Tag Archives: irish universities

Sean Barrett and University Reform

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

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

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Restructuring Irish Higher Education

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

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Rebranding TCD

I have to say that I have mixed feelings about this rebranding. Part of me says great, look at things with a fresh eye. A greater part of me says that its a monstrous waste of time and money (about €100k we are told).

TCD, Trinity College Dublin, is a brand. Its one that has stood the test of time for literal centuries. It is, along with a very few others, one of the few global brands we have for Ireland. We are told that we have to change the name to Trinity College, The University of Dublin, as people in Chindia get confused. Hmmm. Do they get confused as to what MIT is ? Or Caltech? I doubt it. They may be momentarily confused as to whether it is an independent university or not but is that reason enough to meddle with something that is time proven? I have not seen any evidence adduced, mere assertion, that this is a problem in recruiting Chindian students.  Call me old fashioned but I would like evidence.

Its worse. Leavign rankings aside its useful for people who wish to find research to know where you are working. Bibliographic databases, such as Web of Science and Scopus and so on work on institutional affiliations. Now about 75% of all TCD work is labelled Trinity College Dublin. So that will remain as it is for all outward facing activity. But out in Chindia we will be Trinity College the University of Dublin. Presumably the confusion as to what exactly TCD is and was will now be replaced by confusion as to why nobody from TCDTUD is publishing (but gosh them lads in TCD seem very active).

And then theres the crest. We are to go from a longstanding (but with no certainty as to when it actually formalised) crest to a new one. John Scattergood presented to the Fellows a long, detailed, arcane and fascinating presentation on the various arms, crests and armorials of the college and the university.  We are now to move from this longstanding, widely used and ancient looking crest to one that frankly looks like it was created in MS Paint. Theres a bizarre argument from the brand consultants that we need to move from yellow and blue as it represents “value” (as if that was bad) brands such as Ryanair and Ikea. If TCD were as successful in its field as they are in theirs then I would be a happy camper…
This is the present shield…. doesn’t it just scream CHEAP !! CHEAP!!!! So easily confused with Maxol…. (yes, that was also an argument).

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This is the proposed new shield. Much classier eh…

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There is a good argument to look again at brands. And theres  a good argument that we should have one consistent logotype (we have at present dozens, and thats confusing). What’s concerning to me is that we seem in this exercise to have taken absolutely no cognizance of the heraldic elements – TCD is an essentially medieval conception, and thats part of its strength.  We can for instance recognize the essential religious nature of the original foundation with a bible without having to accept the literal truth therein or to say that TCD is now a religious institution. We have spend the equivalent of 20 PhD fees or the cost of two postdocs  on a casual rebranding. The evidence from internal surveys is that the academic staff (those much vaunted frontline workers) were in the majority (50-80% depending on the question) happy with the visual identity of the college. One wonders why that was ignored?   One also wonders when we have marketing and design professors why they were not consulted.

College is broke. We have spend c 100k on this so far. We will spend how much more on this? . Frankly, a cent would be too much. This does nothing to advance the core mission of the college.

Is there any point teaching innovation and entrepreneurship given the state of irish universities?

epicfailThe web summit having come and gone, innovation and entrepreneurship are again at the forefront of the government and media attention. We have moved without much if any debate, to an apparent consensus that Irish universities and third level colleges must be the engine of innovation in the economy. The reality is however that it is probable that this is doomed to fail. In failing this impossible task the sector will inadvertently provide more ammunition to its critics. The perception of lazy academics engaging in selfpleasuring research of no use to man or beast while studiously avoiding contact with students will continue to be perpetuated. The moves to make universities into secondary schools for big kids will intensify at the same time as the sector is penalized for not achieving a set metric in an external environment where such massification is penalized. The lack of forward looking joined up thinking is alas not startling to anyone who has observed Irish ‘policy’ making in action.

3323907697_c02017a084_zA first question we should ask is whether we can in fact teach innovation. It is inate perhaps in some people that they will, regardless of their backgrounds, go forth and innovate. Innovation is the name we give to certain behaviours after the fact. In Ireland we have become lazy in our thinking about it and see it as a function of business enterprise. While on this subject we might well distinguish between innovation and entrepreneurship. The two are used interchangeably and universities are tasked with fostering both. Thus we have the growth of entrepreneurship courses, startup labs, incubators and so forth. Innovation is about new ideas, new processes, new ways of serving needs. Entrepreneurship is about starting a new business or new unit to deliver services or goods. Crucially these need not be innovative. A Kerryman Richard Cantillon described the entrepreneur perfectly – he buys something for a known price and sells it to the market at an unknow price. Entrepreneurship is about starting a new business or new unit to deliver services or goods. Crucially these need not be innovative A lot of hard work, persistence in the face of failure, communication skills and time management are involved in that effort.  Interestingly, these already should be outcomes of every third level course regardless of its discipline.

wq-iceberg-underwaterThere is little evidence that innovation, per se, can be taught. Skills that useful when one is innovating might be teachable. There is a large dimension of tacit knowledge that doesn’t transfer well in classroom environments. Ultimately some people have it and some don’t. What can be taught are processes and skills to allow people to hone innate innovative skills.  The difficulty is that this is expensive. Courses in critical thinking, problem based learning and 360 feedback, reflective learning, these all help. But they cannot be done without significant up-skilling of those delivering the courses, they cannot be done in large classes and they are very manpower heavy. An example would the conservatory style education systems of budding writers, musicians and artists. In a resource constrained environment it is therefore difficult to see how we can move forward. But it is easy to see how in not doing so the sector will be criticised and penalised.

stiglitz A further problem for Ireland is that the external environment is antipathetic to the fostering of an innovative or entrepreneurial culture in the third level. It is hardly possible to deliver skills for either innovation or entrepreneurship if the organizations are themselves immune to innovation and entrepreneurship. Universities are knowledge organizations. The organizational and management structure that is optimized for these is one that is open and not one of command and control. Joseph Stiglitz recented stated in a keynote address to the World Bank that we need to foster learning economies for growth and how we have geared our universities towards short-term patentable gains has resulted in the static and dynamic ineffeciencies that thwarts growth. A key policy therefore would be to make universities more open, not less.

2699.strip.sundayAt present we have the phenomena of an external body engaging in ever deeper dives into the management of the process, of top management (by which I mean the HEA and Dept of Education) expanding their control over the minutiae of staffing and product line innovation. If we want these organizations to be innovative and entrepreneurial we need to let them breath, not suffocate. When the minister and the HEA determine that there shall be such and such number of courses in area Y and so forth that kills innovation dead. When they then ask why universities are not innovative, they engage in doublespeak. We might not like that universities are knowledge organizations. But that they are is a fact. Part of that involves the fostering of innovation and creativity in the knowledge providers. This is also known as research. We neither encourage nor mentor adequately in this area, and we are in danger via the tenor of the discourse of suggesting that only a small part (the patentable tomorrow stuff) of a section (STEM) of the university is valued. The soft skills generated within the rest of the university are equally as valuable as those in the sciences. A key part of these skills emerges from the research endeavors of staff in the Arts and humanities, but these have played a fifteenth fiddle to the hard sciences. To change this will require resources however.

he-did-it-cheezburgerA more problematic issue revolves around the culture of blame in the media and politics. To be innovative is to fail, hard and repeatedly. But failure is costly. Society is now sufficiently jaded about the various organs of the State that they are unwilling to accept that any failure is the result of lady fortune and not the national cipher of a county councilor on the make, criminal negligence or someone leaning on the shovel.A university that fails in a new initiative will be accused of wasting public resources. Journalists who are unable to resist inserting themselves into the story will opine on the lazy wastefulness of the dons. Politicians who would not know an innovation from an inoculation will make speeches on the need to align universities with corporate needs. Failure, so long as it is directed and purposeful, needs to be rewarded and encouraged. Business, media, sport are all replete with examples of persistent failures who eventually succeeded. We need to foster this.  Whatever social funds are deemed appropriate to the public good provision of third level should be given to the university presidents and then they should be let run their organizations.

entrepreneurship_demotivatorA final issue relates to the internal culture of universities. They are not cultures that reward innovation or entrepreneurship. Committees’ spawn, meaningless administrative positions are created for academics instead of hiring professional managers, paper chases are created for the most minor activity, the pace of movement is sub-glacial, a proliferation of brass hats ensures that nobody owns a product and thus innovation proceeds haltingly. There is a paralyzing fear of failure in middle management, and a deep conservatism which serves mainly to protect the comfortable.  We only need to look at the UK to see the end point: a wasteful process of micro-evaluation and industrial unrest. A radical culture change to make universities truly innovative organizations is required, as well as changes in the external environment. Stiglitz said we need to foster learning societies in order to grow. Despite the presence of our Troika overlords we have never asked them what we need to learn and how to become perpetually learning societies. Our budget said we like tax breaks, building and real estate. If we want innovative universities and an innovative society we need to make a break with the past and start learning.

Complements or Substitutes? The Role of Universities and Local Context in Supporting the Creation of Academic Spin-offs by Riccardo Fini, Rosa Grimaldi, Simone Santoni, Maurizio Sobrero :: SSRN

Theres a rush to start universities on the road to fostering innovation and commercialisation. This is odd given that we, like every country, have an existing plethora of support already. The paper below suggests that the effect of university support may be very mixed and in fact may simply substitute support not add to it. So, no, not A Good Thing

tha abstract :

In this paper, we analyze the extent to which University-Level Support Mechanisms (ULSMs) and Local-Context Support Mechanisms (LCSMs) complement or substitute for each other in fostering the creation of academic spin-offs. Using a sample of 404 companies spun off from the 64 Italian Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics universities (STEM universities) over the 2000-2007 period, we show that the ULSMs’ marginal effect on universities\’ spin-off productivity may be positive or negative depending on the contribution offered by different LCSMs. Specifically, in any given region, ULSMs complement the legislative support offered to high-tech entrepreneurship whereas they have a substitution effect with regard to the amount of regional social capital, regional financial development, the presence of a regional business incubator, regional public R&D expenses as well as the level of innovative performance in the region. Results support the idea that regional settings’ idiosyncrasies should be considered for universities to develop effective spin-off support policies. This paper contributes to the debate on the evaluation of economic policies supporting entrepreneurship.

and an intersting takeaway from the conclusions ; given that we have already quite a well developed social structure, good financial conditions (really, in a global sense, we do), lots of existing incubators, and government support for R&D…

 the marginal effect of ULSMs on spin-off productivity (and this finding holds for all of the different ULSMs taken into account in our analysis) decreases in contexts where the social capital index, the regional financial development index, the presence of a regional incubator, the government R&D expenses in the region, and the regional innovativeness index all have a positive marginal contribution to spin-off productivity (substitution effect). In these contexts, universities would be better off not pursuing incremental investments in ULSMs.


via Complements or Substitutes? The Role of Universities and Local Context in Supporting the Creation of Academic Spin-offs by Riccardo Fini, Rosa Grimaldi, Simone Santoni, Maurizio Sobrero :: SSRN.

…or get off the pot..

Its still pretty common to see and hear ill informed utterances on university salaries and conditions.  Academics are featherbedded we hear, with vast salaries and rakes of holidays.  They do very little and its a dream job.

Recently TCD Business School has been recruiting. We have made some offers to excellent people and the process is ongoing. Yet, in looking at the applications, I noticed something missing. Where were the applications for academic posts from the bitter ones who carp from afar, the shockjocks who harrumph, the journalists who perpetuate mistruths? Surely it can’t be that they would pass up the opportunity to take a seat at this ambrosial banquet? I mean, if its so good they’d apply, right?

Universities are not Innovation Bootcamps

This is an extended version of an opinion piece published (here, paywalled) in the Sunday Business Post Sunday 8 September 2013, authored by Charles Larkin and myself.


innovationIrish universities remits and units are shrinking in most areas, with one exception it seems. There has been a growth over the last number of years in university-based industrial incubators. These subsidized hot presses are designed to encourage faculty and students to create tomorrow’s Google or Facebook, and with it  money for the universities and  jobs for the politicians. Of course, faced with 400k on the live register we will need a lot of FaceGoogles to make a dent.Facebook has about 5k staff, so 80 of those will do nicely. We merely need 10 googles. Good luck with that. 

At one level these incubootcamplators amount to free or cheap office space and IT; at the other these amount to startup boot camps where (typically) students are run through courses delivered by existing entrepreneurs and academics to generate ideas and to carry them to the market. These showcase units attract a lot of attention, playing as they do into the apparent government desire for us all to become entrepreneurs. Lets leave aside the actual numbers and facts on Irish entrepreneurship : that we have a high level of forced entrepreneurs (the TINAEs those for whom there is no alternative to entrepreneurship)  and that the attraction of entrepreneurship is waning rapidly. Innovation and entrepreneurship are, officially, a Good Thing To Be In Favor Of


brazil-03Incubators and accelerators have become, without any proper debate, the method by which entrepreneurship has moved into being a core function of higher education. We are knee deep in the entrepreneurial big muddy and on we press, the classic escalation of prior commitment (also known as throwing good money after bad) paradigm being played out in real time. Universities now are expected to foster and support innovation and enterprise with time, money and materials, diverting these from existing activities already under pressure from declining funding and increased demands.  Most worryingly, and with scant discussion in he media or elsewhere, the proposed new funding model for universities has a requirement for “high quality research and innovation” as a core element.  When did the two get conflated? By whom? Where was that debate played out? Do we now take it that only research which is likely to produce innovative wotsits is worthy of funding? Recognition? Approval? What a dreary academy that would be, a higher education “Brazil”


1-s2.0-S0048733303000234-gr2One of the proposed key system objectives is to foster increased university-enterprise connections, the so-called “triple helix model” of universities, government and industry, and have these measured by an EU level index (the summary Innovation Index). that the overlap of all these bears a remarkable similarity to the Danger trefoil is perhaps unfortunate.  This approach has very little to do with innovation and a lot to do with how many graduates there are and how much is spent. It is a classic inputs driven approach to evaluating outputs, which is easy for bureaucrats and meaningless in terms of actually fostering improvements. It will foster systemic gaming, as what gets measured gets managed and wha gets managed gets funded.  Within universities there is a push towards making innovation a key element of strategic planning, in some cases with the wholesale repositioning of business schools towards innovation centered units regardless of capacity, competence, ability or interest. IBEC, a lobby group, is to be given a key role, via satisfaction surveys, in the measurement of how universities are adhering to national strategic objectives. Again, I must have missed the debate on whether or not a single member of the Bertie system of social partnership is an appropriate body to be involved in the process of evaluating  Irish education. Why is the happiness of IBEC members more, or less, important than any other? Again we see the wholesale stealth movement of universities away from being handmaidens of knowledge and towards the concubine of industry. When did that debate take place? 


CU_handbookWe have seen in parallel over the last decade a growing corporatization of universities. At one level this is not problematic, as these large organizations require professional competent management, but it is a worrying trend. In the US, 40% of the increase in the cost of higher education since 1988 has been attributed to administrative costs. While universities can be run on a for-profit basis there is little desire for this in Ireland, but declining state funds and funding incentives designed to cover up this reduction of resources drive universities towards greater corporate involvement as a requirement for survival. When you are drowning  any port is a haven, regardless of what lurks on land. Irish (especially) domestic and (to some extent) multinational firms have shown little willingness to develop long-term linkages with universities beyond the requirements of public relations and photo opportunities. All too often there is an appearance that short-termism is all that is required, cheerleaded, most sadly, by local representatives and parliamentarians.  


bureaucrat1It is also ironic that increasingly bureaucratically managed universities are now expected to lead innovation. In most cases this involves a plethora of committees, new appointments to lead academies and centers, and a host of administrators. A less conducive approach to fostering innovation could hardly be thought of. Those of us that work in universities are aware that  at the bottom of the heap there is a veritable tumult of ideas as to how to improve the student experience, make the system work more effectively, increase research productivity and improve staff morale. By the time these ideas are filtered through the increasing corporate sclerosis that passes for management few ideas if any are discussed not to mind approved. Just try to get a flipped module on the financial crisis and what it tells us about the nature of management responses to crises generally onto the teaching roster in a leading business school and see how far you get …Universities are being managed more and more in a mechanistic, Taylorist manner which is the exact antithesis of how a knowledge organization should be managed. Alas, such methods are attractive to government and funding bureaucrats and provide ample opportunities for academics to move from the coalface of teaching and research to administer and micromanage. Whereas before that would have involved much liasion with students and faculty now exciting vistas of corporate engagement open up. Until and unless a culture of innovation and an acceptance of the need to allow this all across the universities emerges they will not be able to lead any innovative or entrepreneurial charge. Being innovative involves risks. Most university managers are enormously risk averse and so innovation is stifled at birth or filtered through layers of committees until the downside of any risk is spread thin. 


nov_pol_pres_lunchHow have we ended up in a situation where the only representative body that will have a role in determining how universities are doing is IBEC? This represents the final capitulation of the government to the concept of universities as having an economic role only. IBEC has as much and as little role in assessing the output and fitness of the higher education sector as do Aosdana, or the ICA or the GAA. Universities exist for and to serve society, not just the economy. IBEC is the last man standing of the Bertite approach to social partnership, and it remains a powerful if shadowy lobby for its members. But the needs of IBEC members, or the wails of ISME, the Continuity SFA about quality are those of a sectoral lobby, nothing more nothing less. There is a clear perception from some recent pronouncements that that quality is narrowly definable as “immediately deployable at work, trained by the taxpayer so that business doesn’t have to incur the cost while reaping the benefit” 


transferable_skills1What universities provide graduates with are skills and knowledge.  These can be divided into two kinds – specific and general. The  focus of entrepreneurship education and the growth of innovation hubs is on specific skills, namely, those around innovating and starting a business. The best such recognize that these are in fact different – thinking up an idea and carrying it through require very different skillsets.  Entrepreneurs are risk takers and relish ambiguity and control of their own environment while innovators tend to add to those willingness to change and a restless curiosity. While there is overlap there is also distinction. One of the emergent findings  appears to be that while skills can be taught entrepreneurs may be born, not made.  Sure training can provide skills and techniques for successful carrying on a business, but it is highly debatable as to whether the mindset itself is teachable or learnable. While we devote resources to these specific skills we are of necessity not devoting them to other specific skills or to generic (transferable) skills. Indeed, it is these generic skills, many of which originate at second level, that employers actually value. If someone wants a specialist in finance they will seek someone with ACCA or CFA or CAIA qualifications. They will pay well for these skills but they do not expect (although might like) to have students emerge straight from college with them. What they expect is that students will have the skills in knowledge acquisition, in information processing and in interpersonal skills to allow them gain these subject specific skills and to keep them honed in a lifelong learning environment. These general skills, in mathematical competence, linguistic capacity, reasoning and inference, in juxtaposing theory with practice and linking the specific with the general are of benefit to society not just to IBEC or C-SFA ISME .  Making universities focus more and more on specific skills or chasing political fads is to ensure that universities blur into corporate training centers  and that private rewards are placed before the public good.  Instead of putting scarce resources into the dubious chase to create a generation of entrepreneurs from our universities perhaps recall what it is we want them to create – educated persons with specific skills sufficient to provide them with depth in an area but with a breadth of general skills which will enable them to be valuable members of society. These skills are costly to acquire, both in terms of students time and effort and in terms of the support and infrastructure required to assess their acquisition.  By all means encourage and support students who wish to demonstrate an entrepreneurial bent – but why should universities provide the infrastructure for these when such exist externally, both with public and private provision. I suspect that most of the rather few successful graduates of these accelerators would have found a way towards their aim without a university led and fostered hothouse. In some senses, state supported as they are, these incubators crowd out private competitors. 


 knowledgeispowerlicenseplatewebLets reward not just that but also social involvement through perhaps volunteering, or leadership qualities perhaps via sport or mentoring. If knowledge is indeed power a breadth of knowledge is power across a wide range of human endeavors. Lets reward skills in areas such as personal development and extracurricular cognitive skills.  Universities now work on a credit system within the European Credit Transfer System – each year is typically worth 60 credits. Lets mandate that 10 of these must be achieved outside the system. Lets devise a system where the student who achieves a high level in chess is rewarded as is the student who mentors intellectually disabled children, who captains a county or college camogie team or the one who sets up a company. Lets reward breadth of achievement and foster a generation of graduates who are embedded in society not merely aiming to create a generation of reluctant entrepreneurs. Universities are not,should not be made and must not let themselves become innovation bootcamps.