A couple of weeks ago Paul Mooney, sometime president of National College of Ireland and now back in his old role as a consultant published an opinion piece in the Irish Times on his perspective on the travails of Irish higher education. Among others I commented, here. Paul subsequently contacted me and the outcome of this conversation is below.
Note that this is in no way a ‘right of reply’. Rather it is in response to Paul noting that his own blog is focused on short consultant orientated ‘one page’ pieces, and that he was finding difficulty ‘placing’ his rebuttal/revised opinion elsewhere. As he had called for a debate and has been willing to engage in same, im perfectly happy to give space to him here.
I by no means agree with or even accept Paul’s (revised) perspective. But that we need a debate is something no democrat can object to. So, here is Paul Mooney. Im sure that there will be comment on this. I am also sure that some will critique me for even daring to post this. Comment by all means but please keep within the bounds of decency, libel laws and common sense. My rubric is to (try to) never say in print what you would not say to someones face.
There has been quite a response to the original article published in the Irish Times on March 20th. The purpose of this note is to address the main points raised in the feedback. While there was a mixed reaction, the vast majority of the responses from the academic community were firmly on the ‘absolutely do not agree’ side of the debate (sometimes expressed in slightly stronger language). One email stated: “You are obviously even less busy than me if you find the time to write and publish such a large piece of rubbish. What kind of an enemy of the Nation are you?’
Let me touch on a couple of broader points before we drill into the substantive issues. Firstly, my working experiences in the 3rd level sector were overwhelmingly positive. This was not a ‘bitter attack’ on the sector (as one person described it) nor some broader rant about the public service generally. Secondly, I am not using this as a marketing campaign for Tandem Consulting. In my experience, openly challenging a sector is generally not the road to marketing success! Thirdly, it is difficult to talk about a ‘sector’ as if it were a single entity or discuss ‘academics’ as if they comprised a homogeneous group. Academia is a ‘broad church’ with huge degrees of variation. In the original submission to the Irish Times (slightly longer than the material published), I made the point that with 20+ 3rd level institutions, practices differ across the sector and even within individual institutions. So, while the points made applied generally, they were not be factually correct in all cases. I fully accept that the points made will not apply everywhere. I also made the point that the 3rd level sector was 100% State funded, which is not the case. Many institutions source income from student fees, research, consulting projects etc. Of course, public funding is still critically important across the sector and the broad point that we have to ‘answer to the taxpayer’ holds, but the ‘100% quip’ was an error of fact. Mea culpa.
Commence Dialogue: The purpose of the article was to begin a dialogue about how the 3rd level system should function in the future. I certainly don’t have all the answers. My time working in the sector was quite short and there are specialist areas where my understanding is limited. But, in many ways, interrogation of how a system functions starts with questions rather than answers. As a management consultant, I’ve spent 20+ years reviewing how organizations function across a range of sectors. The ‘default instinct’ is always to question the status quo, which is part of the DNA of how consultants operate. It’s hardly unique. Most people charged with leading organizations or guiding future strategy, should critically evaluate what exists. But, and this is a central point, there is a tendency for incumbent managers to get caught up in day-to-day pressures and lose objectivity about how the overall system functions. There are numerous recent examples of this in Ireland where people within a system (e.g. Finance Sector, the Church) simply accepted existing practices.
Document Structure: There was considerable criticism around particular terms used; ‘Ireland Inc’ and the ‘Smart Economy’ have come in for particular derision. In the opening section I will try to make the underlying assumptions clearer. Subsequently, we can revisit the original ideas put forward and attempt to respond to the key ‘counter arguments’ made.
Building a Smart Economy: Commercial organizations operating in Ireland find it increasingly difficult to compete with low labor cost economies across the world. Because of high wage rates (in relative terms), we no longer compete internationally on price. I have first hand experience in this space, working with companies that are closing down operations in Ireland. From a ‘strategic perspective’, what do we need to do to stop this hemorrhage of jobs? The general consensus seems to be that Ireland should begin to move towards becoming what is usually labeled (shorthand) as a ‘smart economy’. The simplest definition of a ‘smart economy’ is where a high percentage of the workforce are involved in tasks which require intellectual rather than just manual skills. In Ireland, we’ve had some success in this space to date. 90% of the world’s top pharmaceutical, banking and technology companies are already located here. They are still coming with Google, Facebook and LinkedIn being the leading edge of the latest wave. But to secure employment in those sectors, candidates increasingly need to hold 3rd level qualifications. Without a degree, you don’t even get called for interview and this trend will continue.
Now, this is where it gets a bit more contentious. Several commentators rejected the idea that the 3rd level sector should be ‘producing’ graduates and research, which are directly aligned to the needs of multi-national or indigenous companies. They argued that this is akin to thinking about education as some sort of ‘sausage factory’ producing identikit students and very narrowly defined research outcomes. Let’s go back to the original argument for a moment.
Competitive Island: Capital is the ultimate mobile commodity. Essentially, like fishermen, we need a lure to attract this. For Ireland to remain a compelling investment location, several things need to be in place.
1. Something Unique: We have to be able to market something unique (not one single thing, but a combination of areas in which we excel). Despite all the talk of a smart economy, current thinking on this is ‘wooly’. The previous government issued a long paper on this (100+ pages) but it was unfocused i.e. a ‘brainstormed list’ of areas that could be important in the future. Good raw material for sure, but not a defined strategy in the sense that choices had actually been made. I believe that we should narrow down the list, selecting a couple of core areas in which Ireland will compete (defacto this is happening in parts of the public sector e.g. the types of companies which the IDA target for investment). Once we have locked onto the ‘short list’, we should line up all state funded institutions (including the 3rd level sector) to ensure that we make massive progress in these defined key areas.
2. Solid Infrastructure: We need to have the broader infrastructure to attract capital e.g. physical, transport, communications and taxation. Solid progress has been made on this in recent years (i.e. we now have a road system which is worthy of a developed economy).
3. Smart Workforce: At the heart of what we have to offer is a highly educated, English speaking workforce with the ability to develop high added-value products and services. It’s not possible to build a smart economy without a smart workforce. So, producing highly skilled graduates and re-skilling workers from smokestack industries for jobs in the emerging sectors needs targeted investment.
It follows that the 3rd level sector is absolutely vital to the future economic success of the country. High quality teaching and research outputs will underpin future economic success and enrich the country in a host of additional ways (in keeping with the argument that Ireland is a country, rather than just an economy). The corollary is that the 3rd level sector needs to demonstrate high productivity to justify the additional investment required to ensure that we can compete against the best in the world. It’s not just about pumping more money in. We have seen in the health sector that huge additional investment does not necessarily translate into superior outcomes. I believe that we have to change the way we conceptualize and run the 3rd level educational system, maximizing productivity and outputs (I understand that this managerial language gets up some people’s noses, but lets not quibble about particular terms).
Magnificent 8: What should these ‘specialist’ areas be? I’m not an economist but the following areas would probably feature strongly if we constructed a ‘strategic focus’ list:
1. Science: Pharma and bio sciences (embedded now for 30+ years).
2. Software/ICT: Huge development capability based on our existing core competence in this space.
3. Education: Attracting overseas students & offering a unique experience – focusing on the USA and Asia in particular. Some good work underway already, but much more cross-institutional collaboration needed and overall branding around Ireland rather than individual colleges.
4. Agriculture & Food production: Building on our image as a ‘green island’.
5. Marine: 3rd biggest shoreline country in Europe. Possibilities in both leisure and energy.
6. Finance: Despite the recent issues in the sector, we still have an ability to rebuild a vibrant financial sector.
7 Tourism: It is not replicable elsewhere.
8. Arts: Building on our unique capability in this space.
Focused Targets: The core suggestion here (hardly an original point) is that the bulk of our teaching and research activity should be focused on a small number of key areas. Obviously, students will continue to exercise wide choice about their chosen professions based on personal interest and there will continue to be a range of 3rd level options (many of which are ‘non-economic’). But with a limited budget, the government (and the education sector) should target investments in areas of future strategic importance. The piper should call the tune. At a national level, an example of this policy is practice is Singapore. It’s a small island, roughly the same size as Achill, with a population of just under 5 million people. In the early 1960’s their Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, decided that, in the absence of any natural resources, the country would have to find a basis to compete internationally. Now Singapore is the 4th most important financial centre in the world. Obviously the Singapore story is complex and the culture and political system is not an exact parallel with our own. However, the broad thrust of the argument is that we could follow the same route. At a sector level, an example is provided within the pharmaceutical industry where particular diseases and conditions are targeted for research effort. At an organization level, CRH provides an example of a ‘strategic focus’, a concentration of efforts across a narrow range of defined areas. For me, the lesson in all of the above is that focus works.
Responding to the current Financial Context: We all know that the country is currently spending more than we take in as revenue. At the time of writing the gap is currently of the order of €16/€17 billion per annum. In short, we have to achieve the same outcomes with less resource by somehow ‘working smarter’. But perhaps we can go beyond this. Perhaps our ambition should be to achieve superior outcomes with fewer resources? To progress this idea, we need concrete suggestions about how we might actually change how the 3rd level sector currently operates.
There was a strong undercurrent of concern in the letters/blogs sent that if we simply save money at the expense of a decline in academic standards that would be a pyrrhic victory. I agree wholeheartedly. But, the central idea that we can achieve better outcomes for less cost can be achieved if we take a root and branch look at how the system currently operates. ‘Tweaking’ the existing system in some form of continuous improvement will not provide the breakthrough in productivity that is required.
Pushback: This view that we should link the 3rd level system to the defined needs of the economy has been questioned. For example, a critique put forward by Professors Brian Lucy and Charles Larkin in Trinity College (if I understand and represent their views correctly) is that it is simply not possible to make these ‘links’. An economy is more complex than a simple jigsaw in which everyone has a defined role; it cannot be ‘connected’ in the mechanistic way suggested above. An additional point under this heading is an accusation of the crime of functionalism i.e. I don’t value knowledge for its own sake and don’t understand or appreciate how a broad effort to produce knowledge actually benefits society over time.
This is a really worthwhile debate on a couple of levels. Firstly, is it possible to set out broad national goals and to ‘align’ the apparatus of the state behind these? (I believe this is possible). Secondly, should third level institutions be an ‘arm’ of the state, or each have a mission which is independent? (e.g. the creation of knowledge that, in time, will benefit the entire society). In the negative responses to the idea that the 3rd level sector should be an ‘arm’ of state policy, it’s important to unravel two separate points. Some people argue on the basis of pragmatism i.e. they do not believe that this can actually work. Others, seem to have a gut reaction against the notion of a centrally planned system (of which 3rd level would be a critical part), preferring to maintain the current levels of autonomy. In Ireland, the 3rd level system has developed (over hundreds of years in some cases) into a group of independent entities. This independence is valued and closely guarded. Many people in the sector see the Minister for Education, the Department of Education and the HEA as having a limited role in how these organizations are run and there is a constant tension between ‘independence’ and central coordination. The time has come now to resolve this confusion and to decide the exact mission of the 3rd level sector in Ireland. So, let’s park the ‘high level’ stuff for a moment and look at some of the specific productivity suggestions made…
Drilling into the Details: In the original article, 5 core points were made (a) The academic year is too short (b) There are too few teaching hours each week and there is a cultural movement away from teaching (c) Teaching quality is mixed, from brilliant to awful (4) Research is not focused and not everyone is capable of research (5) Performance management is not well embedded within the sector. Lets have a relook at each of these points and the counter arguments put forward.
- 1. 3rd Semester: The original point made was that the teaching cycle – 24 weeks a year ‑ is too short and does not prepare students well for the future. Within those teaching weeks, some subjects have quite low contact time (10-15 hours). With a short teaching week and long holidays we are not preparing students well for the future. The argument was that introducing a 3rd semester – moving from 24 weeks teaching each year to circa 36 weeks– would have a number of upsides. It would make it possible to complete an honours degree in 3 years or less and be much more cost effective. Saving of circa 25% of the cost of getting a degree for each student would roll up to a huge annual saving. It would also better prepare students for the real world and provide much better asset utilization for the 3rd level colleges.
Pushback: In the original piece, I ignored (not deliberately) a lot of additional work that academic staff are involved in. One example is marking exam papers, which has been estimated as a ‘2 week’ task at the end of each semester. So, if we moved to a 3rd semester, the math’s still work i.e. a 13 week cycle becomes a 15 week cycle X 3 times = 45 weeks.
One argument was students have to work to pay for their own studies and more class contact time would cut into their work/earnings time. For some students, this point has real merit – albeit it is hardly the central design feature around which the entire educational system should be built. If significant savings could be made (in terms of overall sector costs), some of this could be ploughed back into a grants scheme to support students who struggle financially. Let’s agree one key point: achieving cost savings while lowering the participation rates for less well off students would be a poor outcome.
Why focus on Hours? There was pushback that focusing on ‘hours’ worked doesn’t make any sense, akin to measuring the quality of a Hollywood movie by the length of the film. It’s not a good analogy. I take it as a given that not all leaning takes place in the classroom and that some lecturers go the extra mile and coach students outside of formal class times. And students ‘read’ for a degree i.e. spend time working on their own (albeit, I suspect that self-directed learning is different among students, and that some ‘weaker’ students need more hands-on involvement by faculty). Moving to an extended teaching year would still allow this. Pilots are mandated by legislation to fly for a fixed number of hours per year and medical consultants are contracted to work a fixed number of hours in the public wards. So, it is possible to specify the ‘hours’ of work for people who complete complex roles. This would not be a ‘single measure’ – but part of a series of measures which describe the overall job. To argue that there should be no focus on hours worked doesn’t make any sense to me. There are some exceptional people in the 3rd level sector to which arguments about hours and semester lengths simply will not apply. They already work long hours with huge committed to their specialism’s. But we should not design a system that employs thousands of people, on the basis of how these exceptional people perform.
Holiday Entitlement: There is another point at play here that is almost undiscussible. Most academic staff have a defined holiday entitlement. For the purposes of this debate, lets assume that this is circa 30 days i.e. 6 weeks paid leave. 2nd level teachers have a holiday entitlement that is much longer than this, circa 3 months taken over the summer period. My personal belief is that an informal system of taking longer breaks during the summer period has built up across swathes of the 3rd level system. I had the opportunity to visit several third level institutions during summer periods (when I worked directly in the sector and in completing a couple of consulting assignments in 3rd level colleges). Some institutions become a virtual ‘Ghost Town’ during the summer period, with little visible activity. I understand that people need to take their full holiday entitlement and there are lots of exceptions where academic staff, work really long hours, sometimes offsite, completing fieldwork. However, a defacto system of ‘long summer breaks’ has built up. The idea of having a 3rd semester would bump up against this informal practice and some of the resistance voiced is because of this. In moving to a 3rd semester, it might be possible to look at the intensity of how some current programmes are taught (e.g. it might be possible to have two longer and one shorter semester) or look in detail at how this would effect outcomes in particular subject areas. Given the diversity of programmes being undertaken, it’s difficult to put forward a single ‘one size fits all’ solution that would apply across the sector.
- 2. Academics don’t teach enough hours in a teaching week: The typical contract specifies 16 hours a week (some of the IOT’s have 18 hour weeks and some people informed me that there are ‘teaching only’ contracts for up to 20 hours a week). The point made in the original article was that few academics actually teach that number of contracted hours for a number of reasons, trading off other duties against this e.g. developing new programmes and research. Perhaps it’s actually worse than I highlighted in the original article. Some teaching contracts are based on standard 9-5 Monday to Friday hours. When teaching is conducted outside of these hours (evenings or at weekends), the classroom hours are sometimes counted at 1.5 or double time. So, the effective amount of hours taught can be really low.
Pushback: Great lectures don’t ‘just happen’ – they are prepared. For new Lecturers, in particular, it takes a lot of time to put course materials together. And 16 hours teaching is probably close to a full weekly workload during term time – assuming that the lectures are preparing materials in advance and involved in scholarship – keeping their materials up to date. I agree – provided that those assumptions are being met.
Black Box: This is somewhat of a ‘black box’ and there is no standard cross-sector approach to this. If the overall culture is for staff to gravitate away from teaching towards research (my belief), the number of hours taught decreases over time. The argument is not that teaching should be more important than research; both need to be valued and students exposed to the best minds in the 3rd level sector. The original article was in praise of good teaching (classroom, tutorials, supervising post-graduates etc.) and that fact that we should have the best minds directed at this. I’m not 100% clear on why there is a movement away from teaching. Perhaps there is a sense that a brilliant lecture is all too easily forgotten whereas writing a journal article or a book stays on your CV for life. No doubt helping students make the transition from 2nd level (rote learning) to 3rd level (independent thinking) can be very difficult and this type of work is not suited to everyone. Whatever the reasons, the central point is that if we don’t celebrate great teaching, we will not get great teaching. Overall, there was no good argument put forward, that we should not measure teaching hours and teaching quality.
Data Based: There was considerable pushback that he views expressed were anecdotal, lacking evidence. I could have included the example of one academic who got fired when it was discovered that he held down two full-time jobs in 2 different Institutes of Technology at the same time. No one is going to get fired from HP and Intel for this reason, because it is not physically possible to have 2 jobs in both of these organizations at the same time. But, I don’t want to reduce the argument to point scoring on individual cases. This issue could be researched fairly easily, by asking each institution: How many full-time faculty do you have? What were the formal teaching hours scheduled over the last 2 academic years for each faculty member? A register of the actual hours taught would allow an informed debate on a topic, which, at the moment, is dominated by obfuscation.
3. Teaching Quality is too Ad Hoc: We have all been consumers of the ‘3rd level’ education experience. Teaching quality is mixed. There are some magnificent lecturers, real stars. By implication, there will be a bigger group bunched in the middle that are solid and committed. But then there are a group of lecturers who are very poor teachers. My point was that we need some way to ensure that the quality of teaching is universally good and that people who cannot teach are not allowed to remain in teaching roles. None of us would be impressed with a heart surgeon who was bad at his/her job – performing a bypass operation. If we look at the airline industry, Pilots are recertified every 6 months. If they can’t meet the standards, they cannot fly. Why would we settle for lower standards in the academic community?
Pushback: Some of the Universities have teaching review systems, which seem well rounded. One Professor in Maynooth University, detailed a number of ‘systems’ that ensured good teaching quality – including feedback from students. I know nothing about Maynooth and fully accept the points made on face value. But, there are 2 responses to this general point. If Maynooth have developed a great teaching system, could this be replicated i.e. how are best practices pushed across the sector? What is needed is some form of National 3rd level Teaching Evaluation Framework (or very clear principles) which all institution sign up to.
Secondly, having ‘systems’ in place does not guarantee that good things are happening. According to Simon Carswell author of the book Anglo Republic, Anglo Irish Bank had credit control committees – but they simply didn’t work. We can often confuse having ‘systems’ in place with real progress and forward movement. I witness this all the time in the consulting arena. To ensure forward movement requires a supportive organization culture, systems that are actively managed and outcomes (both positive and negative) for based on performance. Perhaps this confusion around performance levels is what prompted the Minister for Education to state that neither he nor the officials in the HEA ‘had a clue’ about performance in the 3rd level system. And this is not because they are clueless. It is due to a mixture of strategic confusion (about the role of the institutions) and the lack of transparency on how the individual performance management systems currently work.
- 4. Not everyone is Capable of Doing Research: The point was already made that there are brilliant minds at work in Irish academia with major breakthroughs happening across a range of disciplines. Our life expectancy has been advanced by medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs that take place in Universities in Ireland and across the world. And it’s not just in the space of baseline research. Probably the most high profile example in recent years is Colm McCarthy from UCD who has, arguably, ‘provided some service to the state’ (I have never met Colm). There is a huge amount of brainpower residing in the 3rd level sector that could be made available to the state.
The central point made in the original piece was that the current system is designed on the basis that 100% of academic staff are expected to complete research. The assumption here is that all research is a good thing. There are two sub-points under this heading. I made the argument that because someone has a Masters degree or a PhD does not mean that they can do research. They may simply lack the mental horsepower to complete breakthrough thinking. Secondly, some people pursue personal interest projects. On the question of people pursuing their personal PhD’s, a number of people highlighted the fact that it’s not possible to get a job in some of the 3rd level institutions unless you already hold a PhD. Point taken (and I have since seen the HEA’s listing of the percentage of academic staff who hold this qualification). The broader question is whether academic staff that are studying for a PhD qualification should receive support from the employing colleges? Let me state a personal bias here. I am generally in favour of organizations supporting staff with educational development in terms of helping to fund this. In my experience this is a solid investment (it locks people into the organization for the duration of the programme and can be highly motivational). Against this is the argument of their ‘losing focus’ on the day job. But, some of the 3rd level colleges go much further than simple monetary support. Academics are granted time off to study (sometimes up to one day per week) over a timeframe that stretches out several years. There is no industry equivalent of this level of support. In relation to points made in the original article, this is a ‘minnow’ point – but used as an example to show how some colleges have set low productivity expectations for staff vis a vis other sectors.
Top Down Doesn’t Work? Professors Brian Lucy and Charles Larkin (quoted earlier) take the view that research cannot be dictated from the ‘top down’. Here’s how they put the argument: ‘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. We are once again into the world of “picking winners” and this is a fool’s errand (though one the Irish funding bodies do enjoy)’.
And, the answer is… I don’t actually know what ‘the answer’ is. It’s possible to think about producing effective research in terms of levels. Should there be a single national body that drives all research activity across the 3rd level sector? Should this be done in some form of multi-national or cross-institutional cooperative system e.g. the alliance that exists between Cork Institute of Technology and UCC in relation to marine energy or the Dublin Technology University Alliance between DIT, Blanchardstown and Tallaght? Should it be done at the level of each individual institution? Or should individual faculty be responsible for setting their own research agenda? What is the best way to structure and incentivize research activity? And what is the correct balance between so-called ‘blue sky’ research (which benefits the human race) versus applied research? Richard Tol in an on line contribution to this debate suggested that, as a developed economy, Ireland has a moral duty to contribute and should not ‘free ride’ on the research completed by others. My overall sense is that we need some form of Research Evaluation Framework. Perhaps a version of this is already underway at the moment in relation to the PRTLI review. There is an organization parallel for this, which occurs in IT Departments across every business. Tons of requests to modify how the ‘existing’ systems work are put forward. With a limited budget and manpower, IT departments cannot respond to each request. So, to make judgments, they use an evaluation matrix, which sets out key selection criterion. My overall sense is that we need a scaled up version of this to do the same with potential research projects.
5. Poor Performance Management: The final point made was that the system of performance management needs to be radically overhauled across the sector. Managers are often not trained in management. There is often little formal induction (even into teaching) and no way to tackle underperformers.
Pushback: I was told that one university had a very well planned system, which details teaching hours, tutoring and post-graduate support, scholarship and research. This included timeframes and expected outcomes under each of the key headings. I haven’t actually seen a copy of this but accept on face value that this does exist. At the risk of repeating an earlier point, the attempt should be to learn from the best practices across the sector and internationally and incorporate these into each educational institution. Performance Management systems are not simple to operate in any sector. Agreed. But the argument that academic staff are ‘really smart’ and should decide their own objectives does not hold water. There are smart people in all sectors of the economy and the same principles in psychology apply to all of us. We need clear goals that stretch our ability. We need feedback on progress being made towards achieving those goals. And we need a system that recognizes and rewards high achievers and tackles cases where little real value is being added.
Academic Freedom: Some of the responses to the original article were interesting. Obviously some people interpret academic freedom on the basis that “You are free to express any opinion you like as long as it conforms with my own”. The feedback could be summarized as follows: The 3rd level sector is populated with highly intelligent people. We do great work and can provide lots of examples of this. We have systems in place, which drive continuous improvement. There is nothing fundamentally broken here. Models, which have primarily been developed in the private sector, do not apply to us. And, we certainly don’t need any central direction – we can self-manage.
There is a ‘false division’ articulated between being empowered/innovative and being centrally managed/controlled. If we look at the most innovative companies on the planet (e.g. Apple and 3M), this divided does not exist in practice. Perhaps the real issue that we need to address is power. There are high status groups in all sectors. Research scientists in pharmaceuticals, Medical consultants in hospitals, electricians in the old ESB and so on. Such groups seek to exercise control. The ‘elephant in the room’ is power. The most visible evidence of this are the public spats between the HEA and some universities over rates of pay to senior managers and researchers but, like an iceberg, there are many issues which are below the surface. At the heart of this is a debate around who ‘controls’ the 3rd level education system in Ireland. What is the role of the centre and what is the role of the individual institutions? Of course, there are also broader strategic issues about the overall system including the need to eliminate duplication of provision, how administration practices could be improved etc. But I believe that enhancing the performance of the core academic cadre is at the heart of improving 3rd level performance. Our first port of call should be a forensic look at what actually happens in the sector to establish the baseline data. It does not need a knee-jerk reaction – there is too much at stake here.
Several contributions assigned a ‘mark’ to the original piece of writing. There seems to be a strong consensus that the piece rated an ‘F’ grade. On one level this is good fun and a useful way to drive home the point that the case remains ‘unproven’. An alternative explanation is that many people within the 3rd level sector are complacent that nothing needs to change. The fact that several of the responses were completely dismissive (not bothering to engage with any of the individual points raised) might suggest this latter interpretation. I was reminded of the work by John P. Kotter, Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School in his seminal book Leading Change. In Kotter’s view, complacency and a low sense of urgency are the central blocks to progress. I’ve never worked in a sector or an organization, which is so ‘perfect’ that nothing needs to improve. The existing system does need to be critically examined.
Of course there is also a role for balance and for positivity. There is much to celebrate in the Irish 3rd level system (the personal care and attention given to students in some organizations is a case in point). But recognizing what’s working really well, is not the same as simply accepting how things are at the moment. For too long we have tiptoed around the central questions raised. These questions should be posed by those tasked with overseeing the sector and within each institution. We have a great opportunity here to debate and even experiment with some of these ideas. To populate the great teaching and research practices which currently exist in some 3rd level institutions right across the sector. That’s the task. The question is whether there is any appetite for it.