Posted tagged ‘Batt O’Keeffe’

Technological universities?

October 4, 2010

According to the Munster Express regional newspaper, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Batt O’Keeffe TD, told the Waterford Chamber of Commerce that the report of the higher education strategic review steering group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt ‘could have positive news for Waterford IT, Cork IT and Dublin IT.’ For non-Irish readers, these institutions are all designated as ‘Institutes of Technology’, i.e. higher education institutions that do not have university status. Of course the Minister’s teaser could mean anything at all, but given that he was saying this to Waterford businesspeople, he must have intended to hint that the quest for university status was probably going to be successful. Certainly that’s how they picked it up, and if this doesn’t turn out to be the case the Minister might want to decline invitations to speak anywhere in the South-East for a while.

In fact the good people of the Chamber appear to have taken this to be a hint that Waterford (and the other named institutions) were going to be offered a new status of ‘technological university’. This indeed has been a matter of speculation for a while, though not necessarily just in regard to these three institutes. The institute of technology sector, without input from either Waterford IT or DIT (Dublin) who have ben going their own way, has been suggesting for a while that they might be converted into one federal technological university. This case may now be receiving some support, though it is not clear exactly what form such a transformation might take, or which institutions it would affect.

At this point in my career I am most directly associated with two universities, Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Just 25 years ago neither of these was a university, so it would be wrong of me to suggest that such changes of status should not be supported. Indeed, I suspect that a good case can be made for the three institutes in question – though I might add that the case for Waterford has not particularly been helped by the argument used by local government and business interests that Waterford needs a university for business development reasons. That is not a reason at all for a change of status of the institute, and there are other much stronger reasons to do with the academic achievements recorded there.

I would certainly take the view that the time has come for some clarity on this issue. Does Ireland still want or need an institute of technology sector? If so, should this continue to consist of all the current institutions? If not, how does one differentiate between them? Should some of the institutes gain access to the university sector through bilateral arrangements with existing universities? What should happen to the non-degree level training programmes of the institutes? If there is to be a technological university, or several such universities, will these have the same status and roles as the existing universities?

The Hunt report may suggest answers to all of this, but one way or another the government needs to bring the current uncertainty about the future of this sector to an end.


Research prioritisation

October 2, 2010

I confess it is very tempting to feel less than enthusiastic when yet another group is established to chart a strategic direction relevant to Irish higher education. We still don’t really know what (if anything) is happening with the Colin Hunt review, which is supposed to set out a roadmap for higher education. But before this has been completed, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation establishes the ‘Research Prioritisation Steering Group’, with the brief to ‘work on a five-year prioritisation plan for Government investment in research and “smart” jobs’. But actually, wasn’t that the subject-matter of the Innovation Taskforce, which reported earlier in the year but which now seems to have been forgotten.

And yet, I am not going to be cynical about this research prioritisation group, because I believe it may have at least a chance of doing something. First of all, its membership has the right attributes for the job. It is chaired by Intel’s Jim O’Hara, who understands both the industry and academic angles involved. There are a number of academics involved, but again with interesting backgrounds. My own successor in DCU, Brian MacCraith, is there (and he combines research and industry experience); Nicholas Canny (professor from Galway and President of the Royal Irish Academy) is there, providing a humanities dimension. Alastair Glass is there, with his SFI, industry and Canadian government experience. There is an interesting industry representation, including Martin Naughton, one of Ireland’s foremost entrepreneurs. And while there is civil service representation, it is a small part of this group.

I do hope however that they will immediately ignore the Minister’s request that they target job creation. Of course jobs are all good, but I have come to the view that every politician who mentions ‘job creation’ should be given the red card and suspended for three games, so that they can be educated to understand that you cannot ‘create’ jobs, or not any more; and certainly not sustainable ones. But I think the wider idea of considering how investment in research can be made to be most effective is good – as a small (and currently struggling) country we need to invest more in research, but we need to do it wisely and effectively. We cannot do that if we are spreading necessarily small amounts all over the place; we need to prioritise, but we also need to know on what basis we are going to do that and how we will handle the implementation of any such prioritisation.

Moving this topic to my home-to-be in Scotland, it faces very similar issues and will also need to be highly focused in identifying what to invest in and what to support in research. Scottish Enterprise, and its associated agency Scottish Development International, will need to address this. In fairness, the Scottish Enterprise Business Plan 2010-2013 does identify industry sectors that have particular potential and highlights the industry research links already involved. But these areas are, I feel, too widely drawn to allow for sufficient prioritisation; the headings are pretty all-embracing, and that may work against making the process of development effective.

Although it is common to hear people say that a focus on research undermines higher education’s teaching and learning agenda, there is no need for this to be so. In fact, a focused research agenda is capable not just of providing a basis for new foreign direct investment and business start-ups, it also has the capacity to inform teaching and allow students to be brought to the cutting edge of the link between education and national economic and social development. Others may argue that research should not be directed, but that it should be pursued by academics in whatever way makes sense for them; and to an extent that is indeed so, but where funding is scare it may need to be directed to areas where it can make the biggest difference.

As for the working group, I’ll be watching out for its report with interest.

The statutory dimension

March 18, 2010

The Irish university system as it is currently constituted has its legal basis in the Universities Act 1997. This statute was the outcome of lengthy discussions and deliberations and an in-depth consultation process involving the sector. It created a single legal framework for all the universities (before that different institutions were governed by different Acts), and it set out a number of principles for higher education, including institutional autonomy for universities, protection of academic freedom, allocation of responsibility for quality assurance, and recognition of the distinction between governance and management. The Universities Act in essence produced a settled framework for higher education and research, and allowed Irish higher education institutions to become serious global competitors. Its significance could not easily be over-stated.

In the light of recent developments, and more particularly in the light of government decisions to re-position responsibility for the monitoring of quality assurance and to dissolve the National University of Ireland, it has become necessary to consider legislation to amend the Universities Act. It may seem that such amending legislation will be limited and will not change the nature of Irish higher education. But as we have not seen any draft Bill so far, and indeed don’t even know for sure what issues the Bill will address and in what way, we cannot be sure about its potential impact. For example, we do not know whether the idea of university autonomy will be compromised, nor do we know whether the legislation will impose greater burdens of bureaucratic controls.

We hear about a likely time frame for the legislation – it has been suggested that the Bill will be published before the summer and will be enacted early next year – but such a tight timeline will be easily managed only if the substance is limited to quite specific and narrow changes. But we have also become aware of the complexities of the proposed legislation, particularly  in relation to the intended winding up of the NUI (which has generated some resistance and criticism); in a recent report the Irish Independent has suggested that there may now be ‘major delays’. In the meantime, according to a report in the Sunday Business Post, a spokesperson for the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, has suggested that one of the purposes of the new framework will be to bring to an end the ‘self-regulating’ nature of the current higher education system.

I confess that all of this makes me pretty nervous. I am nervous because I do not know for sure where all this is going: I am not sure whether we will see a limited and essentially non-controversial update, or whether the principles of the 1997 Act set out above are about to be changed. If the latter, then we should really be having a wider debate (or indeed, any kind of debate) about what is proposed. And it would need to be seen in the context of whatever is going to be proposed in the report of the higher education strategic review now nearing completion.

But even if the intentions of the legislation are presented as limited in nature, they may not be that in practice. For example, quality assurance (which will definitely be affected) goes to the heart of the system, and transferring the responsibility for monitoring this from university governing authorities (which they have delegated to the Irish Universities Quality Board) to a state bureaucracy is not a minor step and may have profound implications for the nature of Irish higher education.

Universities cannot insist that a perfect state has been reached under the 1997 Act and that nothing can ever change. But they can and should argue that the 1997 Act represents a major national settlement on what constitutes a high value university system and that it should not be changed lightly or without proper concern for the implications. What we have right now is a move, at least potentially, to change the system on the back of budget considerations and anecdotal comments on university performance. If that happens, it would not be good enough. So it is now time to explain what is intended and to open discussions on the details. Irish universities are key to Ireland’s economic, social and cultural future. They can and should be reviewed critically, but not casually.

‘Grade inflation’ – so what happens this weekend?

March 3, 2010

According to the information revealed so far, the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe, has asked for the results (or an interim version of these) of the ‘investigations’ on grade inflation to be made available to him before the end of this week. As we already know this will tell him that, over a period of time, the proportion of higher classifications in examination or assessment results has increased in both the Leaving Certificate and in higher education. So he will be told that this is the case. Then what? Will steps be proposed or taken to restrict the universities’ and colleges’ freedom to classify results according to their rules?

In any case, what level of analysis will be applied? Will those failing examinations and/or dropping out be taken into consideration (they weren’t, I believe, in the IT Tralee study)? Will there be an analysis of the changing profile of students? Will the different pedagogical methods applied over the past decade or so be assessed?

The purpose of these questions is to demonstrate that the issues involved in shifting grades are not simple, and that the causes may be hard to pin down. There are also some risks involved, and it may be tempting for some to suggest causes where that suggestion could have wider social policy ramifications.

For example, the authors of the study in IT Tralee suggest by implication at least that widening access to third level education may damage standards; does this mean that we will start debating the merits of access? However, the evidence may point in quite a different direction: in DCU for example, access students (who sometimes enter the university on slightly reduced points) on average perform better than their non-access peers and are less likely to drop out.

What we should be recognising is that society as a whole has changed quite dramatically over the period in question, and so have students. The profile of the student body is different from what it was, and so are the things that motivate them and drive them. This has an impact on their performance.

In order to draw worthwhile conclusions – or indeed any valid conclusions at all – from the data on grades, we would need to undertake a far more sophisticated analysis of what has been happening to higher education. We need to ensure that we maintain a focus on that amidst all this sudden excitement.

Equally we need to accept that there are issues to answer about standards in the Irish education system right now, at all levels. Let us hope that the developing debate will be decisive, but also thoughtful rather than hysterical.

Grade inflation, educational standards, and everything…

March 2, 2010

Yesterday was one of those days – the Minister for Education and Science tells the world (via the Irish Times) that he is investigating grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in higher education, and immediately a confused (or at least confusing) debate gets under way about standards. The problem with this is, however, that all sorts of different (and not necessarily even related) issues get thrown together. Let me try to disentangle them a little.

First, it seems to me that the allegation of ‘grade inflation’ (where the sub-text is that students are now receiving marks they would not have received some years ago and which they do not objectively deserve) is a complete distraction. Yes, the Minister’s ‘investigations’ will show (as we already all know, as the figures are readily available) that the proportion of students getting higher grades has risen. But this is hardly surprising, as students’ working methods have changed dramatically, as have the pressures on them to perform to the highest possible standards: their success in the labour market depends on it. So students work harder and are driven to maximise their grades by making tactical choices about which subjects they study and how the do their work. In any case, if we benchmark our exam results against other countries, we will find that Irish grades are still relatively lower than elsewhere. It is perhaps strange that Google, a US company, is said to have complained, since the highest grade inflation of all has been in the United States. Also, while grades may have risen in third level institutions, student attrition has also, mostly caused by failed examinations. There is simply no evidence that Irish universities and colleges have been dumbing down.

It is odd that the Minister cited former Intel CEO Craig Barrett’s recent speech as the catalyst for his concerns about ‘grade inflation’, because Mr Barrett made no comment whatsoever about this issue; I can say this with confidence, as I was there. What he did say was that the Irish education system was now no better than average, and that in terms of international competition this was not adequate. His main worry was that we were not graduating sufficient numbers in mathematics and science, as these subjects were the basis of all the new industries. Other industry representatives have warned about the insufficient number of graduates with qualifications in software engineering and biotechnology. This is hugely important, but completely unrelated to grade inflation.

Then, during an interview on RTE radio, the Minister allowed himself to be walked into a statement that some unnamed Irish third level institution or institutions in particular were considered to be below the expected quality threshold. This is an incredibly damaging statement, and I suspect one without any foundation, and it should not have been made (or at least not without very solid evidence). It must be acknowledged that the Minister was pushed into responding to a point put to him, but it was still an unfortunate response.

Lest all of this sounds too defensive, let me emphasise that we do indeed have a problem, or indeed a series of problems, in Irish education. We have two main issues. The first is that we have a school system that is offering an education that, while staffed by dedicated teachers, is largely out of date, with questionable learning methods and with a syllabus that is not sufficiently adapted to society’s changing needs. The wholly inadequate proportion of students doing Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate is an example of that issue. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge that we reinforce this by allowing the very questionable influence of the CAO points system to continue. The second problem is in higher education itself, where we have built up expectations of a world class system that we are however unable to deliver due to rapidly declining resources and huge financial instability, accompanied moreover by an exponentially rising tide of bureaucratic controls. We have generated targets of participation rates in higher education that would, if achieved, take us amongst the top countries in the world for third level qualifications, but with resources only just better than those of a developing country. This cannot succeed, and we must move swiftly to ensure that the resourcing framework is sufficient, stable, predictable and focused on the right results in terms of educational outputs.

Yesterday’s announcements by the Minister were quickly followed by me-too statements from Fine Gael and Labour; as far as I know, none of these thought it might be helpful to have private discussions with the universities before picking up the megaphone. In the end none of this was helpful. Setting up investigations into grade inflation means getting lots of dogs to bark up the wrong tree. We do have a problem, probably even several problems; but we won’t solve them by going after something else entirely.

Grade inflation and the quality of Irish education

March 1, 2010

As we learn from a report in today’s Irish Times, the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, has launched ‘two major investigations’ into grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in Irish universities. The Minister intends this to be a response to the comments that have been made recently by former Intel CEO and Chairman that the Irish educational system produces at best average outputs, reported in this blog, and similar comments by other representatives of industry.

The question is whether these ‘investigations’ are into the right issues. He doesn’t need to organise ‘investigations’, he just needs to ask his officials to give him the numbers, which are freely available. But what he really needs to do is to ask quite different questions:

• How can we maintain a world class educational system on declining resources?
• Is the syllabus for the Leaving Certificate appropriate for Ireland’s needs?
• Are we doing what we need to do to ensure students take subjects that are critical to industry’s needs?

This is almost certainly not a question about grade inflation, but about what it is we are able to do with the educational curriculum, and whether the education system has been both resourced sufficiently and modernised appropriately.

Goodbye Education and Science?

February 27, 2010

Over recent years I have suggested from time to time that it might be right to look more closely at where ministerial responsibility for higher education might ideally lie. What has tended to prompt this suggestion is that the Department of Education and Science always and predictably focuses on primary and secondary education, and in particular prioritises these sectors when scarce resources have to be distributed. This is not surprising, because schools are part of the experience of all households in the state, whereas higher education, while now more inclusive than before, is still seen as something that is socially and intellectually elitist. Therefore successive Ministers for Education, who in addition to doing their ministerial job also have to worry constantly about the next election, have always favoured schools over universities and colleges when the going got tough.

My argument has been that higher education would get more robust support if it were to be detached from the school system and handed to a Minister of its own. This would not be a totally radical departure. For example, in Northern Ireland the Department of Education (which is in charge of schools) is separate from the Department of Employment and Learning (which has responsibility for higher and further education). In Britain Lord Mandelson, as Business Secretary, is in charge of higher education.

After the last general election the Irish Universities Association encouraged the Taoiseach to allocate higher education to a Department other than Education and Science.

So I have noted with interest that the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for the establishment of a Department of Education and Training to replace the current Department of Education and Science. In some ways this proposal is pointing in the opposite direction, as the union is calling on the government to bring responsibility for training back into the same department as other levels of education. But at least the proposal will help to put the spotlight on the Department  in order to assess how well it provides government oversight in areas where it now exercises it. On the same day former minister Mary O’Rourke TD called on the government to create a new department focusing on jobs and training, which represents another variation on the theme of departmental responsibility.

The occasion for all this talk right now is the expected cabinet reshuffle. So as the Taoiseach contemplates education and considers how best to secure a government that will energise and motivate, he may want to think again about the wisdom of leaving higher education in a Department that has tended to prioritise other things. What universities and colleges have to offer the country at this time is enormous, and will tend to determine the pace of economic recovery based on the extent to which they can be a magnet for knowledge-driven foreign direct investment and domestic start-ups. The complexity of this agenda is almost certainly better handled in a government department that is not constantly fixated on matters to do with schools.

The Taosieach should use this opportunity to send a strong signal about the significance of Ireland’s higher education sector – which is in any case needed urgently in order to reassure investors and entrepreneurs. The time is now.

Administrative flab?

February 8, 2010

According to the Sunday Independent newspaper (and you have to scroll down the article a bit), the Minister for Education and Science has ‘warned third-level colleges and institutes of technology that they must cut out the administrative flab and slim down in the same manner as their second and primary level educational counterparts’, and that university presidents must ‘run their institutions more efficiently.’

There is of course an important point to be made and repeated wherever possible: that the core activities of universities are teaching and scholarship, and that this should be reflected in how they are organized and staffed. But it also needs to be stated clearly that efficient administration is a necessary part of our business, and that academics should where possible be allowed to focus on academic activities rather than be diverted into administration. The presence of administrative staff in universities is not of itself a sign of inefficient management, and the ideal model of a higher education institution is not one where there are only academics. In the same way, and in the interests of proper community building on the campus, administrative and support and technical employees should be equal, and equally respected, members of staff.

The Minister’s statement (and it is similar to what I have heard him, and others, say orally) suggests at least by strong implication that Irish universities spend more of their resources on administrators than is appropriate. This is also a view not backed by any of the available evidence. In terms of international benchmarks, a much smaller percentage of staff in Irish universities – whether measured in headcount or in salary costs – works in administration than is the case in any comparable OECD country. As we also well know by now, Irish universities have managed to produce well respected graduates and to carry out world class research on the basis of a unit of resource that is substantially lower than in any other western country. To suggest, therefore, that Irish universities are inefficient is highly questionable.

But the Minister has used a different benchmark: he has compared universities with primary and secondary schools. But however much we should admire schools in the Irish educational system, it would be extraordinary to suggest that the levels of administration that are required for them should somehow set a target for third level. Universities and third level colleges operate in a wholly different way, with completely different administrative requirements.

I am concerned that this is another statement appearing to criticise the universities without any evidence to back it up, and indeed with the available evidence strongly pointing the other way; and that statements such as this may prove to be divisive between different categories of staff within the institutions. And it also represents another statement that pre-empts a review process that the Minister has himself set up – this time the so-called ‘forensic audit’.

As I have noted before, there is undoubtedly scope for reform and change in Irish higher education. But the likelihood of this being introduced in a reasonable and effective manner declines when statements are put about that undermine reviews already under way and where these statements are not based on any available evidence. Finally, if the Minister believes he has reason to be genuinely concerned about this he might first have a meeting with us to outline his concerns and the evidence on which they are based; reform is not about shouting unfounded criticisms through a megaphone.

Recruiting international students

February 5, 2010

Still on the subject of the interview on Morning Ireland by the Minister for Education and Science (see my last post), it was good to see him placing some emphasis on international student recruitment. He indicated – and this is most welcome – that work is being done to improve the visa system. The current inefficiencies, bureaucracies and slow response rates when international students apply for Irish visas is losing us students, but more importantly still is compromising our reputation overseas.

The Minister was also keen to point out that a high level group he has established will be setting ‘ambitious targets’ for international student recruitment, affecting all universities and colleges. I suspect that target setting is the wrong exercise, and will not add much to our success as a country. Universities and other higher education institutions are already working hard to increase the number of international students.

In some ways, the recruitment of students is only one aspect of all this, and arguably the easiest. What is perhaps more important is that Ireland does not become active in other countries just as a recruiter of students, but rather that we engage with partners in those countries and establish links that add value at various levels, including research collaboration. We should also be willing to offer our support in those countries, perhaps through the occasional secondment of academics and through staff and student exchanges. We need to ensure that where we do recruit students, we provide them with support and advice that will help them make the cultural transition, and that we respect and support their specific needs.

And finally, it is important that we consider carefully what the optimum number of international students would be in our institutions. International students are most welcome, and add much through their different experiences, insights and cultures. But this works best when the mix between domestic and international students is carefully judged. In my experience, the number of international students as a proportion of the whole student body should not exceed a figure of around or just below 20 per cent.

There is much we can usefully do to build and enhance the international student experience. However, I suspect that target setting is the least of it.

Doing it all over again – and again – for the very first time!

February 5, 2010

I do hope it was a slip of the tongue! On RTE’s programme Morning Ireland on Thursday, the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, was very positive about the potential impact of the higher education strategy review currently under way, where I understand that the steering group will report in a month or two. This, he said, was so important because it was ‘the first time ever’ that a comprehensive review of higher education had been undertaken. Really? ‘First time ever’?

I’m afraid it’s not even nearly the first time. The last occasion was only very recent – the OECD review of Irish higher education commissioned by the then Minister, Mr Noel Dempsey TD. It reported in 2004 and made a number of very important recommendations, which were widely discussed. But not implemented. And now forgotten, at any rate as we see in the Department of Education. We must all hope that in, say, 2016 the Minister’s successor will not be announcing that a comprehensive strategic review of Irish higher education was to be set up for the first time ever. But just in case, I’ll be there, and will certainly be referring back to 2010.