Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Opening new universities

September 8, 2014

In a global environment in which countries compete with each other for investment and for migrants with experience and skills, universities are a high value currency. There is little doubt that having a university brings significant benefits to a town, region or country, but only if the university’s credentials are right. Where that is not the case, the existence of a higher education institution of suspect quality or with other inadequacies can actually do some harm.

So if there is a proposal for the establishment of a new university, or for the granting of university status to an existing institution, what criteria should be used? This is currently a live issue in Ireland, where a number of existing institutes of technology (the latest being Athlone) have declared they will use a new statutory framework to apply for the status of a ‘technological university’. The Higher Education Authority, which manages this framework, has now announced the membership of the expert panel that will advise the Authority on ‘the viability and adequacy of plans for the creation of a technological university’ in each case.

This new Irish framework is seriously flawed, not because it allows for the establishment of new universities, but because it assumes that a ‘technological university’ is a recognised distinct type of higher education institution, without really making it clear why there should be such a separate category and without providing necessary assurances that the quality standards are the same as those that would apply to ‘normal’ universities. Most of the criteria are, at least on the face of it, similar to those one would expect any universities to meet. But the whole thing is undermined, and in my view fatally, by the absolute requirement that such applications can only come from what is described as a ‘consolidation of two or more institutions’. Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible. Furthermore, apart from partnerships in the Dublin area, such joint bids will have to come from institutions located in different towns or regions, creating geographically separated multi-campus institutions that will find it very hard to create a coherent joint strategic direction.

A very good case can and should be made for institutional diversity in higher education, and there is not just room, but real demand, for universities that are, as one might put it, closer to the market and focused on the usability of their courses and research. But this should not be subject to different quality thresholds and should not involve the requirement of illogical and perhaps unworkable combinations. There is room for one or more new universities in Ireland; but the government should think again about how this is achieved.

By hand

August 26, 2014

It may be worth prefacing what I am about to write with the assurance that I am certainly not a technophobe. I have always been pretty much the first adopter of any technological innovation, ahead of anyone in my peer group. I was using a word processor in 1981, I had my first PC in 1983 (and my first Macintosh in 1986), I was on the internet in 1992 and was using an iPhone and an iPad and so in the very first wave.

Why am I protesting so much? Because what I want to suggest here is that one particular form of using technology may not be ideal: taking notes on a laptop or tablet. I had started doing this some time ago, and at meetings and discussions I was always there with my laptop, and later my iPad. Then one day I was at a meeting and had forgotten to bring any of this equipment. I borrowed a piece of paper from someone and started writing by hand; and suddenly found that I was paying more attention to the meeting and getting a better quality of written note. So since then I have gone back to taking notes on paper. I digitise it afterwards, but the actual note taking is by hand. Indeed, I have even managed to recover my one time ability to write fast, a talent that had been lost due to lack of use.

Now I find that my experience may reflect a broader truth.  A professor and one of his students at Princeton University have conducted a study that has revealed that students who take notes by hand on paper during classes perform much better at subsequent tests than those using computers to take notes. It seems that the mental processes are different and therefore produce different results.

These days as I sit at meetings I notice that, usually, I am the only one to write notes by hand (though I will have an iPad to consult meeting materials). Maybe it is time for all of us to re-discover handwriting. We might even resurrect the fountain pen.

Views of Aberdeen

September 28, 2011

This is the gate, from Union Street, into the churchyard of the Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen.

The gate into the Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen

PRTLI wars

May 29, 2010

In yesterday’s Irish Times we read that the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is in trouble. There may be readers here who are not fully aware of what PRTLI is, so here’s a short explanation. In the 1990s the philanthropist Chuck Feeney persuaded the government to join him in funding a new high value research programme for Irish universities, aimed at turning what were then somewhat unambitious and under-equipped institutions into real contenders in global research. It is no exaggeration to say that PRTLI transformed the Irish university sector. It provided state of the art laboratories and facilities, and allowed individual colleges to assemble high powered research teams. It created the setting in which the state and its agencies could credibly argue that Ireland was developing a knowledge economy that would be an appropriate host for companies wishing to develop an R&D presence in Europe. It can be said that much of today’s foreign direct investment in Ireland is made possible by the changes brought about through PRTLI.

Despite the clear value to Ireland of the PRTLI programme, it has had several near-death experiences. In 2002, when there was a budget blip, the government ‘paused’ PRTLI – meaning that it stopped new PRTLI proposals and preparations for the next phase of the programme (Cycle 4). The effect of this was devastating, as word spread internationally that Ireland had shown its lack of commitment to high value R&D. A little later PRTLI was reinstated, and in 2006 was given stronger government support by its inclusion in the very significant funding programme under the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI). By about 2008 the government had recovered its credibility as regards research in the global business community, particularly be re-confirming its support for PRTLI at a time of significant budgetary pressures.

So it is at this point that again we hear that PRTLI is in trouble. This time the main problem is that, after the cabinet reshuffle and shifting of responsibility for PRTLI from the Department of Education to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, a ‘turf war’ has broken out between the departments and agencies as to how PRTLI should be run, thereby delaying the announcement of the next cycle. Alongside that, according to the Irish Times article, there is some scepticism about the capacity for PRTLI funds to create jobs. It is maybe worth saying again that asking about the number of jobs created by research funding is naive: the key objective in developing university research is not to create jobs directly, but rather to establish an environment that will attract high value investment.

It has to be said that several government ministers (including the Taoiseach) have a very good record on research funding. However, all of this funding is for nothing unless there is strong consistency. The PRTLI tap cannot be turned on and off without causing severe damage to Ireland’s inward investment efforts. And even in these hard times – maybe particularly in them – we need to show strength of purpose in wanting to be amongst the global research leaders. Losing the research advantage because agencies or departments are squabbling would be ludicrous. I understand that the results of PRTLI cycle 5 were recommended to the government a few months ago. They must now be announced without delay, before irreversible damage is done to Ireland’s research reputation internationally. The time is now!

Living and working with technology

May 3, 2010

The Industrial Revolution in Britain (which never made much of an appearance in Ireland) fundamentally changed not just industrial processes but just about everything in society and in the economy. It revolutionised social and geographical mobility, it changed work processes and management, it started the move from a rural to an urban society. It created great wealth, but also great deprivation and poverty. One movement to emerge from all this with a response to the new industrialisation was the Luddites, who became famous for destroying mills and the new industrial machinery. They achieved significant prominence in the early years of the 19th century, around the time of the Napoleonic wars.

The Luddites’ practice of rejecting and then destroying new machines led to the term ‘Luddite’ being used (as it still is today) to describe people who will not use or are opposed to new technology. It is not even that uncommon for people who are sceptical about technological innovation to use the term to describe themselves. Sometimes such scepticism is based not on principle, but rather on a lack of self-confidence in working with technology; but at other times it expresses a view that new machines can destroy traditional ways of life or working methods, to the detriment of society.

In the academic environment some voices have been heard questioning the value or information technology, or the use of email for communication. It is sometimes suggested that the internet has cheapened access to knowledge and by doing so has compromised the application of judgement and intellectual rigour to the evaluation of information sources; while email is said to have removed many of the benefits of face-to-face debate in a more tangible community of scholars.

There can be no doubt that the new technologies have produced huge changes, though perhaps not as many as they might have. Most higher education studies are still undertaken in a classroom environment, and libraries are still focal points for research. Distance learning certainly exists, but is conducted on a much more modest scale than was predicted a decade or two ago.

However, the internet and email have undoubtedly had a big impact, and have changed learning and research methods. They may also have changed our sense of what constitutes an academic community, in that we can now work with colleagues who are located thousands of miles away, even if in consequences we now also often communicate with the person in the office next door exactly in the same way as the colleague who is in Singapore.

I confess I find it difficult to summon up sympathy for the anti-technology argument. In any case, the fear of information technology is not new. Nothing that is currently happening can compare with the intellectual earthquake caused by the birth of printing several centuries ago, and nothing could persuade me that we would be better off without mass-produced books. Equally, the new access we now have to global information is a hugely valuable resource, and if we have to acquire new and better skills to use it appropriately, then let’s acquire them. And I would never want to return to the days when, in order to exchange some ideas with a colleague in California, I had to wait until midnight and spend a small fortune on a telephone call.

Over recent years some historians have questioned whether the original Luddites actually objected to the machines at all; they may rather have been alarmed at the impact on pay of new trading regulations. In any case, there is little evidence that the growth of information technology today in higher education has destroyed jobs or compromised values. We may still need to get better at evaluating information sources and being selective, but the academic world has had to do that before and has managed it well. We should never allow ourselves to be persuaded that communicating less widely is somehow a better idea. It isn’t.

Personal pursuits

June 18, 2008

I have no reason to think that this would interest anyone very much, but I don’t spend all my time being a university President, and I do have other passions. The three main non-professional interests in my life are literature, music and photography.

From an early age I developed a liking for Victorian fiction, in part because I believe that it was an era that gave us most of the best writing in English. Authors like Dickens not only perfected the genre of the novel, but also addressed the major social, ethical, cultural and political issues of the day in a way that influenced both fashions and passions right up to today. Apart from Dickens, I love Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope – the latter in my view a very underrated author. But I also like much contemporary fiction – I may do another blog entry on that shortly.

I am not really an artist in my own right, but if I were to make a claim for that at all, I would base it on my modest photography, which you can see here. If my work has any merit at all, it does at least create some business, as I have bought too much expensive photographic equipment.

However, it is music that more than anything else lets me be reflective and take a step back from daily pressures and concerns. I like all musical genres, more or less without exception – though clearly not all music is good.  I listen to a good deal of classical music, again mainly from the 19th century (but also from earlier and later periods). I listen to quite a lot of rock music – including (at random) AC/DC, Aerosmith, Queen, Whitesnake. I probably get most from alternative, indie music, and would recommend in particular the stunningly good A Fine Frenzy.