Tag Archives: education analysts

Jackie Lavin – A Meme Girl for Irish Higher Education

jackielavin_SIEducation is a complex matter while reducing it to simple soundbites is easy. Ignorance, in the pure sense of not knowing, abounds when it comes to higher education. Alas, ignorance creates memes that are powerful.

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What gets measured gets managed – so how can we manage research without measuring it?

measurementThis is an expanded version of the “Left Field” column published in the Irish Times.Over the last couple of years there has been a growing feeling amongst all stakeholders – government (supposedly representing the people), the administration (Department of Education and HEA), and the higher education sector that there is an increased scrutiny on what exactly academics do. Nobody is quite clear where the impetus comes from, just as nobody is quite clear what it is that the answer might be.Much of the heat has come on the issues of contact hours and how much research (and of what kind) is of any “use”. Some consider that universities and indeed all third level is merely secondary shcool for adults, and that time spent in the classroom, sorry, lecture theatre, is the only thing that is worth rewarding. These usually also show breathtaking ignorance about the process of scientific investigation, with the extreme suggesting that we should only fund reserach whose results we know in advance…..Yes, that SFI grant into Academic Clairvoyance was a good idea. But, in essence its a debate about value for money. Leaving aside the fact that not every thing that has a price has value and not everything that can be valued has a price, we can and should accept that it is simply good management practice to attempt to find out how efficient and effective our work processes are and how they might be improved. Its even more useful when the inputs, money and academic resources (although seemingly not administrative) are in scarce supply.

serendipEfficiency is a technical concept – its about the transformation of inputs into outputs. For a given level of inputs (academics) can we get more outputs (graduates, googles, whatever). Effectiveness is a little more fuzzy, about how well we achieve our goals. In the former case we have cost and technical issues which can and should be investigated. In the latter we need to have clarity and stability about these goals in order for them to be assessed. And, in most cases we cannot even begin to measure effectiveness for years, if not decades. Plus, directed research, chasing imposed metrics, simply is not the only way to do business. There is a very long tail and a very long halflife to both “good” teaching and research. James Clerk Maxwell published in 1873 some equations he had worked on in 1865 which were abstruse and remote. That they later formed the theoretical basis of the Wireless in the early 1900s was not a directed outcome. Boole’s pamphlet on mathematical logic in 1847 had to wait for the best part of a century until the information revolution to be seen as the transcendental work that it is now seen to be. Wohler synthesised urea, closing the gap between organic and inorganic chemistry, in an accidental discovery Perkins work on dyes and the subsequent growth of synthetic organic chemistry came from a nearly discarded experiment in the synthesis of quinine. Atomic clocks were designed to test relativity and now form the basis of GPS satellites There are hundreds of examples of transformative products that emerged as byblows, serdips or sheer accidents, from basic research. In a wonderfully lucid essay in 1939 Flexner noted the importance of curiosity, serendipity and generally pootling about.

euknowHow we are moving in Ireland is towards the introduction of workload models and key performance indicators. Key performance indicators however are inherently political. The EU “knowledge triangle” suggests that higher education trades off between supporting business, education and research. Like all policy triangles it is in fact a trilemma- it is difficult if not impossible to excel in all three domains. Note that this is not to say that it is impossible to be active in all three- just that. And In Ireland we have tried for that. We have two sectors which, if they were to be closely examined have historical and natural affinities with two legs- the IoT sector has historically been orientated at teaching and business support, the University sector at teaching and research. If we require an increased emphasis on research from the IoT without additional resources, or on business support from the universities without additional resources we will degrade one or other of the existing strengths. And anyhow, how would we know what was being done was good?

manyhatsPart of the problem in the assessment of what we academics to do is that they seem to do lots of things. We teach we supervise we design courses we examine we sit on committees we hunt grant money we reach out to the community…. Most workload models try to fine-tune these to a faretheewell allocating points for this and that. But in reality we do one thing – communicate knowledge, be it to the academy (research), students (teaching) or to business and society. And here is where the problem is. How can we measure these activities so as to allow managers to allocate resources and to reward those who outperform norms and expectations?

pacioliWe can measure business impact in a crude fashion by patents gained and monies raised and spinoffs that rival google created. This is the dominant metric now obsessing the government, seeming to treat the universities as machines for the creation of the next FaceGoogle and wondering why there hasnt been a patent that morning. J C Maxwell or Faraday or Antonie van Leeuwenhoek would probably not have been funded by SFI. We can measure teaching eficiency in a crude fashion by how many hours an academic is in class. In the Institutes of technology there is a class contact norm of typically 16h per week. That is not the case in universities, leading to the assumption that as university academics teach less they do less. Nothing alas could be further from the truth. The key difference between the modal IoT lecturer and the modal university lecturer is the expectation and requirement of research activity. And that takes time.

passageoftimeIt is a reasonable question to ask about the impact or import of the research even if we cant realistically answer– what is not reasonable is to assert that research is in some way less difficult or less timeconsuming than teaching. Research is akin to venture capital. We need to do a lot to get a little output. Success is rare and failure the norm. Publication in toptier journals is exceedingly rare and more than one as fleeting as a shy higgs boson in a ghillie suit on a heather covered hillside. Acceptance rates (success) in decent journals or in gaining leading research grants is often less than 10%. Research grants can take literally months to complete with no guarantee of success. And doing a paper takes time. It takes typically in excess of 100 hours of work to get a finance paper to a stage where one is happy to put it out for even working paper review. And then it takes a long time to get it published. It can take between 6 months and 6 years to get a paper from initial submission to final acceptance in finance and economics and other social sciences. In fact, in finance, economics and political sciences where the papers are usually data driven this time requirement is perhaps on the low side for social science generally. In the arts and humanities there can be literal years with “no output” as monographs and books are chronovores of enormous appetite. During that time the paper is usually under review at symposia, conferences etc and further hundreds of hours are input in refining and tweaking. The total time requirements for publication of a single article in a set of leading journals in finance were estimated to average over 1600h in a 1998 study. Meanwhile for younger academics, those seeking promotion or permanency, or seeking to move to sunnier climes they require publications so this process starts in PhD times and continues with up to a dozen projects in various stages of the pipeline. None of these times are captured in crude workload measurement approaches. to somehow assume that academics in universities engaging in research are idle is to display a gross ignorance of the scientific process – eureka moments are few and far between. If genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration adequacy is 99.9% perspiration and .1% inspiration. A further aspect of research for those who are research active is peer review and editing . Typically a paper gets published after a couple of anonymous referees have commented on it. Doing this referee job is time consuming – typically 4-5h reading and writing per paper. If one does 12 reviews per annum that’s 60 hours, or the best part of two working weeks. Imagine the editor of a journal receiving 300+ papers per annum, each of which has to be read through prior to sending for review and we see another hidden time cost of research. Teaching also takes time beyond the classroom. For every hour spent in the class you take 3 to prepare, review, reflect and redo the work. Even if one has a stack of slides and a good strategy its imperative to do a mock runthrough (that takes about the same time as teaching) noting as one does what is outdated, what is wrong, what doesn’t flow etc. And then one redoes the slides and delivers, finding that in the class there are new issues to be incorporated, new questions raised, issues that seemed pellucid actually as muddled as a government jobs initiative…. So a 16h class contact in the IoT doesn’t leve a lot of time in teaching term to do any research even if one were so interested. Of course, there’s always the evening and weekends but the many IoT staff who wish to be research active typically use the summer breaks to do it –Christmas and easter are usually taken up with marking essays and so forth.

phrenolBy all means therefore lets look at metrics of activity. But lets recall that these metrics typically measure output, not input and therefore cant be used as such for the measurement of efficiency or still less effectiveness. That’s not to say we should not measure research output. We should. Perhaps the issue is that we are scared of what we will find. Academics are terribly resistant to being managed and by extension to being measured. But we need to accept that without open transparent measures of research we will not allow the universities to show the extent to which they are engaged with the second leg of their historic mission. Measurement of research output is a crude proxy for research activity and even more so for research excellence. But like patents and so forth it is measureable. We don’t do this in Ireland. We have experience in the UK of several generations of research measurement. Many of us have been involved in these as assessors or as units of measurement. We can and should design a model builds on these and improves upon them, that measures research output, across units and the sector. This will show that there are many who simply do not engage in research (as measured). Every academic knows of people who simply turn up, teach and disappear. This puts an unfair burden on those who do research, and it is they who should be shouting loudest for such a metric. We have some example beyond the UK. Ontario has just done a similar exercise, and there are many measures of research activity for individual disciplines in Ireland, notably business and economics. What these all show is that there are many many academics that do not come onto the research activity radar. One can only wonder what it is that they do all day. Conceivably they are engaging with business and society but most who work in the sector would smile ruefully at that idea.

Until universities and the system managers (HEA and DES) determine what the role is of universities in relation to the trilemma we cannot however begin to reward or discipline academics or the sector for resource misallocation. What gets measured gets managed. By definition a poor measurement system will deliver poor management. But we are not measuring research in any manner in Ireland. Perhaps we should start.

Do you want the Civil Service to run Universities?

This is an significantly extended version of an OpEd published by myself and Charles Larkin (whose name appears missing) in the Irish Times.

The Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 is a shutting of the stable door after the horse has bolted and the stable sold off to a developer. It is kneejerk reaction by regulators who have failed to keep time with the pace of change in modern tertiary education, with changing educational markets, or with the balance of accountability and flexibility needed to successfully confront national and international challenges. While slapping down bolshy universities may have populist appeal, we should beware of Greeks bearing gifts. In that regard, the present proposals are a transparent attempt by the civil service to take control of the sector by plugging university policy into a centralised and dirigiste Civil Service model, and to neuter both Governing Authorities and the HEA. Irish universities used, prior to the existence of the HEA, be controlled by the Dept of Education, an unhappy time for both sides.

The core issues driving these radical proposals are payments of unauthorised allowances and an alleged breach of the Employment Control Framework in respect of promotions. In reacting to them, we need to decide what we want academia to provide for the State and how universities as institutions can best serve the common good. As in all things proportionality is also worth striving for. In an environment where universities are being placed front and center in the drive for “the smart economy” we might want to consider if command and control from bureaucrats with neither empathy for nor practical experience of these institutions is a good idea. As in so much of the education sphere the government is sending mixed messages – we want a knowledge economy but cut back on science teaching at lower levels, we want a world class university system but spend less than the OECD average on tertiary education (52k over the college span versus OECD average of 57k and EU average of 62k), we want to widen educational access but end up with no effect from “free fees”, we want more international students but make the visa and immigration process distinctly unfriendly … And now we want to have an innovative and responsive sector under the control of the civil service. To be charitable, the evidence to date for the civil service to take on board change and to assimilate rapidly changing environments is poor.

Take the ECF issue. Universities employ thousands of highly qualified internationally mobile staff. When promotion and retention decisions have to be made quickly in a fast moving and often volatile environment, there are always chances of bureaucratic feathers being ruffled. Promotion, retention and appointment must be undertaken at the pace of the needs of the students and research funders and not at the pace of the bureaucrat. At this stage it is clear that employment structures in their broadest sense need to be designed to work for the next decade and not simply in response to legacy issues that have already been disposed of.

The main provisions of the Heads of Bill are to issue directions to a university if there is concern regarding “a policy decision made by the Government or the Minister in so far it relates to the remuneration or numbers of public servants employed in that university, or a collective agreement entered into by the Government or the Minister”. There is also provision for the Minister to send in the troops in the form of an “investigator” to enquire into any of these matters, regardless of whether any cause for concern has been established. This can lead to a transfer of functions away from the universities to the Minister; or even more worryingly (since this is designed to function under the rubric of the Public Service Management Act) to the civil service bureaucracy in Marlborough Street or its agents. What is to stop a functionary deciding to engage in their own “merger mania”? Worse, what is to stop a future minister deciding to swap around bits and pieces of colleges to their own shortterm political benefit? We have a long and inglorious history of pork barrelling and local politics trumping national strategy and should be leery of giving any politician power to engage in such.

Many commentators on university education view it as essentially undergraduate focused and through a dimly recalled lens of their own experiences.Part of what drives this desire for control is the thinly disguised belief that universities are really secondary schools for young adults, that academics are lazy charlatans, that most non industry applied focused research is self-indulgent faffing about, and that the facilities lie idle most of the year. None of these accusations survive the barest scrutiny and the 2010 Comptroller and Auditor General report on Irish universities states that the sector provides good value for money under difficult conditions. That value for money is seen in the education provided to record numbers of students with reducing Exchequer funding and the growing contribution to knowledge and creativity. Perversely, these actual achievements are regularly praised by Government while at the same time, the fabric of the proposed legislation seeks to undermine them.

In this respect, the Government needs to try be more aware of the delicate balance needed to manage intellectual organizations. Universities are about human capital and knowledge creation, similar to Apple and Google. In great part their capital walks out the door every evening. Ideally, the walk (or telecommute) back the following day. Few people would think it a good idea to impose the management structures of 1920s Ford on Apple, but the Government is proposing such a course of action with its universities. The dead hand of Frederick Taylor casts a much longer shadow than one might think feasible. Knowledge organizations are different and blindly applying a civil service approach to running universities will undermine tenure (making academics more vulnerable than civil servants), change the character of academic freedom (i.e. cause academics to think twice about attacking Government policies with awkward evidence) and make Ireland more unattractive to international talent, something we need now more than ever. Machine bureaucracies, which is what universities both internally and as a sector, are but one form of organizational structure – and probably the worst suited to universities.

We only need to look across the Irish Sea to see what a command and control approach to higher education policy looks like. The Minister for Education for Wales Leighton Andrews has used his powers under the Education (Reform) Act 1988 to radically reorganize the higher education landscape with institutions being faced with stark choices of merging and/or being dissolved and face crippling financial cuts if they do not bow to the will of the Minister. That is a system without tenure, without autonomy and at the beck-and-call of parish-pump politics. It is little wonder that Wales’ higher education sector suffers from poor academic output indicators.

A win-win is needed – universities need to be freed to do their job and increase student numbers and experience success and failure – that means we need to have an adult conversation about fees. It is good that the discussion has moved from being galmost “the issue that dare not speak its name” to being front and center. Fees need to be supported either by a graduate tax or a properly functioning loan market that is totally unlike that of the US where debt and costs have been allowed to explode due to a combination of bad regulation and poor cost controls within universities. In the interim, challenge university managers to lead their institutions. Managerialism is not the solution: our ongoing experiment with the HSE should be adequate proof of that. Give them the monies that the state deems an appropriate to subsidize research and education for the common good – then let them get on with their business. If the impunity of the creators of this economic crisis not being brought to book has caused a concern about responsibility then that is perfectly fine: but making people, organizations and institutions responsible is the solution. Creating a thicket of managerial requirements will just encourage lobbying, rent seeking and the creation of a sclerotic state. Worse still, it will result in more crises and more attempts to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. Ireland will need smart people and nimble institutions to survive the next few years. The University (Amendment) Bill stifles both.

What have the Romans, sorry Researchers, ever done for us?

Another day another paean to applied science… well, a thinly disguised call for more money to go to engineering. Coz, they make stuff y’know, not like basic researchers or heaven help us AHSS (arts, humanities and social sciences) dabblers. After all, what have the romans, sorry, researchers ever given society…This applied-basic dichotomy (and shouldn’t it be a tricothomy, as whatever happened to translation research?) is not just false its ignorant. And people who peddle it, whether they be retired deans of engineering schools, science funders or politicians who wouldn’t know a quern from a quark are ignorant of their ignorance. It’s a rumsfeldian ignorance in not knowing that they don’t know.

One cannot apply scientific concepts blindly. Well, one can but don’t expect anything much more than a blowup. Take finance (not even a science but hey…) for an example. One could argue that two equations helped blow up the financial system (aided and abetted by a range of human behavior stretching from outright criminality to buck ignorance via political sleevenism). See for discussions on copulas Zimmer, Lee, jones, and for the BS model Hartford, Pollack and Lo (the latter emphasizing the human-ware element)

The two are the BlackScholes (which can be abbreviated correctly to BS) equation for the valuation of options and its lesser-known cousin the Gaussian Copula. Most people have heard of the first and fewer of the latter. The GC describes how series move together, a multivariate version of a correlation function.

BS models and their derivatives underlay many derivative models while the GC model was commonly used to model the likely behavior of the elements of risk in collateralized debt and mortgage obligations.  And we know how well that worked.

Here is the thing: these basic science models are old. And flawed. They are theoretical constructs, incredibly useful as theories, easy to teach to undergraduates, but ones whose n-th grandchildren are being worked on to slowly, gradually, painstakingly improve the fit of the theoretical model to the real world. The application of these towards products was I contend fatally flawed by a lack of understanding by regulators and some practitioners of how the basic science was moving.

Funding into basic science improves how we apply these. Funding into translational science (which steps between applied and basic) helps improve the feedback. Funding into applied science gives the raw material for the feedback. None is more important than the other. And for a country such as Ireland where it is both impossible to outcompete in basic science with the military-industrial complexes of the world and where there is a need for high value added jobs, this gives an unpalatable policy prescription. We need to keep funding basic research to ensure that those teaching applied and translational science are at the forefront (or at least aware of where it is). If we don’t, we end up with the production of tinkerers capable of making minor adjustments to a preset form but with little understanding of the fundamentals. Worse, we end up with state funding displacing commercial R&D via that being outsourced to the third and fourth level.  R&D is high risk and so it makes perfect sense for companies to get it done outside, especially when they can then also complain that the R&D isn’t producing marketable products fast enough.

This policy isn’t sexy – it doesn’t generate lots of quick jobs and doesn’t allow politicians to open factories and ct ribbons at call centers. But then neither did the decision by Donagh O’Malley (made against the advice of the bureaucrats) to open up second level education to all. Slow burns last longer. SFI and the government science apparatchiks need to step back, take a long view and put in place structures that support a decent basic science budget, that encourages

What I did in the crisis….

So the crisis is now four years old, with the falling into recession of Ireland in september 2008 sounding the clear warning that there were rough times ahead.Somehow or other I (and others) were winkled out of our ivory towers to explain (or not) what was going on. There are  pro and con on whether and how academics should engage with the public debates (my view is we should  and should do so however we feel most comfortable), but regardless of the media, the day job goes on.



So in the last four years  I have it seems published 21 peer reviewed papers, uploaded 30 working papers to SSRN presented over 40 conference presentations, examined 4 phd theses as external examiner, put 5 students through as PhD, created a masters programme which has graduated 300+ graduates, taken over the editing of two journals, edited one book, started (and stopped) a spinout, taught 14 modules at undergrad and 10 at postgraduate level, run 4 conferences with over 1000 delegates, sat on three US tenure committees as (virtual) external and formed a close working relationship with the london precious metal community.

And then there is the journalism which i think is part day job – i try to write informed by recent research. In the last year alone I have filed 25,000 words with the Examiner. What have I said? See the wordle below

Its not the points, its the system, thats a problem in the points system

Irish second level school students are now in the early stages of their school-leaving examinations, with oral language  and applied science examinations ongoing and the main written exams starting Wednesday 6th with English Paper 1.They take their examination in a relatively good spot , with a dip in the numbers leaving school likely to result in less onerous requirements for university entry.

In Ireland there is a simple system for the allocation of (the vast majority) of university and related places. Students are allocated points (out of 100 in effect) on up to 6 examinations. Having submitted to the CAO their order of preference for courses the system then matches. Take a course in say Science. Lets say there are 1000 applications who have stated that this is their first choice. The system takes all their grades, and ranks the students in order of points. Lets say that the university can take 200 students on this course. Then te first two hundred students in decreasing rank order of their grades will be offered places. The 201st will not. The publication of the points by the CAO is a day of joy and sorry for tens of thousands of students.  The situation is in essence an auction mechanism : students submit “bids” and the system allocates a price that clears. It is simple, foolproof, not susceptible to being gamed (once the grades are in they are in) and subject to vast criticism. The Hyland Report was quite scathing in its analysis.

Leaving aside the issue of stress, and it is real if not as bad as the situation in china where students are hooked up to vitamin and amino acid drips, there are other issues. The main criticisms are twofold. At the very top there is concern that students are taking and retaking courses to ensure “perfect” scores, which are in effect needed for entry into the leading law, veterinary and medical schools (in Ireland these are mainly entered into at undergraduate level not graduate).  Universities formally do not boast of the number of high points courses or the high points needed for courses but the reality is that students and parents associate high points with academic quality. In reality, as a price, the points for courses reflect the intersection of supply and demand. Courses with low numbers of places available (for example, courses that combine a language with a law/business area) will, ceteris paribus, typically clear at a higher point (have  a higher price) than those with greater places. There is a suspicion in my mind at least that over the years there has been a proliferation of such courses not only in response to consumer/social demand but also to allow universities and institutes of technology to show high point courses.

A study of highpoint achieving students was undertaken by the HEA in 2007. At the bottom there are concerns that the points system can result in students gaining entry (having enough points) to third level courses where they find themselves simply unable to undertake the rigours of third level study. This is most often focused on technology courses and results in dropout levels that are worrisome The HEA publishedin 2010 a study on retention and progression and noted that the 2007 entry cohort showed a) that overall in third level there was a dropoff of 15% from entry to the subsequent year , b) that this was significantly higher in Institutes of Technology and in lower points courses generally and c) that this was highly correlated with prior educational achievement.

More generally there is a significant concern that students have crammed and relied on rote learning for the leaving certificate and cannot then easily undertake independent critical thinking at third level.  While this is not unique to Ireland it is an issue that is increasingly noted by academics (Tom Begley, Brian McCraith ) , Industry representatives (US Chamber of Commerce) even students themselves (Gary Redmond ) and of course my boss (Paddy Prendergast)

These are reasonable criticisms in so far as they go but they to my mind miss the point. The issue is not the points system per se but the way we allocate points. At present we allocate almost all university places on the basis of the points system.  True, there has been a change in how students are allocated to medical schools, with students now not only assessed on their leaving cert points but also having to undertake the HPAT test which tests verbal and other reasoning skills. the HPAT is not without criticism (see the criticism by Dr James Reilly, the Minister for Health and himself a medical doctor) in particular the realisation that as students gain more experience of the test they undertake cramming for and take multiple attempts at the examination. The historic situation of free fees for irish university students has resulted in the monies that would otherwise be spent by families on that being in part diverted to feepaying and cramming schools. Free fees manifestly did not result in a significant number of students from lower socioeconomic cohorts attaining university.

What then is to be done? This blogpost was in some degree prompted by criticism of the transition year. In Ireland students typically spend 6 years in second level ; the first three years, the junior cycle, culminate in a state administered examination, and the last two years , the senior cycle, in the leaving certificate. In between schools have the option of what is called a transition year, aimed at allowing schoolkids the opportunity to undertake a variety of structured tasks with the aim of maturing themselves without examination pressure. Personally, I think its a great idea but Friends of the Elderly think otherwise suggesting that we cant afford it and that we should get students to engage in community service (which I thought was a judicial non custodial sanction for lawbreaking). Community service sounds awfully like national service…

Too often we confuse learning with hard skills, the ability to do things, when in fact what many employers need are some of these and some soft skills. Soft skills are behavioural, interpersonal, skills that are recognized as being perhaps more essential and more conducive to employment. Someone with high degrees of soft skills can learn hard skills. And soft skills matter: see here the work by James Heckman , Nobel Laureate in Economics, on this issue. Maligned though it may be Fas did undertake in 2003 a study on soft skills which  is instructive. Noteworthy is the response from some industry representatives that soft skills would become more important. Soft skills include those that underly creativity and flexibility and as such are key to hightech and knowledge industries. See the comments here from the Digital Hub, here from USI, here for a more general survey and here for a study of the views of employers on soft skills.  Increasingly, universities are aware of and incorporating soft skills into courses, but these are expensive and complex to instill and thus we run the risk that as budgets shrink so too will this provision.

So, back to the leaving cert and points. If we want to include more soft skills in irish graduands and the workplace in general, should we not reward that? We have seen that when we give bonus or additional points for mathematics the number of students taking higher level mathematics rises. People are instinctive economists : as excelling in leaving certificate higher mathematics costs (in terms of time and knock on effect on other courses) more than other courses students will allocate their time wisely and not take it. The reintroduction of bonus points has resulted in a rebalancing with the benefits of taking the higher mathematics course now more closely aligned with the costs thereof. Why not use the market mechanism we have in the points system and introduce points for a variety of  evidenced soft skills? Already there are moves to adapt the examination format to give greater emphasis on continual assessment although this is not without controversy.  But why do we not consider giving points for students that show skills in art through entry to art competitions, in music through bein part of a band, in interpersonal skills through being on a sports or debating team, in creativity through writing or developing apps, etc. Why should students not gain points for being in the scouts, or a political party, or organizing a festival, for being part of a community cleanup day and so on. If we reward people for being rounded, creative, articulate members of society they will adapt to being so. So, my call is for two new leaving cert “subjects” to be introduced in terms of points, one on “community involvement” and one on “personal skill development”.  Let students show evidenced achievement in these, lets crowd source the components and weights and elements, lets use the points system to generate the kind of school graduates we as a society want and need.

Restrictive Practices in Higher Education in Ireland

The Chairman of the Higher education Authority is no stranger to controversy. His most recent interesting comment came when he commented against the “restrictive work practices” of the third level, stating “There are very restrictive HR practices imposed on our higher education institutions by the fact that they are regarded as part of the public service, not much different from a government department or a local authority.” He also complained that Irish universities were not attracting enough foreign students, which seemed to be an issue caused by a lack of  “Greater collaboration and alignment between institutions”

I emailed, on Saturday afternoon, the HEA and inquired for specifics on these restrictive work practices. My contract, and I think every other academic, states that I will, in effect, do what I am told to do by the head of school. My duties are not specified beyond engaging in teaching as directed, carrying out research and doing such administrative duties as are assigned. It would be hard to find a more open contract than one that says “do what, where, when, for how long as, and in what manner as your boss shall dictate. End of”.  I imagine Ericcson, from whence Mr Boland hails, would be ad idem with every other company in welcoming such an open-ended specification of duties.

The HEA contacted me on Monday, with a copy of the speech (HECA J Hennessy Key Note Speech 20 April 2012 (2) (1)) and then on Wednesday kindly followed up with details of the “restrictive work practices”. I was interested to read these as I was worried that my work practices were in some way restrictive… I need not have. For the most part these are legislative, HEA driven or organizational, rather than actions carried out or not by academics.

Workload management

The Higher Education Strategy calls for a comprehensive review of existing employment contracts. It looks for contracts that are transparent and deliver accountability for appropriate workload allocation models to ensure that priorities around teaching and learning, research and administration can be managed and delivered. In relation to institutes of technology, it says that contracts should specify a minimum number of hours to be delivered on an annualised basis. Currently, the contracts in institutes of technology provide the delivery of 630 hours by assistant lecturers (560 by lecturers) over 35 weeks with a norm of 18 (16) hours per week. Because of circulars restricting the length of the academic year as well as developments such as semesterisation, the 35 weeks are never delivered. Recent agreements under Croke Park have focussed on increasing the amount of delivery per week, a less optimal approach than adopting a broader concept of the academic year.

Consideration could be given to the adoption of an annualised credit-based contract based around the current 630/560 requirements. An hour of lecturing would remain equivalent to one credit under this system but credit could then be given for other academic activities such as research, supervision of PhDs, engagement with business etc. Such a flexible approach would allow Institute management to determine credits for various activities across the differing demands across teaching Levels 6-10 as well as across the differing demands in terms of research and other academic activity. Any new contract arrangements should also provide for a level of academic and other duties – administration, management, course development, promotion of the Institute, engagement with stakeholders etc. – that form part of the normal duties of a lecturer and do not attract credits. Finally, it will be important that the contracts also state clearly what is expected in terms of attendance and the entitlements of staff in relation to annual leave.

This is strange. Lets leave aside the emphasis on institutes of technology and the equating of these with the entirety of the higher education space. As I have noted, my contract doesn’t say anything about hours or whatever. It says “do your job”. The problem with overspecifing what knowledge workers will and will not do is that they are generally smart people and will easily game the system. There is a substantial body of academic and practical research on how to ensure work gets done. Universities are not machine bureaucracies, which work by the enforcement of control. They, like all adhocracies or matrix organizations, work best when coordination and control is by the adherence to professional norms. It might be best for the HEA to contemplate how they could best set these, rather than ever-incremental micromanagement. We have a first year university course that discusses these issues and I am happy to forward the notes. They are perhaps adhocracies or As we know Irish academics work approx. 50h per week on average. Over say 48 weeks (I know its shocking that public servants will take holidays…you cant get good staff these days) that amounts to 2400h per annum.  CSO data suggest that the average weekly paid hours across the economy is approx. 32h per week. That’s just over 1500h. Restrictive work practices seem to have resulted in this sector providing a premium in terms of output of some 50%. But that’s not the real issue. The real problem is the equation of hours spent in the classroom with hours worked. That such arrant nonsense could come from the head of the government body charged with the management of higher education should be a cause of huge concern. Despite the many real issues in Irish higher education we still manage to have substantial impact on the world stage with several world class universities. By all means let me work 32h instead of 50 plus….


While in the sector, HEIs have considerable freedom to hire staff (subject to ECF), their capacity to make staff redundant, even where there is manifestly no work for them, does not exist.  In the institutes of technology, for instance, if staff cannot be usefully deployed due to the collapse in apprenticeship, they cannot be made redundant.  Any effort to improve efficiency by reducing unnecessary duplication of programmes across the HE sector will be rendered pointless unless a capacity for targeted redundancy is provided.  The same goes for efficiencies that could arise due to mergers of HEIs.  A capacity for targeted redundancy schemes is required.

Hire staff subject to the ECF …apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the play…

Again we see the IoT = all fallacy. Lets leave aside the issue of whether the government body charged with overseeing higher education might better serve society by ensuring that it works to see that apprenticeships are strengthened (Germany anyone?) rather than destroying the seed corn of future such. Today apprenticeships, tomorrow…? What market demand is there for Latin, or poetry, or for philosophy or for sociology? The higher education sector is not and cannot be simply a tool for the creation of what the HEA or industry think might be employable in three or five years time.  Since at least Newman we have known this. There is an ongoing and lively debate on how to recast this ideal but that universities play more than just a training role is surely something that the HEA might acknowledge. There is also a strange sense of competition being bad. I always thought competition, for students and ideas no less than for bread rolls, ensured that the customer or person to whom the service was provided got a better outcome. The locgical conclusion of the drive to reduce choice is silod universities, where for example UCD teaches economics and say TCD philosophy while Maynooth does Sociology. The concept of students and researchers crossing what are at best arbitrary intellectual boundaries seems anathema to the HEA. It reflects a desire for monopoly provision of education – economics 101 tells us that monopolies are always inefficient, even if they are natural monopolies, which is not at all obvious for the provision of educational programs.

Contractual matters

Particular problems are created by the way in which Ireland has transposed EU employment Directives.  Under current legislation part-time employees or those on temporary contracts can too easily acquire rights akin to permanent staff, including contracts of indefinite duration (CID).  This is particularly dangerous in a situation where HEIs are forced to rely on part time and short term contract staff. It is accepted that the HEIs have a responsibility here to ensure that contractual terms are appropriate, but in the IoT sector there is a view that they are precluded from issuing the kind of contract that would avoid a CID situation, since the form of contracts has to be agreed with unions who in turn agree these with the Department of Education and Skills.  A review of the inflexibilities generated by employment legislation, followed by legislative amendment,  is urgently needed.

Again the equation of IoT’s with the entirety of higher education…..While this may well be the case the use of the phrase “too easily acquire rights” is unfortunate to say the least. This seems to be a drive towards casualization and a backdoor abolition of not just tenure but permanency. I guess in the brave new world the HEA sees the provision of higher education as a purely market driven force, where they determine the course to be offered and organizations bid to provide same with staff hired only as and when needed. Perhaps we could organize hiring fairs or maybe the old concept of An Spailpín Fánach can be reinvigorated where gangs of underemployed Python coders and French romantic poetry specialists can hang around outside universities waving their credentials? There are of course situations where contracts are a good idea. But to create a university system where this is the norm is self defeating.  Like it or not we are in a globalized market and the market for academic talent is no different. We are now in a situation where even if a post is created it is probably going to be offered at the lowest point of the scale, which is generally now below that of comparable scales in other countries. Combine this with a total lack of job security and we will find it impossible to compete, which is in the end going to result in a poorer society in every way.


At present pay is set by government and, except in the case of the Departures Framework for universities, all HEIs must comply with pay terms nationally negotiated.  Currently, the Department of Finance, through the Department Education and Skills, plays a direct role in the establishment of salary scales, terms and conditions, appointment points on the scales, numbers of staff etc.   In the past, when time has allowed, it has been usual that negotiations have four players viz DoES, DoF, unions and ‘the employers’.  At the best of times these arrangements have been unsatisfactory in that the negotiations have been centralised and agreements are centralised, consequently much time, particularly in the IoT sector, has been spent fighting cases at local level.  In recent times, as a direct result of the economic crisis agreements have been entered into without understanding the impact that these agreements have on the functioning education (see further below).

While the HEIs do not seek complete freedom in this matter, flexibility is required to enable them to manage their workforce and their performance more effectively. HE needs a much more sophisticated architecture that is linked to both the strategic needs of institutions and their evolving structures. That architecture has to have greater flexibility and with that a series of checks and balances to underpin the flexibility.   An approach which involved freedom to pay staff within bands combined with a requirement of balance between grades (as in the current ECF) would meet many of the difficulties here.

Again the IoT seems to be driving the debate. It might be useful if the HEA clarified that they are even aware that there are two higher education systems and that no more than one size fits all the same issues do not nescessarily arise in both. The issue if there is one with Irish university pay is that it has a high mean but a low variance.  It is good to see that the HEA are beginning to suggest that this be addressed. But it is limited – why not allow managers in universities to manage? Why not let them determine, within the resources available, the pay of people. There is a market for academic labor and this should be used to signal the wages.  I would much rather we paid the most productive more than the least.

General – Management Capacity to Manage New Contractual Arrangements

 It is generally agreed that managing change in the Irish public sector is challenging.  If, as proposed above, new contractual arrangements are entered into then there will be significant challenges to middle managers in Irish HEI’s to manage those changes.  In order to do this successfully will require a much strengthened approach to PMDS, the recruitment and appointment of heads of department, deans, etc who have both academic and managerial competence.  While some institutions have developed or are developing robust systems of appointment and leadership and development to ensure management competence, anecdotally the HE system seems only patchily prepared for these changes.

This is hard to argue with in one way, stating that managers should be competent to manage. But they must also be free to manage. At present there is a widespread perception that the HEA are micro managerial zealots, desirous of interference at the lowest operational levels rather than confining themselves to policy. This may be unfair but it does exist. There is nothing wrong in principle with professional managers in universities but again there is absent from this statement an acknowledgement that knowledge workers in public or private sectors require a different style of management to other workers. Such is neither good nor bad but a fact of organizational life. There is a reason that Facebook, Google etc provide beer, Ping-Pong tables and so on and its not because the flinty eyed billionaires that run them are necessarily inherently nice people, although they may well be. Its because that approach works in that organizational space.

A week in higher education

This is an expanded and linked version of the column “My Education Week” which appears each Tuesday in the Irish Times.

This week is Trinity Week, culminating in the Trinity Ball, which means teaching semester is over. Which, if one believes everything one reads in the papers means that I and every other third level academic is off work until the autumn…would that this were so, but it remains a pleasant fantasy. No scheduled teaching means one can catch up further on the Sisyphean tasks of administration, research and student management! The perception of lazy academics is one that is all too common, but recent research suggests an average working week of 50h, above that of the european norm. Its a sad commentary on irish public discourse when research, carried out by a highly prolific academic in her area, is dismissed and all but called academic fraud by commentators simply because it doesnt conform to expectations. That coarsening of debate is something about which as academics we should be most concerned.

Sunday evening is generally when both I and Mrs Prof, a primary school teacher, organize our work week. She plans the weeks lessons, I outline my ‘to do’ lists and deal with any weekend issues. As a college tutor in TCD one finds oneself dealing with all sorts of odd requests above and beyond the norm. This Sunday the fire to be fought is a student who has that weekend been given a chance to go on an internship in Singapore, very relevant to her degree, but this would entail missing examinations and a decision is needed fast. I email her, she rings me, we talk and plot out a route to be tried on Monday morning.

Monday morning I stop off in Kildare FM en route to work, and talk for half hour on both my new book “what if Ireland defaults” and on general economic issues. Local radio is a powerful force in Ireland, and too often ignored by commentators. Part of the job of all professors is to profess and what better way than to discuss ones works with the public who after all pay a large chunk of my salary! The remainder of the morning is taken up with finalising my thoughts on paper for my appearance on Wednesday at the Oireachtas Subcommittee on European Affairs, regarding the Fiscal Compact. Monday is Trinity Monday and as always there’s a great buzz in Front square when the names of new scholars and fellows are announced. Its hard to think that its nearly 10 years since I was made fellow. Time flies when your having fun! This year there are 103 scholars, a record, reflecting the exceptional quality of students we are privileged to have. The afternoon is taken up with finalising and submitting a paper, a meta analysis of research on the linkage between property values and aggregate stock/bond market returns, to a US journal. Submission costs €125 and I decide to pay that myself rather than dip into my research funds (where I divert my media earnings) which I use for travel for myself and for postgraduates and for things like launching books….

Tuesday The MSc in Finance in TCD is unique Ireland in its range of professional partnerships, with linkages established with Bloomberg, PRMIA, CFA and CIMA (the signing ceremony of which is shown here). I set aside time to talk to MSc Finance students, but some exam issues mean that a number cant make it. We talk anyhow to those that can make it and reschedule the rest. These are students who are to be under my supervisory wing throughout the summer as they undertake their dissertation which accounts for 1/3 of their degree. I have 10 to manage but am also the general ‘go to’ person in the supervisory group for issues around data and statistical analyses beyond the norm so I usually get to see most of the 50 plus students at some stage. The students will work on these projects for the summer and hand up the work in late august. Some projects are industry linked, others are pure research, others expanding on previous work. Of the ten students I am supervising 3 are Irish. The projects range from analyses of option pricing, through dividend policies, to work on the determinants of personal financial risk taking. Its hugely challenging and enormously rewarding each summer to work with the masters students on their projects. We get an update from the head of school on the fundraising for the new Business School Building (going surprisingly well given the times that are in it) and news that a new colleague has accepted (at lecturer level) the position in strategic management which was created when Professor John Murray died, 18 months ago. The norm now in irish academia is that no matter how senior, experienced and internationally well qualified and recognized is a person, if they depart and are replaced at all that will be at the lower end of the scale. It takes time, and experience to mature as an academic as for any post. We are eroding academia from the top down. I talk to a Finnish newspaper on the Irish banking collapse, and they keep asking the same question as all overseas commentators do : why on earth did we do the bank guarantee. I have no printable answer…

Wednesday the Dean of Students Honor Roll is announced, recognizing students for non-academic involvement in college life, such as volunteering and tutoring/mentoring second level students in the inner city. Of the 400 honoured 38 are business students. College is of course much more than simply classes and the creation of rounded socially aware business graduates cannot be but a good thing for the future. The morning is taken up with attendance at the Oireachtas Subcommittee, in the company of several others, namely Jimmy Kelly and Michael Taft of UNITE and Megan Greene. Presentations are here (me, Greene, Kelly, Taft, and here is a link to the transcript of the debate). While one might decry the antics of the Oireachtas at times, it is our sovereign parliament and it both is and should be an honour to be asked to present ones views to it for consideration. I certainly take that perspective. We present our views on the fiscal compact; I concentrate on the effect of same on the financial markets, while the others concentrate on the macroeconomics. We have a good round of questioning.

Afterwards I have lunch with Megan, who is senior economist with Roubini Global Economics, who also attended the committee. Over lunch we have a lively exchange with some parliamentary researchers about the future of the Euro. In the afternoon i catch up on some emails about the UK and Ireland Chapter of the Academy of International Business , on whose executive i sit, and attend to my role as Editor of a journal (Research in International Business and Finance) I divert a query from a Sunday newspaper to someone who knows more about it than me. and get pleasant news with a paper accepted to a reasonably decent US based journal, subject to some minor (mainly editorial) changes.


Thursday involves sorting out the sessions for a large conference I run every year, with over 150 papers in all areas of finance. As usual in excess of 95% of the papers are from overseas, and we expect about 200 delegates. Having run this for 10 years in Ireland, it’s probable that the conference will go overseas from 2013, as the lack of sponsorship from domestic financial institutions makes running it here increasingly difficult. Despite having attracted Nobel laureates, having attained significant international credibility, being linked with one of the top international journals in finance and having had present each year the leading finance researchers there is worryingly little commercial interest in pure knowledge. This is in stark contrast to France and Italy where the conference is bound for the next decade and where financial institutions are more than willing to interact from the very start with academia I also catch up with some PhD students, and we discuss how they will overcome some issues, publicise the research and discuss how to interact with an overseas financial institution which is funding one study. I talk to a Norwegian academic who is researching the Irish banking crisis, and try not to be embarrassed when they note that not only did they not get anywhere in getting an interview with official sources they didn’t even get a reply. We have a long way to go yet before we realise that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We seem to have not only zombie banks but vampire-like openness in the permanent government.Later in the afternoon I meet with the people from Orpen press, and we discuss a series of talks to be held in bookshops to push the debate which we have opened with the book “what if Ireland default”

I spend working from home, as I try to do each week for at least a day. Knowledge work requires a brain and a pc. The physical location is of minor relevance, and research requires for me at least uninterrupted time to think and muse. While the work of science academics typically requires them to be at their benches etc to do experiments, for arts, humanities and social science research this is not the case. There is a recent push towards trying to tie academics to their desks : this not only flies in the face of government policies on teleworking it is wholly misguided. So, the attic it is, where I work to finish a paper on small firm finance I am doing with a colleague in DCU and another collaborative project on gold prices which involves researchers in the USA and Australia. While none of these will generate patents they should I hope advance human knowledge a little bit.
What Im listening to : I generally stream baroque or early church choral music when im doing writing or research, and for walking/commuting 1970’s and 80’s rock such as Led Zeppelin, Lizzy, Guns n Roses….

What Im reading : In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland and Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds.

What Im watching : The Good Wife and Homeland, two top notch US series. Also Game of Thrones and Alcatraz

Back Inside Higher Education : Guest Post

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. 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.

  1. 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.


  1. 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.


Perhaps the most annoying advert on the radio at present is the one for “safe food”.  Its brought to you by the Safe Food Agency. Of course it’s a good idea to not poison yourself or your family but the advert is imho so over the top as to ridicule the issue.  The SafeFoodAgency have, on their quiz about how minging is your kitchen,  and I kid you not, a bacteria cam…. The SFA are the same people that informed us, faces a-po, that there was a silent menace of obesity and gave us all tapes to measure our vast girth. Mine was too small…

The ad consists of a monotonic litany of common household and kitchen appliances: your knife, your fork, you chopping board, your spoon, your eggcup, your teacups, your ….and ends with an ominous silence before saying …YOUR CHILD…Apparently these things are all infested with germs. That small children are walking plague vectors is nothing new to anyone who has spent any time with them, but I guess the implied solution from the Safe Food Agency of boiling all of the aforementioned utensils in high pressure bleach solutions is not really a runner for a wee babby…

The objective is probably to make us aware of germs. It could not be more over the top if they screamed “They’re all around you”. Honestly, its like a peek into the mind of Howard Hughes.

Perhaps the Safe Food Agency could just show this instead , prefaced with “bacteria and fatness…” and then segue into http://youtu.be/6kmTNObny3k and skip the ad agencies…