Whats REALLY going on inside higher education

Last week, in The Irish Times, an opinion piece was printed on third level education. Penned by Paul Mooney, sometime President of the National College of Ireland, and now back as a fulltime management consultant. To put it mildly it was…astonishing. Fuller than straw men than a wizard of oz convention, it has been mercilessly critiqued. Even the comments below the fold in the Irish times run 10-1 ‘against’ his broad thrust.  I have yet to see a comprehensive piece defending it. Richard Tol, no friend of lazy academics, opened a debate on Irisheconomy, where the public sector is not exactly flavour of the month, and yet the overwhelming perspective of the commentators was that while for sure there were and are issues of concern in irish higher education Mooney’s article was so over the top as to be risible.  The estimable Rob Kitchen, socioeconomic geographer and writer of excellent crime novels on his IrelandafterNAMA blog cocludes “The first rule of publishing in academia is to get your facts straight and to produce an evidence-informed analysis.  If his opinion piece was a student essay, I’d give it a ‘F’.” Other articles in other fora have all addressed a central theme of weakness: that the article by Mooney, despite his profession being one where one would hope the marshalling of evidence is then juxtaposed against theoretical and observational findings to come to  conclusion, is  a farrago of half baked anecdotes and factless musings. And so to our analysis. I should note that this piece is co-authored by my colleague Charles Larkin. For our views on how we might see a transormation in Irish higher education, see this piece.

We below take each paragraph of Paul’s article, and critique it. He asked, and he is correct in doing so, for a debate, so perhaps he will come back on this or on any other blog, in public, and address these and other criticisms. So far he has not.


IN A recent address to students in the University of Limerick, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn was refreshingly candid. Quinn said neither he, his officials in the Department of Education or the Higher Education Authority (HEA) “had a clue” if lecturers are doing their jobs. He went on to urge the students to be “critical consumers” of the education they receive. Using the analogy of a shop or a restaurant, he went on to say, “People can exercise choice by moving to another supplier of the service”.

The cluelessness of the HEA is something that may come as a surprise to Paul Mooney but it is nothing new to anyone in the Irish education environment. It was clear from the McCarthy Report’s recommendations that the existence of the HEA is questionable and it’s abolition was proposed for a savings of €5m per annum. Perhaps a dose of management consultancy is needed….

The notion of students as a consumer is a flawed metaphor : it is at best incomplete as the ‘consumption’ of higher education gives utility for decades. Asking students partway through their degree to critically evaluate its benefits is akin to asking someone if they enjoyed their meal after the bread rolls have arrived. There are much much richer metaphors for education : the one we like is that of an orchestra, where together the students and lecturers co-create a work which reverberates then and later. The world of music is full of examples where new work is rapturously approved on first iteration but thereafter is seen as shallow, derivative, and falls into disuse. It is also full of slow burners where audiences and critics react with a ‘huh’ or worse a “WHAT” but over time the beauty and utility of the work is seen by the community. Note that in either case the orchestra etc needs to be technically proficient and willing to work hard and the conductor know where they all are going…

So, if you live in Cork and don’t like the standard of lecturing you can pushback against the individual lecturer (who will be marking your term paper) or move to Dublin, Limerick or Galway? I don’t think so!

Quinn’s first challenge should be to examine how the third-level system actually works. Are lecturers doing their jobs?

One might start by asking a more fundamental question: what is the job? Throughout this opinion piece Paul seems to confuse third level education with a mechanistic process involving long class hours towards an aim of producing inputs into a “smart” economy. This is almost 100% what universities are not, and should not be. This confusion of aims is exactly what is causing the sector to become less coherent and to marshal resources in a less efficient fashion. Education differs from training and technical schooling and the utilitarian approach risk unhelpful mission creep and undermines an efficient division of labour within the entire education sector.


The third-level sector operates two semesters each year, typically October to December and January to April. Each semester lasts 13 weeks (normally 12 weeks teaching and one “reading week”). University lecturers effectively teach for 24 weeks each year. During each of those 24 weeks, they teach for a maximum of 16 hours – but this is often negotiated downwards with trade-offs against a range of research and administration duties.

In some cases they don’t teach at all; in others they teach for just a couple of hours each week.

If you are following the numbers here, third-level lecturers who are scheduled to teach for less than six months each year, actually teach for 16 hours (maximum) during each of those 24 weeks. Assuming that they work a 35-hour week, the rest of the time during term and all of their time outside of term, is taken up with preparing lectures, research and administration activity.

Frederick Taylor was  one of the founders of modern industrial sociology and human resource management. His approach was honed in a pig – iron factory, where he introduced and refined the notion of time-and-motion studies. That was 1911. As Jill Lepore’s article in the New Yorker October 12th, 2009 article made clear, the background to Taylor and Taylorist “scientific management” leaves much to be desired.

Evening taking the Taylorist approach at face value, there have been over the last 100 years more than a few minor advances in how work is measured, metricized and managed. It is startling to see such out of date approaches being applied to a complex system. In TCD the first course in management includes a component on Taylor and his successors. The main point that we like the students to take away is that there is in fact no “one best way” to measure and manage. Paul seems to consider, implicitly or explicitly, that universities are, in the terminology of Henry Minzberg, machine bureaucracies. These are most amenable to management by task setting from the center, but of course are only suited to situations where the environment is stable and simple, hardly what faces any knowledge organization. These machine bureaucracies tend to be, by their nature, dominated by the technocratic elite (managers) and have a tendency to proliferate rules and bureaucratic regulations. They are great structures for doing the same thing: they are really poor at innovation. More probably, given the complexity of the task and the context and the need to have qualified staff, a better Minzbergian configuration would be a blend of a professional form such as a professional bureaucracy or an adhocracy. These rely for coordination not on direct standardization of work but on the standardization of skills and mutual adjustment. These have less need of a professional technostrucure

One can only conclude from this that Paul never actually walked round any university to examine what goes on. Teaching contact hours as a metric for activity is as meaningless as the declaration that the amount of work accomplished in a Hollywood film is the amount of minutes it appears on a screen. This approach does worse than ignore, it devalues the research and administrative burden that goes into producing the teaching.


A good lecture is a thing of beauty. The best lecturers are brilliant teachers. They keep themselves and their materials up-to-date, staying close to their specialist subject. They demonstrate a real interest in delivery using a range of engaging teaching techniques eg, problem-based learning.

Staying close to the material is what is often called “research”. A scholar-teacher is that: someone who is both advancing the material and disseminating it.  The desire to put labels on old practices and to confine teaching to a series of “best practices” is shortsighted. It is demoralizing to staff, who feel un-empowered and mistrusted by the management, and, as Carl Schramm wrote in the Wall Street Journal on the 16th of March, is proof that Ireland has become enthralled to educational and education management fads. Concentration on basic literacy, in arts, humanities, sciences and life science, with the fourth level concentrating on more applied/technical/specialist areas, is one approach worth considering, which seems also to be more in line with the emergent thinking from minister quinn.

However, other lecturers are lazy and don’t update their material. When at college myself, we had one lecturer who “worked through a single book” with us. Turned out that he was using that same book and technique for over 15 years. In the worst cases, the notes go from the notebook of the lecturer into the notebooks of the students, without going through the minds of either.

This is simply faulty logic (A subject taught by philosophy departments, which we am sure would be whipped out of the temple of educational efficiency that Mooney envisions.) When I was at college I had a lecturer (probably more than one..) who was a roaring alcoholic (as well as being a superb researcher and usually an inspiring teacher). By analogy therefore all are. Mapping from the anecdotal to the general is a simple failure of logic. It is almost as bad as politicians’ logic: I must do something. This is something. Therefore I must do it.

So, performance under the heading of teaching is a mixed bag. Some lecturers are gifted. Some are awful. And there is no real consequence (upside or downside) for either group. The truth? Students are lucky if they can access lecturers from the inspired group.


Aside from teaching, academics spend their time completing research. This all sounds quite noble. Academics (and this is true for many) are helping Ireland Inc move up the value chain towards becoming a smart economy.

Yes, because the only role of the higher education sector is to act as a training cadre for Ireland Inc (why is it never plc). Strangely, and we speak as two persons tained to graduate level in economics both of whom embrace the capitalistic system ,  the market/economistic idiom falls apart when we look around at Ireland Inc. Lets look at people’s lives and see what does not fall into an open market:

  • Primary Schools
  • Secondary Schools
  • A large part of their health care
  • A significant aspect of their transportation
  • A significant part of their higher education
  • The vast majority of the criminal justice system
  • A large part of the infrastructure of this country
  • And, of course, their families.

Markets are important. They are powerful. They are not everywhere. They are not infallible. The application of economics and the economistic/market idiom to all aspects of human endeavor is a clear representation of an individual that doesn’t truly understand economics. A quick read of Book 5 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as well as his Theory of Moral Sentiments and Lectures on Jurisprudence will illustrate that the “father of the market economy” has been intellectually hijacked by some rather unsavory interpretations.

Im Paul’s world there is no role for knowledge as its own reward, no role for anything other than a dreary functionalism. What a dull life that would be.

Also the concept of the value chain is itself outmoded. A profit pool analysis would be more apt. We are at the top of the value chain in many areas (such as IT and pharma) but not necessarily reaping the benefits.

Yet if you strip away the layers, you find that a good percentage of university lecturers are actually completing their own research for a PhD during work hours.

What is a “good percentage”? There appears to be no real optimal PhD levels in either production of research or staffing. The issue relates more to the ability to lecture and research.  Doing a PhD shows that one can take a long task, of intensive research, and carry it through to advance in some manner the body of knowledge. It is perhaps for the best that people supervising doctoral or even advanced masters students have such training as in their moving forward the boundaries of knowledge they can better identify same boundaries and assist students to approach same.

Under Mooney’s criteria John Maynard Keynes would be unworthy of a job at an Irish university. It is common that the most brilliant minds in arts, letters, and mathematics are not terribly interested in the qualifications game, beyond that needed to obtain entry to a role. Rigid HR policies, taylor-like here,  undermines greatness in a university. Santayana’s departure from Harvard and his subsequent poor view of universities comes from the bureaucratic thickets that choke creativity and knowledge. The figures for doctorally qualified fulltime academic staff in the Irish universities were released by the HEA under FOI and seem to be:

  • NUIM (92 per cent),
  • NUIG (84 per cent),
  • TCD (82 per cent)
  • DCU (77 per cent),
  • UCD (72 per cent),
  • UCC (66 per cent),
  • UL (61 per cent),
  • DIT (30 per cent),
  • Athlone IT / IT Tallaght (29 per cent),
  • WIT and IT Blanchardstown (25 per cent),
  • Dundalk IT / Sligo IT (23 per cent),
  • CIT (20 per cent).
  • IT Carlow / GMIT (18 per cent each)
  • Letterkenny IT (16 per cent),
  • IT Tralee (19 per cent).
  • Limerick IT (14 per cent)

It still qualifies as research, but the notion that academics are focused on a couple of key topics that will promote Ireland Inc, is not even close to reality. The reality is that almost all academics complete research which interests them personally. While this is adding to the store of knowledge in the world (a good thing), the relevance of this research to the broader world (economic or social progress) often goes unquestioned.

This is quite an astonishing paragraph. It might be excusable from someone who never actually saw a university or third level institution but from a person who spent years as a university president it is gob smacking. The key to gaining PhD qualifications, the basic entry requirement to Irish universities and the ‘masterwork’ that certifies one as being able to do research is interest. If someone is working on an area in which they are not interested they will either not complete the work or it will be a long dragging nightmare. Funding, data, institutional structures, all these are secondary to the innate thirst for knowledge.  Paul’s world would seem to be where people are assigned to work on things that are ex ante KNOWN to be relevant – the process by which this ex ante foresight is achieved is unknown. We are once again into the world of “picking winners” and this is a fools errand (though one the Irish funding bodies do enjoy).  The model put forward is one similar to what people thought Bell Labs were like in the ‘60s. The reality was that they were much more flexible. Even given the fact that the reality differed from the vision in the public’s eye, that world has disappeared, for good. So the proposal is a false type of Bell Labs in conjunction with a vocational training school that is answerable to the Department of Finance. It sounds like an approach that would make even Khrushchev blush.


Beneath the surface of the question “what are our academics researching?”, resides an even more difficult question. What percentage of academics are actually capable of doing research that can add value?

Again this begs the question: what is value? What is the value of research into any area other than that which society, through time, places on it?  What is for example the value of researching the diffusion of stone axes, or how rat neurons can be taught to play games, or whether gold is a safe haven? How can one decide? Who should decide? If we look back at the great mathematicians this approach would put most of them into unemployment but without them we would have no computers, ATMs or other essential aspects of our daily life.

While the answer to this differs between institutions, the percentage of third-level lecturers that have the ability to produce economic or socially useful research is limited.

This can only be written by someone who has never researched. The imperative to produce economically and socially useful research is as galling, pointless and sysiphean  as the impositions of princes and prelates in the past not to affront the authority of the state and the church through their researches. Maybe Paul should read Brecht’s Galileo, as it might improve his understanding of knowledge, the state and why his view is not only unhelpful, but also outright dangerous. Boolean algebra, the foundation of modern society through its ubiquity in IT, languished for decades, along with Bayesian analysis, the other horse that pulls modern computer science. General relativity underpins GPS satellites; Paul Nurse won a nobel prize in medicine for research into cancer prompted by stumbling across mutated yeast cells in a wholly unrelated research area. The more research one does the more connections with research one makes and the more one opens oneself up to serendipity. There is a short, exquisite article on ‘useless research’ here which in effect invokes the venture capital model; try lots, fail lots, win big occasionally. Paul seems to have no place in his world for that.

Yet the system is designed on the mistaken assumption that 100 per cent of academic staff have this ability. Having a post-graduate degree (an entry requirement for this job) means that people in the group are highly educated, but not necessarily smart.

Without doubt brilliant minds in academia have led breakthroughs in technology, medicine etc. But the outputs from these exceptional people mask the fact that the majority of third-level lecturers are just that – people with masters or PhD degrees who should be able to teach really well but are not “researchers” in the sense of being capable of breakthrough thinking.

And of course the only metric of research is the ability to breakthrough. Paul seems to have forgotten that as Einstein said genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. His view of research seems to be that it consists of a succession of eureka moments; such a view is beyond laughable and again demonstrates a total lack of knowledge of how research progresses or is even undertaken that is positively baffling in someone who ran a third level institution

By granting research time to all academics (and not quantifying expectations or measuring outputs), the system is poorly designed from a productivity standpoint. The outputs don’t measure up against the inputs.

Once more the question is begged: what are the metrics? Are they citations? Papers produced? Number of doctoral candidates matriculated? Patents?  As it stands much of what our “managers” consider to be metrics are in fact inputs or intermediate outputs. Something which modern “scientific management” abhors might be required: judgment. An Excel spreadsheet absolves managers from responsibility since “the numbers don’t lie” but this slipshod logic is just an example of “proofiness”.  “Proofiness”, as the book of the same title by Charles Seife explains, is the fine art of (mis)using mathematics and numbers to prove points that are better answer by judgment. One of the best books on basic statistics ever written is “how to lie with statistics”, written in 1954 by Darryl Huff.  Both hammer home time and time again that final ‘proof’ or ‘decision’ lies in the mind. In the knowledge business, academic managers might wish to understand more and take more responsibility and rely less on questionable metrics and even more questionable consultants.


There are three roadblocks which get in the way of effective performance in the third-level sector.

– Firstly, the culture is not supportive of teaching.

– Secondly, the senior teams are seldom skilled in the area of performance management.

– Thirdly, there is no effective management system which drives performance.


Within the third-level system, the culture typically elevates research above teaching. Teaching duties are sometimes delegated to junior lecturers (sometimes postgraduate students trying to make some money to put themselves through college).

In some universities and colleges, it’s almost a mark of prestige if you don’t give lectures at all – particularly to undergraduate students (sometimes seen as the lowest form of student life). The proactive academics are focused on publications (publish or perish) and getting monetary grants for the organisation. That is prestigious work. Preparing or delivering great lectures to a bunch of undergraduates has nothing like the same prestige.



Most managers in the third-level system are academics (or former academics). Sometimes they have never worked outside of the university system and have no performance benchmarks. Sometimes they hold managerial jobs on a rotational basis (ie, they are really peers rather than bosses) and will be returning to a full-time academic role when their turn is completed.

There is therefore little incentive to make waves while in the chair.

The job of university president has increasingly become boundary management, looking outwards rather than inwards. The enormous legal fees spent annually to deal with performance issues and cases is staggering, money that should be spend internally in improving the educational system for students. Why? Because performance management has never been taken up as a serious topic in the sector and many senior managers are not trained in how to deal with this.

It would be nice to see how much this “staggering” amount is in practice, and more importantly to benchmark this against other sectors. Universities in Ireland employ 15,000 staff, of whom some 2/3 approx. are research/teaching/specialist “frontline” staff.  The issue here is whether or not there is  more or less spent in legal fees on performance issues than in any other group of 10000 mostly highly qualified workers. A casual glance at the labor court website suggests otherwise. In 2010 the LC made 800 plus recommendations; that suggests approx. 4800 in the 5-year period 2005-11, during which it seems that 48 involved universities. As a strategic HR consultant I am sure Paul has more detailed data, but the use of fuzzy and emotive language such as this reflects poorly on anyone with any research background.


There is often no performance management system in place in third-level institutions for the academic staff. Sometimes systems are in place but they have effectively died on the vine. No targets or standards set, just a requirement to teach X syllabus to Y students. And the quality of that teaching normally cannot be observed.

This is simply not the case. PMDS is required in all universities. Can it be honoured more in the breach than in the full? Of course, but that performance management systems are gamble is a fact across all organizations. Again, his blanket assertion that teaching quality cannot be observed is interesting. In part he is of course 100% correct: teaching quality is inherently fuzzy, and is a combination of an art and a science and has a very long lag. Thus to fully ascertain the quality of teaching requires perhaps decades of observation of people who got different styles and forms of teaching. But one suspects that what he means is that teaching itself is not observed. Again at least in TCD that is not the case. To progress to any level one has to show peer and other assessment of teaching practice, which at the lower levels accounts for up to 1/3 of the weight for promotion. As part of regular (externally, internationally conducted) quality audits observation of teachingand discussions with students at all levels are conducted. Quality in teaching is fuzzy: but that means neither that elements are unobserved or overlooked.

In relation to research, there are very few output standards and almost no downside to not meeting these.

Apart of course from the fact that, again, this is not the case  in universities that aspire to adequacy, where a (not terribly stringent) requirement to achieve measurable output standards (x papers, y books) per annum is the norm with those that do not so meet standard being, eventually, given more of other work to do.

Yes, there is a measurable outcome in terms of the actual students marks – but students are clever and work around the bad lecturers. Even where the outcomes are poor, there is usually no downside for a lecturer if students continually underachieve. Many colleges, recognising this, have set up peer support schemes to help lecturers improve their teaching and these offer really useful development opportunities. Because these are normally voluntary arrangements, in my experience it is those lecturers who are already brilliant who take up this opportunity; the poorer lecturers keep their heads below the parapet.

This assumes that the relevant metric to ensure quality of teaching is student-measured outcomes. Again, anyone with a cursory knowledge of university education processes will be hyper aware of the danger of grade inflation. By Paul’s analysis the better teachers will be the ones that find themselves giving higher percentages of better grade, and presumably this will then result in their getting more remuneration by being measurably better. Within a year this will result in every student getting a first in every subject.  Lecturers that produce “underachieving” student cohorts would very quickly find themselves ticked off by their head of department as their colleagues complain of receiving students who lack the ability to hack 2nd, 3rd or 4th year coursework or would receive negative comments from the external examiner or see a sudden stop in their students being accepted to good graduate schools.

There has been talk for years of introducing a formal performance management system across the sector and some organisations have made progress – but it is hotch potch, depending on the appetite and the managerial skills in place within individual institutions.


It is difficult not to conclude that the system is designed more on the basis of convenience for the academic staff (eg, no classes before 10am on Monday and none on Friday afternoon) rather than for the education of the students. Without doubt some courses are quite onerous in terms of class contact time and related project work. But a huge number of courses are much lighter in terms of teaching and class contact time.

In fact this is untrue on several levels. First and foremost the drivers of few lectures on Friday afternoon tend to be the students union. Irish students go home to mammy for the weekend and tend to take the bus/train/lift then. And, there is nothing wrong with that. Second,  perhaps the NCI have a policy of not teaching before 1000h, but in the case of most universities there are classes scheduled early and late. Of course the physical assets can be sweated more: but try getting a room free between 0800-1800 Monday-Friday during term time and one will see that there is very little slack in that system.

Short contact hours and really long holidays is not good preparation for students trying to get ready for what lies ahead.

Students, even technical ones, read for a degree. Class hours are one part of this. Library hours are another. Time spent drinking coffee or other beverages and discussing the subject with faculty and other students is a further element. Paul constantly, pointedly, confuses in-class teaching with learning. My experience, both sides, is that it is not. Teachers teach but only learners can learn. The model envisioned is one similar to the teacher-training colleges where attendance is taken and the day is rigidly organized. This model is not conducive to most subjects. It also entirely ignores the ability for student extra-curricular activities to be highly educational. One only has to attend a Hist or Phil debate in TCD some evening to see how students, on their own, develop their own abilities and learn things from each other.


Based on my experience I would propose the following action:


The third-level sector should move from two to three semesters each year. This would increase the teaching cycle from 24 weeks to 36 weeks a year. It would be a much better training cycle for students (who have to face a 46-48 week-long year in the real world when they exit university). It would provide a 50 per cent productivity increase with four-year degrees being completed in less than three years.

Training. Because that is what we do. We train people, to be…. what? Paul, we don’t.  Universities if they are doing anything like a decent job train people to THINK. Thinking is really hard. It takes time. And some things take time to sink in.


We need a robust and transparent system of performance evaluation (not “I’m working from home marking papers”). This should focus on evidence of changes made in teaching practice and set specific teaching standards to be reached. It should also address the research output to be produced (and this cannot be the pursuit of personal interests). Given the complexity of the sector and the range of topics taught, this is not simple. But it will never happen if we don’t start the dialogue now.

One wonders what is wrong with working at home marking papers?  Does Paul think that all work in all disciplines must be done at the desk/lab?  The late Provost of Trinity College, Prof. Bill Watts, would be regularly seen departing in his car for fieldwork. Prof. JV Luce’s archeological trips and Prof. Moody’s journeys to Kew in London all involved being out of the office but doing their work, many times with students in tow. If a french lecturer sits in a cafe reading a new book of critical essays on french film, is that work? If a science professor wanders round a factory talking to a friend about a new process, is that work? What if an economist blogs in their own time on the state of the economy? What if a genetics professor attends Electric Picnic and (in between listening to the music) gives some talks on genetic? This view of performance management is simply feeble-minded.

What then are these standards of teaching (oh, yes, the percentage of high grades) and who shall set them? Who will set the research areas to be pursued? Paul is clearly blissfully unaware of the massive failure of governments worldwide to “pick winners”.


All university staff should teach, unless they have a full-time research schedule, which is signed off by a high level in-house committee. “Not teaching” should be the rare exception rather than the norm.

You mean, like it is now?


Every high-performance work organisation has an ability to address underperformance. Now adequate protections have to be built into the system to ensure that people who have a different political viewpoint to the management or simply hit a black patch are protected. But here I am talking about dealing with chronic underperformers, the five people which everyone in the organisation can name in five minutes who have not done a decent days work since the Millennium. They have no role to play in a modern university.

So that’s 40 staff across the university sector we need to deal with…. If only it was that simple.


No doubt this article will be labelled as unfair and a witch-hunt. The suggested restrictions of academic freedom will be seen as evidence of a philistine mind at work, someone who doesn’t understand or appreciate the outputs from 1,000-plus years of academic endeavour, polluted by the narrow concerns of economics.

No, it will be pulled apart (like this effort) by persons whose training is in deconstructing and reassembling complex knowledge. That may result in criticism, but then that’s life. Criticism is a communication process. Despite the barrage of same Paul has not so far responded. Such a response would be welcome.

And there will be a range of exceptions reported, notable academics working long hours and making key breakthroughs to disprove the points made here.

“Im not anti-academic…some of my best friends are academics…But you know, most of them just aren’t like us. but some try to integrate”  Feel free to insert any other group noun for academic, and read it aloud. Options include : Jews, blacks, asylum seekers, catholics, protestants…..

Yes this article is focused on the negative. It ignores the culture of collaboration which exists within the system and the sharing of information. It also ignores the productivity gains achieved in recent years, with the numbers of students now completing third-level education at an all-time high. Perhaps, the greatest sin, is that I have ignored the fact that Irish higher education is underfunded vis a vis international comparators.

Yes, except it really isn’t. The problem in Irish higher education is of fuzzy mission creep not absolute underfunding. And, perhaps coloured by personal experience, Paul uses the buly pulpit of his (ex) presidential role to by his own admission willfully ignore.

'The Irish higher education system has served Irish society well in recent decades, as it responded to changes in the social, economic and cultural environment. It has provided society with the knowledge and skills needed to negotiate the changing global landscape, where new understandings, new challenges and new technologies are daily changing the realities we face and our relationships with the world. And it has opened new opportunities for personal development and advancement to a generation of citizens. The high-calibre graduates produced by the higher education system have been critical to the development of high-technology indigenous industry and to the attraction of very substantial foreign direct investment into the country, resulting in the creation of high-quality, well-paid employment, economic growth, and a higher standard of living.''  

So said the Hunt report: a document that was by no means written by starry eyed dreamers amongst the ivory towers. Had every aspect of Irish public life been as adequate as the university sector we might be in a better place.

My hope is that while the views expressed are controversial, this will start a dialogue. In a system that is almost 100 per cent funded by the State, we have the right to expect the highest standards and outputs.

Almost 100% funded…no, its not. Perhaps NCI was but to take TCD as an example of a university, of the €266m total spend in 2011 €71m came from state grants, and €46m from ‘free fees’ paid to the university in lieu of fees from students. €55m came from competitive exchequer funded research initiatives. Thus the university obtained 64% of its cost from the state. In fact if one excludes the free fees, which one should (students are still ‘charged’ fees, but the state then fots the nominal bill) as this is political this percentage falls to 46%. Similar figures can be obtained with a quick look at the other university annual reports.

Ruairí Quinn is paid to oversee the education system. While he cannot be responsible for every single individual or practice employed, he is responsible for asking the big questions.

He isn’t paid to oversee the education system. The Department of Education and Skills has been derisively termed the “Department of Schools and Teachers” since it’s role is limited to legislation, administration and payroll. One of the main problems with the education system is that it’s scattered. There is no single vision, no single line of management. He is at best charged with policy formation and implementation at a political level.

And it doesn’t get any bigger than managing the performance of the academic staff across the sector. We need to have the courage to begin to discuss and address these issues head on.

It does get much bigger: even within education there are lots of much bigger problems. I would count kiddies in prefabs their parents were in a much bigger problem, as would I suspect most parents. Similarly the role of universities, the patronage of schools, the lamentable science-math-language skills, all these are of far greater import than how to deal with academics.   We do need a discussion: but facts, the application of modern forms of managerial analysis, logically coherent arguments and a holistic perspective of society as consisting of many stakeholders would be a good start. This op-ed fails on all levels.

19 thoughts on “Whats REALLY going on inside higher education

  1. shanemjdempsey

    Absolutely 100% agree. If anything you’re too kind as the article referenced nothing but anecdote. Something which every academic knows is not acceptable beyond 2nd level. You’re spot on about the misconception of our funding bodies about organisations like Bell Labs & Xerox Parc also. Shannon came up with information theory while he was employed to do other, if admittedly related, work. Bell gave him latitude as they did with many of their scientists. Parc did likewise and they realised that great researchers WANT to do great research. They also want to work with other great researchers and will seek each other out. They’ll effectively self-organise. I’ve yet to meet someone working in ICT research for more than 2 years who didn’t want to better their skills, abilities and achievements. To do so they need support. There’s an oft-repeated dictum in Irish funding bodies that, without industry to guide them, academics simply flail around on pet projects with no commercial applicability. Stupid things that lead to useless inventions such as electronics and the internet. It’s all a question of timeframe and risk of course. High-risk projects with grand ambitions are generally not suited to near-term requirements of industry. If your local industry has a product rather than research focus then you’ll struggle to find local industrial champions for R&D, regardless of how good it is. Yet if we do not undertake these projects across Irish 3rd level then we’re relegated to mere adopters of the innovation of others. & from these projects we can produce our indigenous industrial research organisations. Something Ireland Inc badly needs more of. The patronising view that academics have no understanding of industrial concerns has been the house special in Ireland for a few years. The reality is that academics spend too much time writing commercial reports and justifications to funding bodies, so they can satisfy themselves that they ex ante picked a winner who is still winning. The contents of these reports detail adherence to a set of ever changing tapestry of metrics that are deemed important to those who have abdicated judgement in favour of spreadsheets. This detracts from the actual research and irks academics who are treated as troublesome children who need regular & stern discipline. It’s Adam Smith meets Dragon’s Den. Many research projects fail to realise full value for their research outputs as we have instituted competition in place of collaboration between the agencies that should support the commercialisation of research and the researchers carrying out the research programmes. When a programme finishes many researchers are faced with finding a new grant or a new job. And the answer to how can we improve the outputs of 3rd level research isn’t to look at US examples of >10 times current scale and many multiples of that in cumulative investment and seek to copy them verbatim. If anything, we need greater collaboration between all 3rd level institutes as “Ireland Inc” is competing internationally.

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  3. Private Hi

    NCI is not a University. It is a private HE institute which receives some public money. Paul Mooney is victim of management at NCI in the private sector of HE and hence the number crunching, race-to-the-bottom and ‘Product-Process’ focus of the article. He isn’t even wrong, it is much worse than that – motives are dubious.

    1. brianmlucey Post author

      being a private institution is not the issue : so also is TCD. Im not at all clear what you mean by “motives are dubious” : whose motives are so? Im not ascribing and I think you should not either, any motives to Paul beyond what I think is what he stated : to get a conversation going.

      1. Private Hi

        I wouldn’t suppose to impose the TCD organisation culture on NCI or vice versa – each is unique and distinctive – and not a like-for-like comparison and perhaps this is the point that needs to be teased out more by Paul and dare I say it, many commentators. The NCI HETAC institutional reviews from 2007 & 2010 (pre-Paul Mooney and post-Paul Mooney) point somewhat to the improvements under his tenure, especially in Governance and QA. However, this manageristic approach he mentions here is not a model for the University/IT sector with a different set of stakeholders (and public/private funding sources/ratios – with their added pressures and so on) and focus on research and the public good etc. Seeking a conversation is one thing, but there are better ways of framing the context. If this is ham- fisted, is it to provoke? What is the motivation in taking such a narrow view as you have correctly parsed? Maybe it is to get the conversation going. But lets re-frame it.

  4. Delarivier

    Brian, many thanks for your clear explanation of why so much of that article was nonsense. You describe it *exactly* as it is.
    One more thing. Try applying for a lectureship in science in an Irish university without a Ph.D. It’s an entry-level qualification – without it your application will go straight to the bottom of the pile!

  5. Eugene O'Loughlin (@eoloughlin)


    Excellent dissection of Paul Mooney’s ill-informed article in The Irish Times. Agree with almost everything you say. I haven’t seen any response from him other than his mentioning on his blog that Minister Quinn called him about his article.

    Mooney’s comments were particularly hard for us to take in NCI – it was difficult to read as it was so much more personal to us since he spent three years here as President. He actually promoted the policy of getting Lecturers to study part-time for a PhD while here. He also actively supported our submission to HETAC to run a PhD programme in Technology Enhanced Learning (which was successful), and for faculty to be timetabled so that they had least least one “research day” with no classes.

    My own comments “a philistine mind at work” on his article are located at:


    Finally – I want to correct a couple of items in your post about NCI:

    First – “perhaps the NCI have a policy of not teaching before 1000h”, this is not true. I myself have regular 0900 classes.

    Secondly – NCI is not, and never was, 100% publicly funded. We are funded to about 35% by DoE – this is just under €7 million/year. Two thirds of our students are part-time fee-paying students.

    Eugene O’Loughlin,
    Lecturer in Computing,
    National College of Ireland.

  6. cormac

    Super post. Many thanks for taking the time to deconstruct that appalling and depressing article. I particularly enjoyed the orchestra analogy, so much better than the usual consumer rubbish.
    I refrained from writing to the IT editor with the greatest difficulty, mainly because I get tired of seeing my own letters, and I wonder why so many in the senior management ranks of academia cannot find the time to set the public record straight.
    One addition; My feeling is that the article is no anomaly – a careful reader of notice that many of the opinions expressed mirror those regularly expressed on the Education Today page. I have wondered about the low standard of this page for some time..
    Regards, Cormac

  7. Ted

    I would offer the following key observations:
    1. It appears that you are not a professionally qualified educator as your profile reveals no biographical details of any studies you have undertaken to enable you to teach students, which is the case for almost all third-level lecturers. So, your analysis about teaching (which, from an academic perspective, lacks any connection to learning) is based on personal views rather than deriving from a solid and rigorous understanding of how students learn.
    2. Your article fundamentally fails to recognise the centrality of students in the work of third-level institutions.
    3. In your article, you state that “the quality in teaching is fuzzy”, which is an ambiguous statement. The clear implication is that it because of this fuzziness judging the quality of teaching is not possible. This is a fallacy. The purpose of teaching is to achieve learning. While measurements of teaching quality can be complex, they can also be very simple and easily achieved. You will find much in the literature to enable you to construct assessment rubrics to apply to teaching quality.
    4. You mention external internation audits and one would presume you are including the IUQB audit. There are serious weaknesses in the audit methodology employed by the IUQB and severe defficiencies in how it fails to reference in its reports the failure of actions arising from its previous inspection. All in all, it’s real lovey-dovey stuff!
    5. You mention the PMDS system and now it’s quite apparent that your article was, largely, a joke when you pass off the failure of PMDS casually because it is a “gamble” for any organisation. The logical conclusion from your article is that the best-educated staff in the country, who work to further knowledge and to shape the minds of the next generations just weren’t able to overcome the odds and implement an effective system that gives real accountability and provides a structured manner for improving what they and their institutions do. A better perspective might be to consider the failure of PMDS as indicative of the corporate culture at third level.

      1. Ted

        I appreciate you taking the time to post a reply, thank you!

        That said, I have looked at your list of publications and cannot find a single article you have published about teaching or learning. Perhaps you could highlight a few.? I’m fascinated by your insights in the area of economics, but, on the basis of a lack of academic background in the area, your insights into education appear to be more akin to the musings of an opinionated hobbyist than an educated commentator from that field. Your views are welcome but should be subject to the same scrutiny as you espouse for others.

  8. Pingback: Back Inside Higher Education : Guest Post | Brian M. Lucey

  9. Pingback: What’s REALLY going on in higher education? | One Change a Day

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