Tag Archives: education pedagogy

Disruptive Innovation and Irish Universities post-Leporte

History and business are rarely taught or even studied together. That’s a pity. Economic history, as  subject, has disappeared down the memory hole. What is more worrying perhaps is that the methods of historical analysis, careful source text reinterpretations, critical data analysis and a cool analysis, are not often applied to business. Enter Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, to remind us why this ahistorical business analysis is a weak approach Continue reading

What do Irish economists think and teach?


In late 2013, Stephen Kinsella and I undertook a survey of Irish economics and finance academics. We asked a bunch of questions on what they felt was core and not in the subject, on how things had changed in teaching over the last 5 years, on their views on the subject etc.  We are writing this up as  a paper with additional commentary and some suggestions on how to improve things but in the meantime we are presenting it at a conference organized by the Irish Economics Association on Friday 31 Jan 2014. (Update : Stephen has unavoidable work commitments and I have unavoidable personal/family commitments that make it impossible for us to attend. Hope this blogpost fills the gap partially)

Here are slides on this presentation. Here is a powerpoint show with my narration – this is quite large ( ±100 mb) so be warned – but it gives a much better sense of how we feel than just the raw slides alone. This is my take. Others, including Stephen, might not agree with any or all interpretation, so please recall that.

What’s the takeaway?

  • We surveyed 300+ academics and got a fairly poor response. It was surprising how little people seemed to care about the profession. We unashamedly concentrated on university and macro/finance. We couldnt be sure of a full sample in IoTs. And we want to first see what the academics think before maybe moving onto the industrial.
  • Modal respondent is 10y plus in academia, has a PhD doesnt have a professional training.
  • only 11% are teaching in an area v close to their research – research led teaching seems a long way off
  • average undergrad contact time is 57% of total teaching.
  • Most economists think the government should put more money into economics education …mmmkaaay
  • Despite the preponderance of evidence, the respondents dont think that studying economics makes you more selfish
  • They firmly think its a science (three words – Prescott, Sims, Nobel…)
  • Respondents want a broader focus in economics teaching BUT also want more math and DONT want it taught as part of management or social sciences. Greetings from Isolation Hill.
  • There is no sense that the profession should sort out its internal disagreements on fundamental issues (and these are many and stark) before speaking out.
  • Theres a very traditional skills led view of what should constitute the core. Amazingly only 33% think that a survey of irish economic conditions should be in the core.
  • Theres a deep suspicion of accounting. Which is worrying as its the language of business. Most graduates wont go indon’tesearch but become part of the business workforce. Despite this there’s a feeling that SME finance is important. This is not logical.
  • Most come across as technological illiterates. While there is considerable use of anti-plagiarism software there is much much less use of even things like interactive clickers (or apps for same), or the use of social media for engagement.
  • compared to 5 years ago
    • more time is being given to labour market issues, to debt dynamics and to DSGE. The latter is worrying as these are in essence (and imho) useless. See the  series of takedowns by Noah Smith (search for DSGE). We also spend more time on the microstructure of financial markets, on models of bubbles and networks, and on the role of financial institutions. More time is spent on expansionary fiscal contraction, hopefully debunking its existence (but I wouldn’t be too sure) . That old trope of the Regan era, Trickle Down Economics, gets more time, as does privatisation and endogenous growth. If I had to call it, I would suggest that finance teaching has taken more cognizance of the crisis than has mainstream macro teaching in Ireland.
    • Less time is being spent on very little. Keynesian Cross models – this is interesting as an implication of the KC model is that there can be a  equilibrium with less than full employment and with recession – that might be a useful idea to implant in peoples minds, no? Maybe its seen as dangerous.
    • For the most part people teach the same , more or less, than they did 5 years ago. Despite the massive wrench in the actual economy, the academy seems to be broadly unchanged in how and what it teaches. This must change.

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

A journal editor seeks your views…

So, I today signed off on the agreement to be the new editor of another Elsevier journal, International Review. Of Financial Analysis (IRFA). It's a pretty decent journal, ranked in the top 40 by a recent study; it was ranked as “internationally excellent” in the 2008 Aston rankings; as “highly regarded” in the 2010 Association of Business Schools journal ranking ; as “top international” in thr 2010 Cranfield School of Management list; for mere details see http://www.harzing.org with the usual caveat that rankings are not the only or even the most desirable indicator of the quality and impact of a journal.

Now, I am aware that elsevier raises the hackles of many with regard to the debate on open access versus pay walls, but that's a debate that I'd like to avoid at the present. What I am interested in is the views of people on how we might make the articles forthcoming in IRFA more accessible and interesting. elsevier have their views on the article of the future- which of these would you be interested in seeing rolled out? For example, should video abstracts be available freely viewable? Would people be interested in a twitter feed of articles? Whst about an editorial,video, of each issue? Your ideas are sought!


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.

Default, Regulatory Capture and Banks

Last night in the (darkened, of course for the books and not very conducive to photography on the hoof) confines of the TCD Library Long Room Senator Sean Barrett launched “What if Ireland Defaults”, the book of essays previously noted on the irish debt and economic position. Having entered into TCD ESS (now BESS) in October 1981 I had an idea of economics as a possible route. I was still deciding when the first lecture I had in my second year was in a course which I was thinking maybe/mabe not. It was “public sector economics” and was taught by Sean. Immediatly I was captured, as Sean outlined in 20m a course that would give us a helicopter tour d’horizon (that turned out to be a tour de force) of the then myriad ills afflicting the Irish economy. And yes, dear children, they were arguably as bad as here and now.

Sean, along with such luminaries  Louden Ryan, John Bristow, Alan Mathews and John O’Hagan inspired a desire in me to work in this area and I have been honoured to have worked with Sean in particular as a student and latter as a colleague and constituent. Archaic and sclerotic as the Seanad can be at times, the reality is that the university senators have a large and diverse voting base to serve and they serve it well. Any changes in voting for Seanad Eireann should try to capture more of the essence of the university senators of all hues over the years.

Sean very kindly launched the book last night and his speech is reproduced, with permission, below.


My first duty is to congratulate the three editors, twenty-one authors and the Orpen Press on the publication of this excellent volume. It deserves to be widely read as Ireland faces a continuing crisis in which unemployment has risen over three fold and our debt has risen from 28% of gross national income in 2005 to 114% in 2011 as noted by Stephen Kinsella and the combined debt burden of the state, household and corporate sectors is almost five times GDP as noted by Peter Matthews.

In the words of a great TCD man, Oscar Wilde, Miss Prism tells Cecily to read her political economy in the absence of her tutor. “The chapter on the fall of the rouble you may omit. These monetary problems have their melodramatic side.”

Ireland’s economic policy unfortunately followed Miss Prism’s advice. We sleepwalked into the euro currency and the regulatory body played lots of golf with bankers through an unsustainable property boom.   Stephen Kinsella notes that we doubled the national debt in 2008 by bailing out the banks. Relative to GNP this was a gold medal in regulatory capture by world standards. Regulatory capture of governments by national airlines or sheltered sector professions pales into insignificance compared to the Irish bank capture of the exchequer.

Kinsella states on p.85 that “we don’t need  to default on our debt but we may need some further assistance from the EU/IMF.”   Default, austerity and restructuring of debt are all reviewed by the various authors in this fine volume.  Nobel prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz warns that “financial integration raises the overall risk of large negative shocks” and that “capital market integration could increase, instead of lower , the likelihood of a financial crisis in a given economy.” (p.40).  As we survey the lack of an exit mechanism from the euro, the large differences in the sizes of the Eurozone member states, the one size fits all interest rate, the lack of fiscal transfers and labour market mobility between the members, and the lax entry requirements to the currency we see the urgent need for a look again at the optimal design of international financial architecture. This requires from Brussels and Frankfurt the words of explorer Tom Crean.  “I heard something I never heard before in service- I made a mistake!”

“How to Survive on the Titanic- Ireland’s Relationship with Europe” is therefore an apt title for Megan Greene’s chapter 6 in  the book.  She states that bringing back the drachma would be a much faster way than austerity to revive the Greek economy.  She notes Ireland’s five austerity budgets in a row and high unemployment. She sees the fiscal compact as a surefire recipe for recession in the peripheral countries. A compact is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as a small vanity case.

My Fiscal Responsibility Bill was introduced in the Senate last December.  The competing versions from the Fiscal Council and the Department of Finance have yet to appear and are overdue.  Ireland urgently needs to reform its governance. Far too many of those who caused this crisis have been exempted from its cost. Far too many institutions remain unreformed.

Elaine Byrne and Huginn Porsteinsson point out that Iceland was lucky. Their banks at ten times GDP were impossible to save.  Irish banks at five times GDP were thought possible to save and we will take far longer to recover.  A totally ludicrous project  is thus shown to be a better protection for the citizens than a scarcely plausible one.   The decision to save Anglo Irish Bank becomes ever more difficult to understand or defend.  The continuing decision to defend a bank that has been shut is impossible to support.

Making private debt public is a naked transfer of wealth away from taxpayers as noted by Tony Philips. Karl Deeter echoes many fears about our monopolistic pillar bank strategy designed to eliminate competition.  These are just some points that caught my attention. In fact on every page of this book there are interesting and stimulating ideas. I commend it warmly And again congratulate all those involved in an excellent venture.

Whats REALLY going on inside higher education

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

– Firstly, the culture is not supportive of teaching.

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Based on my experience I would propose the following action:


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

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


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

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

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


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

You mean, like it is now?


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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