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Here’s a tiny example of a journalist supporting an orthodox position: “Of course, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …” – Laura Slattery, Media and Marketing in The Irish Times, April 3rd 2014 *
The notion that income paid out of public funds should be subject to greater questioning is today a belief of the majority. I would argue that one role of the journalist is to prise open majority beliefs. Instead Laura decided to reinforce twice by inserting “of course” and “rightfully”.

Among other options, she could have said:
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are alone at present subjected to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”



It’s no wonder that market liberalism is almost unquestioned in Ireland. Liberals know how to use state power and institutions. Socialists in government need to watch them and see how it’s done.

Have a look at this: “The National Competitiveness Council was established by Government in 1997. It reports to the Taoiseach on key competitiveness issues facing the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to enhance Ireland’s competitive position.” –

The establishment of a state council has institutionalised competitiveness as a permanent objective of government.There’s a lesson to be learned: The establishment of a state council is a way to institutionalise X as a permanent objective of government.

The Labour Party is now in Government lumbered with political argument from a state council for competitiveness. If the left is capable of learning how to use the state, this is what we need to see before this government leaves office:

“The National Council for the Reduction of Inequality of Income was established by Government in 2015. It reports to the Taoiseach on key issues causing economic inequality in the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to reduce inequality of income in Ireland.”

A news report in Saturday’s Irish Times has prompted me to return to the question of schools having a religious ethos *. While of course this applies to all religious schools in Ireland, the campaign in favour of fostering ethos ** is led by the Catholic Church.

The difficulty with addressing “ethos” is that it is never clear what is meant. If it means that any doctrine can be taught to children as long as it is said to be a feature of a religion, then ethos must be rejected. No responsible citizen would approve a rule saying that anything can be taught to a child as long as it is cloaked in religion. That would be a parody of religious tolerance.

In the short newspaper report a number of features of ethos – or more accurately Catholic ethos – appear. It is surprising, however, that no doctrines which appear regularly in public controversy are mentioned.

This news report suggests i) that teaching the existence of God and life after death is now threatened, ii) that if religious education is removed from the “public sphere” it could develop “in a more fundamentalist way”, and iii) that religious education is a part of the humanities and like other “creative subjects” is threatened by vocational/professional training as opposed to education.

Looking at these in order, it should be said at the outset that while there are those who oppose teaching about God and an afterlife to children – and they offer cogent argument against it – it doesn’t cause anything like the concern about teaching contentious opinion as fact. Ireland is a free and open society in which anyone may argue. However, teaching young children and arguing one’s case are entirely separate activities. All Irish children should be protected from noxious opinion presented as truth to be learned. To be blunt, any Catholic can and should argue the Church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage, contraception, abortion etc. but all children must be protected from being taught those arguments as fact. It hardly needs to be added that this applies to all other religions which might want to teach in such a way.***

On the second point, it is accepted that there are many religious people who fear that their ordinary decency is threatened by extremists who wish to portray a particular understanding as the real or only interpretation. However, the fears of decent people for the future of their religion cannot be relieved at the expense of children.

The third point wants to pitch religious teaching in the camp of creative thought. It is true that religion and religious thinkers have contributed to the development, spread and maintenance of humane, decent values but to go on then to suggest that teaching a fixed doctrine to children is compatible with open debate and creative thinking is self-serving.

We want children to emerge into adulthood as thoughtful, iconoclastic and creative. We certainly don’t want them lumbered with cruel, divisive opinions held as doctrine. On the contrary, we want citizens ready and eager to debate the future of the republic. Whenever ethos is mentioned in relation to teaching children, the package must be opened and if necessary the bearer told that some of its contents relate to adult debate and not to children.


** I tried to find a plural for “ethos” and discovered a controversy. I was attracted to the view that it is a word that doesn’t have/need a plural but you might like to anglicise and use “ethoses”, “ethosses” or stick with the Greek and use “ethe” but if you opt for “ethoi”, it would appear that Greek scholars will be annoyed.


Michael Taft writing in Unite’s Notes From the Front reports favourably on Switzerland’s 1:12 initiative and other moves to reduce inequality of income.* This is really good stuff from Switzerland and it’s the sort of approach the Irish Labour Party and the left generally should be taking: Link top pay to the minimum wage or the pay of low paid staff members. Moreover, every initiative, every policy, every budget should be evaluated with reference to inequality of income. I might add that every cut in public expenditure should be similarly evaluated. Since 2012 this kind of equality audit has been Labour Party policy but it’s a well-kept secret and labour’s critics on the left show not the slightest interest in it.**

The notion of limiting top pay to a multiple of the lowest pay appears in the thinking of even the British Conservative Party.

I put forward an argument that the first cut in the public service pay bill should be a cap on pay and extras of 100k and a 50k ceiling on pensions. It was met with hostility to the extent that I couldn’t get my own branch or constituency Labour Party to put it on the 2012 conference agenda.*** How about now putting it to a plebiscite now?

There were other proposals. One was to call the bluff of those who said that increases in the minimum wage would close businesses especially in the hospitality industry. The suggestion was that the minimum wage would be payable only within companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times the minimum wage; all other firms would pay the minimum wage plus, say, three euro per hour. Another was that state contracts would be confined to companies whose top earning staff member or director had an income of less than, say, three times its lowest paid staff member or, say, four times the lowest paid staff member in any of its contractors.

The multiples can be debated and indeed changed periodically. The important point is that inequality of income becomes a matter of public controversy.

According to last Tuesday’s Irish Times, the following appears in an unpublished draft of the HSE’s spending plans.
“It is planned that the investment will take place in quarter 4, 2013 contingent upon the achievement of the PSA [public sector agreement] savings. A ceiling uplift is needed for these developments,” –

“A ceiling uplift”!! Jesus wept! Now, this kind of complete bollocks might be funny if it were not indicative of a parasitic scourge which prevents effective management. The parasitic element is usually distinguished from management by use of the term “managerialism”.

Whoever wrote the HSE draft should go and anyone more senior, who did not fire the draft across the room and insist that it be rewritten, should join him or her. Furthermore, the report itself should be disregarded because – being infected by managerialism – it will be self-serving. Its purpose will not be to improve the HSE or to serve the citizen. Managerialism doesn’t work like that; it uses a language deceptively close to the language of efficiency and business to ensure the prosperity and growth of its adherents.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language that is used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

However, many organisations could usefully look at their structures and staffing of about ten years ago and see what has been done to them as systems became central rather than service, as job titles increased and became bizarre, and as the language of effective management was reduced to complete bollocks.

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.


I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.


** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates:

**** The two are discussed here:

Deciding which political values will motivate policy is a great public controversy and it is one which the left is losing.

Contrast the following quotations.

Young people are “bringing a completely different set of values to the workplace. They’re not interested in a permanent pensionable job. They’re not interested in someone to mind them . . . They are interested in experiences and satisfaction and will move if the work is not satisfying for them.

“Organisations can satisfy that today because they are not providing permanent pensionable jobs. So there’s a completely different psychological relationship, and a really different type of commitment, between the employer and the employee. It’s far more contractual.” – Dr Melrona Kirrane, an organisational psychologist at DCU Business School, quoted by Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times January 12th 2013

In this article radical individualism is presented by Joe Humphreys as realism, youthful, progressive, satisfying.

Now try something very different.

“We know that the present economic morass through which we are struggling did not come about by accident. We know it came about because of a failed paradigm of economic policy, undeclared assumptions, skewed values, and the growth of a culture where our assets were valued and utilised on purely material considerations. It was a version of economics that was rooted in a radical individualism and a theory of infallible efficient markets delivered through policies of light or no regulation. We are all now grappling with the enormous consequences of that failure and must now move forward to a better model – one that will build social cohesion and provide a sustainable basis for economic development. We must reject the notion of normative citizens being reduced to the status of disaggregated rational utility maximisers in our theories and policies.” – President Michael D. Higgins at the Trinity Economic Forum, Friday, 3rd February, 2012

Michael D. bangs on in this vein regularly. He tends to be presented in the media as everyone’s favourite old uncle. He is heard with respect and ignored and all the while the causes of the economic collapse are pushed as antidotes under the pretence that they are new.

I’ve written before about managerialism [i] (as opposed to management) as a self-serving, parasitic weight on a huge range of enterprises. The HSE seems to be particularly burdened. Here’s a quotation from Kitty Holland in The Irish Times (Saturday, October 13, 2012):

“A HSE spokeswoman says a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender. The packages include occupational therapy, physiotherapy and chiropody as well as home-help hours.

‘The arrangements commenced on July 1st, 2102, for a minimum of 12 months. The new arrangements refer to new packages to be allocated during that time,’ she says. A number of providers have won the contracts in each region, and about three-quarters of those are private operators.” [ii]


We’ve joked about management-speak or bafflegab [iii] for years; it is an amusing symptom of a deep malaise. However, it does help us to locate the malaise. When we hear of the composers of “mission statements”, “standard operating procedures”, “core competencies” and the likes, we should no longer laugh but approach the source with a view to excising it.

Anyone on the staff of the HSE who thinks that it makes sense when talking about home care to say that, “a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender.”, must GO and go soon before they do any further damage. There must be some managers in the HSE who can be relied upon to manage in the meaningful sense of the word. It’s time they showed a little integrity and spoke up.


It’s not necessary for me to expand here on the difference between home-care and a standardised package which can be procured from competing operators because any thinking person is perfectly aware of the difference. One would have to be baffled by one’s own bafflegab, blinded by ambition, indoctrinated beyond the reach of common sense or plain stupid to think seriously that home-care is a product.


A leftist response might talk about this in terms of the move to privatise but privatisation is simply a consequence – a very profitable – consequence of what is happening here. Leftists would do better to think in terms of a powerful clique – even cult – having gained control over management and administration.


This is managerialism and its practitioners are confined neither to public nor private industry. When they assume control, the service or industry will be changed to operate in their interests. At this stage they are fairly large in number, so getting rid of them will cause unemployment but it will have to be done. They are redundant and should be treated as such. The problem will be finding real managers who can reorient an enterprise to its real purpose.

The recent death (August 25th) of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, prompted quite a bit of discussion. Now it’s prompted this short piece which makes the point that the Apollo project has a lesson for Ireland at this time, i.e. just before the Irish state at last gets access to some limited investment capital.

Back in the day there were arguments against Apollo, that the money would be better spent in other ways. However, Apollo was a big, big project which asked new questions, pushed research, came up with answers and materials, and left an engineering legacy scattered across the U.S.

From a political perspective there is a tendency to see Apollo as a cold war project trying to give America a lead in the great technology race of the time or as an attempt to wave an American flag in everyone’s face. All of this can be true but still hide a more useful truth. What is usually forgotten is that Apollo was a state objective, that it was state funded and state managed. If it is viewed as an economic and development success, it is telling us something. It is telling us that despite protestations to the contrary, the US can adopt socialist approaches and that they are effective.

Ireland will have limited capital. What seems to be about to happen is that entrepreneurs, innovators and ideas will compete for a slice of the money. This is a depressingly familiar approach. Most people know that it will result in waste but it’s hard to argue with nonsense when it’s expressed in the only terms that receive attention but terms that have been drained of all useful meaning. Only in some mad, neo-liberal fantasy does a bag of money of itself call forth enterprise, innovation and ideas. That wasn’t the Apollo way and it shouldn’t be the Irish way.

In the real world of projects success is tied to effective management. That means breaking the big job down into its constituent manageable parts, then delegating, contracting and controlling finance until bit by precious bit the parts come together. On anything remotely of a national scale research, innovation and enterprise will start with a major project – a huge idea – and a considerable budget. Realisation of the big idea requires that same disciplined project management but writ large and it relies on defining the building blocks, costing and financial controls. The building blocks are projects in themselves necessary to the big idea. They can be to do with manufacturing or building but in the early stages they will mostly be to do with research and development, trying to solve a problem, to find a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before or in a way that hasn’t been tried before. Each building block for the big idea is put out there for innovative companies to see. Then they compete to convince the management of the big idea that for a price they can solve the problem and deliver. The successful companies then get finance and are expected to deliver; over the course of their work they will be regularly progress chased. This is the Apollo way. It’s the sane, business-like way, the complete antithesis of scattering money among entrepreneurs and hoping for some undefined good outcome.

In a nutshell the idea is to deliver on some enormous but useful mission and in doing so, fund and drive a plethora of development projects that will leave a legacy of expertise that will survive long after the realisation of the big idea.

Here’s the fundamental problem: Ireland doesn’t have a big idea. There’s no Irish equivalent of “going to the moon”, no obvious Apollo. Ireland too seems to be particularly cursed with just one view of capitalism and enterprise: that of feeding SMEs as if they were all the same. However, a talk with any small manufacturer or developer reveals a keen awareness of thriving by serving a larger operator which generates projects requiring answers.

What is needed is a fresh look at state enterprise (That will mean abandoning the tired orthodoxy which limits public discussion today.) and a search for one or a small number of national projects. Defining a national project means looking at what Ireland wants to achieve with limited capital. The conventional approach would be to build or install labour intensive things. However, Irish commentators witter on about research, development, knowledge economy, hubs, expertise etc. Clearly building and installation – while they might deliver useful infrastructure – are not enough. What is needed is a huge project which keeps installation of imported technology to a minimum, which will generate many, many new/original technical problems – the sort of problems that can be addressed locally so as to create and leave a coherent pool of expertise and active companies. Ireland needs to be the site of expertise in an emerging industry or the site of expertise in a new approach to an older industry and one way to do that is the Apollo approach to a national project.

When discussion goes down this road, it can be hi-jacked by yet another piece of tired conventional Irish wisdom: that because we live on a green, windswept island surrounded by choppy seas the simple answer is renewables. There might be a big idea left there on which a new industry could be built but clearly development of wind and wave technology now has limited scope and the bulk of technology will be imported.[i]

Taking the argument beyond this point and giving examples risks the ridicule of conservatives and cynics. It also risks diverting the discussion away from the proposed method and into a limited discussion of the respective merits of big ideas. Suggestions are for a later debate. For now the debate involves two very different approaches: the familiar neo-liberal approach of scattering investment money versus a much greater degree of care with scarce capital.

[i] While nothing like the Severn potential exists in Ireland, there may be possibilities in becoming expert in small scale tidal energy but that’s for discussion if and when the argument presented here can be carried.

A complex computer system has spectacularly crashed with spectacular consequences. I’m sure that there are IT failures of this type very regularly. This one has received public attention for obvious reasons.

Reaction to it, however, has at times seemed crazy, especially the demands and deadlines for it to be fixed. There seems little appreciation of engineering reality. There is moreover the likelihood that senior managers share this blinkered perspective and have taken decisions based on “best practice” in financial and administrative terms.

It is completely daft to demand that it be fixed, to try to impose deadlines for its being fixed or to enquire into in isolation. This is a breakdown, a failure, no one knows exactly what caused it and no one knows exactly when it will be fixed.

Here’s a reasonable news article setting out the difficulties:

In detail it is complex. And, we find ourselves a long way down the road in terms of dependence on these systems. The fundamental issues are however simple. Over the years basic mistakes have been made by senior managers who did not realise what they were doing and were under pressure from competitors. The public was uninvolved because the issue was thought to be too complex for public discussion. That’s how elites take control and that’s often ok when those taking control really do know what they are doing.

Take this from the Guardian article linked above:  “This was not inevitable – you can always avoid problems like this if you test sufficiently,” said David Silverstone, delivery and solutions manager for NMQA, which provides automated testing software to a number of banks, though not RBS/NatWest. “But unless you keep an army of people who know exactly how the system works, there may be problems maintaining it.”

Here’s something worth bearing in mind. Despite stunning improvements in testing, anything beyond the most basic software CANNOT be fully tested before it is put into service because the number of variables is too great.  That’s why David Silverstone said “sufficiently” and not “fully”. The user runs with it and hopes for the best. “Software maintenance” has always been a risible concept. What it means is that the customer runs the tests as day to day usage and pays the developer to patch whatever is discovered. It’s not a scam; there’s no other way.

The problem now is compounded in that complex programmes are being run in parallel with and on top of older applications. The last couple of decades saw a problematic coincidence.  At a time when the overall systems became more complex and more ambitious there was a management fashion to offload not IT operators but real software developers and to buy in “turn-key” applications which may have been modified to give the appearance of bespoke systems. It’s a recipe for profound crashes, and everyone in engineering generally and anyone who has given serious thought to complex systems has been watching it develop over the years.

In most large organisations there are problems such as this waiting to happen. There’s no easy fix at this stage; we are too far gone. Fundamentally wrong management decisions have been made and cannot be undone quickly or perhaps at all.

There are two linked errors in Tom Garvin’s article in the Irish Times of Mayday.

Firstly, managerialism is not exclusive to UCD or to universities generally. It had infected and depressed many other industries before it arrived quite late in education. Secondly, Tom links managerialism to business and argues that business approaches have no place in university management. Now, the latter may be true but the former does not support it.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

It is plain stupid to admire Michael D. Higgins’ speech on university education* by putting it along with the man on the mantelpiece. This is the first in a series of speeches that will punctuate his presidency and already the danger of wasting his election, his time and our opportunity is all too obvious.

Let’s look at the aftermath of the speech. It attracted admiration but mostly silence. The silence was encouraging. There was neither explicit disagreement nor was there – and this is very, very important – any argument that MDH had strayed beyond the constitutional limits of the presidency.

And yet, . . ! And yet, this speech set down a fundamentally different approach to higher education than the one we’ve been following. So, is it to be the mantelpiece and periodic dusting until it’s safe to bin the work or is there another approach? I think there is and I think that socialists and other progressives had better get their thinking caps on because MDH will deliver presidential addresses for just seven short years and already it is clear that their potential may be wasted.

The Labour Party has one of its own in the Áras and another one of its own in charge of Marlborough Street. The Labour Minister for Education holds one key to admitting the thinking of the Labour President to official policy and strategy. Ruairi Quinn can instruct the HEA to examine the President’s speech, compare it to current HEA policy/strategy and make recommendations as to what needs to be done to change direction towards achieving the prospect described in the President’s speech.

*Here’s the speech:

There is a need for a shower of realism over many who talk of Ireland’s educated workforce and the need to bend education to serve the knowledge/smart/information economy/society. I fear that the level of education is pretty poor in precisely the areas that emerging society demands. I fear too that those who talk most of the knowledge/smart/information economy/society have reflected least on what it means.

The backward workforce

Too many of my students have poor literacy skills. This is a common topic of conversation among university lecturers. So too is the lack of general knowledge among students. It is far less common to have such conversations about the poor command of pretty basic math, science and technology. I don’t want to clutter this piece with examples but an archetype might write “shouldof”, think that the USSR still exists, be unable to manipulate percentages, have no grasp of statistics and consider basic science a no-go area for all but the expert. Such a person betokens neither an educated workforce nor a competent citizenry.  

Not so smart policy

No one in their right mind would argue that that the kind of society and economy determined by increased application of technology – especially IT – does not require experts or does not require quite a few experts in these fields. However, no one who has looked at the effect and the likely future effect of these same technologies on society and the workplace would place too great an emphasis on the creation of an excessively large numbers of experts. For a long, long time technology has had a democratic vector: it demands proportionately greater numbers of effective, creative users than experts in the field itself.  The danger in the current pre-occupation with science education is that it might be successful and produce two categories of frustration: a glut of experts with no career prospects and a mass of people without the skills to prosper or create prosperity. A considered, realistic education policy will try to ensure that mass education will deliver citizens and workers who are competent to contribute in our time.

The smart worker or even the smart citizen

The world of work – or at least that part of it that pays reasonably well – that has emerged over, say, the past 30 years demands that people be articulate, literate, numerate and informed. (I should add “secure” but this would open up another argument.) These are the preconditions for flexibility, creativity and innovation. There is absolutely no point in talking about a smart society or economy unless the mass of people are pretty smart.

I was posting over at Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s blog   ( when I thought that I should make the point on my own blog. Ferdinand was saying in support of changing university education that, “we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training.” I disagreed. Of course increased numbers and different times mean change but the whole purpose of increased access is to make higher learning available to all who can benefit. Moreover, that’s what the world of work now requires.

More vocational training rather than education is the demand of people – including students – who fail to appreciate what has happened to work and yet are aware that too many graduates complete their education lacking important skills.

The “information society” has consequences for university education. As a term, it is often reduced to meaningless guff but it should not be dismissed by thoughtful people. In careless use it becomes fused with “knowledge society” and provides a justification for a pretty daft approach to education: an increased emphasis on mere training for the majority and an increase in the number of PhDs. I don’t want to talk right now about the latter but training in preference to education is precisely what, let’s call it, industry doesn’t need right now.

Anyone who has given serious thought to the concept of an “information society” either from a political or a business perspective realises pretty quickly that such a society depends not merely on skilled people but on educated, thinking, and – yes – innovative people. In short, the humanities graduate’s time has come! (I recall commenting during a discussion with a group of lecturers that innovation is what separates a 2.1 from a 2.2.)

There are however “employability” problems with some graduates and the problems have nothing to do with the traditional university approach to learning. Too many students lack the skills necessary to making the best use of their education. Too many are not fully literate, cannot cope with the mathematics essential to a full life today, have no real understanding of technology or economics, have poor general knowledge and cannot present themselves or their work in public. These are mere skills and could never figure in a university education. However, it should not be possible to achieve the status of graduate without these skills. They are essential and they should be mastered while in primary and secondary school. Most lecturers are aware of the literacy and the general knowledge problem. Many may be aware that perhaps the majority of students are poor communicators and that work today demands effective participation at meetings and making presentations. Some lecturers may not have noticed the mathematics problem. What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples that I’ve come across. Students frequently have no grasp of the magnitude of numbers. They would find the creation of mathematical expressions for, say, a spreadsheet very difficult. The concept of random distribution would be new to them. I won’t labour this on into basic science, technology and economics. The point is that today effective citizenship – never mind a job – requires these skills. While someone without them should not be at university, most certainly a graduate must have them.

A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them. There can be no question of awarding grades, let alone making it part of the degree programme. This is about finding competence; it is pass or fail. I realize that suggesting such tests – and I’m not talking about labour intensive exams. – seems impractical or extreme for institutes of higher learning but I can’t come up with another short term remedy.

Suddenly my largely ignored blog is attracting attention!

 What follows has already been posted at

I have been trying to emphasise the point that management in the universities has been infected with a problem that is widespread. I’ve been critical of what I choose to label managerialism for quite some time and long before I uttered a word on universities.

It is at best evasion and at worst daft to characterise this is an assault on – even a rejection of – management. Nothing happens in any organisation without an effective management system. Criticism of managerialism is a defence of management. It is essential that managers and those who teach management create a clear distinction between what they do and what has been going on.

Staff have always poked fun at management. That’s how people got along but it is no longer funny. Sure, it is much easier now to poke fun but the joke is laden with worry as workers and managers in very many organisations despair at the guff, the job titles, the waste, and the self serving systems.

Denial won’t do. Managers need to act.

It was inevitable that Tom Garvin’s piece, “Grey philistines taking over our universities”, in the Irish Times of Mayday ( would excite reaction among educators and academics. The cause of at least some of what distresses Tom is the phenomenon of managerialism.

Now, it needs to be emphasised that universities are not uniquely plagued by this problem. Managerialism started in the private sector. It flourished in a society that had reduced thinking and management – particularly management – to a basket of easily learned and often repeated pieties. It then infected the public sector via business consultants. It is characterised by extraordinary salaries, new and extraordinary job titles, unnecessary work in the creation of new information flows and jargon. It will be hard to eradicate because considerable numbers are now employed in a layer of waste and because their best defence is that they express themselves in the language of efficiency, innovation and management, while being destructive of all three.

We need to begin to take seriously the pernicious effect of jargon, guff and blather on our lives. It’s certainly not new; Orwell’s “Newspeak” and Marcuse’s observations that “free” had come to mean “market” and that “intellectual” and “bureaucrat” had become terms of abuse spring to mind. Now that I think about it, Alice in Wonderland springs to mind too! There is of course a wickedly funny side to it. The, let’s call them, “goingforwardeers” and “drilldowners” provide hours of amusement. Recently a PR representative for Bus Eireann told a radio interviewer of plans to “roll out” new buses. Interestingly, the interviewer didn’t laugh.

The sheer scale of the balderdash, the confidence of its users, the lack of media criticism and the rise of a highly paid and unproductive elite suggest that perhaps something rather serious has happened.

It is of course a problem for public discourse when participants will not or cannot speak plainly. In most cases nothing very remarkable is being said; the jargon merely masks a vacuous lack of originality. What is remarkable is the lack of a challenging voice and the failure of media to clarify. It is worrying to think that there is a protective consensus around nonsense.

Anyone troubled by this consensus would be wide of the mark to blame capitalists or business. In trying to identify who gains, look not to the super rich but to a new elite who master the language of obscurity. These are the composers of mission statements, the change managers, the authors of impenetrable reports and pointless restructuring. They are many, they are relatively wealthy, they exhibit an extraordinary degree of solidarity and they are not subjected to public scrutiny. They are a nuisance – possibly, a menace – in that they smother innovation, creativity, and argument. A fake progressive and fake business lexicon is used to mask a layer of drones.

By all means let’s have fun with this. Let’s make the utterance of “key performance indicator” a capital offence! Let’s call for the closure of the Podge and Rodge School of Management! But, let us also begin to end this nonsense. Sooner rather than later searing clarity will be needed in government, business and the public sphere.