifying their revenues and is punishing initiative.

As the government and the Higher Education Authority consider what should happen over the period ahead, they must understand the completely unnecessary damage which the ‘Employment Control Framework’ is inflicting on the universities and colleges. They must be weaned off the idea that operational controls somehow create better value. This crazy framework must be brought to an end.