Posted tagged ‘Mary Coughlan’

Introducing bonus points for mathematics

September 18, 2010

Readers of this blog will know that I have previously addressed the issue of whether students should receive bonus points for higher level mathematics in the Leaving Certificate. A number of universities, including DCU, had previously decided to award bonus points, and this week the same decision was also taken a little later by University College Dublin. A consensus is therefore beginning to emerge that it may be desirable, by way of an experiment, to assess whether such a step can improve the performance of Irish secondary students in mathematics and science and therefore improve the take-up of maths and science programmes at third level.

It would be fair to say that while a consensus is emerging around this, it is not necessarily one that is supported with any great enthusiasm. There is a widespread feeling that a number of issues in secondary education need to be addressed, including the quality of mathematics and science teaching and the adequacy of teacher training in this area. Some academics fear that the introduction of bonus points will take the pressure off the education system to address these matters, which ultimately are much more significant. Nevertheless, it has been accepted that bonus points may make a contribution, and that they are worth a try. These and other issues have ben addressed in a previous discussion on this blog, and also more recently on the blog of UCD’s Geary Institute.

One other thing might be noted in passing. According to the Fine Gael website, the party’s spokesperson on innovation and research, Deirdre Clune TD, has ‘called on Education Minister Mary Coughlan to immediately extend similar schemes in other third level institutions so that all fifth year students can know where they stand’. In making this statement she seems not to be aware of what other universities have already decided, and moreover she seems to be under a misapprehension as to what the role of the Minister is in this regard. Whether bonus points are applied is entirely a matter for the universities, and the Minister has no role in the matter other than to raise it as an issue – which in fairness to her she has done.


The age of efficiency

September 17, 2010

When I was Dean of my Faculty in the University of Hull in the 1990s, one of the features of annual budgeting was the then Conservative government’s demand for a yearly ‘efficiency gain’. This was actually, of I recall correctly, a 1 per cent reduction each time in the budget allocation. It was not a ‘cut’, or at least we were told not to think of it as a cut; rather it was a hint that we could actually do more with less, and that annual reductions could simply be absorbed painlessly by doing things more efficiently.

Now we are back in this kind of world in Ireland. According to the Irish Examiner, the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Coughlan TD has said that ‘I think there are efficiencies that can be achieved within the third-level sector’. She also appears to suggest that the universities have proved this by succeeding in reducing staff by 6 per cent (something they have had to do under the government’s ’employment control framework’).

Nobody can say, of course, that there is nothing being done today in higher education that could not be done more efficiently. But here the idea being presented is something different: it is that yet more cuts can be applied without any real pain and without having an impact on the quality of the education on offer. So Irish universities should be able to lead international education on the back of resources that, even in good times, were well below the international benchmark, and which are now to be reduced further. Every independent analysis – and if the leaks turn out to be correct, the Hunt review in Ireland at the present time – has confirmed that the current resources are not sufficient to maintain a quality education system, never mind any lesser allocations.

I have said before that I accept that the Irish exchequer is in crisis. I accept that it is not unreasonable to apply cuts to higher education in the same way as to everything else. But if that is to be done, we must not pretend that it is all without consequence. Distributing scarce resources at a time of crisis is about setting priorities. Stating those priorities sends an important signal about how the country intends to regain strength and compete globally. The government has said it wishes to pursue a ‘smart economy’. In fairness, that message is reinforced by the welcome decision to maintain research spending in difficult times. But it is undermined by the hint that education can be provided on the cheap.

But even within a context of expenditure reductions, there may be ways of setting out an innovative education agenda, based on a careful analysis about pedagogy. But just reducing allocations isn’t anything more than a suggestion that education is just one more service we can no longer afford. And that’s a dangerous suggestion that doesn’t become more palatable where it is accompanied by the claim that it will all be fine if we are just more efficient. We’re long past that point.

University funding and ‘elitism’

September 12, 2010

Friday’s Irish Independent newspaper reported the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan TD, apparently suggesting that the reintroduction of tuition fees would produce ‘elitism’. She also had something to say about higher education funding, though frankly I wasn’t easily able to make out what that something was; perhaps that it was all a shame, but there we are.

I agree with the Tánaiste that there is a risk of elitism in Irish education, but I don’t think it’s coming from the prospect of fees – which after all would facilitate much greater expenditure on encouraging the disadvantaged to participate in higher education. Rather, the continuing reduction in staffing and funding for the sector will drive down the number of available places, which in turn will almost certainly reduce working class and lower middle class participation.

It is my firm belief that the unwillingness of many politicians to countenance an appropriate and carefully managed reintroduction of tuition fees has little to do with the pursuit of equity and quality, but quite a lot to do with the fear of how middle class voters will react. I suspect that many do not realise just how close we are to disaster in higher education.

Educational anguish

August 22, 2010

Nobody could suggest that the Irish are not interested in education. I know of no country in which the annual final school examination results get as much coverage and as much in-depth analysis as is the case here. The quality of our schools, our higher education institutions and our students is the subject of public and private discussion in Ireland to a far greater extent than anywhere else. University stories of one kind or another (not always flattering of course) can be found in our media on a regular basis. Secondary school students write national newspaper columns. As a country, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of education and of its significance in the achievement of our national ambitions.

Then why, one might ask, if we are so obsessed with education, are we getting it so badly wrong right now? The entire national discourse is about how standards are falling, funding is inadequate, teachers are de-motivated, the secondary school curriculum is out-dated and not fit for purpose, our national literacy and numeracy is declining fast, universities are in debt, the system is being bureaucratised, graduates are leaving the country, employers are dissatisfied with our educational standards, subjects vital to national recovery are being neglected.

In the face of this general dissatisfaction it is easy to become fatalistic about it all; or else we may become mesmerised by it and fail to act at all, because there just seems to be so much that needs to be done. Or we may become hyperactive ‘fixing’ things that ironically are not particularly broken (as I think is threatening to happen regarding higher education) while neglecting things that are.

It seems to me to be a good idea to start with something we know has gone wrong: my gut feeling is that as a priority we need to address the cocktail of problems arising from the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system (which are closely related). The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.

In fact, most educationalists tend to agree that the points system is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what might replace it, and therefore nothing much happens. Politicians in particular seem to find it easier not to question it. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, drew some criticism from the education editor of the Irish Independent, John Walshe, when she indicated that the points system is the ‘fairest way’ of selecting students for third level programmes. In fact it is manifestly neither ‘fair’ nor functionally useful, but as so much of the educational edifice has been built around it, it is easier to let it be. Easier, but wrong.

The points system is the property of the universities (through the CAO), and if they act together they can introduce fundamental reform that might correct the distribution of students in higher education programmes and cause an over-due reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and pedagogy. Like everyone else, the universities seem to be paralysed by the whole thing and are unwilling to act. But the time to do so is now.

Mathematics not adding up

August 21, 2010

On Wednesday of this week the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, issued a statement congratulating students on the Leaving Certificate results. In this statement she also used the opportunity to address the issue of bonus points for Higher Level Mathematics, as follows:

‘The Tánaiste has made her preference for the introduction of a points bonus for achievement in higher level mathematics clear and has written to the higher education institutions in that regard. The higher education institutions are, as a result, currently considering the question. Some institutions have already confirmed their intention to introduce such a points bonus and the question is under active consideration in others. Further details will emerge over the coming weeks, when institutions have completed their internal considerations.’

However, the ink had hardly dried on her statement (or whatever the equivalent computer age metaphor might be) when the Irish Independent reported that two universities, University College Cork and NUI Galway, had decided not to back the proposal. A decision by UCD is still awaited.

This means that, whatever the universities’ position on bonus points will be, it will not be a united one. For myself, while I remain to be persuaded that bonus points will make a significant practical difference, I am aware that key stakeholders of the universities (including the government, but also industry) are very anxious to see that this change is adopted; and I am not sure how wise it is to reject that.

It remains clear that this country’s ability to attract investment will depend to quite an extent on having a population that is recognised as being highly numerate and science aware. Therefore any steps that could prompt students to pursue higher maths are welcome. The absence of a clear and joint approach by the universities in this matter will not do us any favours.

OK, another ‘no-fees’ statement

August 17, 2010

A few months ago the government, having (courtesy of the Green Party) committed itself to a position of not having third level tuition fees during the lifetime of the present coalition, passed the whole thing on to Colin Hunt’s strategic review group. The latter was then expected to report in March, but didn’t do so, and right now we expect to see a report in October or thereabouts. While waiting for that to happen, the Tánaiste (Minister for Education Mary Coughlan TD) has come out with a statement confirming that ‘there will be no reintroduction of third-level tuition fees in the Budget.’

I don’t really know what this statement is supposed to communicate. If you take it at face value, she is obviously right. First, it is not just inconceivable but actually impossible for fees to be reintroduced to take effect during the academic year about to begin. If they were to be reintroduced, the very earliest date for them to take effect would be September 2011, but realistically it would probably be a year later than that. Secondly, even if they were to be reintroduced tomorrow afternoon I don’t see that this would have any effect on the Budget. Fees, if they really were fees, would be paid to the universities and colleges. No change to the Budget would be needed (or sought).

So what is this statement about? The only thing that the Tánaiste can have intended with her statement was to send out some general mood music to reassure those worried about fees, presumably in particular middle class voters. Otherwise, what was the point? Or are we to see this as a general statement of intent suggesting longer term Fianna Fail opposition to fees, maybe beyond the next general election? Curious.

Finding the bottom line?

June 7, 2010

In the context of an article in yesterday’s Sunday Independent newspaper on the budget and staffing cuts now being imposed on universities, Tánaiste and Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan TD, is quoted as saying that ‘the bottom line was that Irish universities would have to do more with less because of the recession’. In fairness, she also said that she would be willing to talk to the university presidents, but about what exactly?

It is now really important that our politicians and civil servants understand that, from the point we have already reached, we cannot do ‘more with less’. This is not because we don’t want to play our part in steering the country towards recovery, it is precisely because we do want to help but cannot do it this way. What the Tánaiste said indicates she believes we still have ‘fat’ in the system and that we can absorb cuts while still expanding activities. Of course in one sense she is right: we can go on adding students and teach them with fewer staff; but what we cannot do is to teach these students to an acceptable level of quality.

The universities will need to come up with an alternative vision. Simply rejecting the Tánaiste’s analysis is unlikely to get us very far. What we need is a coherent alternative view of how we should now proceed and how this would be affordable to the taxpayer. Right now there is little sign of an emerging higher education strategy in Ireland coming from the government or its agencies. We may need to do that job ourselves.

Reinventing the university: conference in DCU

June 4, 2010

As I have mentioned previously, DCU will be hosting a major conference on the future of higher education. This will take place on June 15 and 16, under the title of ‘Reinventing the University: Creating a New Vision’.

Speakers will include the Tánaiste, Ms Mary Coughlan TD; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority, Mr Tom Boland; the chair of the higher education strategic review working group, Mr Colin Hunt; Dr Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; Dr Bill Harris, former Director General of Science Foundation Ireland; Professor Colm Harmon, Director of the UCD Geary Institute; Dr John Hegarty, Provost of Trinity College Dublin; and Professor Sir Alan Wilson of the Centre for Adanved Spatial Analysis of University College London. And there’s me, and my successor in DCU. There will also be a roundtable discussion involving a number of participants, including a student representative and Sean Flynn of the Irish Times, which is co-sponsoring the event.

More details are available here, and I hope many readers of this blog will want to be present. All are invited.

Keeping up the correspondence

May 10, 2010

I gather I have a letter from the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Education, Ms Mary Coughlan TD. It’s not that I actually have any piece of paper that I took from an envelope signed by the Tánaiste; rather, I read in the Irish Times this morning that she has written to me (and the other university presidents), urging us to admit students to university programmes even where they have failed mathematics in their Leaving Certificate examinations.

Of course the whole question about how we should handle the maths issue is a vital one, and as has already been pointed out in this blog, one of the options we are looking at bonus is the idea of points for students who take higher mathematics. But these are also complex issues, and require careful handling; we don’t just want students to do mathematics, we want them to succeed in it. I guess we’ll need to consider the Tánaiste’s suggestion carefully.

But now my problem is this: by what method do I respond to her? I presume the polite thing to do would be to ask the Irish Times to publish my response in their pages, so maybe I should work on that basis. The alternative would be to suggest that such exchanges are better conducted using the postal services, or by all means email, on a personal basis. In the end I prefer that.

PS. I did the Tánaiste an injustice! The issue was mentioned by her in a letter which was otherwise about bonus points for Higher Level Mathematics a few weeks ago!

Will we have fees, or do we already have them?

May 7, 2010

There were more discussions earlier this week at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science about tuition fees and the student service charge, as reported in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan appeared before the Committee and gave ambivalent answers on whether there might be fees in the future, and was also subjected to some questioning about the future of the student service charge; she did not rule out that this charge might be increased again.

We have been told to expect that the higher education strategic review chaired by Colin Hunt is addressing the fees issue, but we have no real way of knowing what effect, if any, the group’s recommendations may have. The position we may be reaching by stealth is that fees are gradually emerging in the form of service charges. Furthermore, the example of UCC’s conferring charge perhaps suggests that universities could attempt to arrange individual deals with students about how specific charges might be introduced to off-set falling state revenues, though admittedly any such arrangements would have to proceed more smoothly than appears to have been possible in Cork.

The financial position of the Irish universities is now desperate; and there are few signs that this has either been understood by the politicians or that they are prepared to tackle the issue.