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.