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What is says on Ninth Level

Alas alas alas, this blog’s been neglected this last while.  Such are the demands on me at the moment (and the time taken up with Twitter!).  Anyhow, for the extra hour, the holiday weekend, the Halloween sound-effects that prohibit any work requiring concentration, and the current catch-up with http://9thlevel.ie, a post is forthcoming.

Here are some Ninth Level contributions of late:

  • http://www.collegetribune.ie/index.php/2011/10/stopfees/  Apparently €5,000 is an annual fees figure that is being thrown around.  Hmmm. My humble opinion is that if students genuinely want to go to third level education they will find a way to do so, regardless of cost.  Paying one’s own fees  has a way of focusing the mind in a way that freebies do not.
  • http://trinitynews.ie/wordpress/archives/3222   So that’s the guy’s whose visage is gracing the entrance to TCD over the last while!
  • http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=417915&c=1  The University of Cambridge and research as “inherent to the very fibre of a university” calls for putting research back into the heart of the system.  The rift between the economic and intellectual research comes to the fore once again.  No prizes for guessing which side I am on.
  • http://ciarnthelibrarian.blogspot.com/2011/10/college-students-social-networking.html   A study of undergraduates use of social media is under the spotlight.  Their use of Facebook is taken alongside other typical “identity markers of emerging adulthood”.  I wonder what that means for the use of Facebook for older people, and how the current 18-year-olds’ use of Facebook will evolve in years to come.
  • http://www.good.is/post/if-professors-stop-lecturing-will-students-stop-checking-facebook/    Apparently, Facebook use in Harvard classes “has become so ubiquitous that no one even questions it”—not even professors.  Yikes!  The reasoning given is that lectures are boring, the lecturer repeats him/herself too often, and the lecture content is irrelevant because “much of knowledge has become commoditized on the web”.  Now, this is one more reason to flip the classroom / nonclassroom activity structure.  That is, the lectures can be put online for students to peruse in their own time. Then, classroom space and time can be freed up for discussion, and practical applications of concepts, software etc.  This is, of course, far more demanding on the cognitive abilities of students and there is the concern that many will not be able for it.  Whatever, it’s more constructive than students Facebooking their way through class.  I’m not against Facebook per se but students facebooking their new hairdos and night-out socialising is not the way to spend classroom time.
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/8843640/Tradition-of-Oxbridge-free-Masters-degrees-under-fire.html   It seems that some universities, (Oxbridge is singled out) bundle a BA with an MA.  The idea is that the student studies for and achieves their BA and are automatically awarded an MA to go along with it.  I am in total agreement with the author that this devalues the work of the many many postgraduates taking MA qualifications at other universities.  It makes one wonder what exactly a Masters qualification is.  What is the transition point from undergraduate to postgraduate?
  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/21/bad-science-publishing-claims   Prof Susan Greenfield is being her usual controversial self.  Her latest is that computer games could cause dementia in children.  Now, to be fair, I like to keep an open mind about scientific findings.  Unfortunately, Prof Greenfield tends to make this difficult.  As a result, I find myself thinking ‘here we go again’ when her latest research emerges.  Besides, think about it – how many children do you know who play (or have played in the past i.e. children who are now adults) computer games?  How many of those suffer from dementia?
  • http://limerick.studenty.me/2011/10/22/is-ul-really-the-hardest-irish-university-to-obtain-the-magic-21-degree-from/   Here’s a quote from the study (carried out by the Irish Times): “Fourteen per cent of its (UL) graduates gained first-class honours, while 34 per cent achieved a 2:1. This 2:1 rate is by far the lowest in the country, a full 19 per cent behind the highest, which is TCD, and 9 per cent below the national average”.  Flash back to the later part of the last century when I was a graduate of that same institution (UL).  There were approximately 200 of us business graduates.  5 achieved a first class honours.  That’s 2.5%.  Enough said.
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What are educating them for?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a talk enabled “Universities in Crisis” at the RIA.  Read the speaker’s (Michael Burawoy) blog here.   Apparently, universities across many parts of the world are in trouble.  We are not alone.

It seems the universities are more in conflict than in crisis.  Conflict arises from change that is unwanted, unwelcome and seen to be for the worse. We can’t ignore the political / economic context the higher education finds itself in.  They have come in the door, we can’t kick them back out but neither should we let them control what we do.

The “privatisation” of higher education changes the essence of the university producing the horror of  commoditisation of knowledge, and bureaucratic regulation is creeping in.  We know that we need to counter this but money is getting in the way.  The costs of higher education have skyrocketed in recent times.  Staff costs have gone up, but this is dominated by the costs of non-academic staff whose numbers are on the rise.   Surely the domain experts in the different faculties are the prime staff.  Apparently not any more.  The support staff are increasing the prime staff.  Something is very wrong about this.

What is being done.  Increase student fees (or introduce student fees if you are in Ireland), bring in more foreign students and charge them even higher fees, get to work on the alumni for corporate donations, increase collaborations with industry, etc.   None of these solutions are without their problems.

Yes these solutions are a way of handling the crisis  but consider the conflict they bring.  Universities begin to look like corporate for-business organisations.  Then, the problems really happen. Output result: degradation of education quality, increase in temporary staff numbers (they cost less) who do the bulk of the teaching and learning, increase in distance learning (its cheaper), shorter degrees, some disciplines under threat (this has already happened here in the NCI).  We end up with very hierarchical corporate structures that have layers of management.  The plebs at the bottom are hit the most and it is these plebs that do the actual work.  Ridiculous competition emerges within and between universities as they compete for students and for research funding.

In the middle of all this it is easy to lose track of what universities actually do.  Universities are knowledge producers.  Who do we produce knowledge for? Ourselves and / or non-academics.  And what do we produce knowledge for?  The speaker talked about “reflexive” knowledge i.e. knowledge for its own sake to further our own critical thinking.  Problematically we are in danger of  having too much of what he calls “instrumental” knowledge i.e. knowledge for policy-making and commercialisation outside the boundaries of the institute.  We need to reclaim a balance of instrumental and reflexive knowledge and knowledge for ourselves and outsiders. This is a challenge, particularly when funding as a problem simply will not go away.

A member of the audience raised a good point.  We are vastly increasing the numbers going to college, yet it’s unreasonble to assume that we can make critical thinkers out of all of them.  What then are we educating them for?   What does their graduation parchment signify?  What a controversial question.  It brings up all sorts of theories, many of which involve the continuing debate around falling standards and dumbing-down.  The speaker answered in terms of lived experience, dialogue, variety of student backgrounds, etc.  There isn’t an acceptable answer to the question.  Universities in crisis to be sure!

Whose money are you spending?

Money makes the world go around – or so we’re told.  But where does it come from and where does it go to? How come some of us have considerably more of it than others?

Take for example, Charlie McCrevy. Page 2 of today’s Irish Independent tells us about his payout when he leaves his EU office:

  • Resettlement allowance of €19,909.89
  • Transitional allowance of €358,378 payable over 3 years, working out at €119,459.50 per year
  • Lifelong pension of €50,000 per year
  • Moving costs to pack up and fly his family back to dear ole Ireland, business class

This is on top of an Oireachtas pension of €52,213 and a ministerial pension of €75,003 for his stint as finance and enterprise minster.

Whether he has done a good / bad / indifferent job is irrelevant given how massive this payout is. Can anyone possibly do a wonderful enough job to justify a payout that is as enormous as this. As a point of comparison consider that one year of the transitional allowance and one year of the lifelong pension would pay off in one swoop they mortgage that I will require the next 20+ years to pay off.

Where does this money that Charlie will be paid from come from?  Who decided that he is worth this amount of money? Who decides that his position merits this level of financial reward?

An example closer to home where the Irish taxpayer can really feel it, concerns our Ceann Comhairle (chairperson of our Parliament) John O’Donoghue and his extravagance with tax-payers hard earned tax.  The official Government jet was used to jet off to Cannes, the Heineken Cup final and the Ryder Cup event – all costing the taxpayer a cool €32,450.

The O’Donoghue expense that really caught the public’s attention, however, was the €472 limo ride to go from terminal 3 to terminal 1 in a London airport. The sheer extravagance of paying so much for a service that can be obtained for free via airport shuttle buses is just too much in these recessionary times.

As a point of comparison, consider the salary that drivers of such shuttle buses might be paid. While such information is not publicly available it’s fair to say that they would not reach far enough to even contemplate paying €472 for a service that can be obtained for free.  Would you pay €472 of your own money for a service that is obtainable for free? Would you pay €472 of someone else’s money for this service?

Spare a further thought for the shuttle bus driver. On a trip to London recently, I wandered around the Science Museum. On show was a prototype of the new driverless taxi, a series of which are soon to be deployed in Heathrow airport to ferry passengers around various destinations within the airport. Passengers tap in their requires destination to an onboard console and off the taxi goes on its merry track to that location. I wonder how much the airport is saving by not having to pay drivers.

Driverless Taxi

Some nice folks getting their pic taken beside the driverless taxi

As I am on the subject of money and whose money is being used for what. I’ll leave the last word to the very contentious issue of third level fees. Our minister for finance indicates that students should be responsible for their own college fees.  Whether right or wrong, there is negative reaction to this from certain quarters.  Have these quarters asked themselves where the money is coming from to fund their currently “free” fees?

Nothing is ever really free. Even if the students themselves (or their parents) aren’t paying the fees, someone is.  Everyone who pays taxes is funding these fees. Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or does it matter?  There seems to be mixed reaction to this, much of it arising from how directly people feel the fees are coming out of their own pocket. It all comes down to whose money is being spent – your own or some mysterious others? The aggregate of the tax of a very large number of people loses all personal meaning and, put simply, is meaningless in comparison with ones own earnings and how that is spent.