Paul Mooney on higher education

Paul Mooney has a long op-ed on higher education in today’s Irish Times.

Mooney taught at DCU and was president of NCI. That experience colours his assessment and recommendations. As I have argued time and again, some universities should focus on research and the academic side of education while other universities should focus on the more vocational end of third-level education. Mooney’s one-size-fits-all assessment and recommendations are more appropriate for the teaching end of higher education. Differentiation and specialization are a better way forward. Some Irish universities should lose the right to grant PhDs while other universities should minimize undergraduate numbers.

Mooney first discusses working hours. Teaching hours are a fraction of total working hours — a small fraction at the research end of the university spectrum and a larger fraction at the teaching end. That gradient can and should be made steeper: Many university lecturers are incapable of decent research while at the same time many good researchers are buried in teaching and administration.

Research is multifaceted. Some research is really applied, immediately leading to profits for companies and photo opportunities for politicians. Such research is best done in companies and consultancies. There is also blue skies research, curiosity driven stuff that is truly appreciated by only a handful of people and that perhaps one day might lead to something useful. Such research is best done in universities and national laboratories. Blue skies research does not benefit Ireland. It benefits humankind. It satisfies our thirst for knowledge. It feeds applied research. Blue skies research is a global public good. As one of the richest countries on the planet, Ireland has a duty to contribute.

Ireland can, of course, decide to free-ride and hope that other countries will provide the public good called fundamental research. But there are local spillovers too. The financial reward for top academics is small relative to their capacities and outside opportunities. A low teaching load (and hence a lot of time for research) is part of the reward for top academics. Top academics make top schools. Top schools attract top students. Top students join or form top companies, which prefer to be close to big pools of talent.

Like so many others, Mooney seems to think that technological progress is all about the natural sciences and product innovation. In fact, process innovation is at least as important. With a few exceptions, successful Irish companies are better at process innovation than at product innovation. RyanAir did not invent a new plane. Guinness and KerryGold convinced the world that their product is best (without changing the actual product). Ireland would make a bigger contribution to the global stock of knowledge if it would focus on what it is good at — and that is in the realm of ideas rather than things. The graduates of Ireland’s business and economics schools definitely command a higher wage than the graduates of its engineering and natural science schools.

Mooney also calls for (improved) measurement of performance. I could not agree more.

67 replies on “Paul Mooney on higher education”

What did NCI do to leverage its position in the heart of the IFSC while he was president?


“Blue skies research does not benefit Ireland.”

I think it does and I think you have provided the reason yourself:

“Top academics make top schools. Top schools attract top students. Top students join or form top companies, which prefer to be close to big pools of talent.”

I spent a long time at third-level teaching. I shall read Mooney later. But for what its worth.

My experience of academic management: woeful, bordering on perverse.

Research v Teaching: a very badly misconstrued, misunderstood and highly contested nexus.

Academics: Tom-cats p1ssing on corners.

Recommendation: if your sober, rational and sensible – run like mad!

The old of adage about being jack of all trades and master of none applies to higher education.

In the predicament Ireland has been in for the last few years which will continue for the next decade it behooves us to focus on the type of higher education that will enable students to become employed productively at home or abroad. Student fees will increase markedly, this means value for money will take on new importance.

The Gov’t of Quebec in Canada has a system where every student wishing to advance to University has to take a two year CEGEP (Community College) Diploma. Quebec being a largely Catholic French Canadian Province with 40% of the population having Irish roots was plagued with the classic Catholic education, Latin, Greek leading to the priesthood and the professions. They pulled it up by the roots and renovated it with a vengeance.

Ireland needs Teaching universities, we cannot afford the luxury of blue sky, wide horizon, late ROI research. In fifteen or twenty years when the debt is paid down we might be able to afford research. Right now we are going deeper into debt every month, still buoyed by deficit spending which will not continue much longer. Ireland is a slow motion wreck happening in real time right before our eyes.

Ultimately it all boils down to money, the taxpayer’s. The government aided and abetted by a consortium of interests – academic, political. business – created something unsustainable and now doesn’t know how to row back. It is the old story in Ireland. Doing less with more would be new start but the earth will give up its dead before anyone in official Ireland implements change.

I disagree. Without research universities, the best students will be educated elsewhere and probably not return. Without research universities, multinationals will locate their boring activities in Ireland. That means that Ireland will slip into the subtop of the rich world.

Ireland can maintain its research universities if it would reform. Per discipline, allow 2-3 advanced degree granting departments (rather than the current 7-8). Use the SFI money to reward success in whatever discipline (rather than fund the latest pipe dream of some politician). A colossal amount of money is wasted in higher education, so it is well possible to become cheaper and better.

I do not expect the current minister to deliver, though.

Interesting comments from Mooney – but why did he spend such a short time in NCI – surely transformative challenges take more than four years?

Universities are not run efficiently because an education minister’s priority is to avoid strike action which would threaten his own job. Efficiency does not win votes. Largesse wins votes.

Universities have been running the same teaching model for 900 years since Bologna with little innovation. If full cost recovery is introduced, for example via student loans, then more efficient and progressive private competitors would emerge to compete.

This is an interesting article; it raises issues that appear to be taboo at third level and in Ireland, it would be a shock if a university president responded to the changed economists circumstances by proposing reform rather than asking for more public or individual taxpayer funds.

Mr. Reilly above goes on the attack about NCI’s world ranking but he should reveal who he is as otherwise, it can be assumed he is just another nattering nabob of negativism/threatened vested interest, with in addition academic snobbery being one of his motivations.

As regards the public science budget, €20bn is enough to have been spent on funding, to expect greater clarity on policy objectives.

It’s fine to say MNCs should have support but with the incentive of the R&D tax credit, there is a lot of low level activity that can fall in that category. It should be clear what is the demand for PhDs etc; more than the current waffle on the indigenous sector should be forthcoming and what are the outcome targets?

Read the press releases issued by Seán Sherlock, Minister for Research and Innovation, and wonder what does he know beyond the vacuous superlatives and jargon.

Minister Richard Bruton was in California last week and offered almost €100m in investments to attract US venture capital companies to Ireland.

It’s likely that they are in effect being paid to set up in Ireland.

This was originally Brian Cowen’s idea.

It seems crazy to me as the government is in effect even making it more likely that any young Irish tech company with potential is going to be sold off to a US company – – good news for the promoters who have been funded by the taxpayer but not for the country.

Richard Bruton is in danger of being seen as more a waffler than a politician of substance.

The Wall Street Journal says student loan debt is surging in the US — hitting $867bn at the end of 2011, more than credit card debt or car loans — but most borrowers aren’t paying down the balances.

Robert Frank of Cornell University who focuses on inequality, recently wrote in the New York Times on escalating tuition fee growth and the quest for university prestige:

Some of that growth has resulted from a phenomenon called Baumol’s disease, after the economist William J. Baumol, who described it in a 1965 article he wrote with William G. Bowen. The basic idea is that while productivity gains have made it possible to assemble cars with only a tiny fraction of the labor that was once required, it still takes four musicians nine minutes to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, just as it did in the 19th century.

College instruction more closely resembles a musical performance than an auto assembly line. Although information technologies have yielded some productivity growth in academia, instruction still takes place largely as it always has.

Because of the bitter competition for…premium salaries, elite educational credentials are often a precondition for even landing a job interview. With so many applications for every vacancy, many consulting firms and investment banks, for example, now consider only candidates from a short list of top-ranked schools.

Degrees from those schools clearly open doors. For example, more than 40 percent of the 2007 graduating class at Princeton landed one of the most highly sought prizes: a position in the lucrative financial services industry.

Universities have responded vigorously to escalating student demands for elite degrees. Their main strategy has been to bid more aggressively for the most distinguished researchers, which explains not only the rapid salary growth for top faculty members in the last several decades, but also the fact that teaching loads at many elite schools have decreased by more than 25 percent. Similar, albeit smaller, changes in salaries and workloads have percolated throughout higher education.
Yet no matter how much universities might spend in pursuit of elite status, only 10 percent at any moment can end up in the top 10 percent. To be sure, the additional expense has not been pure waste. Professors now publish more papers and in the process have generated at least some useful new ideas. But most of their best ideas would have made it into print anyway.

@Michael H,

“Richard Bruton is in danger of being seen as more a waffler than a politician of substance.” I think we’ve gone well past the point where there was a danger of this happening. You may be registering this because he started much further back from this point than the rest of his cabinet colleagues.

@Ossian Smith

Could you give 5 examples of organisations that are run “efficiently” .

I dont see why Academics are allowed to be any different than the rest of us. The lack of Management Control in the Universities is the key factor. Academics peering over Academics is no way to run any business. Universities whether the Academics like it or not are business units because they take up economic resources from the Taxpayer and need to be seen and to spend our money in a prudent fashion. This does not happen at present because the system is run and controlled by Academics.

Universities have inputs (second- and third-level graduates, pre-existing knowledge, government subsidies) and outputs (third- and fourth-level graduates, new knowledge), just like companies.

@Richard Tol

Is it a bit of contradiction to say some universities should focus on teaching and others on research and then to say the top academics will attract the top students?

What I mean is how do you define a top academic – by his/her research output of teaching prowess? If so these people will gravitate towards the research-orientated universities and not the teaching focused ones. The top students have a dilemma then – go to a school renowned for teaching but not necessarily by the top academics in the field (they being buried in their topic in the research universities), or takes their chances in the research orientated university hoping for the said academic to sprinkle some of his/her magic in a rare lecture in between contributing to humankind through blue skies research.

My suggestion would be to have each university focus on their strength – be it in business, science, engineering etc – and to have a world class research output and world class teaching structure. My guess is that the top teachers are oftentimes the brightest minds in terms of research output too, but I stand to be corrected on that point.

Anyway thanks for penning the article Richard, making many important arguments particularly the blue skies point – 100% agree with you on that. Between you and people like Paul starting the debate, the authorities might wake up and realise what a poor state our 3rd level sector is in.

@ David

My suggestion would be to have each university focus on their strength – be it in business, science, engineering etc – and to have a world class research output and world class teaching structure.

The term ‘world class’ is a much abused one in Ireland.

It’s foolish to expect an economically challenged country to spend excess resources on several universites for the benefit of other countries.

In the science area, high tech or biotech (most biotech companies never make a profit) would never provide an indigenous jobs engine.

@Richard Tol


Universities have inputs (second- and third-level graduates, pre-existing knowledge, government subsidies) and outputs (third- and fourth-level graduates, new knowledge), just like companies.

Surely the accepted wisdom is that both businesses and universities are like cookery?

Businesses have ingredients (labour and natural resources) and finished meals (products and services) just like cookery does, ergo all business is essentially cookery and every business needs to justify itself on the deliciousness and nutritiousness of its output.

Of course almost all cooking of food is by necessity, while much business is a shocking waste of resources so perhaps the mapping could be better?

@TRP: you say “I dont see why Academics are allowed to be any different than the rest of us. The lack of Management Control in the Universities is the key factor. Academics peering over Academics is no way to run any business. ”

If you look at the really great universities they are generally run by academics, with appropriate professional management of finance, HR etc. While they are not run by business people, they are accountable to those who finance them.

I am appalled at the sheer barbarism of some of this discussion, and of the article which provoked it. For an intelligent and civilised discussion of these issues I recommend you read Stefan Collini’s recent book: What are Universities for?

@Richard Tol

Universities have inputs (second- and third-level graduates, pre-existing knowledge, government subsidies) and outputs (third- and fourth-level graduates, new knowledge), just like companies.

My digestive system also has inputs and outputs. Is it a company?

Just to focus on the original article in relation to one thing:

“they teach for a maximum of 16 hours – but this is often negotiated downwards with trade-offs against a range of research and administration duties. In some cases they don’t teach at all; in others they teach for just a couple of hours each week.”

IOT sector (two levels of lecturer)
Assistant Lecturer: 20 lecturing hours a week
Lecturer: 18 lecturing hours a week

I did hear rumours of a non research teaching only contract coming in for non researchers?

There are two pressures in Academia at present!
The pressure to achieve higher quality
The pressure to achieve higher quantity
Not necessarily mutually exclusive…

But beware all those offering solutions, (or themselves for that matter!)

There are a number of very contentious matters raised – they are more toxic than Fukishima. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

Teaching (at third-level) and Research are two, totally, completely and disconnected matters. I realise that this may come as a very unwelcome shock to many. What is common between them, is a settled body of knowledge and some skills. Research skills are completely different to teaching skills. Of the two, teaching is by far the more demanding in terms of possession and application of your knowledge base. This must be up-to-date, eclectic, broad (cross- and multi-disclipinary): great depth is not necessary. Over this command of knowledge you have to possess a set of psychological and technical skills associated specifically with the subject/s you will be teaching. These skills require regular updating – as also does your body of knowledge. Few persons do this well. Most academics do it badly.

The empirical evidence is available for all to seek. The relationship between third-level teaching and reseach is inverse: more research = poorer teaching. However, blind sentiment says the opposite. Academic tenure is never awarded on the basis of a perfect teaching profile – never. But an indifferent research profile will do nicely. As I said, the empirical evidence is there.

As for academic administration. My experiences of if are suggestive of a deeply ingrained culture of utter arrogance and ill-suited skill-sets. It is unfit for purpose.

In perhaps a decade, we shall begin the transition from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate- based one. As Dork has clearly pointed out, the skill-sets necessary for a carbohydrate-based economy are absent. I know it would be a jolly good idea to re-establish them. This should be the primary mission of third-level education.

Just don’t expect any meaningful reforms to emerge.


Because Universities charge fees to the Taxpayer , Students and businesses for providing a service and thus they are businesses. I suggest that you might read their accounts sometime.

@John Sheehan

I am sure the great Universities are well run as you say but the Irish ones are a disaster at managing themselves. The Taxpayer in 2010 took over €3.685 Billion in Pension liabilities as at 2009 from the Universities/ Colleges (See Comptroller and Auditor General Special Report 68). Thats a fair whack of incompetence for you. I dont consider it barbaric to criticise something that is inherently wrong especially when I am made pay for it.

Paul Mooney will get a drubbing because he writes the truth. They usually start with running down the Institution he was involved with. The people in the Universities know the system is broken and should be fixed but turkeys will not vote for Christmas.

Have you any idea how the private education industry in the US has fared? Student loans are relatively easy to get in the US and the result has been an increase in fees. Try looking at the stock price of any private sector education company like STRA or COCO.

@ Hennigan

Will you stop with all the ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with you?

@TRP: If the Universities had net pension liabilities of €3.685 billion in 2010 that was more a reflection of the underfunded (or completely unfunded) nature of public sector pensions generally, and not a specific feature of incompetence at the university level. In fact the Universities were the only significant part of the non-commercial public sector to have a funded element in their pensions. Moreover when the new univerisites (DCU and UL) were created, they had unfunded pensions from the start: a Government decision.

@Brian Woods: You say: “Teaching (at third-level) and Research are two, totally, completely and disconnected matters” and “The relationship between third-level teaching and reseach is inverse: more research = poorer teaching”. Anyone with any sense in the universities (and there are a few!) will tell you that that’s plain nuts. Nowadays research is a necessary condition for the award of tenure and a good teaching profile is not a sufficient condition; this is not the same as saying that teaching and research have are completely dicconnected.

And by the way if you say they have no connection you contradict yourself when you say that “more research = poorer teaching”

@Brian Woods Snr

Research skills are completely different to teaching skills.

Agreed. (Well, not quite “completely different”, but “very, very different”.)

Of the two, teaching is by far the more demanding in terms of possession and application of your knowledge base.

I disagree. I find pushing the frontier of knowledge to be difficult, and teaching undergrads to be a relative doddle.

If you’re willing to judge the difficulty of teaching vs research in terms of supply and demand, there are many more people born with natural teaching abilities than natural research abilities.

@Enda H: Note you comments. Thanks.

“If you’re willing to judge the difficulty of teaching vs research in terms of supply and demand, …”

No, not willing. Lenghts of pieces of string come to mind …

“I disagree. I find pushing the frontier of knowledge to be difficult, and teaching undergrads to be a relative doddle.”

Lucky you! I have attempted both. Inverse experience. My lab apparatus never demanded anything. Members of the Great Unwashed on the other hand ….

My scientific research reading was strictly limited to a small set of journals. The activities limited and repetitive. Whereas my teaching activities required reading cgnitive psychology, philosophy, history of science, journals for third-level reaching in math, stats, chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, food science, being familiar with specialized computer programmes, etc., etc. And that was before I even got to the actual course texts! It was never-ending. My research library was puny by comparison with my teaching one.

You want an easy academic life. Stick with research. Good for promo. Teaching is a total dead-end career-wise.

@ Garo

Will you stop with all the ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with you?

Ms Garo, the lady doth protest too much methinks!

Given comments in the past, you appear to be oversensitive in your academic cocoon.

Apart from the ministers who I assume are not fragile flowers, I did react to a new poster who had nothing to say on the issue of the thread but posted 4 external links to apparently undermine the credidibility of the author of the article that was being discussed.

Maybe your Latin was misdirected?

The line “It’s foolish to expect…” in a separate post, is included in your in your ignorant attack, which speaks for itself.

@ John Sheehan: Missed you comment. Apologies.

I am alluding to the published literature on the matter. It was assumed, for the purpose of the study I suppose, that there was some connection (of the causal sort) and the matter was put to the test. Correlation sure. Researchers do teach, but few teachers do research – except perhaps on their actual teaching.

I could obtain a hon degree in mechanical eng and have no experience of how to dismantle a dysfunctional engine, then reassemble it – so that it will work again. I could have a PhD in Aeronautical Eng but never acquire a qualification to pilot an aircraft or an ocean-going vessel. I would certainly know how to navigate from A to B, but it would be somewhat foolish to let me try to pilot either vessel. GPs, and Vets: same difference. You go to the former if you have a pain in your head. You do not bring the family pet. Research is not teaching. But the inverse?

My recent experiences of ‘teaching’ in my Alma Mater were not something that I would describe as satisfactory. One instructor was excellent, the rest mediocre to bad (like woeful). There is utterly no excuse for poor teaching – at any level. Its not about those dreadful PowerPoints – its about the ability to engage the pupil/student. Very, very demanding, esp with large nos in lecture halls. But it can be done. Training and re-training is the key. And strong, unwavering institutional support. But can you ID any third-level institute which does this? I cannot. Thanks again.


1. I am not a woman. But watch your sexist language.

2. I am not an academic.

So do take the scales off your eyes.

Michael H , I understand (please correct me if im wrong Michael ) posts from the far east, where the living is cheap. Its easy to throw stones at those of us slaving away here. Sticking it out here and slogging is hard.

He also is compelled, in each and every post, to make the (valid but numbed by repitition) point that pouring loads of money into university spinoffs doesnt lead to loads of jobs.

And to Garo’s points, snap

This discussion would be better if it were less intemperate.

Teaching requires a level of understanding that is at least one layer deeper than the material taught. Therefore, many can teach introductory material, and good teachers stand out for their didactic skills.

As material gets more advanced, fewer qualify as teachers.

We are supposed to bring master’s students to the frontier of knowledge (as they need to go beyond at PhD level), so only people who have moved the frontier qualify to teach at master’s level. That is, only research-active faculty should lecture in master’s courses.

As the final year of a bachelor’s degree includes a decision for further qualification, research-active lecturers are required there too.

Didactic skills cannot compensate for an imperfect understanding of the material taught.

There I was, happily gliding through Mr. Mooney’s IT op-ed and musing that the worker bees (and drones) of any profession always make for a fine, easy target when I came to the real howler: ‘Academics are… helping Ireland Inc move up the value chain towards becoming a smart economy.’

Sean Sherlock will love him for this. So will Ruairi Quinn. No doubt, Richard Bruton as well. And Enda and Michael Noonan, and all the rest of them.

‘Ireland Inc’ is a vapid, discredited concept. ‘Value chain’ is a business concept of limited meaning and application to either academic research or education. The ‘smart economy’ – well, there must be a special place in hell for whoever dreamt that one up. Let’s hope they go there and get to ponder its meaning for all eternity.

The truth is, most of the great and the good who so eloquently thread their speech (and in the media, their editorials) with such terminology would be hard pressed to give an intelligible explanation in plain English as to what it is they’re talking about. That especially includes those members of the political elite named above – no disrespect intended to them.

Then again, ‘Ireland Inc’ sounds dynamic. ‘Value Chain’ implies important knowledge of arcane processes. The ‘smart economy’; sure who could argue with wanting the economy to be ‘smart’, whatever that means?. Sounds good, though. Putting the three together in one sentence sounds even more impressive. It also exposes the shallowness of the whole piece.

Seems to me the real issue in Third Level Education is about who’s going to control the agenda of research, staffing levels, investment and what sort of overall system would best fit Ireland’s needs, culturally, socially as well as economically. That raises some serious questions for public debate, elements of which are touched on in Richard’s post and the discussion above.

Good article from Mooney. He misses some obvious targets – e.g. the incompetence of non-academic university adminstration, inflated salaries but his main points are spot on.

I’d 100% agree with the idea of moving to 3-year courses with 3 semesters per year.

We need an equivalent of the Research Evaluation Framework urgently and we need a national teaching evaluation framework as well. Both would be linked to funding so the universities have to take them seriously.

Most important reform of all would be to make the universities independent of the State. They should all be made independent non-profit organisations who get zero guaranteed funding from the State. They can apply for support for teaching/research/buildings/equipment through various multi-year programmes but each case is evaluated on its merits. The universities would be responsible for setting their own staff levels, pay levels etc and would also set their own fees for students.


Good points. Indeed from the outside it looks very much like the whole knowledge economy smart economy carousel has crashed to earth.

I noticed that this blog didn’t carry a entry on the recent news that irish universities had fallen in the rankings. The department of education had a bit in the Irish Times (a lesser kind of Pravda for official supporters of the smart economy blather) urging that ‘not much be read into’ the fall.

So when the rankings are good, it is taken as proof that the policies are excellent and spot on, and when the rankings fall, well the policies are still excellent and spot on. If you could apply the same reasoning to cholesterol tests, you could do away with a lot of expensive cardiology work.

The whole system for doling out money to the third level is so methodologically unsound it beggars belief. Would that be the performance management kicking in?

@Johnny F
Be careful what you wish for. The REF counts the 4 best papers in the last 5 years. The incentive is to chase the top journals at the expense of all else.

The Dutch system of “conditional finance” rewards all publications, with the reward inversely proportional to the journal quality. Academics are left to make their own trade-off between many sound papers and a few spectacular ones.

My time budget for blogging is much reduced. New rankings etc are covered on Twitter.

@ Johnny Foreigner

The universities would be responsible for setting their own staff levels, pay levels etc and would also set their own fees for students.

In an ideal world that system would have merit.

If Irish tradition is the template, those who could would feather their own nests well while fees would be subject to dubious international benchmarks/comparisons.


They can try but will fail as long as the State exercises its power on behalf of citizens. For example if UCD apply to the Department of Education for funding for a BA in Sociology the DoE can stipulate the conditions of funding ie amount the student pays and amount the State pays. The State can also make it clear what they expect in return – e.g hours taught, mix of faculty, quality of teaching, and there will be financial penalties if these conditions are not met. If UCD don’t like it they can always drop the BA in Sociology but other institutions can step in to fill the gap. UCD will cry about academic freedom but no one is stopping UCD from running a BA in Sociology – it’s just that they won’t get funding from the State unless they do what they are told.

The problem is not really the universities – they would set up clown schools if the money was right. The problem is the State refusing to act on behalf of its citizens and continuing out of a mix of laziness, incompetence and clannishness to act on behalf of vested interests.

Paul Mooney who I have only met once and briefly, may be greater expert on HE than I but nonetheless I have worked in Departmental HE management for about 13 years and in management in the Technology industry prior to that. I have also studied management theory and practice (MBA) and have been an active researcher on a small scale leading transnational IT projects up to EU-funded levels. Along with my Management and Research work, I teach up to Masters level, although possibly not very well . I also work in a small multi-disciplinary Institute which has broadened my perspective of other disciplines outside my own. I think therefore I have some perspective on the issues he raises.

Before offering my perspective, I would make one point about many commentators on HE (and Dr Mooney to an extent) who seem to generalise from personal or local (and sometimes dated) experience on what is a widely diverse system across disciplines and institutions and time. This, I believe is a dangerous methodology to employ. While I can possibly be accused of a similar error below, I would just point out that I feel I am reasonably solid ground in using that methodology to add counterpoints to the points raised by Dr. Mooney. I would not wish however to use this approach to advocate the radical redesign of the entire HE system, for that purpose my views would be too weakly founded for such a complex task.

With regard to Dr Mooney’s points I have a number of concerns:

* Based on his view of low workloads he advocates increasing classroom time by 50% both for staff and students. On the student side, this seems to assume that students will wish to study on this basis or can afford the time (or the earning opportunities foregone). However, leaving that aside it assumes that the driver of best outcomes for students is time spent in class and indeed time spent in class with people who spend little time elsewhere. He talks elsewhere of the need to value Teaching and indeed there are lots of thankless tasks which need to be valued more by society. Pregnancy, Child-birth and the Nursing of new-borns might be another such set of undervalued activities but I am not sure that those who wish to have them regarded better would seek to achieve that goal by increasing the pregnancy, labour and nursing periods by 50%. Maybe a better approach would be to understand what of the work done by lecturers adds most value for students and seek to increase effort in those areas.

* A second criticism of his is to devalue research which is dictated by a personal agenda or interest (so-called pet-projects). So if we should stamp out this type of activity what would the system look like? I guess one possibility is that there is a National or Institutional Research agenda set periodically and controlled via a top-down priority setting and result measuring system. I will leave it to others to comment on whether such a system is tractable. Also we may have large elements of such a system through the various research funding agencies strategy drivers. Do we need to have the entire system be driven top down? That seems to be in danger of having a single point of failure.

I guess if top-down is not the way forward then a more market driven approach could be designed. There is of course much competition in current systems in any case but even if this was the complete answer, is conscripting an army of researchers to these agendas likely to be more effective or will we lose a vital elements of motivation, passion and indeed serendipity? Personally, I would prefer a system of research retaining some self-organising and self-critical mechanisms rather than being driven entirely by a centrally planned or entirely market driven agenda. Some balance of all 3 would seem optimum at a guess but it is no more than a guess!

* Performance management is another area which Dr Mooney highlights. I am not sure if he envisages the sort of cascading down of priorities from (say) National HE Policy through Institutional/ Departmental etc. planning with detailed checking of achievements against targets and management correction based on identification of anomalies. While I agree that some goal setting based on such approaches is inevitable given the cost of HE and indeed desirable up to a point, we do have to acknowledge as academic leaders that the foot soldiers of our organisations are in most cases highly educated, knowledgeable people. People capable, with encouragement, of significant innovation and that the rapidly changing world of today requires the antennae of these people to be attuned to many different elements of the environment. It is armed with such insights that ideas and innovation can arise which will change what we do as learning organisations more speedily and radically than the percolation of these same issues via some top down foresight and planning mechanism.

* Dr Mooney finally dismisses (as do many commentators) the Managers of our HE institutions. I will leave others to judge my personal performance in this regard but having worked in 3 HE Institutions (both home and abroad) and studied in 3 (both home and abroad) and worked in 3 Technology Companies over the years, I find it hard to see the gross distinction between the managers of the HE world and (presumably) the managers of industry that he seems to see. Yes there are good and bad HE managers but there are good and bad in industry also. Maybe the poor ones survive a bit longer in HE than elsewhere but if industry has a magic system to liquidate less than excellent managers across the board, my past employers didn’t turn up on the day they were giving it out. I have seen some excellent managers come from industry into HE management but I have seen others struggle with the breadth of mission and the complexity of the design and workings of educational and research departments.

So to conclude I would welcome Dr Mooney’s piece and offer my points above to the debate.

@ John Sheehan

I think that I saw a Pension Deficit in the Accounts of one of the Big 4 Universities in 2009 @ €442 million which we the Taxpayer took responsibility for. My point is this the Universities have no right to be offering Salaries of up to €147,000 to Professors and over €200,000 to University Heads and as a consequence the attendant pension cost if really this State and these Universities cannot afford to be paying these Salaries and pensions. Why should Taxpayers have to stump up for this generosity ? In the Private sector you cut your cloth to the resources you have .

We may need to get used to the fact that our Universities will slide down the so called Rankings when realistic salaries and benefits are paid to staff.

Mooney’s piece is about some agenda or other. Leave it at that. However, there are serious issues with HE in Ireland, and these will not be exposed to public scrutiny nor correction – until there is some political calamity. And then we will get a knee-jerk, useless, stupid ‘fix’.

I could comment quite easily on the poor quality of some third-level curriculae. But to what effect? The quality of some HE mamagement is so dreadful it beggard description. Its actually mis-management. But who cares? Many undergrads are arrogant, selfish, ignorant brats. They consume scarce resources. But who checks this? None of the dozens academics that I worked with (bar two) had any, let me repeat that for you, any formal training of any sort (like none) prior to them sauntering off to lecture. Did my HE managers care? Not a bit of it.

It matters not whether you teach 6 or 16 hours per week – if you are untrained as a teacher, you have absolutely no business whatsoever being in charge of a class of undergrads. None. But who cares? Some undergrads do, but they are not the ones I alluded to above.

If you really want to have even a glimmer of understanding about the sharp end of HE (undergrad teaching), there are about 30 texts I suggest you read, and near enough to 1000 journal articles to boot. Let me know when you have completed that task.

Mooney’s piece is crass.

Ireland would make a bigger contribution to the global stock of knowledge if it would focus on what it is good at — and that is in the realm of ideas rather than things. The graduates of Ireland’s business and economics schools definitely command a higher wage than the graduates of its engineering and natural science schools.

You draw a false causality here, that the over-inflated remuneration (and egos) of the Irish business class has anything to do with being worthier than their more modest contemporaries in engineering, natural science etc. – who, as you point out, make real things, in contrast to the gamblers, charlatans and swindlers.


That’s the opposite of what I said. I said that the State should decide what courses it pays for. If the universities are made independent they will have complete freedom to offer whatever courses they want.

Did you see the part where I wrote “no one is stopping UCD from running a BA in Sociology”?

By the way your fatuous comment about call centres reveals a lot about your contempt for the people who pay the taxes that pay your salary.

@ Johnny Foreigner

“By the way your fatuous comment about call centres reveals a lot about your contempt for the people who pay the taxes that pay your salary.

Really? I’d say it does no such thing. Instead, it perfectly captures the sausage-factory that IBEC etc. would prefer our educational system to become.

Ireland is not Brasil although green and gold figure prominently in both countries.
Here are excerpts from the St Patrick’s day economist magazine, the paper version.

“…Dilma Roussef at a big trade fair in Hanover on March 5th. Brazil’s President made sure to pose for photographs with young compatriots who began to study last month at German Universities under her government’s scholarship programme….”

“By the end of 2015 more than 100,000 Brazilians- half of them undergraduates, half Doctoral students- will have spent a year or so abroad at the best universities around the world studying subjects such as petroleum engineering, biotechnology, ocean science which the government considers essential for the nation’s future. The cost 3 billion Reals (US$1.65 Bln.).”

“… Unemployment is at a record low, Brazilians with a degree make 3.6 times as much as high school graduates….”

This is probably on their web site, if not and you are interested I can flesh it out.


It’s a lazy and ill-informed swipe at an industry which, believe it or not, is staffed by people with a wide range of qualifications and skills. It would be interesting to get a complete list of jobs that Ernie considers to be menial – he’d probably be fired from 90% of them after an hour on the job.

You’re right, Johnny. Anybody who thinks there is any subject that does not merit study in the University is an incorrigible snob. Let 100 flowers bloom.

As for the putative difference between the state paying for courses and the state deciding which courses exist: that’s a distinction without a difference. Therefore you are advocating that the state decide what’s worthy of study. QED.

I’m just hopeful there’ll still be a Department of Lady Gaga Studies by the time my kids are ready to go to University.

Ernie, the tests I’ve taken indicate that my logical ability is quite strong, thank you for caring.

A claim has been made. “The financial reward for top academics is small relative to their capacities and outside opportunities.” I’m asking for proof of the validity of that claim. I’d assume that in the world of science it is quite common to provide something to back up claims.

Most salary negotiations would require more than just claims. Irish universities might claim they’ve only got limited amount of money available for salary increases (or as the case might be, keeping the same wage). Should the limited resources of Irish universities be focused on keeping ‘top performers’ and as a consequence lower (even more) the wages of everyone else?


The evidence supporting your abilities in logical reasoning is not strong. In response to the claim that “The financial reward for top academics is small relative to their capacities and outside opportunities,” you wrote:

“Would that imply that a top earner outside of academia is a good academic?”

Everyone who plays football for Manchester United has the ability to make lots of money. Would that imply that a rich person not a member of Manchester United could play football for them?

All men are mortal. Would that imply that any particular mortal thing is a man?


your questions:
A rich man paying enough money might be able to buy a spot on the Man U team, he could probably play but my expectation would be that he wouldn’t be very good at it.
No. And that is the point that I’m trying to make.

A top academic has proven (how?) that he/she is a top academic. Move him/her out of academia and then there are no guarantees that he/she will provide top performance thus leading to greater financial rewards.

Irish universities have limited resources, I believe it would be a bad idea to concentrate those limited resources on ‘top academics’ (if they could be identified) as I believe it to be a high risk strategy. I expect other people to have other preferences.

Hey, Ernie

How about contributing seriously to the political-economic threads, where you could swing some punches and, indeed, make significant contributions, rather than repeatedly getting tangled up in the Uni playground stuff?

Can’t always be Shay and DOD.

Pah, I annoy myself. Uni’s are a serious thing – but get out and about.

There was a remark above that gave the impression that KerryGold’s success was due to marketing. KerryGold has invested heavily in science for over fifty years. Botanists, biologists, chemists, engineers make up a large part of their payroll. They are a tough bunch to work for in that they pay well and expect results. One of my relatives found out the hard way that the groves of academe are elysian field by comparison. They manufacture a wide range of food products that are used by major manufacturers of prepared foods around the world.

Paul Mooney has seemingly managed to unite all against his analysis, which on reading is …poor…. to put it mildly. And yet, who would bet on his views entering futher in to the mainstream?

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