Larkin and Lucey: Set Our Universities Free

In light of recent discussions on this blog about Irish universities and their role in the wider economy, this article in the Sunday Business Post by Trinity’s Charles Larkin and Brian Lucey raises a lot of important issues.

34 replies on “Larkin and Lucey: Set Our Universities Free”

Thanks Karl for posting this – also thanks Cliff for taking the article. As is always the case with non professional journos editing for style, probably coherence and some consequent inevitable reduction was required by Mr Taylors Scissors ™. Nothing vital was removed but some expansion may be useful in two places.
First, on tenure. A fuller version of the para on tenure would be as below.
“To adequately provide these postgraduate courses all academic staff in the university would be required to be active researchers, which would be achieved by a rolling tenure system. This would involve the granting of tenure for a prospective 5-7 year period, with biannual reviews. Tenure in and of itself is not a solution to ensuring either research adequacy or existence but can provide a framework within which some tweaking for discipline specific factors can take place. A recent court decision (Cahill V DCU) has highlighted the need for a legally binding definition of tenure, which should be taken as creating for the period granted immunity from dismissal by reason of pursuit of unpopular, unfashionable or dissenting research, and which is automatically renewed subject to measurable and externally verifiable outputs. It has been previously argued that at second level the supplementing of the leaving certificate with the international baccalaureate would assist in the fostering of a more critical thought process. We suggest that those that are not renewed with tenure but are found to be competent at teaching are brought into the IB teaching pool. This way the system as a whole does not waste human capital. At the same time it may possibly result in the higher education system’s demographics improving. ”
also, on fees
“What then remains is the extent to which society wishes to fund the undergraduate space. We argue that with a restructuring such as we note above then some element of public funding is appropriate, given that it would result in a greater alignment with the needs of a modern economy and society. We also suggest however that some payment at the point of use, fees, be required. These fees can either be paid up-front at a discount, deferred and repaid via the tax system or paid via social transfer for students who qualify for a grant. As a starting point consider 50-50 burden sharing; universities should produce a full economic cost of their undergraduate provision, and then retrospectively be funded 50% of this en bloc by the state. This preserves their independence to maneuver and to set such fees as are deemed appropriate to make up the remaining 50%. To ensure that cheaper courses do not overly subsidise expensive courses, no course could set fees that exceed 75% of true economic costs. The consequence would be differential fees for courses within the same university and across the university sector. When combined with the freedom to offer such courses and directions as desired, and a CAOlike entry system, driven by prerequisites as well as points and based on the courses and examinations of the IB, a system of student place allocation can take place which combines financial incentives and academic integrity.”

Thanks again to Cliff for taking this. I swear, we had it mostly written before PS and MM raised the issues.

Quite interesting and provocative.

“To ensure quality of teaching we suggest that there be biannual reviews of teaching based on best modern practice. This would involve some element of student feedback, but also reflective portfolios and classroom observation.”

Alot of what constitutes best modern practise, is implicitly management speak or a mode of political liberalism designed to burden a lecturer/teacher with the responsibility for what are ultimately a students own responsibilities.

Of course there is always room for improvement though.
But the tradeoff in improvement might be registered against some other qualitative metric

Good night

Given that universities will soon be smaller, why not just cut public spending and allow the market to produce what we need?

Nationalized banks seem to be bad, even though they do not fail as badly, so universities dependent upon massive public spending seem to be a waste.

Very few academics were able to predict what all now agree was obvious: a depression!

Why will they be smaller? And wy would they be a waste if they did the job we wanted (what that is is one point in my oped)? Arent you throwing lots of babies out with a trickle of bathwater?

Yes, there is that. Its not right to fault me as a teacher for crappy facilities or poor library hours etc. That, at the individual level, is pretty much out of my control. What I can be evaluated on are things like ; do I have clear learning and teaching objectives, does the assessment match these, do I have a plan for delivery, do I turn up clean and mostly sober to deliver, do I provide feedback on assessments and assignments, do I communicate class changes and shifts to the class, do I make the students think, do I generally act in a professional and respectful manner? These are things I can do to a greater or lesser extent. Teaching is an art, not one that I think I am great at. But theres also a science there, one that I can learn. Mumbling into the board and never answering questions is not on.

@Brian Lucey

Your proposed redefinition of “tenure” is nothing short of an assault on academic freedom. Which of these three principles do you disagree with?:

1) Academic research cannot be judged without being read and it can only be judged by someone sufficiently expert in the field.
2) Academic work cannot be read (and cannot be judged) until it is published.
3) The researcher alone decides when the work is ready to be published.

Is it your view that prolificness (prolificacy?), in and of itself, is a desirable quality in a researcher? If so, do you also feel the same about teachers? Should we be judging them by the number of words or sentences spoken per class?

Einstein wasn’t an academic when he published his 5 papers that changed the face of modern physics. But if he were and had he the misfortune to work in an Irish university in 2020, I can imagine him being denied tenure in favour of some other guy, Schmeinstein, who published 10 papers that were immediately forgotten.

Honestly, does anyone think:

1) That governments and their appointed bureaucrats are well positioned to make decisions about what sort of academic work should be “incentivised”?
2) That churning out lots and lots of make-work (in the appropriate journals!) is more desirable than considered research that, in some fields (obviously Economics is not one of them) takes a lot of time?

And what are these elusive “measurable and externally verifiable outputs”?

Was Heidegger 10 times the philosopher Kant was because he published 30 major works and Kant only published 3?

Here’s a corollary to my previous rule for evaluating departments (to wit: The more the members of an academic department care about idiotic and arbitrary rankings, the worse the department is.):

The more interested a university is in counting the “outputs” of its academic staff, the worse it is.

And lest you think that this is a mere correlation (e.g., Harvard doesn’t have to count outputs) let me put it more starkly:

Counting outputs makes a university worse.

Why? Because you “incentivise” the wrong things. Which is a way of reminding you of something you seem to have forgotten: if you see the aim of a university as innovation and discovery, you work at cross-purposes if you think you’re going to “administer” or “channel” such innovation (which is why the very notion of a “Vice-President for Innovation” is little more than a sick joke) and you especially do so if you think what matters is the measurable number of “outputs.” The Nobel Committee recognises this, which is why they award the annual prize in Economics to “a person who has written a work on economic sciences of the eminent significance expressed in the will of Alfred Nobel drawn up on November 27, 1895.” [emphasis mine]. Notice: a work of eminent significance. No amount of bibliometrics can tell us what is significant. And significance is all that matters in this game. Everything else is busy work. Which is why US universities, which are the best (by far) in the world, never engage in the sort of bean counting that is advocated here once tenure has been awarded. Tenure is ironclad there because it frees the researcher to pursue the sort of time-consuming and even unpopular projects that the business cycle and the bureaucrat–focussed as they are on the bottom line and the immediate present–would not allow.

Which is to say that, if your system were implemented, more would be produced but little of it would be of any significance.

clearly you havent actually read (in a “comprehend” sense) what we wrote.

What is your problem with “Research activity and research quality are only loosely related, but quality requires activity as a prerequisite.”. Its in fact tautological that no quantity = no quality.

And that btw is one small part of the whole argument.

Turn down the rant filter, or take it to . Try to take a look at the whole argument Ernie, and take a chill pill.

@Brian Lucey

That’s not what I’d take to be a considered response to my post. And you’re not posting on, therefore the appropriate place to respond to you is here, not there.

We can agree that quality requires activity as a prerequisite. But we cannot agree that activity is the same thing as publication. And because you seem to think that activity and publication are synonyms, everything else I wrote is waiting for your answer.

Im trying to get several publications out so I dont have time to reply in exhaustive detail to your longwinded comment. But, imho, if it aint published, it doesnt exist. Unless you want to give credit for havign loads of ideas that nobody cares about or ever hears about, thats the only metric we have – is it published somewhere? Impact, thats a whole other thing.
Whats your views on the other issues – freedom to fail, fees, differential payment, etc etc? Or are you a one trick pony on a-metrication?


Surely longwinded comments are worth more than the shortwinded kind. After all, that’s the only metric we have.

“tenure…should be taken as creating for the period granted immunity from dismissal by reason of pursuit of unpopular, unfashionable or dissenting research…”

This seems a rather minimal definition of tenure – is it proposed that after 5-7 years it will be OK to dismiss academics “by reason of pursuit of unpopular, unfashionable or dissenting research”? And if the untenured don’t have that much protection then are those pursuing unpopular etc. research going to get tenure in the first place?

no – its rolling tenure, reupped every 2years for the subsequent 5-7 years. Its regranted on the basis of activity, sorry Ernie. So long as your researching, in reality you are fine. Even unpopular and dissenting reserch gets published as it should be. What is not is is people who simply do not ever trouble an editor for any reason. People who simply do not research. At all. Every dept in ireland has these.


Your solution on this seems to me shortsighted in the extreme. The problem it seems designed to solve is one that we have no evidence even exists. Namely, it’s meant to weed out the deadwood (that we assume must be there) from current university staff.

But what happens when this system is instituted and it’s time to recruit new staff? What promising young staff member (or high-profile hire) is going to want to come to this woeful little island if something like your system is implemented? You can assure them that they have nothing to worry about but that’s not the point. The point is that all this documenting of activity and jumping through hoops takes time and energy that is better spent elsewhere. Why would any self-respecting academic come here with the rolling tenure system when they could go to a US university and get ironclad tenure for life after six years? The answer is: they wouldn’t. As a result, Ireland’s universities would be substandard, filled with second-rate busy-workers and those who aren’t good enough to go to where the grass is greener.

It’s interesting to me that economists of all people, who are constantly reminding us that Ireland needs to be “competitive” internationally, are wont to propose such measure that do nothing but make Ireland uncompetitive in the worldwide hunt for academic staff.

It’d be interesting to know how many international competitions for staff UK universities won after the implementation of the RAE. My guess is: not many.

“It’d be interesting to know how many international competitions for staff UK universities won after the implementation of the RAE. My guess is: not many.”

Hmm…. I suspect youd be quite surprised there Ernie. Most decent academics quite like the idea that they would go somewhere that research is valued rather than being seen as an optional extra.

gosh, the rolling tenure idea has really piqued you … must have something in it!

@ Ernie

just so i have this straight, unless we are willing to grant all academics iron clad life-long contracts of employment via tenure, they will be unwilling to come here? Does this not tell you that there is something very very wrong with that state of affairs in academia, and that reform, rather than continuing as-is, is what is required?

And Ernie, if you really think that Ireland is such a “woeful little island” perhaps you yourself can go where the “grass is greener” and leave the rest of us in peace.

@ BL
There is the scientific measureable part.
No disagreement with any of that.
But I would have concerns with who would have the power to measure and how it would be used.

The danger with this research focus is that it may be a permission slip to to ignore undergrad students remedial/babysitting problems that occur from time to time.

Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.



I don’t believe the RAE demonstrated to any academic that was paying attention that the UK “valued research.” Quite the contrary. Presumably, if you believe that, you also believe that the US system somehow doesn’t “value research.”

Like it or not, the US system is what Ireland has to compete with internationally for staff. The features of that system: high salaries, ironclad tenure and peer review (as opposed to bureaucratic bean counting) in the lead up to tenure, are what we should be striving to emulate rather than introducing yet another “Irish solution” that is worse than the alleged “Irish problem” it is meant to solve.

For comparison readers might like to look at the debate unfolding in Australia on this very topic –

In regards to the debate here it seems folks are closer than they seem from the postings – I find it hard to disagree with the idea that salary, tenure and peer review leading to tenure is the best way to go (as in @ernie’s last post). But I don’t think it is hard to square this off with a lot of the core arguments in the Larkin/Lucey piece which are also very important (and in keeping with much of the Australian debate).

One thing – the RAE. Remember the RAE brought income – and in a nonlinear manner (so a 5 ranked department did not get 20% more than a 4 ranked). So having more of your research of international standing generated significant benefits. And the income – or the chance of income pre RAE – brought about a sizable amount of market competition for Academic staff (within the UK as well as bringing in new blood). Finally the RAE was a complement for other activities (such as a teaching assessment – something that some schools like LSE opted out of, and regular peer reviewed research grants). As such the RAE was the Government’s investment in – and reward for – blue sky research of international standing. It was the Govt’s ‘core grant’ for research invested where there was critical mass of people more than where there was the one off scholar.

Indeed, we dont want to overfocus on any one area. Hence “The cost of ‘superstar’ researchers must not be borne by the undergraduate programme. The US Marines have a motto, ‘Every man a rifleman’. We need to ensure that, in the newly-freed institutions, a motto of, ‘Every scholar a teacher, every teacher a scholar’, is taken just as seriously.”
In my experience, the very best scholars are quite often the best and most inspiring teachers. Ideally I would have the most senior staff teachign the 101 courses, and the more junior staff teaching courses more closely aligned with their research interests, courses towards the upper undergrad/masters level. But thats just me.

why are lecturers paid identical amounts even though they may produced different results or have vastly different abilities? I talked about this over coffee last week and was astounded to find out that in Irish Uni’s it doesn’t matter how good you are in your area of expertise, you can’t rise above others in your cohort.

if that is the case, what is there to compete for? reputation? much of which isn’t won on intellectual grounds alone. we need to pay the best people the best – always a good start be it in football/business/universities.

Indeed. The same, in essence, whether one is working hard or not, and regardless of whether anyone wants (as opposed to needs) your thoughts.
What do we compete for? Limited promotional places and some sense of a job well done perhaps

It seems to me that for research

(Work Input) x (Genius) = (Research Output)

The debate is usually about measuring output. But why not take a national accounts approach, and broaden the measurement to include the lhs?

Genius we can measure through an internationally benchmarked battery of IQ tests. Work Input can be proxied by hours devoted to research – notes taken, conferences attended, models tested, etc.

Now, I know some of you Chairs might be a tad offended by the idea of having to pass a battery of quizzes, puzzles and brain teasers in order to earn your dinner, but perhaps such a system might improve output, which after all, is the goal, n’est-ce pas?

You can start with the following classic riddle:

You are the Taxpayer. Two Lecturers are applying for the same job. They both look the same (identical pipes, patches on elbows of tweed jackets etc.) but you know one is a lazy putz; while the other is a diamond in the rough. They also both know their own type. Ask one question which will guarantee that you figure out which is which.

@ Brian L,

Why should research be a defining factor? How about the percentage of graduates that fail a course?

With the declining standards in social and family life in Ireland third level lecturers are finding that a increasing number of todays students are unable to function without their parents helicoptering over them. When they get to 3rd level a lot of them are unable to cope with the more hands off arena of third level.

So would one downgrade the performance of a lecturer because he spends more time assisting his students and less time pumping out research waffle?

Err Sporthog. Read the article. Research and Teaching go together. TO-GET-HER…..I want both to be rewarded but yes, in the final shakeup its about the creation and dissiimenation of knowledge. Creation is a prerequisite for any dissimenation.

Graham – its mostly hard solid consistent painstaking work , not genius. Most people at chair level …shock….work very very long hours doing chair things.

@ BL
Agree with your marine analogy.
There are soldiers out there that are well able to skive off duty, dodge bullets, put others in the line of fire etc.
A court martial system will sort out derelections of duty etc?

@ GS
IQ tests have little to no correlation with genius.

@ Karl D
Seriously- is it intelligent just to look at this in terms of lecturers.
What about the standard of students????????????
I remember one teacher saying to me a few years ago:
“Give me timber and I will make you tables!”

All the best

Might another option be to pay academics a basic salary for their teaching and pay a bonus for each article and book? There need be no pressure on those taking time over the magnum opus (no pressure from colleagues anyway). This makes a certain sense in that research is fun and doesn’t really feel like work.

Ernie Ball:

Which is why US universities, which are the best (by far) in the world, never engage in the sort of bean counting that is advocated here once tenure has been awarded.
This simply isn’t the case. US universities are obsessed with quantitative targets. This is endemic in the US system. After tenure you need the numbers to move up to Full Prof. Stuff about how we “don’t look at numbers” is just PR nonsense.

Measurable out put……

Seems rather industrial………

This is not what is meant to be academe! This is merely another business!

Academic freedom? Publish on the net? Peer? Trade union or guild?


Not so shocked, but perhaps the term ‘ academic chair’ works rathers as a dysphemism in the popular mind. Perhaps we should call them ‘academic treadmills’ instead.

After all, we all need good marketing 🙂

@ Al

Well, it depends on your definition of genius. Wikipedia, which is never ever wrong, says genius is defined by IQ measurement

But lets not get entrenched in verbiage. What counts is that we can find some measure of aptitude highly correlated with the probability of scientific breakthrough, call it ‘genius’; ‘research wow’ or whatever we like and test it to make sure our researchers have enough of it to warrant their salaries.

@ Graham

“Strong in the force, he is”

There will be entities out there that will tell you that they can measure such things and charge massive amounts of money to do so, but only end up ‘possibly being true’!
We need to be aware of false prophets promising a new dawn.

Having undergone many tests in my time, I am suspicious of any and all claims to proof of intelligence. (I scored high!!)

“Binet’s method thus created a black hole for thinking that problematies, penalized those who take the time required to reflect, and could not address the issue of the quality.
A good total score on the tests may dictate abandoning just those problems that really are problems. Craft abilities are applied to depth of understadning, usually focused on a particular problem, whereas IQ score represents a more superficial management of many problems”

Sennett, R. “The Craftsman” P 284


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