Posted tagged ‘University College Dublin’

Finding the right ratio

June 17, 2014

One of the key performance indicators that influence university rankings and attract comment is the student-staff ratio. In almost every assessment of higher education there is an assumption that a smaller number of students supported by a larger number of academic faculty  is better for quality, student support and educational outcomes. That position has been underlined again by the new President of University College Dublin (UCD), Professor Andrew Deeks, who has said in one of his first public statements since taking up the post that Irish universities’ student-staff ratios are ‘considerably out of line’ when compared with international benchmarks. He was expressing concern that higher education funding in Ireland may not be sufficient to secure the resources needed to maintain quality. A similar comment had previously been made by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Paddy Prendergast.

The student-staff ratio in Ireland is 19:1. This is higher than that found in some competitor countries, but is that important? Do we actually know what the appropriate or optimum ratio is? Should we assume that the lowest is the best, and that it should be 1:1?

I have great sympathy with those who argue for more faculty to provide a quality experience for students, but I don’t myself know whether we have any really robust evidence of what the right figure is. Nor have we really asked whether changes in pedagogy, or in teaching and learning technology, or in demographics, should have any impact on this figure. So for example, a very low ratio would create such extraordinary costs that it would become possible to provide university places for a small minority of the population only. A very high ratio on the other hand would make it very difficult to provide any effective student support, no matter how good the learning technology.

In addition, there are all sorts of questions both about how reliable the figures really are when they are published, or what should be read into them.

It is therefore time to look at all this in a more scholarly manner, and to investigate much more closely what is needed for a good education system. ‘Lower is better’ is not of itself a sufficient principle.

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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.

Oh dear oh dear, here we go again: Irish university merger chatter

September 25, 2012

So, I leave Ireland, and off they go and start this kind of talk again. So let’s cut to the chase first. There’s been another (as yet unpublished) review of Irish higher education (I know, I know: another? Really?), and guess what it allegedly recommends: Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. And so should DCU and various others. And why? In order to ensure ‘that institutes will be sufficiently large to be serious players in the global higher education community’. Oh, gee!

Anyway, I must allow for the possibility that the report on this will not turn out to be correct. But it is based on an article in the Irish Times by Sean Flynn, and in my experience his sources are always spot on. So I’m assuming it’s as we’re being told it is. But if that is so, then this is one almighty weird story. Apparently the Higher Education Authority commissioned a group of four eminent international folks to do a report on Irish higher education. So the first question has to be, in the name of all that’s precious, why? We’ve had three reviews of Irish higher education in the space of ten years, and we already know everything that can be known, and every variety of opinion has been canvassed. That somebody should think that another one is needed is extraordinary, indeed zany. But there’s more. The report, we are told, was written ‘without consultation with the colleges themselves’, and ‘the panel worked solely on the basis of a portfolio of information and statistics about Irish higher education’. And fortified with this – well, we can’t call it information – they have recommended that everybody should jolly well get on and merge.

So let’s be frank. First, whatever else the Irish system needs, it is not another review. Truly. And if it did (which it doesn’t), such a review should not be conducted in the absence of inputs from those, I mean all those, working in the system. And even if it should do that (which it shouldn’t), it really needs to avoid focusing on re-structuring as the answer to everything. And even if new structures were the answer (which they aren’t), a TCD/UCD merger should be avoided like the plague, because even a discussion about it will unhinge rational debate about Irish higher education. And even if a TCD/UCD (or any other) merger were the best way forward (which it isn’t), then the reason given should not be that a larger university is more competitive internationally. The top 10 global universities are mostly smaller than UCD. Quality, not size, is what makes you competitive. The whole thing is just bizarre beyond words.

If I were still in Ireland I would now have to lie down in a darkened room. From my current vantage point I can only watch with amazement. There are so many things to do to secure Ireland’s higher education sector and allow it to thrive. This really really isn’t one of them.

What to do with all this dissent?

June 19, 2012

Last month the Irish Times published an article by Tom Garvin, a recently retired professor from University College Dublin, in which he suggested that Irish universities were being destroyed by an ‘indescribable grey philistinism’. He concluded:

‘An anti-intellectual and pseudo-commercial bullying has attempted to replace intellectual freedom, a freedom that the nation itself desperately needs, whether or not it realises it.’

Actually Professor Garvin had been down this road before, in an article published in the same newspaper two years ago. And he is clearly not alone, Both then and last month his pieces were followed by letters to the editor that largely agreed with his analysis.

Nor is this just an Irish phenomenon. The website Inside Higher Ed recently reported that a professor of Georgia Southern University had circulated an email to all faculty in which he described his university as dysfunctional and as being led by administrators disconnected from academics and students. I suspect that if I trawled a little more I would find other examples of such dissent.

What does all this tell us? Actually, that’s hard to say. A lecturer from University College Dublin recently told me that such views are, as he put it, the property of an older generation of academics who find it hard to adapt. He suggested that many of these dissidents are uncomfortable not just with new management practices, but also with new technology, and sometimes with the new practice of involving students in decision-making. They are, he suggested, out of touch with a younger generation of academics.

On the other hand, in my recent role as chair of the Scottish review of higher education governance I came across a good few examples of dissent from academics who would not fit into such a category. So what do we do? One of the key requirements of a successful academy is collegiality. This cannot be a substitute for strategy and action, but it should be an accompaniment to it. Universities cannot return to some allegedly golden age of the 1970s or earlier – there wasn’t such a golden age anyway; they must deal with the financial, quality and accountability issues that they now face. But university leaders must also remember that their plans and methods must carry consent, and they must find ways of harnessing that as effectively as possible.

I don’t agree with Professor Garvin. I think he has misunderstood a good deal of what universities now have to cope with. But I believe that he, and others who think like him, should be encouraged to take their case into the heart of the university, and should be allowed to stimulate discussion and, where appropriate, re-appraisal of policy. Universities would be strengthened by this.

Resourcing excellence

February 26, 2011

Today we shall probably get a better idea of who will form the next government in Ireland. Once the new administration takes office it will have a number of priority issues on its agenda. It may be tempted to think that higher education is not one of them, or worse still, that any issues regarding it can be addressed by stepping up regulatory restrictions and bureaucratic controls. None of that will improve the standing of Irish universities, or help them to attract knowledge intensive investment to Ireland.

The new ministers will need to bear in mind that companies with an innovation agenda will choose a location in which they can most easily tap into a labour force with specialist skills and a research community with high value specialist expertise. If they cannot find that here, they will go elsewhere. And having that here is, more than anything else, a question of resources.

Right now in the United States some well known universities are facing significant financial pressures also. But even allowing for these, here is what they can avail of. The University of California at Berkeley is very worried about the loss of state funding. In fact it has 35,000 students, and after funding reductions have taken effect it will receive $300 million, or €218 million, in state funding (which works out at €6,228 per student). UCD, Ireland’s largest university, has 24,000 students and receives approximately €125 million in the recurrent grant (or €5,208 per student). However, when you add other sources of income and look at the overall budget, the picture gets more extreme. Overall, UCD’s annual budget is in the region of €350 million. The annual budget for Berkeley is around $1.8 billion, or €1.3 billion. So even with new financial pressures, UC Berkeley has more than twice the resources available to it on a pro rata basis than those available to UCD (and other Irish universities).

Mergers and other similar measures will not help in this in any way – on the whole they cost money and dilute excellence. As I have said in this blog before, there is no substitute for proper resourcing, and there is no framework for higher education excellence provided on the cheap. If we really mean to have a knowledge economy and society, then the government’s approach needs to change fundamentally. Also, those who believe that it will be possible to fund higher education satisfactorily solely from public money may need to think again; we need to be internationally competitive.

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.

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.