Posted tagged ‘recession’

Recession photos

July 3, 2012

In the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, during a time of great economic hardship, the mood was captured for posterity by some hugely iconic photographs. It is of course true that, in the current decade, we do not have the same homeless migrant workers and farmers, or the abandoned towns covered in dust. But we do have some considerable hardship, particularly for those left on the margins of society.

This photo was taken last week in Aberdeen. I was struck by the complete lack of personal connection between the man sitting on the pavement and everyone else.



Recession photograph

October 24, 2011

The photo below was taken on a recent visit to America, but it probably could have been taken in a number of countries, in any city near you.


Recession stories – photos

January 16, 2011

As we go through the economic and political convulsions of this recession, those of us lucky enough to have an income and a home may forget that an economic downturn creates real personal tragedies. I have been walking the streets of Dublin with my camera looking for recession stories. Here’s one, below. The perspective is deliberate, intended to show that we pass by without connecting with people in this position.

Communicating in a time of crisis

November 16, 2010

Right now we do not know for sure whether Ireland will require EU or IMF support to secure financial stability. In fact, we don’t know whether there have, or have not, been discussions between the Irish government and EU officials or other member states about this. We don’t know what exactly the implications of a ‘bail-out’ would be were one to take place. We don’t know what impact any of this might have on the previously announced targets for cutting the public finance deficit. In short, we the people are pretty much in the dark about everything.

When there is a crisis, communication is almost as important as taking the right substantive steps. The key ingredient that will create confidence and a positive outlook, both at home and abroad, is a popular understanding of the position and of what must now be done. The Irish government may well be taking all the right steps, but it is not sharing its thinking with the people, and this is creating uncertainty and a loss of confidence. I confess that I cannot understand why the Taoiseach has not been on television explaining the position and the actions that will be taken to lift us out of financial crisis; indeed I don’t know why he has not been doing this on a regular basis. An ad hoc interview on a news programme, though probably better than nothing, is not a substitute.

An increasing number of commentators have been calling for a change of government. For myself, I doubt that would make much difference to our chances of recovery, and it would seem to me that political continuity right now has benefits. But there needs to be leadership, and this must include proper and visionary communication. This has been completely missing, and I suspect that our current difficulties have been aggravated by that. It is high time, perhaps beyond time, that this is corrected.

Greek tragedy? No, it’s not inevitable

September 26, 2010

This post is coming to you from a hotel lobby in Athens. I have spend the last two days in Greece to take part in a meeting on higher education reform hosted by the Greek Prime Minister, and this has also given me an opportunity to see how the country is coping with its particular crisis. And the answer is, really rather well. The phase of public anger and unrest appears to be over, and people are, at least as I found them, fairly determined to get on with it and find a way out of the recession.

As we all know, what the Greeks have had to deal with is much worse than what we have faced in Ireland, and yet they are far less focused on the blame game and far more single minded about how they can secure a recovery. In short, there is far less complaining and whining than there is in Ireland. To be honest, this has been something of a welcome relief from the ever-present negativity that is so dragging us down in Ireland right now. I am not saying we have nothing to complain about, but nursing all these grievances is doing absolutely nothing for us, apart perhaps from raising the cost of the national debt.

Every time I say something like this I get hostile emails and letters, but I genuinely think it is time to let go of all the anger and get on with working for something better. What Ireland needs more than anything else is confidence. Let’s go for that!

Universities in the recession

March 23, 2010

The always interesting website University World News has put together a series of reports on how different countries are treating their higher education sectors during the recession and the resulting scarcity of public money. Taking as their starting point the view expressed by a senior researcher in Berkeley – that in a recession governments should want to protect their university systems as these represent their best bet to achieve recovery – they look at a number of countries to see whether this is borne out in each case. There is no absolute pattern, but from the reports most developed western countries are cutting their higher education budgets, while emerging countries in the east are either protecting the sector or even allowing it to grow. In Europe, the exceptions appear to be Scandinavia and France.

What also emerges from the reports is that in a number of countries the current period is being used to introduce reforms to the system.

What should we conclude from this? One possible conclusion is that the approach by some governments to higher education may serve to exacerbate their economic problems as they will make economic recovery still more difficult. Another is that this is becoming an era of reform, but that the substance of reform is not the same across different countries. Many of those going for quick growth are liberalising their university systems and promoting greater autonomy, while others (perhaps including Ireland) are restricting and bureaucratising theirs.

It is not unlikely that as the dust settles from the recession that the pattern of performance in higher education across the globe will have changed, and will possibly reflect new economic realities. And unless there is a quick change of approach, this will almost certainly not have worked in Europe’s favour. Time will tell.

Stand down the mob

October 13, 2009

In a press release issued yesterday, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) criticised what it described as the ‘Government policy of imposing the entire burden of fiscal adjustment on working people and the less well-off, while the wealthy are insulated from any requirement to contribute at all.’ All of this serves as a prelude to their campaign to bring about a change of government policy, to reverse public service cuts and to protect public sector pay.

But for the moment I am not concerned with the justifiability or otherwise of any SIPTU campaign. Indeed, I am not particularly meaning to have a go at SIPTU specifically, but I am wondering about the rhetoric which has become more and more common and of which the quote above is fairly typical. Alongside this are the increasingly wild campaigns of personal criticism directed against property developers, bankers, politicians and businesspeople. While I would certainly not wish to defend those who have abused their positions, wealth or power, we have reached the point at which lynch mobs are being sent out the moment a politician is seen in the vicinity of Dublin airport.

If we are to achieve a speedy recovery from our current problems, we need to stop this hysteria. The government may be good or bad (and I have’t been too impressed of late), but it certainly doesn’t have a policy of ‘imposing the entire burden’ on working people. NAMA may be right or wrong, but its purpose is not to protect miscreant bankers – it is to allow the financial system to provide the necessary service to those who need finance. Politicians may all too often have abused the system, but it is not a sign of national decay and corruption if a minister goes on a business trip to London and stays in a hotel rather than sleep in a doorway. PAYE taxpayers may well be destined to pay more tax to help restore public finances, but some of these are quite well off, and those who are well off are being asked to pay more. Not every senior public figure has behaved like Rody Molloy. And while John O’Donoghue did, in my opinion, need to step down because his expenses really were way out of line, even he should have been given an opportunity to state his case before somebody started fixing the rope to the tree.

We have got ourselves into a condition of frenzy, and this is doing us no good at all. Maybe the next campaign should be one to combat righteous indignation and to restore a sense of proportion to our state of mind. We need to think and act rationally at this point, and to stop baying for blood all the time. And we need to be careful that we do not create an atmosphere in which entrepreneurship and wealth creation are seen as wicked, because once we have got to that point we are throttling our best hopes of recovery.

Frankly, it’s time to calm down.

The scourge of unemployment

August 1, 2009

In the various debates taking place in public about the policies needed to get us out of recession, there seems to me to be one general point of agreement: the importance of combating unemployment, and ameliorating its effects where it does occur. When the Beveridge report (Social Insurance and Allied Services) was issued in the UK in 1942, one of the ‘five giants’ it listed that stood in the way of progress was ‘idleness’. This was of very major significance, not just because of the experience of unemployment in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, but also because it must have been very clear to the writers that the emergence of the Nazi Germany they were just then fighting owed much to the effects of mass unemployment in Germany in the years after the First World War.

The speed at which unemployment has grown in Ireland over the past year can be seen in the runaway predictions for this year and next. As recently as in October 2008 a pessimistic prediction for 2009 was that we would experience unemployment of perhaps over 8 per cent. Would that it had been true. By April the prediction had risen to 11.4 per cent, and just a month later the Economic and Social Research Institute was putting it at 13.2 per cent, while also holding out the prospect of 17 per cent in 2010. A very hazy light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps, because the latter Institute is now in its most recent report going for a rate of 16.1 per cent for 2010.

Although in terms of human history it’s not that long ago since we last had significant unemployment (I am thinking about the 1980s), we are no longer used to it, and I don’t know how well we’ll cope. Prosperity has a way of papering over the cracks in the social fabric, and unemployment has a habit of tearing them open. There are many risks right now.

But chiefly of course unemployment is human misery, and demands our attention. That attention is not necessarily offered by providing welfare benefits: it needs measures to stimulate economic activity and, through it, employment. That in turn may be seriously hampered because so many still instinctively feel that employment can be restored through job creation under-written and subsidised by the state. Leaving aside how much of the can be done under European Union law, it is in any case not the answer. In past decades unemployment could be cured by increasing activity and thus employment in labour-intensive industries. Now it is much more complex, and the main hope rests in enterprise start-ups, particularly those that are technology-intensive. A whole new mentality is needed. And for that, we need a whole new debate, and urgently.

Studying through the recession

June 26, 2009

An item this week in the Belfast Telegraph reported that, as the recession affects employment and job prospects, more people are opting for university degree programmes, and in particular postgraduate (and post-experience) degrees. In this particular case, students were reported to be causing a surge in demand for the programmes of the Business School of the University of Ulster; I expect that the experience is similar across business schools in the other universities in Ireland.

In fact, though we have not yet been able to quantify this, the recession has significantly affected student behaviour. The signs are that we’ll find a much lower drop-out rate amongst all students, and greater attendance. Nobody would want to suggest that the recession is a good thing, but its impact on student preferences and behaviour may actually be beneficial.

But it is also important to note that this is a time for universities and other higher education institutions to provide access to education and training for those who have lost jobs or whose jobs may be at risk. The announcement by the Minister for Education earlier this week of additional funded places in higher education for the unemployed (well, part-funded) should prompt all universities to focus on the need to re-activate the labour market by providing higher levels of education to those who may benefit from them.

Perhaps what we all need to do at this time is to re-discover a sense of community and to do what we can to show solidarity. DCU intends to play a major role in that process.

Cutting to the bone

June 18, 2009

As in Ireland we prepare for a further round of cuts in university budgets this autumn – the extent of which is unknown but which are expected to be severe – it will probably comfort us little to know that we are not alone. Recent reports from Florida, for example, disclose that public universities there are being cut to such an extent that one institution can no longer afford telephones and has got rid of all fixed phone lines. That particular university has suffered cuts in public funding of $82 million and is now planning to lay off 200 employees. Indeed the situation is so bad that the university has established an ‘Office of Budget Crisis Support Services’. Ironically just as all these cuts take effect, there is a glut of student applicants.

The problems in Florida are an illustration of the confusion now spreading across many countries in relation to higher education – with government rhetoric often emphasising high-value innovation while funding cuts put in peril the institutions that must primarily deliver on this agenda.

In Ireland the reality facing us is stark. A university system that was seriously under-funded in good times, in which some institutions are facing financial issues that would in any other sector signal insolvency, is now about to be cut further. However understandable the government’s concern with public funding problems may be, it must be said that the sharp reductions in higher education funding have huge implications for the path to recovery. Renewed foreign direct investment will focus on industry links with high value university research, and domestic start-ups will often come out of university origins. It will become increasingly difficult for universities to deliver on this agenda. Indeed some will become so mesmerised by the financial crisis facing them that they will be distracted from most of their key tasks.

Of course the universities themselves must continue to look carefully at cost-saving measures, and we must demonstrate effective and prudent financial management; and of course we must recognise the budgetary realities facing the country. But we must also continue to press for  a financial framework that allows us to support the country and the drive for recovery. My fear is that the agenda for higher education, in the context of the current higher education strategic review, will focus on claims that rationalisation can save money and that universities are bad at managing their financial affairs. It is time for government (and some media commentators) to stop seeing universities as pampered institutions that could benefit from some efficiency gains, and to remember instead that we hold the keys to Ireland’s innovation strategy. As for the universities, we are more than willing to do our bit.