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.

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.

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.