Posted tagged ‘Marc Coleman’

Misleading commentary

July 19, 2010

Yesterday’s Sunday Independent newspaper contained an opinion piece by Marc Coleman under the heading ‘Highest-paid academics of Europe get yet another rise’. Actually, if you Google the name Marc Coleman you’ll get a choice of either a ‘mixed martial arts fighter’, or a self-styled ‘media economist, author and event speaker.’ I’d like to think that this piece was by the kung fu guy, but I have a hunch it was the event speaker. So I think our Marc Coleman here is the economics editor of radio station Newstalk, who also has a regular newspaper column.

In this particular piece Coleman delivers himself of some astoundingly facile comments on the French Revolution (à propos of pretty well nothing), before settling in to a theme he has pursued before and which he clearly enjoys: the unacceptable ways of the academic community. This is what he offers us:

‘As for nobility, there are many, but last week the nobles in the news were our academic elites. And if they and their royal cousins – government politicians – don’t wake up, we could be in for political chaos and economic disaster… On Monday, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) raised the pay of lecturers by between €4,000 and €10,000. The result will be the loss of part-time lecturers – the proverbial peasants – who work far harder and earn far less.’

I guess it’s important to correct this in case somebody takes it at face value. Those reading Coleman’s article without knowing the facts might conclude that TCD had implemented a general pay rise for staff – indeed, that is the clear message we are supposed to take from the piece. In fact that’s nonsense. As we have noted in this blog, Trinity’s decision related to the completion of a promotions round initiated two years ago, as a result of which 27 (out of a total of maybe 700) lecturers get a promotion in status, but for now no pay rise. Even if and when the pay rise kicks in, the impact on TCD’s budget will be tiny, and certainly won’t cause a loss of jobs for Coleman’s ‘proverbial peasants.’ But unless he didn’t inform himself at all before rushing into print, Marc Coleman knows this. What he has done is put a wholly misleading slant on a news item in order to have a go at the academic community.

The problem with such commentary is that it actually frustrates genuine attempts to produce reform. It is clear enough that academic practice will need to change further, and that universities will have to reinvent themselves and find different and better ways of conducting their business. But this is made immeasurably more difficult when hostile and misleading comments are made by those who have every opportunity to know better.

Lazy, greedy academics?

October 19, 2009

Marc Coleman, of Newstalk radio, just recently invited me to appear on his radio show – unfortunately I had to decline as I was genuinely unavailable; but that’s maybe as well, because I am going to have to take him to task here.

In this last weekend’s Sunday Independent, he wrote an article in which he praised the response of private sector employees (but more particularly, his own response) to the economic crisis, and compared that unfavourably with what was going on in the public sector. He had a more specific target: academics in the university (which we won’t name here, but you can read it up) where he does some part-time teaching. He teaches 80 hours per year, he says, and gets paid a modest four figure sum for his troubles. But what about the people who have full-time jobs in the same college? Well, this apparently:

‘… Full-time lecturers elsewhere in [the college] who do less lecturing each year can earn salaries of €90,000 or higher. And some do no lecturing whatsoever (and the standard of their research is highly questionable).’

Okaaayyy. But it’s worse than that, much worse. While he slaves away at the academic coalface in this unrecognised way (except by the students, who love him to bits in their assessment), what do the college authorities (damn them) do? This:

‘Despite that, [that college] can drop my course in order to save money to fund the huge salaries of lecturers who need not do any lecturing, cannot get fired and who often spend three summer months of the year doing nothing.’

The trouble is that someone is bound to believe all this, and before you can say ‘HEA funding formula’ will be pressing for even greater cuts so that these layabout academics will be forced to relinquish their gold-plated BMWs and swimming pools and join the ‘real world’, wherever that is.

Of course I am not suggesting that nobody in the universities under-performs. I am not suggesting that academics should be protected from pay cuts at the current time. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t be accountable for the money we spend. But I am suggesting that the caricature painted in this article is rubbish. The overwhelming majority of university staff work very hard indeed, don’t abuse the system (any system), take few holidays and get no special benefits. And they are the people whose continuing hard work will be decisive – if we let it be that – in Ireland’s recovery.

Come on, Marc, maybe it’s time to stop dumping on academics and university staff.  Or if you must dump on them, do it with the facts. If you can.

Miscreant universities

March 23, 2009

I have a terrible, terrible confession to make: I began my professional life as a banker. There, I have been courageous enough to say it. Admitting to being a banker seems these days to be akin to confessing to a life as a drug dealer or a time share salesman. Right now it seems likely that, having made this confession, I shall be shunned by all right-thinking people. In my defence I can say that I abandoned that path of roguery in the 1970s, so it is all so terribly long ago; and I never claimed, nor did I receive, any bonus while I pursued that particular life.

In any case it hardly matters, because there are days when I cannot help feeling that the profession I chose instead has turned out to be equally shady – I became an academic. Today I bought three Sunday newspapers – two Irish and one British – and each one of them has articles and news items that suggest universities are full of under-performing and over-paid layabouts; and that as institutions they pursue completely useless activities that are a drain on the taxpayer.

One particular bit of commentary that caught my eye was in the Sunday Independent, in an article by the economics editor of the radio station Newstalk 106 Marc Coleman. The article generally was about cronyism in government and the public sector. And thrown into the mix, à propos of nothing as far as I could see, was the following:

Will universities be forced to publish accounts? Will incompetent lecturers be sacked, as incompetent bankers have been? Will recalcitrant ones be forced to do what they’re paid for, ie, lecture their students? Will the Government stop wasting money on useless third-level research and divert the saved funds to creating more primary-school teaching posts?

This is extraordinary stuff, and full of ill-informed innuendo. As far as I am aware, all universities do publish their accounts. Certainly DCU does. It is, I agree, very hard to sack a lecturer, and in many ways it should be, not least because it is necessary to maintain protection of academic freedom; but all universities now have performance management systems. Will lecturers be forced to teach students? They do teach students, and I have hardly ever come across one who refuses (and in those very rare cases where that might happen, we have acted). Useless third level research? As the IDA has recently confirmed, third level research is what is now mainly attracting foreign direct investment; almost every significant recent investment has been in some way linked to research or R&D.

I suspect that the last paragraph sounds defensive. But unless we understand as a country that the excellence of our universities is what will, perhaps more than any other single item, determine our way out of the recession, we are doomed to go back to national mediocrity.

I don’t doubt at all that there are still many things that need to change and many improvements that need to be made in our university sector. But to suggest, as is so frequently done right now, that there is something fundamentally wrong with our third level sector is ludicrous. Except that it is dramatically under-funded, and that the means to produce some of the reforms still needed are denied to the institutions.

Of course universities must operate in a transparent and accountable manner. But that of itself won’t make them world class. And if Marc Coleman would like us to have an economy that warrants an economics editor at Newstalk 106, he might want to take a closer look at what universities really do.