Monthly Archives: April 2014

What medieval cosmology tells us about the value of Arts and Humanities in universities

Cosmology: Unearthing a 13th-century metaverse | The Economist

Here is a really interesting post on medieval cosmology : Cosmology: Unearthing a 13th-century metaverse | The Economist. which shows that really, the two sides of modern universities cant work in Iisolation.

In essence the project which is reported took the work of a 13C philosopher and applied modern mathematical concepts. What they found was rather startling. The medieval model gave rise to a metaverse, universes existing parallel to each other.

How is all this related to the STEM debate? To succeed, the Ordered Universe Project needed a team spanning both science and the humanities: physics, Latin studies, philosophy, cosmology, philology, medieval studies, paleography, history of science, psychophysics and linguistics. The humanities scholars uncovered insights into Grosseteste’s work that scientists alone might have missed; the scientists helped identify mathematical, physical and geometrical thinking in De Luce that their peers in the humanities might have overlooked. Professor McLeish says that without its interdisciplinary approach—an apparent novelty that has made funding a challenge—the project would not have been possible: “If you’d let the scientists loose on their own, we’d have come up with nonsense.

Makes you think when we see the cuts in relative funding for AHSS versus STEM ; what else are we missing?

Do we need a European Spring ?- Book Launch

So, there is a launch of the great new book by Philippe Legrain around the need for a European Spring. The launch will be by Professor Senator Sean Barrett, in the Long Room TCD at 6pm on 6 May.

esplEurope is in a mess. Our economies are failing to deliver higher living standards for most people – and many have lost faith in politicians’ ability to deliver a brighter future, with support for extremist parties soaring. After the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s, the recovery is the flimsiest on record. Many countries remain lumbered with broken banks and crushing debts. Most suffer from record-low investment and feeble productivity growth. All are ageing fast. Depressingly, most Europeans think their children will have a worse life than they do. Social tensions within countries are multiplying, as are political frictions between them. Support for the EU is at an all-time low, with the euro increasingly unpopular too. Anti-EU, anti-establishment and often anti-foreigner parties are likely to do exceptionally well in the upcoming European elections.

Why have things gone so wrong? How do we put them right?

As a critically acclaimed author who was until recently independent economic adviser to the President of the European Commission and head of the team that provides President Barroso with strategic policy advice, Philippe Legrain has a unique combination of insider knowledge, intellectual authority and independent perspective that makes him ideally placed to shed light on these issues.

Please join us for the Dublin launch of “European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right” on Tuesday 6 May at 1800h, the launch to be by Senator Sean Barrett at the Long Room Trinity College. Please pass this information on to anyone whom you consider may be interested

For a flavour of Philippe’s book, read his article on the eurozone’s flawed crisis response in the international edition of the New York Times

The Independent has also published an exclusive extract from the book:

European Spring is available on Kindle for £2.99 and for £10.16 in paperback from


The danger of corporate thinking in higher education

“The lesson of the Dubai bubble is that business schools need to get back to being students and critics of the corporate world, not participants in it”

via The danger of corporate thinking in higher education –

This is a really interesting piece. Its behind a paywall but in essence it says the following. Over the last few decades business schools, and universities in general have inverted. What were bottom up organizations became top down, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations. Corporate thinking and aping of corporate speak and thought led what should be skeptical and conservative organizations to the same follies as corporates.

Given that Irish universities are infected with this disease, and are actively pursuing bubbles in chinese students and innovation academies, its well worth standing back and thinking hard. Its also worth considering if we should heed the wisdom of organizational studies around how to structure knowledge organizations, as we are going about it the exactly wrong way. Will anyone call stop?


Can we really measure research supervisory quality?

Research metrics are fraught with danger. Usually they are dangerous when they are abused. We can measure the citation history of a paper but that tells us little beyond its citation history. We can measure raw output but that tells us simply how busy someone is. We can measure lots of things but they are all limited in some way. Measurement limitation does not prevent university administration from seizing on metrics and using them appallingly. I recently was informed of an Irish academic unit where papers published in journals that are not in the ISI Web of Science are not allowed to be used as part of any promotion or other college activity. They are un-papers. This is stark raving lunacy, but it shows how dangerous a simple metric can be in the hands of the ignorant.

Continue reading

The ECB experiment

This is a version of my column in the Irish Examiner of 26 April 2014. Macroeconomics is hard. Its hard because there are actually few coherent theories, such internally coherent theories as we have oftent tend to be at odds with reality, data are of fairly low frequency (monthly usually) and we cant run experiments usually. Those of us who are not practicing macroeconomists thus tend to fall back on fairly simple rules of thumb when assessing policies and outcomes, often by reference to the past. Thus in Europe the ECB has in fact run an experiment against the Federal reserve board. While the Fed has taken the lessons of the 1930s on board and expanded its balance sheet, the ECB has taken the lessons of the 1920 on board and done so reluctantly and is now unwinding them. While the USA engages in quantitative easing, the ECB has engaged in quantitative squeezing. And the results are in; look at the comparative unemployment, performance of the two regions which is really the key metric any sentient or ethical policymakers should concern themselves with. Yes, the USA has an advantage in that they cleaned the banks earlier than did the Eurozone, and thus the monetary transmission system, such as it is in the modern world, was able to work. But that aside it is striking how in recent years the two banks have diverged.  It is reasonable to infer that the experiments have had different outcomes.

Continue reading

Sean Barrett and University Reform

Occasionally I post guest posts from friends. This is one, from Senator Sean Barrett on his recent universities bill.

Prof. Stephen Hedley of the UCC Law School has written the following comments on my bill, the Higher Education and Research (Consolidation and Improvement) Bill 2014. The following is a response to the comments made by Prof. Hedley. The debate on the bill can be found here and The bill itself can be found here with the Explanatory Memorandum here:

Continue reading

The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 5. Innovation

Excellent post by Greg Foley on the growth of administrators in university commercialisation
“But the problem with this spend on administration is that vital resources are being sucked out of what is essentially an education budget and diverted into what is essentially a job/product creation budget. Perhaps this will turn out to be a good investment for the university and, ultimately for the state. Perhaps financial rewards will be reaped in terms of the overheads from large international research grants or income from licensing etc., benefiting the education mission in the process. But this is an annual cost that comes with no guarantees and leaves in its wake academic departments whose slice of the budget is diminished every time another piece of research and innovation infrastructure is put in place.”

Restructuring Irish Higher Education

Change is in the air for the school leaving examination with a proposal to amend the number of bands in which marks are to be awarded. These will reduce from 15 to 8. A large part of the reasoning appears to be the belief that in doing so, and in encouraging universities to offer more broad based courses, the pressure on students to achieve high points will abate.

Continue reading

Companies, Tax and the Ouroboros

oroubosThis is a version of my Irish Examiner Column of 12 April 2014.

Companies are not people. There, I now stand in opposition to the US Supreme Court, who have held that they are people whose rights are equal to that of a natural born person. This includes the right to free speech, and gee, the same Supreme Court held that money talks, literally. Money is speech. Speech is free for people. Companies being people can spend what they like on political campaigns. And so the US continues its descent into plutocracy.  Lets not forget that the US supreme court have a diabolical record in general over the last 200 years in terms of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness. The equation of money = speech will go down, I fear, as the modern Dredd Scott ruling.

Here things are not quite so bad.  Companies are not yet equated as being the same as thee and me. They have many attributes of legal personhood, and that’s good and right to allow them to conduct business. They can sue and be sued, they can be held to account in a court of law, and they can engage in contractual engagements. They have rights.

Rights however come with a flipside-  they bring responsibilities. Here one might consider that Irish companies are perhaps less diligent in pursuing their responsibilities than they are their rights.  This week two glaring examples came back to the forefront.  Companies in Ireland have engaged in and been facilitated in shirking their responsibilities to contribute to the public good in general, via tax, and in particular via engagement with higher education.

Taking higher Education first, as a small but telling example. This week saw the publication of an excellent report on the financial situation of irish higher education. Its grim. Contained therein, and this is from Grant Thornton, a hard nosed a bunch of accountants as you will ever meet, is a critique of corporate involvement. They note, in a section on possible funding solutions, that Irish corporates are the lowest, in the OECD, in terms of supporting research. Yet, companies constantly plead that there is more linkage needed, that higher ed needs to be more focused on their (not social, their) needs etc. The flow is alas  one way – absent tax incentives and government cofunding Irish companies do not put any meaningful money into higher education. Companies demand that society pay for the training of their workers, that they focus education on their immediate quotidian needs and that they be the arbiters of curricula. The odd, welcome, donation of part funding for a  chair or a few bob for part of a building doesn’t cut it.  If corporates were truly social actors they would see this, and other actions, not as good PR and as a marketing opportunity but as part of the social contract. That they do not suggests that they do not see such existing.

Whenever a piece like this is penned people complain. The most common one is “sure don’t they employ loads of people”. They do, but companies do not do this as part of fulfilling the social contract. They do so because it is needed. They spend the minimum on all inputs and get the maximum output. If the corporate sector in Ireland or anywhere else could replace workers with robots that were as good and as cheap they would do so in a flash. This is capitalism, and the deal in modern societies is, or was the following : those that provide capital can extract a bloody good return but this will be both circumscribed by law and in part expropriated by tax, because we live in a society. Why people think that unfettered capitalism would not give us the modern equivalent of the chimney boy is beyond me.

But if companies do not pay their fair share where then are we? Ireland.  We are not a tax haven. But we are a crucial part of the international chain of non-being that allows companies to become non-existent. The logo of the modern multinational corporation should really be the same for all – the Ouroboros, neither beginning nor ending. , a snake swallowing its own tail.  The department of finance published a report by UCC economist Seamus Coffey that looked at the effective tax rate for MNC’s. They found that it was remarkably close to the headline rate. Job done, we are a  lowtax not a tax haven country. Previous work by my colleague Jim Stewart suggested that this was not the case, it was perhaps 2-3%.  Now, while great guys neither Seamus nor Jim are tax accountants. If I was a company they would be low down on the list of people to call to optimise tax payments to the lowest level. Ireland has 5 of the  50 largest Eurozone legal companies. They are not large to deal with the complex HR provisions of the Irish MNC sector (which employs about 155,000 people or a mere 8% of total labour) ; they are here to manage the startling profitability of Irish registered companies which is off the charts at a multiple of 5 that of the EU average. Of course this is all real.. Of course it is. Irish companies in general pay low rates of tax. We collect a smaller percentage of GDP from tax on capital and business income than the EU average.  Ditto with employers social insurance contributions. We have decided to not tax them in the hope that they will out of gratitude employ people. We in doing so have fostered a MNC sector in particular which is divorced from the rest of the economy, but whose tax enabled activities distort the overall, masking over decades the stagnant state of the remainder.  Domestic corporates also get an easy ride – there are a bewildering array of reliefs, write offs and shields for directors and owners. It is simply capital welfare.  The reward to capital should be treated the same as the reward to labour, and that means tax rates that are the same. The 12.5% corporate tax rate has become a totem – but as late as the actual Celtic tiger of the late 1990s when we had a truly export based real economy the rate was in the late 20s.  Perhaps then we had it right?

The reality is that companies will press for the lowest tax rate possible – zero (or less) would be good, as many Irish companies have achieved. Society, which despite the echos of Mrs Thatcher’s claim, echoed and filtered even into the minds of soi disant socialists,  does exist, should press for a rate that is fair within the context of society. Alas, when the political class is captured by the myth mirage and spin of corporate welfare seekers then there is zero chance of that.  If companies didn’t leave in 1995 or 2003 when our corporate tax rates were much much higher then will not leave now. Unless of course they were here only for the tax rate…which we are told they are not.


The financial situation of Irish Universities and Institutes of Technology

Screenshot 2014-04-09 19.32.38Its dire…. Grant Thornton published a report today which is downloadable here :  University finances .  The picture opposite this paragraph is a wordle of the text.  The GT report is done by a bunch of accountants, and it reflects that. As a picture of the state of play of finances in the Irish higher education system its unprecedented in its breadth and scope. They are to be congratulated. As a review of strategic options to fill the holes identified, its not so good, reflecting a curious lack of knowledge of the sector. It would be interesting to know to whom, if anyone, they spoke between the data collection and strategic options formulation.

Lets take the facts first. They are grim. Over the 2007-11 period student numbers rose by 26% while overall income rose by 7%.  The operating surplus of the sector fell by 60%. the state grant has fallen by 25% and as a % of overall income has fallen from 40% to 25%. Research grant income has risen by 16% overall in the sector. Tuition fees now account for 36% of the sector income. Overseas tuition fees (this includes everyone from the french Phd to the Chinese BA btw) are not disclosed routinely except for TCD where they now make up 21m, or some 6.5% of the total income.  The much ballyhooed pension liabilities in universities have doubled, but this is entirely down to changes in actuarial assumptions.

Overall they state that they consider the sector to have reached an inflection (accountant speak for breaking) point. They then suggest some changes. Its here that I take some issue.

They first suggest increasing fees from international students. This is however set against the fact that since 2007 the non-EU market has been falling. This is mirrored in Australia and in the UK. GT suggest no real way to reverse this, beyond adonyne pleas for a better focused international strategy, better focusing, more internationalisation of the curricula (huh?) etc. The stark fact is that we cannot lump 1500 extra chinese students into a university, milk (bilk) them for high fees and expect the system to cope. These are high paying and should be high touch. There is no cash cow here -the cow costs a huge amount to feed and maintain. Much international student flow is determined by the national and institutional reputation. We are weak on all of these. While universities and IoTs cannot solve the national problem, we neither cannot solver our own when the key metrics that drive rankings are deteriorating (such as staff student ratios).

They suggest increasing income from research, which is fine. They do note however that we attract the smallest monetary contribution from firms for research of all OECD. Irish companies, frankly, ride the system. They do not put back. Thats gotta change and its got to be a cultural one. It is desperately dispiriting that, despite the fact that irish universities are world class in many arts and humanities areas the rest of this section is a jumble of platitudes towards commercialisation of the IP platforms to enable blab blab blab. Why do consultants insist on ignoring the areas of strength? Its notable, and worrying, that the word Humanities appears exactly NO TIMES in this document, the same as Arts.

Alumni funding is noted BUT there are no figures. We have literally no idea what if anything Alumni give. But its clear that a) its not a lot, b) its a hard sell and c) the base is so low that it cannot make a meaningful contribution in the medium term.

Asset utilisation (sweating the assets) is accepted to be high by international standards. This is bizarrely then followed by a suggestion to extend the academic year. But if that is done then research will fall off.  If we extend each year will we not decrease the overall amount of years? The suggestion is bizzare and also reflects a worrying assumption that its all about undergraduates. Postgraduate teaching is year round. Plus, this is not costless as it would increase energy, building costs etc, and would result in no extra fees.  In any case, a valuable but unnoted income stream is that of conferences and symposia which take place in the undergraduate down time. It is worryingly clear from this small section that GT really don’t understand what universities and IoT’s actually do.

They suggest academic program review, or in short concentrating on profitable programmes. Thats a great idea but the reality is that the finances of the sector are so constrained that there is zero incentive for (say) a business or law school to work harder and put more bums on seats. Any additional generated income will be taken by the center. GT again seem to misunderstand what is going on on the ground. They also juxtapose unprofitable courses that may be central to the mission with cost containment of same. The reality is that universities and IoTs are not commercial enterprises. Looking at them purely through such lenses gives jarring comments such as those.

They suggest cost controls in several areas. Most of these are the usual pleas for process efficiencies, shared services etc. They suggest elimination of multiple programmes. Again, this fundamentally misunderstands what a university does. For instance we have business taught in every university and IoT. And yet, this is not accounting training, at least in the main. It is instead a mixture of technical skills and critical thinking.  Universities need to be universal in scope and reach. They cannot be if they are pruned and constrained to de jure fads. In addition, going back to the internationalization strategy, we cannot expect chinese students to pay 20k for a degree if they are one of 5k students taking lectures via video in the national conference center from a NUIG or UL lecturer, they having won the contract from the state to deliver that particular course.  They suggest outsourcing services and in what can only be written by someone who has never used a call center state that outsourced services deliver more reliable services. Hmmm…

Overall this is a decent effort. It is strongest in its plain facts. It is weakened by a set of semi coherent suggestions that are internally inconsistent and display a worrying lack of knous about the sector. Its worth reading.