Posted tagged ‘Paddy Prendergast’

Trust and confidence: the new TCD Provost’s inaugural address

September 21, 2011

It was sometimes said in the past that universities have to deal with the issues and problems of the modern world, but find very little to say about them in public. While university heads are often found lamenting the lack of resources for higher education, they say little about pedagogy, educational values or the benefits of scholarship and research. Over recent years this has begun to change – and maybe I am arrogant enough to say that, in Ireland, I made my own contribution to that. In any case, others have followed suit, including my successor in DCU. And now the new Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Paddy Prendergast, has delivered a highly interesting inaugural speech on his university and its place in the world.

The Provost did address the issue of lack of funds, pointing out that TCD’s global ranking, with far fewer resources than its international competitors, was by no means an inadequate achievement; but that it could be much better with a greater investment on a par with what is the norm in other countries.

But perhaps the more interesting comments in his speech reflect on the relationship between public trust and regulation. Here is what he said, in more detail:

‘Increased regulation is inversely proportional to trust. We are currently suffering a chronic lack of trust, and so the Pavlovian response is to demand more regulation. But we’ve got to get trust back into the system. Ireland cannot prosper without it. Nothing flourishes in a climate of fear and suspicion. Trust is linked to accountability. Institutions worthy of trust are happy to be held accountable for their decisions.’

The Provost is clearly right in identifying this as one of the key issues in higher education today. For reasons that many in the sector don’t understand or appreciate, there is a visible lack of trust and confidence in the wider community that university decision-making is prudent, reasonable and transparent. Based on anecdotal evidence (and often not much more), there is also a lack of confidence in the willingness of academics to devote sufficient attention to students.

Paddy Prendergast is right in seeing this as a critical problem that needs to be addressed. The temptation for governments and their agencies has been to respond to criticism of universities by imposing new regulatory constraints and limiting their freedom of action, in the apparent belief that universities will then behave more rationally and that their activities will provide better value for money. This is far from obviously the case, but in order to avoid this response from becoming more emphatic universities need to address the issue of public confidence and to persuade the public that they are meeting their responsibilities effectively. Good communication is an important first step, and in this context the Provost’s inaugural address was well judged. It should be part of a new landscape of transparency and advocacy in the cause of higher education.

Revisiting university access

April 20, 2011

Whatever country you are in, and whatever higher education system you are reviewing (unless you’ve found an obscure one I am not familiar with), there are serious issues regarding the extent to which the student body reflects in any real sense the population of the country from which it is drawn. Notwithstanding serious efforts to widen access and remove obstacles, in every system the participation of students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups is not satisfactory. While over the past half century or so middle income groups have gone to universities in much greater numbers, the same is on the whole not true of those from poorer backgrounds. Moreover, this pattern appears to apply regardless of the existence or otherwise of tuition fees. Indeed, it is possible that access for these groups in society has been determined more by the arrangements made by individual universities than by whatever is put in place by the state; though it is probably also true that more targeted financial support for the disadvantaged by the state would have a positive effect.

In this setting, it is interesting to read in the Irish Times that the Provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin plans to look at new ways  to ‘increase admissions of poorer students’. Suggesting that the CAO points system (under which Irish students are admitted to higher education institutions on the basis of a points score determined by the final school examination results) may need to be reviewed, Paddy Prendergast suggests that Ireland might use a scheme pioneered in Texas; applying this to Ireland or TCD, Professor Prendergast wonders whether there should be a rule under which ‘the top 5 per cent in all state schools gained automatic access to the leading university’. In fact, the rule in Texas applies to 10 (not 5) per cent, and we’ll gloss over the comment about a ‘leading university’. But could this idea work?

Probably not, if he is suggesting a specific scheme for Trinity College. I haven’t worked out the statistics, but if the top 5 of every state school were to be given automatic access to TCD, and assuming they all wanted to go, it would more or less remove all discretion from the College as to whom to admit. Furthermore, it would create serious confusion in the rest of the higher education system, and probably a high level of hostility between TCD and the others. But even if he is suggesting a sector-wide rule that doesn’t just apply to TCD, it is not immediately obvious that it would work. How would the allocation of students from these groups be decided as between the 40 or so Irish higher education institutions?

I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously, has done more to undermine Irish higher education than almost anything else. I am also strongly of the view that access for the disadvantaged needs to be addressed much more seriously. But the two are not particularly connected. The reason for the unsatisfactory participation rate by poorer students is not a result of university selection practices, but of various social and economic factors, including low expectations, bad advice, inadequate personal and family resources, and so forth. These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Some of Paddy Prendergast’s other comments are interesting and show a willingness to address problem areas in higher education. It is also good that he understands that the route by which students enter higher education is not satisfactory. But on the specifics of access for the disadvantaged, he may want to reflect a little more on what he has proposed here.

TCD: the next generation

April 3, 2011

So is the election in Trinity College Dublin of the next Provost an advertisement for, or a warning against, such a process? Probably a bit of both. The campaign was conducted by the candidates with a degree of energy, though as I suggested a day or so ago, the election of Paddy Prendergast tells us that the new social and online media are not influential in TCD. Also, winner and losers conducted themselves with some dignity at the outcome, and it is unlikely that any fences will need to be mended.

On the other hand, the process did not attract (as Trinity should have done) candidates who are really big players in the international academic world. A couple of years ago, for example, St Andrews University in Scotland (which is perhaps broadly comparable to TCD) appointed a key researcher and academic leader from Harvard University to be its new Principal (interestingly, an Irishwoman by birth). No field of this kind emerged for Trinity College. And of the two external candidates who participated, one felt he had to withdraw because success was impossible, and the other recorded the fewest votes on the day.

I am sure that Paddy Prendergast will be a successful Provost, but his election breaks no molds. TCD declined to elect its first woman Provost (though Jane Ohlmeyer performed very well, coming second in the poll).

Standing outside the College it is probably easy to under-estimate the feeling of satisfaction that surely many TCD staff now feel, and it is not my intention to suggest that Trinity did badly. Indeed, I wish Paddy Prendergast both success and happiness in the role, and I hope the College will go from strength to strength. Its success is important for the whole Irish higher education sector.

I also wish John Hegarty every happiness as he moves into the final phase of his term of office as Provost.

New TCD Provost: Paddy Prendergast

April 2, 2011

The academic electorate in TCD has spoken: Paddy Prendergast will be the new Provost. It is, one might assume, a vote for continuity in Trinity, and perhaps for a safe pair of hands in difficult times. More later – including some details of the voting (I hope). In the meantime, congratulations to the winner.

The TCD Provost election: so how was it for you?

April 1, 2011

Tomorrow the lecturing staff of Trinity College Dublin will be locked into a secure building and will pretend to be Roman Catholic Cardinals electing a pope. Unlike previous election campaigns in the college, this one entered the public consciousness, at least a little. In part this was because, for the first time, the internet and social networking became major tools for at least some of the candidates. If you want to get an impression, for example, of how the candidates handled Twitter you can read the exchanges under the hashtag #tcdprovost here.

Will this have made a difference to the outcome? It is impossible to say now, but when the result is known I’ll offer an assessment. If for example Colm Kearney wins, my conclusion will be that his very savvy internet campaign helped to swing it for him. Or if Paddy Prendergast wins, then you can conclude that the TCD electorate is immune to the internet.

In the course of the past month or two all the candidates ran interesting campaigns. The two most professional ones, though very different in nature, were those conducted by Colm Kearney and UCD Vice-President Des Fitzgerald. The campaign that picked up most momentum towards the end was that by Jane Olhmeyer. The most inscrutable one was John Boland’s.

There are some conclusions to be drawn from all this. The first is that TCD will under this system never appoint an external Provost, ever. Des Fitzgerald ran a smart campaign, but he won’t win. The other external candidate, Robin Conyngham, exited when it became clear to him he couldn’t make it. The college may feel that the democratic nature of the exercise makes this a price worth paying, but its international reputation may take a hit. Secondly, if it does want to continue with this method of appointment, it must extend the franchise to non-academic staff, who have as much of a stake in the outcome as lecturers. Thirdly, the nature of the campaign and some of the views expressed in it will either lead to a very tense relationship between TCD and the Irish Universities Association or will create a quick sense of disenchantment by staff with the winning candidate – so there will be interesting times ahead. And finally, we must presume the TCD-UCD Innovation Alliance is dead: it did not feature in the campaign at all.

So let us wait and see how it all ends.