Posted tagged ‘UCD’

University College Dublin

July 17, 2013

And from Wales to Ireland: University College Dublin today announced its new President. From January 2014, UCD will be led by Professor Andrew J. Deeks, currently Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Durham University. Professor Deeks is an engineer, and as PVC has had responsibility for the Science Faculty in Durham. He will take over from Professor Hugh Brady, who is coming to the end of his 10-year term as President.

Given my blog post of earlier this week, it can be said that Andrew Deeks is coming to Ireland at a time when universities are under some pressure, both in terms of funding and in the context of the changing regulatory landscape. But there will also be opportunities ahead, and I wish him well.

Hugh Brady has been seen by some as a very controversial President, but it is undeniable that UCD grew hugely in stature and influence during his term of office. It will be interesting to see what he will do next.

Repayment of allowances

October 21, 2010

For readers not familiar with recent events in Irish higher education, this is a short summary of one particular development that has prompted a lot of commentary. Over a period of a few years, University College Dublin (UCD) paid allowances and bonuses to a number of senior staff, mainly as a form of incentive payment. Under current rules applying to universities, such payments – i.e. any payments departing from the established public service pay scales to which university salaries are tied – require government approval. The payments in question were made without any such approval, and after lengthy discussions between the Higher Education Authority and UCD the payments were discontinued. The whole thing received some recent attention before the Dail Public Accounts Committee and in an account prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

According to media reports, as part of the follow-up to all this, there are now talks between the HEA and UCD about a repayment to the HEA by the university of these allowances, which apparently came to a total of €1.6 million.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot get my head around this at all. Let us assume that the HEA and the government (and many commentators) are right, and the payments should never have been made. If you adopt that position, then you are saying that €1.6 million that should have been spent on students were in fact spent on allowances for managers. Now that a ‘remedy’ is being discussed, it seems to consist of the HEA requiring a ‘repayment’ of the sum – not by those who received them, but out of general university funds – thereby depriving students of this amount all over again. in other words, if damage was done to student interests, the HEA is insisting that this damage should be doubled. Maybe I’m missing something, but to me this seems bizarre.

I might also add the following. In my time In DCU I made sure that we abided by the rules (which was not always a popular position then), and indeed DCU received no criticism at the PAC meting. I took that position so as not to expose DCU to the kind of controversy we have now seen. But to be perfectly frank, the regulatory framework by which I was abiding is a crazy one. Whether incentive payments are made, and to whom they are made, should be a matter for each university and its governing body. The state is entitled to require that each university can account for how it has spent the money, but provided proper procedures were adopted in terms of governance and overall budgets are not exceeded, these issues should not be a matter for regulation at all.

I think the idea that all incentive payments in universities are inappropriate is wrong-headed – though admittedly I would also be of the view that incentive payments need to be based on the achievement of stretch targets given to the recipient. I think it is time that universities were no longer treated like public bureaucracies.

Keeping it all in the family

May 7, 2010

Without necessarily wanting to go through all the arguments again, we might note that Tom Garvin’s Irish Times article of last Saturday has been strongly criticised (also in the Times) by two UCD professors, Mary Daly and Brigid Laffan. However like Professor Garvin, the two writers here also treat the issue as almost entirely UCD-specific, using the occasion to list all sorts of advances and achievements by their college over recent years. I hate to say this, but this particular debate should not be about UCD and various people’s views of it. Whether UCD’s modular teaching programme is good or bad, or whether its research culture has changed, is maybe a matter for the college’s PR department, but is not central to the debate on how universities should be run. There are, if I may whisper this, other universities out there.

Then again, maybe I am just impossible to please.

University strategy – UCD

April 22, 2010

It is always good to see a university launch its strategic plan – and this week University College Dublin has published its new strategy for the period 2010-2014: Forming Global Minds. The launch itself may have been low-key, or at any rate I wasn’t invited (mental note: make sure to invite UCD President Hugh Brady to DCU’s strategic plan launch on May 10!). But UCD’s plan is a substantial one, and I hope nobody will take offence if I say that it has strong echoes of  DCU’s strategic plan launched in 2001, Leading Change. The latter plan first introduced the idea of academic themes to inform research and teaching priorities, and highlighted the importance of innovation as a key objective of the university. Both of these strategic perspectives are contained in UCD’s new plan, and they work well there also.

What the strategy now published by University College Dublin has in common with DCU’s last two plans, and our new plan to be launched shortly, is a concern to ensure that the university’s priorities reflect its desire and its capacity to enhance national economic, social and cultural regeneration. DCU in its new plan will emphasise the importance of the ‘translational’ impact of its research and teaching, and UCD refers to the significance of making an impact.

The times we are in also influence the content of UCD’s strategy, with references to the need to adapt the profile of the student body to maximise revenue. And of course there are passages on the TCD-UCD ‘Innovation Alliance’, the strategic partnership between these two institutions intended to support the potential to create an economic impact.

It has always been DCU’s intention to have the best possible relations with our friends and colleagues in Dublin (and of course throughout the state), and I personally wish UCD well as they develop this new strategy for the next five years.

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.

Do league tables really matter? A student perspective

December 8, 2009

Bridget Fitzsimons
Student journalist, UCD

As a student journalist, I knew more than some of my peers about the Times Higher Education/QS World University Rankings. This year made for some excitement in my university, UCD, as we broke into the top 100 for the first time, coming in at number 89. While this is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, I never think that these ratings can ever be fully relevant, especially not for students.

This could just be a student perspective, but there is so much more to a university than its research output. UCD has long been regarded as a social hub. With a population bigger than many Irish towns – 22,000 – we have a wide, varied and colourful social scene in UCD. While a good social life is clearly not the most important thing in a university, I feel that it should be taken into account when a student is picking somewhere for further education. After all, while classes are hugely interesting, it can never be said that the college experience is based solely on academics.

Given that there have been funding cuts to the university, as with all universities recently, I, as an Arts student, have been feeling the pinch more than most. My Film Studies screenings are routinely interrupted by faulty equipment and a malfunctioning alarm, which tends to pick the most opportune moments to go off, usually in the middle of a completely silent film! I know that things are bad and that cuts are coming from every angle, but if my basic academic needs aren’t being met, I don’t know how much relevance I can personally place on these ratings.

Similarly, I think that more emphasis needs to be placed on student ratings of their lecturers. The people that really know how good a job a lecturer is doing are their students. In this way, I’m extremely glad that UCD has moved up the rankings. My lecturers, in both English and Film Studies, have always been excellent. UCD Arts and Humanities is lucky to have so many committed academics who are always on hand to help their students should we need it. However, I worry that further Arts funding cuts would render their job impossible. I’m sure that they are under considerable pressure to publish research and maintain UCD’s newly found glory within the Times Higher Top 100.

It seems like I’m completely contradicting myself, I know. I just wish that more emphasis was placed on things that students need in a university. Whether you’re coming to UCD to study Medicine or Sociology, you should be afforded security within your degree that will allow you to complete it to the best of your ability. A university is not just a research factory. Many institutions, especially those of UCD’s size, are home to many people. They are social hubs as well as studying areas and cannot be solely defined by one standard or the other. While academics in various colleges may be congratulating themselves on a great year within the rankings, it is time for these systems to become more relevant to those who actually attend these institutions, or plan to do so in the future.

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.

Unitrin College Dublin?

March 6, 2009

According to reports in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent today, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin are in talks aimed at creating closer links, with a degree of integration of their research activities in particular. It is reported, and I imagine accurately, that the Department of the Taoiseach, and perhaps the Minister for Finance, were involved in discussions leading to this development.

Both newspapers indicate that the other five universities – including my own therefore, DCU – are likely to be ‘infuriated’ (Irish Independent), or set for a ‘furious reaction’ (Irish Times). Clearly I cannot speak for the other institutions, but I can announce here that I am much more relaxed than that. On a pro rata basis (i.e. per member of staff), DCU draws in more research funding than either of the two institutions who are the subject of the report, and we will cope with this development without too much fury or worry; it may even help us to put into relief the rather more innovative nature of DCU and the potential of its national and international linkages.

Nevertheless, what is a matter for concern is that the Government has established a strategic review process (launched yesterday, as reported in this blog), but at the same time appears to be running quite separate strategic decision-making processes that will create a whole list of faits accomplis before this review is even properly under way; and that the two colleges concerned seem to be going along with that. And furthermore, it needs to be stated emphatically that the Irish system of supporting and funding research has been built up carefully to ensure that all decisions on funding are based solely on the excellence of the proposal, in a transparent manner. If there were any deviation from this – for example, if there were any talk of ringfenced funding for this partnership – it would completely undermine that principle and with it the integrity of the system. I am assuming that this is not intended.

For all that, I wish the two colleges well – excellence in higher education is an objective we all share. But we need to ensure that we are not dividing the sector up into different groups, which will make national cooperation for the benefit of Ireland much more difficult. And we need to be vigilant that we are not fatally undermining the role of the Irish Universities Association in the process.

Interesting times ahead!