education politics

Nation of knockers

No, this isn’t a post about mammary glands. I was listening to the Newstalk repeats last night when coming home with my colleague Stephen Garvey. The replay was Eamonn Keane’s show and most of the conversation centred around the new home of the UL president Professor Don Barry. I’m of the opinion that Eamonn is a windup merchant who makes some good points but isn’t interested in balanced reportage. It’s an opinion piece, like George Hook, Matt Cooper etc. This was no exception.

Why should any of us give a damn that the president of one of our universities is going to live in a state of the art modern home for the duration of his tenure? It’s owned by UL, it will be used by presidents of UL in the future and it was covered by a philanthropic donation. It is common in many of the best universities in Europe and the US that dean’s/presidents and in exceptional circumstances leading academic staff often occupy salubrious university owned accommodation. Such subsidies are a way of attracting and keeping top staff to occupy prestigious positions. UL have planned this for a while. Sure, I’ve had a salary cut that I’m angry about but that doesn’t mean I want everyone in Ireland to dwell on all the perceived injustices rather than getting on with creating world class universities with world class facilities.

To listen to the report you’d swear the UL president had been given a gift of 2 Million quid by the college and that there was something seedy about this rather banal transaction. It was even compared to FAS. This is patent nonsense. The high build costs are justified by the high quality of the construction and it’s planned longevity. The architecture won’t be to everybody’s taste but you can’t do anything good by pleasing everybody. Prof Barry is objectively doing an excellent job. You only have to see the quality of UL’s courses, the campus and the research in well chosen niches to understand it’s an excellent university. The debt of UL is minor and insignificant relative to the banks and the construction industry. Nobody’s kids are going to suffer because Don Barry was either paid a lot or lived in a nice house yet there’s a cult of lazy journalism looking for easy stories that sees such things hyped and dwelt upon. We actually need to spend more on our higher educational sector if we’re to become internationally credible, not less. Our spend on R&D is much smaller than Sweden, Korea or Finland as a % of GDP yet we want to brand ourselves as a knowledge economy. Lofty ambitions. Considering our small population we’re simply not doing enough to compete. We need to be positive and invest for the future. Some of this will involve recruiting academics for large salaries. Deal with it or we can all mope around, complaining the world is unfair and celebrating our mediocrity.

I have no involvement with UL and if I was concerned with sucking up to people in my blog then I’d have published a lot less posts.


University of the South East

Noel Whelan’s article in The Irish TImes on March 22nd provides a fair view of the contents of the Port report on WIT’s section 9 application for redesignation as the University of the South East. There’s nothing in the way bar an ambiguous government policy. We don’t need another report, another review; more time, money and effort wasted. We especially don’t need the government to pander to a glut of me-too applications when groups in the region have been calling for a university SINCE 1969. As Jim Power illustrated so well in his recent Irish Examiner article, the South East is lagging behind economically and the government has to power to change that.
I sincerely hope the government don’t decide they can buy off the 450,000 + citizens of the South East with a cut-price Technical University name change together with a placatory upgrading of any other IoT. Critical mass is needed here and that means 20-25 million euro / year for USE in addition to the redesignation.
If the government pay lip service to regional development, if they insult our intelligence with a derisory gesture, if they cling on to a favourable paragraph in the OECD 2004 report and if they fail the citizens of the South East, I sincerely hope those same citizens remember on voting day.


Port in a storm

An extract from Jim Port’s report which has finally been released by the Department of Education.

“We therefore conclude that, in terms of its profile and plans against the criteria that might be expected to be used in a Section 9 examination, WIT has made a serious case that would deserve to be investigated on the merits of the case. However, broader national policy factors have to be considered and we review these in the next chapter.”

This paragraph neatly sums up the dilemna facing Jim Port and indeed WIT. The government have been unclear about whether an application for University status from an IoT under section 9 of the Universities Act 1997 could be entertained on policy grounds. The policy is unclear which means it’s very much down to the minister du jour to set the agenda for reconciliation of a strong application with an unclear policy.
Would a redesignation have highly negative repercussions on the IoT sector, notably reducing the technical and sub-degree education provided within this sector?

“There are several assumptions being made by those who express these concerns – for example, we do not believe that all 14 IoTs would seek or gain university status, and nor do we believe that undesirable mission drift is an inevitable consequence of university status – this has not been the case in the UK, for example”

However, it’s saddening to see the Irish Times publish yet another attack on WIT’s application under the headline “University status report on Waterford sceptical”. Madam, let’s be clear the report is most sceptical about the rationale behind section 9 when he has himself been informed that “Ireland does not need additional universities” Unfortunately, the Ireland under consideration is the Ireland of ministers, senators and little else beyond the pale & the people’s republic.