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.

Gas interconnection

In December, I blogged about the peculiar pricing rules for the gas interconnector with Scotland. (The current rules would grant substantial market power to importers of LNG.

The CER has been aware of this for a while, and has now published a draft decision. The proposal boils down to the following elements:

  1. The interconnector will be moved, legally, from offshore to onshore. It remains to be seen that this would satisfy the European Commission, which is not happy either about the current regime.
  2. Interconnector capacity will be auctioned.
  3. There is a reserve price for the auction.
  4. The reserve price is the long-run marginal cost.
  5. If the auction do not cover the costs of the pipe-formerly-known-as-the-interconnector, the difference will be split over ALL gas suppliers.

Shannon LNG is understandably cross. They publicly fume about point 5, which will impose a cost on them that rises as they are more successful, but privately they must have hoped that the rules would not change. While I have argued that the rules should change, the current proposal can easily be spun as the regulator protecting a state-owned company from a private competitor.

Point 4 is worrying too. In the decision document, the CER goes back and forth between OPEX for the reserve price and OPEX+CAPEX. In the end, they opt for OPEX+CAPEX. Essentially, they propose to perpetually reward Bord Gais for what increasingly looks like a bad investment decision in the past.

Nothing has been set in stone yet. Let us hope that the CER will reconsider.

Dublin is the 8th best place in the world for students

at least, according to the latest ranking by QS.

They’re quiet about the method, but if you click on any of the cities, you will find what matters to them: Good universities, international mix, local employment, cost of living and fees, and quality of living.

As far as I know, this is the first such ranking so it is too early to tell whether Dublin’s high rank will increase the influx of foreign students.

Higher education reform

The HEA has published its plans for reforming higher education in Ireland. A high level summary is here. There are two more substantive documents (here and here) that partly overlap. There are two core ideas. First, “technological universities” are introduced. Presumably, these will replace the “institutes of technology”. This is to large degree a matter of relabelling. If this satisfies the demands to have a university in every county then so be it. Ireland would follow the international trend to call each and any 3rd level education entity a “university”. Besides, some (many?) of the ITs already grant PhDs and are thus universities in all but name.

The second idea is more controversial. The HEA wants consolidation, through associations, clusters and mergers. Indeed, technological universities will come from a “consolidation of two or more institutions”. On the one hand, it is high time to rationalize the bewildering number of institutions in higher education. I have argued that there too many, small economic departments. Similarly, Irish business schools are too small to credibly support a broad curriculum. There is a fixed cost to running a department, and small department spent a disproportionate amount of time on administration.

On the other hand, scale for scale’s sake is silly. The HEA is not particularly clear about what research and teaching should (not) be consolidated and why.

I would argue that, for research, 2-3 centres per subdiscipline is plenty. For teaching, 3-4 locations for a bachelor’s, and 2-3 for master’s and PhD is enough — per discipline. For those activities, quality beats location. I’d rather talk to / be taught by a good researcher / professor than the one next door. Silicon Valley is not because it is close to any old university, but because it is close to Stanford. For evening and weekend classes, and more vocational training, you do want close ties to local businesses and therefore a denser network of locations.

UPDATE: The Independent reports on the race to become the first Technological University.

The Examiner reports that the president of Cork IT thinks that TU are too university-like. Cork IT is, I presume, free to remain an Institute of Technology. As it would be one of few ITs, it would be free to re-define the IT concept in Dr Murphy’s image.

The Examiner also notes that “distance from home is a major factor in third level participation”. I would argue that people should be prepared to travel for a quality education.

Septic tanks

Minister Hogan appears to have waived the septic tank registration fee. That is fair and proper. The sewage bill in cities and towns is picked up by the taxpayer too. Either everyone poos for free, or no one. I favour the latter.

The minister has also indicated that inspections of septic tanks will be “risk-based”, and has redefined that concept as “if pollution is found nearby”. Commonly, risk is an ex ante concept. Inspections are supposed to prevent pollution.

Article 13 of the waste directive (2006/12/EC) specifies that inspections be periodic. Unless the department intends to periodically find pollution near each and every septic tank, the proposed inspection regimes will breach EU law.

That would not be a first. Friends of the Earth reviews the history of Irish waste water and EU law. Ireland has been in breach of EU waste law since the original waste directive (75/442/EEC) of 1975. No wonder that the Commission is seeking to impose fines.

UPDATE: The minister is in a particularly generous mood this week: There will be grant aid to upgrade faulty septic tanks.