Set them free (not)

Lucey and Larkin offer some thoughts on higher education reform. I either agree (evaluation, performance-related pay, fees) or do not know enough to have an opinion (curriculum*).

UPDATE: The Irish Times (2) has seen the report of the National Strategy Group for Higher Education. Strikes me as less radical than Lucey and Larkin.

* Clarification: I know a few anecdotes about a few courses at a few Irish universities.

64 replies on “Set them free (not)”

Thanks for the post Richard
Re curriculum- the idea here is that at undergrad level a broader, not a narrower, base of experiences is probably better.
We spend (thanks to Declan Jordan for figures) c €1,300,000,000 pa on “free fees”. With half of that properly deployed as need and merit (shocking concept!!!) scholarships, its, in our view, a win-win situation


“[…] the idea here is that at undergrad level a broader, not a narrower, base of experiences is probably better.”

I’d agree, if only because I can’t see how young folk can possibly know enough, after second-level schooling, to choose from a wide range of narrow specialisms. However, I’m not clear that that goes along with what you said in your article:

“To ensure that students are exposed to the frontiers of thinking, all academic staff must be active researchers throughout their careers.”

Three points strike me here. First, the frontiers may be expanding on deep but narrow fronts. Second, it may be that people who are good teachers are not good researchers. Third, I don’t see that it is necessarily the case that academic staff should always do teaching and research (and admin and “community service”) at the same time, or indeed that academic staff should have permanent employment in universities. In the IT you say:

“This could be achieved by maintaining a system of tenure based not on a once-in-a-lifetime assessment, but on continuous appraisal.”

That seems to suggest that academic staff could (or would be encouraged to) leave, but what about providing routes back in?

I have some thoughts on curriculum, based on my own collection of anecdotes, but I’ll leave them for another day.


@Brian L,

I realise that an op-ed is probably the worst place to try and advance a cogently presented set of radical and badly-required reforms (in addition to beng vulnerable to butchery by a sub-editor). I hope it will gain some traction, but I doubt it.

May I suggest that proposals of this nature be addressed to all members of the Oireachtas – after all it is they who scrutinise and enact legislation by virtue of the authority devolved to them by all citizens – with Madam Editor (in this case) setting a time-limit for their responses which would be debated in a future op-ed forum.

And I think I understand what you mean by ‘flexible thinking’, but some might plausibly contend that we are in this mess because of a surfeit of flexible thinking about the role of fiscal policy in a currency union and of financial regulation and the ability of markets to manage asset bubbles.

Perhaps ‘critical thinking’ and adopting the Royal Society’s motto of “Nullius in Verba” might be better in a land where disbelief and judgement are suspended indefinitely.

In principle, I agree with much of what Brian Lucey and Charles Larkin are saying. Starting from the point that the abolition of undergraduate tuition fees was just about the worst decision ever taken by an Irish minister for education, restoring some sort of rationality into University finance should be a high priority.

However there are difficulties: the authors quite rightly point out that the net Exchequer savings will be less than gross fee revenue because of the need for an enhanced system of support for students from low-income families. In the short-term there will be an additional factor: for existing students it may be both unfair and impractical to impose a drastic regime change: any new fee structure would have to be phased in, starting with the September 2012 intake.

Lucey and Larkin ought to have focussed more on the Higher Education Authority. This body has become more involved with micro-managing the system, and is far from being the funding body it was originally set up to be. It should be drastically slimmed down, and should be made more transparent: for example by setting out in detail the funding formula it (allegedly) uses.

A quibble on tenure. You would think that academic tenure was some sort of unique and rotten privilege, but there just may be a link between tenure and genuine academic freedom which is worth keeping. When Primary and Secondary schoolteachers, Gardai, etc, etc, are appointed they have tenure more or less straight away: these days tenure in higher education comes much later. I have no exact information, but median age 35 is my guess (based on what I saw when on a tenure committee in UCD). In addition, promotion procedures for academics can and do provide a big incentive for continued research performance. There is a danger that the present promotions system will be distorted by money: to the extent that promotions are based on raising funds for research, Medics, Scientists and Engineers may be favoured as that is where the big bucks are in terms of research grants.

But there is a dirigiste mindset in the Irish education establishment which makes me very pessimistic.

Why talk to the oireachtas? They have, all of them, shown scant interest in evidence based policy making. And I guess they can all read so this will get to them. Sorry if that seems catty but thats how I see it.
I see your concern re flexible – critical is another word, but lets not get caught in semantics. I think we are both ad idem that a narrow intellectually sectarian approach is not good nor conducive to formation of flexicritical thinkers!
@John S
Yeah the HEA are a problem John. Perhaps an oped from someone such as yourself with several decades more experience of the system from more levels , focusing on the HEA as an enabler/blocker might move things along.
Agree, yes, there would be transition issues, and signalling is required. And also re tenure, its a nescessary but not sufficient element of academic freedom (soon to be eliminated, we hear, via Hunt). But it can and should be something that is not for life – its easy to “reup” every three years for another 7.

@John, Brian
There is nothing wrong with tenure per se. If an academic career does not offer job security, the best ones will leave.

There are many ways to keep tenured people on their toes.

I am a bit puzzled by the implication in the article that if salaries aren’t increased in the universities the ‘best’ people won’t seek jobs therein but elsewhere. Salaries in UK universities are much lower than in Ireland but the sector still manages to attract very good people (I presume). Didn’t William Reveille some time back write a piece in the IT on Irish academics’ salaries showing that they were among the most generous in Europe? One of the OECD reports of last year on education contained a comparison for 1st and 2nd level salaries and again Ireland came out tops. I also recall reading a piece by an Irish economist (possibly in an IT supplement) which revealed that many highly paid academics are too busy with research to be bothered with teaching.

People who spend a long time in education obtaining qualifications and pursuing research develop a very strong sense of entitlement and over the past fifteen years the Irish government has coughed up a lot of money partly as an acknowledgment – to the universities and the medical profession. However, I don’t understand how any higher salaries can contribute to fixing the current mess. If high salaries fixed problems we would have the best civil service, the best health service and the best government in the world.

I can see how lower salaries across the public sector would not be a bad start however. And while I am at it, why is that we hear so much about the universities rescuing economic growth but very little about the RTCs (IOTs). This is another vast sector of professional academics that arose to meet the mass access to third level policy. As the UK are discovering now and as the grade inflation debate revealed here, supporting mass access and maintaining quality are not automatically compatible.

@Brian L,

Not perceived as catty – just seen as weary resignation. I’m just looking at ways to push them out of their comfort zone. Some engagement in a public/media forum might encourage some demand in the Oireachtas where it’s desperately required. Travelling in hope I expect!

And I’ll buy ‘flexicritical’.

There are two issues.

First, there is no return to performance. Salaries are set by rank and seniority.

Second, salaries at low performance are too high. An underperforming Irish academic will not leave because (s)he can never get the same salary elsewhere.

High performers can get an acceptable offer from a foreign university (certainly after the wage cuts and tax hikes).

I actually agree with you re salaries. However, theres a difference between the base average level (as with most of the PS prob too high) and the variance therein. Why should the most active/productive/”best” get paid the same as the inverse? That is the problem, that whether I work my butt off or not I get paid the same as the chap who teaches one module, does no admin, has no research students and is not research active but is at the same level of hte salary scale as I.

Richard: while you have a point in saying that salaries at low peoformance may be too high, there are 2 points to bear in mind:
1. this is not specific to academia, but may apply to much of the public sector
2. it is most certainly not the case that salaries in academia are set by seniority: someone recruited as a lecturer will, in general, progress to senior lecturer, assoc prof and full prof only if performance is appropriate. Also a “competitive retention” policy can accelerate promotion for very good performers.

Promotion procedures are always fraught with controversy: in general there has been a move in the direction of meritocracy and transperancy, and away from mere seniority. There will of course be mistakes, but no system is perfect.

@Richard Tol

I know everyone knows it, but it’s probably worth mentioning in this context: for laboratory and field researchers, the amount of research funding they can attract is probably at least as important as their personal salary in influencing where they choose to work. And the less hassle it takes to get funded the better, too; of which more anon.

@Brian Lucey. Interesting and timely article. I broadly agree with your analysis with the exception of one recommendation – changing the status of the ITs. I have a couple of problems with this suggestion. My own experience of dealing with IT graduates (not based on any comprehenisve research I acknowledge) indicates that academic standards are generally well below the Irish universities, although standards do vary between institutions. Also, as you admit in your article the reform in the polytectnic sector has been an unmitigated disaster in the UK, so why repeat the same error here? Acccording to last week’s Guardian the Condems are considering restablishing a polytechnic sector there because the third level sector no longer offers vocational training, sub degree programmes etc. The ITs in Ireland currently address this critical need so why allow them to drift from this mission?

@everyone else. As I have pointed out on this forum before academics make up less than 50% of the staff in most universities, so why the singular focus on academics and their (most commentators seem to assume) cosy working conditions and salaries? The ESRI review of public private/ pay differentials found that the greatest % difference is not between professionals but between administrative grades. Many admin staff, who haven’t sacrificed 10 years of more of potential earnings to secure their jobs, earn more than lecturers.

Thanks, heres hoping that this will spark some debate, although I doubt it.
I agree re IT’s. However, if you read it through….
a) free the organizations. With the condition that they offer courses in all three main domains. That will mean they have to take on some additional staff
b) rigorous and external and enforceable (as well as market) discipline and regulation to ensure that this is done, as well as that
c) all staff become research active. This is not the same as research specialists – in even a research intensive university (hah) as TCD that amounts to approx one article pa in internationally peer reviewed journals, or a book every three/four years. And those that dont dont get tenure. Also we must ensure that staff teach adequately. Again, some people (not me) are superlative teachers. But there is both art and science in teaching. There is no excuse for persistent out of date notes, sloppy examining, lack of student hours, failure to use any modern technology etc, refusal to link to earlier courses, out of date texts etc. Basic hygiene should be assumed as a miimum
d) if after all that the institution fails, then wind it up or fold it into somewhere more successful.
Waving a wand and saying “hurrah, you’re a university” doesn’t and cannot work. But saying “here, your free…go win” allows places to succeed or not. Why the government, indeed the whole political establishment, is so scared of competition in third and fourth level education is beyond me.

Two main measurable domains. In research its easier – not easy – to measure (see the debate earlier this blog on bibliometrics) but its hard in teaching. What is clear however is that students can quite well distinguish between effective and popular teachers. There is a deal of research on that. More generally, most universities have now in place some sort of “presidents teaching awards”. From my experience these generally do select good teachers.

I don’t have any problem paying highly qualified admin people the rate to do the job. Our school has a superlative manager, with a masters degree in organization (should sometimes think one in organizational pathology would be better!) ; she is quite literally invaluable. She is far more valuable than some of the academic staff, in terms of delivering the mission of TCD. And she has a good team at various levels. Its when we overpay for results achieved that we have problems, whether the staff are tenured profs or junior secretaries

@Michelle, Brian

The ITs have the same problem as the universities. There are just too many. Some should merge with a university and become an IT in the Massachusetts or India sense. Others should stop pretending and offer bachelor’s degrees only.

With regards to IoT graduates, perhaps a suitable approach would be for them to pursue a specialisation at universities after their first award (assuming they would have reached the required standard).
This is the old 3 and 2 idea, except with attendance in two colleges.

In fact, maybe we should break “third level” education into “lower” and “upper”, and keep that distinction from now on. Students would have to re-apply to get into “upper” third level programs. Perhaps some would take the oppurtunity to gain work experience in the interim.

Others would realise that their interests lies in following a professional education route (getting a job and sitting professional exams in the likes of Accountancy IT and so forth).

Is it time to move away from the traditional university structure: start talking in terms of Technical universities, Institutes of Technology (in the Zurich or MIT sense) , Business schools, in addition to traditional university. Each type would probably have different missions types, and serve the community in different ways.
Again some may operate better at the lower third level sector, others may operate at the upper third level sector.

BPP ( a professional education company derided as a “sausage factory”) was recently given the right to award degrees: business and accounting specifically. This has proved quite controversial with some in universities (and this critcism seems to me that they want it both ways).

In the context of reforming the Irish third level – this development needs to be looked at closely.

or, we could let the market decide….Richard has a prior that we have too many. Lets see if there is freedom.

I dont think we have too many third level institutes as such. I reckon we have too many doing too much of the same thing.

Trinity and UCD both have quite substantial humanities schools. do we
need two classics departments in Dublin ? no. How many schools of architecture are there in the country? Four I think. Too many !!! Compare that to the number of Vet schools.

Perhaps we should be asking things like whether UCD should swap its language departments for TCDs humanities!

Why dont we need two classics dept? How do you know we dont? Let the market, the market for international higher education, not the CAO, decide. We dont say “oh, we have too many bakers, or airlines”, a priori. We let the market decide.

However, the results, as of now, are for a poorly resourced bureaucratically constrained dirigeste sector. Like , oh, airlines used to be….

@ Brian

I found this article very interesting with some excellent suggestions including moving to a continuos appraisal meritocracy rather than seniority for progression in academia. I have no problem paying good academics high market salaries if they are performing and maybe reduce the salaries of those that cannot be bothered and do the minimum. But then like with politicians will the turkeys vote for Christmas . It takes courage however to make real changes to any system that in some cases has existed for around 500 years. Unlike some here who look down on the Institutes of Technology I agree that these bodies “if able” should become full Universities. I have employed graduates from these Colleges down the years and some of them educate excellent people in certain disciplines and in some cases provide a better education than the conventional Universities.

This is hilaroius – though somewhat sad. What do ‘we’ want third-level education (or should that be canning factories) for anyway. Where is Liam D when you need him? Get him to explain ‘framing’ and ‘default references’. Then see where this ‘debate’ originaged and is headed.

I’ll stick with the ‘teaching’ bit. Not wishing to be personal or critical you understand – just interested. How many third-level academic staff do you know who hold a formal, (2 Semester min), 3rd level qualification in Third-level Teaching? Do you know of any third-level inst which mandates a teaching qualification for tenure? I already know the answers by the way!

As regards the teaching itself. My experience of some undergrad courses is of very varied teaching qualities – brilliant to dire! As for some ‘suggested reading’ lists – they are impossible, pretensious muddles. Lecture notes: good to none. BlackBoard and PowerPoint: useful but overworked – esp the latter. The one day the projector packed in, our lecturer had to use ‘talk-and-chalk’. Best lecture of the semester!

Back to basics: Read Dewey and A North Whitehead. Newman’s a tad starchy.

B Peter

ps: for you economists. If you thought Comp Adv was tricky for undergrads. Ask the appropriate scientist about; Potential Divider, Mole Concept, Newtonian mechanics!


Thanks B Woods. After a long hard day of creating and organizing 400+ slides on behavioural finance, I really needed a laugh – framing effects were , so 1030am…..
Im not sure what actually your point is, except “uni lecturers are sh!te, mostly”. Probably they are but many are not. Forcing people onto PGTL diplomae is not the way forward. I have taken dozens of such modules, and found them as varied as any other professional course. Some are bad, some good, many contain a useful nugget or two.
Where, BP do you think, being able to see inside my head, this debate (which, btw, I have been on about for years…) originated?
Enlighten me…

Very good article.

I cant see how the tenure or not awarding scheme could work without wading into a massive legal mist of piss, if you forgive the expression.
I could see any good SC tear apart a decision as a personal vendetta or a committee being unable to recognise the long term future potential of his/her clients research.

Applying a metric to academics researchability will encourage gaming of the system, be it publications of whatever. In my opinion it will dilute the potency of the overall research.

I have to take exception to the IOT dismisals. On average, I am sure you could pull a forest gump out of any student population.

yes. The degree of variation within the IT sector is pretty shocking however. Whats interesting is that new courses/degrees get a reasonably strict ruler run over them (i have ruled) but existing ones dont. Again, let the market decide.

Well, we already have promotional and reward schemes that mostly work. Clear transparent rules, clearly applied, for new entrants (cant dick about with the contracts of existing, agreed) cant be beyond us. Plus, you give tenure first to the law school and set them on the SC’s mentioned above…:)
All systems can be gamed but peer reviewed international journal publications are harder to game than “ah, shure, seans a grand fella”
Not sure what you mean re IOT dismissals. Anyone in any system who persistently cannot reach the bar and will not engage should be in play.

First – I dont want to come across as picking on Classics. I am just using them as an example.

What do these departments do? Why do they earn their funding?Teaching and research.
How many graduate each year, and do we need two departments for that number? Not a lot ( roughly 2 dozen between them at the very most) and No.

Would their research capability be diminished by a merger? No.
Would a merger cut out unnecessary duplication? very probably
So can the same end result be achieved for less money – pretty reasonable assumption.

Should there be a reduction of the government involvement in the university sector? Absolutely.
“Letting the markets decide”? – I agree in a lot of cases, probably most cases, but not across the board.

For the humanities, this would quite possibly lead to a wipeout. No survivors. There is too little scope for profit (or at least economic justification). The Market would very probably decide to shut both Dublin Classics departments down, just as the QUB Classics dept. was.

@ BL

Apologies, I hould have been clearer.

I dont think we will see any University academics here talk about their fellow Universities in the same way as the IOT’s have been talked about.
It would be considered uncollegial.

It does seem to be a widespread thing
Not a complaint, just a point that needs to be made.

@3rd level teacher training qualifications:

A vacancy in the UL Maths Education dept requires the applicants to have formal teacher training. I suppose it would be unseemly not to have it.

The only other time I cam across formal training was a chap who had been through a “methods of instruction” course in the FCA/RDF. Maybe a 2 day version of this program could be considered.

Classics are an adornment to the intellectual life of the country. No, im not taking the michael. I think they are as essential to a decent civilised university as a school of engineering or a school of medicine. They cannot ever “make a profit”. So too for philosophy, theology, and perhaps languages etc. Thats for law, business, etc to do and then to cross subsidise these, and the library, and so on. Thats the essence of collegiality. So, the market operates at the level of the institution, perhaps that was not clearly espoused in the oped.
As for the use of classics – i suspect, from 20y in TCD that the classics grads get employed easier than others.
Lets not confuse universities with training institutions; but lets not pretend that the dictates and disciplines of the market are unapplicable to the universities.

There are some shocking bad depts in universities. There are some shining star depts in IOT’s. No, im not going to name names – libel lawyers have sharp teeth.

Very good articles in today’s Irish Times, I’d quibble with one thing, the idea for an over-seeing authority. Why is this needed? The great universities in this country and others grew up under their own authority, what is wrong with this? Bring back independence of control and funding I say.

I don’t hold out much hope of reform. It’s a really contentious issue which the middle class and the aspiring will not listen to reason on.

The overseeing authority is, in my mind, like the HIQA – to ensure transparency. Indep of control and funding, absolutely.

I’ve said time and again that there are too many economics departments in the Republic — too many because there are fixed costs of running a department and returns to scale with regard to breadth, depth and reliability of the education on offer.

In the paper with Ruane, we name those departments that do not do well on research:

I’ve long argued that poor researchers should not be allowed to supervise PhD students, and that by implication research-poor departments should not be allowed to grant such degrees.

This may sound a bit harsh in Ireland, but similar controls are in place in the Netherlands and the USA.

OK I get what you mean.

I do believe that, in light of the funding crisis, some rationalisation should occur, so as to sustain rather than to diminish.
Mindful of the market forces, surely it would help if the areas being subsidized are more cost efficient, and at their optimal enrollment level.

I would like to see Irish university departments to have the ambition to be world centres of excellence. I think that ‘turning to the dark side’ will further that aim.

I never question the employability of any humanities graduates (such as the ‘flipping burgers’ jibes that every arts students gets subjected to).
” Research, develop and articulate an argument”- Plenty of employers should be more than happy with that.

@ Richard Tol on Research poor departments.

I have seen departments get snowed under with teaching commitments. More acute now that the funding for postgrads has dried up and Lecturers are back giving the tutorials too, because of lack of TAs.

Hence the notion of a fracture
Lower third level: focus on teaching, Awarding 3 year primary degrees
Upper third level: focus on research, awarding honours degrees and masters

@Ciaran Daly:
“The great universities in this country and others grew up under their own authority, what is wrong with this? Bring back independence of control and funding I say.”

That doesn’t mean that they were any good at whatever they were supposed to be good at. At certain times, even the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth neare Dublin was not amongst the leading academic lights of These Islands, let alone of Europe. See the short essay in the *Oxford Companion to Irish History*, which suggests that the advent of state funding in the middle of the twentieth century saved it from the doldrums.


I agree with you (and I guess I disagree with Brian). At undergraduate level, there is little correlation between research and teaching quality. So, let people and departments specialize.

Again, the US sets the example. The undergrad degrees of the famous research universities (Princeton excepted) are not very good — they’re expensive and prestigious, but the kids do not learn much. The top undergrad degrees are from universities that rarely make headlines.

@ BL
Absolutely, and there are bad days and good days for all of us too.

@ Richard
I agree, but I would point out that, for example if a lecturer were to have a child and commit to that over research for a period of X years, then would they be judged harshly?
I would bet that most researchers do their best work when the other duties are looked after temporarily by other staff, and the individual laurels came from a group commitment.
In the sense that the person that gets to the top of Everest did so with a large team behind them.
Tis a ball of string I am pulling at.

@Al, I don’t see why raising valid and widely shared concerns about standards in the ITs is in any way uncollegial. Why not have a frank and open discussion about standards in the entire third level sector? This is a really important issue not least because the heads of the ITs have been lobbying Colin Hunt et al hard to have their status changed. In my view this would be a disastrous development. I think the ITs currently carry out a very valuable role in relation to vocational and technical training – this isn’t any less valuable than the role carried out by the universities, in fact in many ways it is more valuable. For that reason, I think they should stick at this role and the mission drift into areas currently carried out by the universities should end.

In relation to the other comments about university lecturer’s training in teaching or the lack thereof, most Irish universities now offer a higher diploma in teaching or learning or similar to staff. Here in UCD successful completion of this diploma is practically a requirement for promotion on the teaching route (research being the other common route for promotion). In most UK universities this diploma is now a requirement for completion of probation. However, I personally have doubts about the value of qualifications such as these. My classes at UCD all include around 200 students and therefore it is not possible for me to implement the small group teaching techniques etc covered in these courses. The key to high quality university teaching is high quality research. Research inactive staff simply cannot maintain the requisite expertise their disciplines. I don’t buy the argument that there are lots of great university lecturers out there who devote all of their time to teaching and don’t research. In my experience people are diligent at everything or nothing – the people who put lots of effort into research are also great teachers.

@ Michelle

As I have read the media:
Waterford IT have requested University status
Limerick IT have refused to entertain the idea
But your referred to a ‘change in status’ which is a bigger kettle of fish.

I think we disagree mainly on pace of change. Also, while there are indeed issues of scale to deliver scope and depth, at heart we are all networked. I spent the parts of today that werent about the MSc Behavioural Finance course working on a paper with a colleague in HK and another in North Carolina. Our MSc runs with a small staff and a larger penumbra of high quality staff from elsewhere. I would love to grow the finance group in TCD to world class and size, but one of the problems is the funding structure and the employment controls. Being not really world class may be another….
So, its a second order issue, imho, if people are in two or three depts in two or three institutions. Lets allow one to grow, but lets not, nescessarily, kill the others.
I 100% agree about quality being needed to supervise phd students. Now, what about administring the programmes for them…

There is massive differences between various subjects. Another question is whether it is a core course, or a service course (i.e. Maths dept teaching engineering students). I think most would agree that the larger the class, the harder the task. On one hand we have the classics scholars in a small classroom keenly debating Suetonius’s treatment of Caligula. On the other we might have 400 or so business students trying to get their head around statistical inference.

It is easy to be a good teacher when you have a small class and it is a core subject. But for the large service courses, which typically are in the early part of a degree program, perhaps a formally trained teacher would be better than a faculty member who is expected to conduct research and supervise postgrads as well.

That is without the added consideration of correcting project work or marking the exam papers.

@Michelle Norris:
“However, I personally have doubts about the value of qualifications such as these. My classes at UCD all include around 200 students and therefore it is not possible for me to implement the small group teaching techniques etc covered in these courses.”

Well, yes. The problem with many of these initiatives is that the focus is on the individual teacher, whereas what is required is a reexamination of the entire production process. While some university teachers are doing interesting things, the production process as a whole seems to be stuck in the middle ages: grab a lot of adolescents, put them in a large hall and talk to them, give them stuff to write (and, if they’re lucky, some feedback on what they’ve written — which, if they’re luckier still, they might get before the end of term). I’m not saying that’s what all teachers do, but it does seem to be the system’s default mode. The delivery of entire courses or programmes, not just of individual teachers’ modules, needs to be recast. But it will require the acceptance of some industrialisation ….

“The key to high quality university teaching is high quality research. Research inactive staff simply cannot maintain the requisite expertise their disciplines.”

Requisite to whom?

Let us suppose that I am a consumer, paying a university good money so that I can get a better job. I would prefer to have a good teacher teaching me stuff that was leading-edge in 2001 to a good researcher who was unable to teach. Assuming that I do not myself wish to become a university economist, what level of expertise is required by me?

“I don’t buy the argument that there are lots of great university lecturers out there who devote all of their time to teaching and don’t research. In my experience people are diligent at everything or nothing – the people who put lots of effort into research are also great teachers.”

I’m not sure that anyone has claimed that there are lots of good teachers who don’t research. My argument, for one, is that, given the real conditions in third-level institutions, there is no necessary correlation between effectiveness in teaching and effectiveness in research. And, at the very least, more production design options might become available if we didn’t insist that front-line university employees were good at everything and able to do it all at once.



I don’t buy the argument that there are lots of great university lecturers out there who devote all of their time to teaching and don’t research. In my experience people are diligent at everything or nothing – the people who put lots of effort into research are also great teachers.

Strange but true. Wittgenstein resigned from Cambridge because in his own words, he believed his teaching was doing more harm than good.

@Brian Lucey
In countries with real jobs in manufacturing and service industries many people seek employment because they want a wage. Third level academic employment is unusual (yes, one can point to the professions as well) in that it enables its employees to pursue their hobbies. This is a very rare privilege (shopping in the Renaissance, the Languedoc poets, cosmology, knot theory, whatever) and on such a scale that I am surprised it is not priced into the job in the small economy of Ireland, viz. lower salaries.

@Michelle (and Brian)
“The key to high quality university teaching is high quality research. Research inactive staff simply cannot maintain the requisite expertise their disciplines.”

This is true for advanced courses. It is not true for introductory and intermediate courses.

A working party made up of
A smart dedicated (but retiring) university professor
a smart dedicated economist of the ruling party
a smart dedicated lifelong educational bureaucrat, no two of em
a smart dedicated business person

it was never going to be radical. Its analyses, i am sure, will be penetrating and lucid, and that is where its value will lie.
However, proof that the GP have moved up to senior hurling, Paul Gogarty last night twittered
“The Green Party stopped third level fees being reintroduced. We do not support graduate tax. And I don’t support it. Will discuss of course.” Good to see an open mind open to evidence based thinking

The root problem Irish universities face is one of purpose. Each university should be free to develop its own relevance and its own brand in its own way, choosing its own leadership, the products and experience it wishes to provide, performance management system etc. For this to happen it is first necessary to cut away the roles, additional functions and behaviours that have been grafted on over the years, which confuse its essential function in society.
In Ireland and elsewhere, mythology aside, government has a proven inability over many years to safeguard the interests of universities and refrain from short term political interference. Today in Ireland:
• Universities are significantly underfunded per capita and research funding is the only realistic route for balancing overstretched budgets. Most of this is controlled by state agencies.
• The IT’s and the two newest universities were specifically engineered to produce compliant technically-literate resources for FDI companies through good quality basic degrees in technology and business subjects. They were not engineered to provide a true university experience – though this has changed to an extent over intervening years.
• Today the universities have had the role of midwives of innovative research-led businesses thrust upon them by the state, despite highly questionable evidence that generating startups can be industrialised in this way. In my opinion this and other broad national responsibilities should be firmly rejected. Government must not be allowed to abdicate its responsibilities for economic development and the aggregation of intellectual capital to NGO’s such as the universities, made desperate for funding by being starved down on capitation fees over many years.
• It is in practice impossible for a state-controlled (i.e. financed) institution to build an independent brand, offer a superior customer experience and thus attract a more discerning and lucrative customer. As long as state largesse forms the backbone of annual income then political interference with the leadership of the university will continue and use of credit instruments to invest in development and change will be severely limited.
• Alumni are a substantially ignored resource for high brand universities such as TCD. Alums at present, with the exception of occasional begging letters and class reunions are a huge and largely untapped resource for finding additional relevance, cash, knowledge and purpose. The brunt of financing universities should be shifted progressively from the state to students themselves and to alums. This will force the development, marketing and delivery of mutual learning experiences targeted not just at bright students but also at financially-secure alums and the organisations they lead.
• For a university to evolve, just like any other organisation, it must explore and reconcile the changing needs of students, society, admins, academic staff, plus trends in regulation and technology. This process needs to be continuous. Where, amid the fetid mess halls and lavatories of Irish universities, the regular churn of financially-bereft researchers and postgrads, and the tolerance of bullying and harassment is there evidence of any real interest in the views of the most important stakeholders, i.e. students and staff (in that order)? Does the apeing by senior academics of the boards of directors, strategy documents and PR-heavy websites found in the world of business constitute an effective leadership arrangement for the schools they represent?
Degree-level education has become a mere hygiene factor in competition for rewarding and fulfilling employment in Ireland and everywhere else. It is a necessary but wholly inadequate first step along a lifelong path of CPD. The skills and knowledge needed to deliver degree-level education do not require ongoing research activity, let alone consulting or commercial activity. At PG level the situation is the reverse if a quality experience is to be provided. This is the customer-facing reason why research-led universities are important. For young and mid-ranking staff too, an extensive research environment is essential.
The fee element of 3rd level education in Ireland is extremely cheap in relation to the value it brings to the student. There is scope to charge more where the value of the learning experience warrants it – and conversely either fees need to be reduced or products abandoned where the market is unconvinced. Universities might therefore ask themselves what other products beyond the professional basics (from UG degree courses) and research capability (research-based PG degrees and doctoral quals) could they consider endowing their alums with, and how would they be valued? Market research might be in order!
Questions about the setting of salaries (which at present are probably too low in the case of the non-tenured workers and research assistant who do most of the work and too high in the case of senior academics and those who have leadership role) should be minor matters not dominating ones. Quite simply, a performance management system is required that measures only the four things that are relevant to a university employer, transparently and fairly. These are: professional behaviours (i.e. following the rules to the letter and accumulating appropriate training); work output (how much and how good teaching, consulting and research is done); sales and marketing (winning research grants, consulting work and other forms of investment) and thought leadership (how many papers, publications, speaking engagements etc).
If this were in place, people could be rewarded against objective criteria established for the various academic and support ranks, including being asked to leave for failure to meet minimum performance standards. The very existence of a performance-driven meritocracy would attract genuine performers confident in their abilities, while repelling ‘managers’, slackers, sociopaths, ‘insidiers’ and those not confident in their ability to perform.

“two newest universities were…..not engineered to provide a true university experience.”

What is a true university experience? I am not sure how this would much matter. If they get a good education and a decent degree what is the problem?

A lot of good points there otherwise.

The problem is that a narrow technological/professional curriculum is not a sufficient education to equip high calibre people for rewarding international careers.
As I’m sure you’ll agree good universities offer a far broader learning experience, covering other times, other places and bringing about contact with other cultures and points of view.
Perhaps only well-established universities can provide a rich environment of experiences to broaden the mind and build interpersonal skills, because only they can attract sufficient diversity of students and staff and so few of the new ones provide adequate time and space to socialise and build character. Or perhaps I’m talking guff???

I dont think your arguments can be applied to all branches. You might be right in terms of humanities, but in terms of technology courses, it is probably guff.

The university of London have an external program. Distance learning exams for degrees to ordinary level, mostly in business and IT.

Maybe the NUI could be resurrected and given the role of running an external degree award system.
Let the likes of DBS and Griffith college do the teaching.

@ Tony

You are certainly talking Guff. Again my experience with graduates from one of the two newest i.e. DCU is that they attract good people as students and they are well educated in the sciences, technology,business and have rounded personalities on graduation.

The insistence that all who work in third level do “research” (which is really a misnomer for most humanities disciplines) sits poorly with this:

Once again, Ireland is 20 years behind the times, ramping up the busywork when moves are afoot to address this very problem in the more forward-looking parts of academia.

This is for Colin Hunt. That porposal, suggestion – whatever, about ‘student loans’ to fund their fees. This is sheer madness. What are you trying to do. Ensure that those future grads, who have no family wealth to call-down, will be shackled to the benches of the ‘Galleyships-of-Debt’.

Reform of funding of third-level is long overdue. Start at the top, not the bottom. Pleas take a real, meaningful reflection on the real (and quite unnecessary) problems that would be created by an undergrad loans-for-fees scheme – they would have to be both non-interest bearing and non-recourse.

Our economic and financial situation is deteriorating slowly, and it will not be remediated. There is no forthcoming return to annual, incremental economic ‘growth’ – as we knew it. So the funding issue (taxpayers Euros) will get worse. Less employment might just be a bit of a problem?
There is no solution to some level of public funding for third-level. Well, none outside radical (unacceptable) changes.

B Peter.

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