Posted tagged ‘Trinity College Dublin’

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.

Punishing promotion

February 9, 2011

One of the undoubtedly maddest measures affecting higher education taken by the Irish government in recent years has been the ‘Employment Control Framework’, mentioned on several occasions in this blog. This Orwellian sounding regulation, imposed as part of the recent cost-cutting drive in the public service, sets out to reduce staffing in higher education institutions, restrict the capacity of universities and colleges to appoint staff to vacant posts and prohibit them from promoting anyone within the system – even where institutions have already met salary cost reduction targets.  It has in this way put an end to career development within higher education.

Trinity College Dublin decided to deal with this situation by promoting 27 members of staff last year, but delaying the associated salary increases until January 2011, the date on which the ‘Employment Control Framework’ formally ceased to have effect. It has now been reported that the Higher Education Authority intends to impose ‘massive fines’ on TCD, so as to protect the exchequer ‘from any unauthorised costs’.

There are several things wrong with this. First, there have been no ‘unauthorised costs’, nor could there be. Under the Irish legal framework, no individual costs incurred by any university have to be ‘authorised’ by anyone, except where salaries are paid outside of the normal public service pay scales (which does not apply here, as all the promoted academics will continue to be paid on those scales). Secondly, TCD has (like all the universities) applied the salary cost reduction targets imposed by the government; in other words, the pay costs in the College are precisely in line with what the government required. Thirdly, the steps taken by TCD did not break the ‘Employment Control Framework’, which came to an end in December 2010. Finally, it is outside the HEA’s statutory powers to apply fines, for this or any other reason.

Career development is vital for morale and productivity in this beleaguered sector, and to remove it altogether makes no sense, when staff costs are being reduced by the institutions as required. But beyond that, it is unacceptable for the institutions of the state to seek to punish universities with penalties that lie outside their jurisdiction.

It is to be hoped that the HEA re-thinks its position in this matter.

University debts

December 31, 2010

As governments disinvest in higher education, and in the absence of student contributions, major financial issues will begin to arise. A few months ago the Principal of Glasgow University, Professor Anton Muscatelli, declared that the university would run out of cash by 2013. And now the latest institution to sound a warning is Trinity College Dublin, with the Provost, Dr John Hegarty, warning that by 2015 TCD would have an accumulated deficit of between €80 and €100 million.

It is understandable that concerns should be expressed about the levels of graduate debt that may arise with tuition fees, but we also need to be aware of the growth of institutional debt. If TCD’s Provost is right, the level of debt that the College may be facing is unsustainable. Universities, even in good times, tend to run knife-edge budgets, and the prospect of having to recover such sums from general revenues would be frightening. It is vital that we do not allow higher education to slide into a situation in which its key institutions cease to be financially viable.

Irish universities: preparing for the worst

November 22, 2010

The Trinity College Dublin students newspaper The University Times has published a letter from the TCD Provost, Dr John Hegarty, to College staff alerting them to the very tricky funding environment that TCD – in common of course with the other Irish universities – now faces. The Provost refers to what he regards as the ‘best case budget for the sector’, and in TCD’s case this would result in a 10 per cent cut in the government’s annual grant allocation; the worst case scenario is a 20 per cent cut. This cut of course comes on top of very significant funding reductions over the past two years or so. The Provost’s expressed hope is that the 10 per cent cut will be applied, rather than the more dramatic reductions. But he also acknowledges that ‘the impact of the financial situation on the quality of teaching and the overall student experience is a cause of grave concern.’

Of course we don’t yet know what we are going to face in the context of the government’s four-year plan to be published shortly. We believe that the student registration charge will rise by a substantial amount, quite possibly above the level of the relevant non-tuition costs, and quite possibly ‘balanced’ by a reduction in the recurrent grant and/or fees paid by the government under the ‘free fees’ scheme. We believe that there will be a further planned reduction in higher education faculty and staff under the ’employment control framework’. On the other hand we expect that research funding will not be significantly affected.

The universities will need to undertake urgent discussions to see what kind of education model can be sustained under these conditions. It does not seem likely that the existing teaching and learning methods can still be continued successfully to a satisfactory quality standard, but nobody really knows what might replace them. As the financial parameters are unlikely to improve for several years, it is now vital to look at the effect of the changing financial conditions on learning and pedagogy, and to see how an adapted model can allow Irish universities to offer degree programmes to acceptable international standards.


October 24, 2010

In Ireland they are predicting that there will be election next spring, and that the outcome is entirely unpredictable. Quite so. Of course the election to which I am referring is that for the post of Provost of Trinity College Dublin. In early April 2011 the College’s academic staff (and members of the TCD Board and Council) will elect the new chief officer of TCD, who will succeed the present Provost, Dr John Hegarty.

However, this year there is a somewhat different process from the normal one. While the final decision will, as on previous occasions, be based on the outcome of the election, this is being preceded by a more ‘normal’ recruitment process, with an advertisement (appeared last Friday), nominations and interviews, and with the final shortlist then being out to the electorate after a brief campaign.

The College has also published a website for all of this, and this indicates that TCD is ‘committed to attracting a strong national and international field.’ In fact, they are very unlikely to get much of an international (or indeed domestic external) field: the requirement to make the candidacy public in the final stages will on the whole strongly deter external candidates, who will in any case be disadvantaged because they will have fewer connections and links with members of the electorate.

I know there is something attractive about a democratic process and an election, and many European universities also use this selection method. But whether it is an ideal way of finding a person to provide leadership in challenging times is perhaps debatable. Trinity College is a hugely important academic institution in Ireland, and the quality of its leadership is important. To secure that quality, the College needs a field of leading global academics to compete for the post, and its appointments process more more less rules that out. This ought to be the last time that this form of recruitment is used.

As a postscript, I should probably add that there had been much media and other speculation that I would be a candidate for the post, after I had stepped down as President of DCU. In fact I had never indicated to anyone that I would be, and of course I have accepted another appointment; but I might stress that the recruitment method is not the reason why I am not a candidate for the post of Provost of TCD. I say this solely so as to emphasise that my argument above is not based on any sense of personal interest in the matter.

Steady, lads!

May 15, 2010

Of course I would not wish to be in any way dismissive of the ‘Innovation Alliance’ established by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, but if I had the opportunity I might very gently advise them to turn down the hyperbole just a notch.

This week the online publication Silicon Republic reported that TCD and UCD had invited Stanford University President, John Hennessy, to act as an international adviser to their alliance. So far so good. Dr Hennessy is an academic and entrepreneur of some note, and his participation will enhance what the Southside Dublin colleges are doing. However the piece also describes the ‘Innovation Alliance’ as an initiative ‘which if successful, could generate 40,000 research jobs.’ I confess I find this an alarming claim. At the time of the alliance’s establishment in 2009, the partners were claiming they would create up to 30,000 jobs. Back then most commentators, while welcoming the overall initiative, expressed strong scepticism about the job creation claim, which many would have regarded as something of an exaggeration, by an order of magnitude. But this now appears to have risen by 33 per cent; not only that, these are now ‘research jobs’.

It should be clear that there are absolutely no circumstances in which the two colleges will create research jobs in such numbers, or anything even remotely resembling them. Bear in mind that the two colleges currently employ perhaps 1,000 researchers between them; so now they are claiming that they can increase this number by 4,000 per cent through the work of the alliance. It really doesn’t help to be putting such figures about, not least because it creates a completely false impression as to the impact of research. The benefit of cutting edge research and its commercialisation doesn’t lie in direct job creation, but rather in the establishment of an attractive environment for high value industry investment. But politicians obsess about jobs, often without understanding how job creation happens, and we shouldn’t encourage them by giving them false ideas about these processes.

The other little thing I noticed – though I can see this might not have come from the two colleges – is that the article describes the ‘Innovation Alliance’ as the ‘IFSC of R&D’. The IFSC is the International Financial Services Centre, and its establishment as a global finance hub in the Dublin docks helped to transform the Irish economy in the late 1980s and the 1990s. It is entirely possible that the TCD/UCD alliance will have a major and beneficial impact on the wider R&D scene, but they are certainly not alone in this field, and this label again strongly over-eggs the pudding.

I suppose that what I am arguing is that the two colleges need to focus much more on quietly bringing forward actual R&D successes at this stage of their alliance, rather than trawling the superlatives dictionary in public announcements. I think that other universities, many of them working on their own alliances, are keen to be cooperative and supportive, but would find that easier to do if it didn’t look as if TCD and UCD were trying to claim all the territory for themselves. I would certainly recognise the value of the TCD/UCD alliance, but it is not the only game in town. Let us maximise the potential in what we all do and foster a climate of collaboration as we do so.

Would you like a ‘super-university’?

January 26, 2010

A couple of days ago I wrote on Peter Sutherland’s address at the Royal Irish Academy, in which he was reported to have asked whether Ireland could afford to maintain seven world class universities. It may be worth mentioning briefly his other, related, point (according to the report in the Sunday Independent): that Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. This is how the report quotes him:

‘Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”‘

One must always allow for the possibility that the report was not totally accurate, and in any case it has to be said that Peter Sutherland, one Irish person with real standing internationally, often goes out of his way to make a case for Irish higher education more generally. In any case, what he is reported to have said has been said by others, and has since the 1960s and maybe before been a regular topic of conversation in Irish academic circles. In 1967 a merger between the two colleges was proposed by then then Minister for Education, Donagh O’Malley. It is interesting to reproduce more fully an account (published in an article by Thomas E. Nevin the journal Studies in 1985) of that proposal.

A Commission set up by the government had proposed that the NUI Colleges should become independent universities (this may sound familiar). But before this could be seriously considered the following took place:

‘The Provost of TCD and the President of UCD were called to the Department of Education by Mr O’Malley and told that he was rejecting the Commission recommendation. He told them that the Government proposed to establish a new single University of Dublin with UCD and TCD as Colleges; that there should be one University of Dublin to contain two Colleges each as far as possible complementary to the other, the University to own all the property of the Colleges; and that there should be no unnecessary duplication of staff, buildings or equipment.’

Asa we know it proved impossible to implement this proposal, but from time to time the idea is resurrected, and usually gets a fairly negative response in one or both colleges. Last year’s establishment by them of their ‘Innovation Alliance’ probably represents what for both college heads was the most that they could easily deliver. Whether Peter Sutherland’s comments will drive this agenda any further is, I imagine, doubtful. In the meantime, the suggestion itself must also serve to increase tensions between the two colleges in question and the rest of the Irish university sector.

But why do it anyway? What would a merger achieve that is unattainable by other means, such as a strategic partnership? Indeed, how would a planned merger overcome what is now known internationally to be the complex set of problems that accompany such initiatives and that have made many of them fail, often before they are fully implemented? Peter Sutherland is now mainly based in London, the place where the planned merger of Imperial College and University College London – which was intended to create the ‘world’s number one university’ – ultimately failed. University mergers require a convergence of institutional cultures and an acceptance by the communities of both institutions that they will gain from the initiative; in an academic environment this is very hard to achieve.

It is clear to me that the level of coordinated strategic cooperation between Irish universities – both sector-wide and in sub-groups – meeds to improve dramatically over the short to medium term. But ironically the chance of that succeeding will be impeded by pushing merger proposals and similar initiatives, which will if pursued divert energies from where they are now most urgently needed.

And in addition, as I noted in the previous post, it is far from clear that the size of a university makes a whole lot of difference. In the end it is quality that counts.

Accounting for the registration charge

December 17, 2009

Some readers of this blog may have come across recent media reports indicating that the TCD Students Union has complained about the way the student registration charge is being spent in that college. In summary, the Students Union has indicated that some of the charge – which is supposed to pay for services such as registration, counselling, examinations, library costs and related items – was being redirected to cover general college costs. It may be worthwhile referring to the proceedings of the Joint Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Committee on Education and Science, where this issue was first raised. On November 19, Brian Hayes TD (Fine Gael Spokesperson on Education), said the following at the meeting of the Committee:

‘This serious issue has come to my attention. We have evidence for the first time that a substantial amount of the student registration charge of €1,500, which was introduced by the Government last year, is not being used for student services at all. I wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General earlier today to ask him initiate an immediate investigation of the seven universities and 15 institutes of technology and to determine the total sum of the €1,500 that is being charged that is not going to student services. I understand the institutes and universities concerned have a legal responsibility to charge for only that portion which relates to student services. We have evidence from Trinity College Dublin – I refer to the abridged accounts that are before the committee – to show that a substantial amount of the student charge is used for the core maintenance of that university. This once more highlights the suggestion I made last year that the Government has introduced fees by the back door. I regret that none of the Fianna Fáil members of the committee is present here today. The Chairman is the only member of the committee from the Government side who is in attendance. I would have thought he has a responsibility to ensure that the Minister for Education and Science takes this matter seriously. We have direct evidence that students are being fleeced with a charge that is not directly related to student services.’

This was subsequently followed up on December 2. On that occasion Gary Redmond, the President of the UCD Students Union (who was part of a Union of Students in Ireland delegation invited to appear before the committee that day), said the following:

‘I do not know if the committee is aware that every student pays a registration fee of €1,500. In addition to this, most ITs and universities impose a student levy. Due to the fact that there is no money to fund student services correctly, students have, in cases where it is necessary to build a gym, a pool hall or a common room, voted in referenda to put in place a levy that is additional to their €1,500 registration fee. UCD students pay a total of €1,650, while their counterparts in NUI Galway, UCC and elsewhere pay over €1,700.

Following the release of the accounts, the president of Trinity College Dublin’s students union, Cónán Ó Broin, and I were invited by the chief executive of the HEA to attend a meeting on Monday last. The registration fee is supposed to be governed by a framework of good practice, which was established in 1998. This framework is supposed to set out how the students’ services charge is distributed. The students’ service charge is a colloquial name for this charge. It was established when the free fees scheme was introduced in order to offset the cost of student services, registration and examinations. That was the intention behind the fee when it was originally established. To assist with how this money would be spent, the HEA set up a framework for good practice in 1998. The HEA has periodically written to the universities to ensure that this framework is still in place. The latter have assured the HEA that it remains in place. The universities issue the same reply when contacted because they do not want to review, on a yearly basis, how this money is spent. Under the framework for good practice, there is supposed to be a group, weighted in favour of students, in place to recommend to a university how the money is spent on student services. This has not happened across the country for a number of years.

The HEA has agreed to write to the universities and ITs and request them to provide information from their accounts with regard to how moneys for student services are spent. It also agreed to ask them to review the framework for good practice, which is simply not working right across the board. That is the current position following our meeting with the chief executive of the HEA, Mr. Tom Boland, on Monday last. We have been invited to meet him again in the new year when the information to which I refer has been provided. I am aware that my colleagues throughout the country have experienced tremendous difficulties in trying to obtain this information from various institutes and universities. It has not been easy to discover how money relating to the student services charge is being spent.’

I should stress right away that there is no problem getting the relevant information from DCU. We have consistently accounted for our use of the student registration charge, and notwithstanding some of the comments above, the money raised from the charge has never come close to covering the items for which it is supposed to be spent. I understand also that the position in Trinity College is no different, but that it has chosen to account for the charge differently, for whatever reasons; but the actual costs of services have consistently exceeded the sums raised from the charge.

None of this detracts from the fact that we do have a strange system under which fees were abolished but then partly reinstated, even if only for a particular purpose. In addition, the process that was to be applied to the setting of the charge has never – or at least not recently- been followed. And in one year it is clear that the government clawed back some of the charge, thereby making it impossible to spend that part on student services (it simply went into general taxation).

While I do not accept the complaints made by the USI and the Students Union officers from TCD and UCD, I do agree that the current situation is not satisfactory. As is known, I support the reintroduction of fees. I do not however support the idea of fudging what is or isn’t a fee, or the idea that the student registration charge should be set to reflect general university financial needs or indeed the financial needs of the government. The current situation is not satisfactory.

The TCD-UCD partnership

March 11, 2009

Since I wrote on this topic last week, there has been a lot of media coverage and a lot of discussion, and indeed a lot of anxiety, over the nature and shape of the proposed collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. The speculation, or at least most of it, has now ended with the formal announcement by the President of UCD and the Provost of Trinity, attended also by the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Finance. I hasten to say that I was invited to attend this, but for genuine reasons of conflicting engagements was unable to do so. I have however read the statements issued on the occasion.

It is right to state at the outset that we must all be aware that the country faces extraordinary challenges, and that universities have a particular opportunity and obligation to provide leadership and initiative in this current environment. It is also right to say that partnerships and alliances between universities must be the right thing to pursue. And finally, universities and other higher education institutions now have an obligation, in order to maintain public support, to demonstrate that what they do can generate economic activity, create jobs and help get us out of the recession. And in that spirit I welcome and applaud the initiative which the two colleges have taken.

I would go on to say that other institutions, including my own, must continue with and step up our efforts to make a difference and to help solve the country’s problems. DCU will be launching its new strategic plan within the next two months, and will be announcing its own initiatives – as well as those it proposes to take with Irish and with major international partners.

In the meantime however, we must also ensure that the institutions in Ireland do not fragment, and do not come to the view that they must take competing and perhaps incompatible initiatives aimed at gaining advantage over each other, rather than in pursuit of the national interest. Welcome though today’s announcement is, it was preceded by an element of secrecy which was not helpful and which could have sowed the seeds of serious distrust in the sector. It is our job now to overcome that and to reinstate national collaboration and mutual support.