Skip navigation

Tag Archives: university

I’m supposed to be lecturing on politics but in reality I’m teaching remedial English.” It would be comforting to report that this was heard recently but it was decades ago. A basic failure in Irish education is now long standing and anyone active in social media can see that it is extensive. It’s in the news again because an OECD report bears out what university teachers see daily and talk about constantly.* It is in stark contrast to the belief in Ireland that the education system is basically sound.

Decades of remedial teaching at university point to a fundamental failure and right now that failure is in particular need of clarification because it is becoming entangled in a more complex set of concerns over 3rd level student performance.**

Here’s a proposition: There is no point in admitting to secondary education someone who is not literate and numerate, and is without a good level of general knowledge.

Here’s a second proposition: There is no point in admitting to university someone who is not literate and numerate, lacks extensive general knowledge and a good grasp of science/technology, and who is incapable of independent study and thought.

The two propositions are based on the simple belief that it is futile to ask someone to do something which they are clearly incapable of doing. It is ludicrous at 2nd level to set out to teach, say, literature or maths to someone who cannot spell, punctuate or cope with numbers. It is equally ludicrous at 3rd level to attempt higher education with someone who is not already educated to quite a high standard.

Almost everyone teaching at 3rd level talks of illiteracy and they regale one another with fabulous examples of lack of general knowledge. Many realise too that their students cannot do basic maths and – while proficient domestic computer users – have little scientific or technical knowledge.

Of course the problems are not universal; there are many students well-prepared to thrive in higher learning. However, the difficulty is not that an occasional unprepared student slips in but that they are not at all uncommon. It is tempting to ask how someone lacking the skills mentioned above could possibly have been awarded a Leaving Certificate of any kind, never mind one carrying the points required to gain entry to the next level of education.

Part of the answer and an obvious partial remedy lies at the transition between primary and secondary school. Thanks to technology it is now relatively easy and inexpensive to ensure that no one can enter 2nd level education who is as yet incapable of benefiting from it. A basic test of literacy, numeracy and general knowledge is required. There is no question of grades; it’s a matter of ready or not ready and it’s certainly not the reintroduction of the Primary Certificate. The test could be on-line and inexpensive. It could be taken any time a teacher thinks a pupil is up to it and it could be re-taken as many times as required. ***

Having taken steps to ensure that primary education fulfils one of its functions the foundation exists for secondary education to perform. If doubts remain, however, that the holder of a Leaving Certificate may still be unable to profit from higher learning, it would be open to the HEA to require all applicants to pass an on-line test which too could be re-taken as required.****

By neglecting basic education Ireland is creating significant inefficiency in the entire education system. Remedial learning is being pushed higher and higher. Unless similar is happening in comparable countries, Irish education risks becoming a laughing stock. Our own education professionals are laughing already; that’s how they cope.



** student retention rates, the mistaken belief that students of modest ability are not suitable degree candidates, the effect of reducing students to mere consumers, managerialism leading to reliance on on-line lecture notes and reaching “learning objectives”, lack of reading etc.

Carl O’Brien’s Irish Times piece on the OECD report is published with a companion piece which muddies the water:

*** There is no point in pretending that this does not have profound ramifications for children with learning disabilities and for children who do not speak English. The point here, however, is that no one should be asked to do that which they cannot. Indeed it might be argued that sending a child to secondary school on the basis of age alone is abuse.

**** Clearly it could be argued that the pre-3rd level test obviates the need for the earlier test. This however would be to suggest that entry to 3rd level is the only purpose of education and fails to share the responsibility for good basic education between primary and secondary educators.

The 3rd level test also opens the possibility of a significant 3rd level access sector.


I wrote recently about how concern over commercialisation of the universities was masking the larger problem – and frankly, the scandal – that is the usurpation of conventional management. A relatively new elite have changed the objectives of the universities to their own interest. In doing so they have used a familiar lexicon to disguise their efforts, to make them appear efficient and business-like. They have misused access to information systems to invert the relationship between management information and management objectives.*

My reason for returning to the topic so soon is that reaction to the original piece, while oddly favourable, has missed the point. Many of those who’ve spoken to me about the piece assumed that it was taking sides in the entirely bogus debate that is frontline workers versus administrators. It’s worth emphasising that what has been done to university management is common to many – perhaps most – organisations. I’ve had lecturers and post grad workers say to me that I was right to comment on the growth of admin. staff and the decline in academic staff. I made no such comment.

With the rise of electronic and the decline of paper systems three things were inevitable. Firstly, many of those who operated the paper systems would have to go or adapt. Secondly, the electronic systems would require technical and user support staff. Thirdly, the increase in data production would create a need for more administration. In short, it’s not in the least paradoxical that more efficient systems would demand staff increases. All of this can and should be managed. Change is not a recent phenomenon and has always had to be managed. The contrived specialisation of the likes of “change management” is as much a fetish as the production of management information for its own sake.

Setting frontline workers – be they doctors, firefighters or academics – against administrators suits those who are the real problem. They will side with the frontline workers and condemn administration in the language of efficiency. If successful, they are so well entrenched that it is they who will decide which administrators will go and what is best done by contractors. Thus, aided by their apparent critics in academia, their grip on universities will tighten at the expense of poorly paid staff and those remaining managers who might have offered some opposition.


Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations.

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation (in this case a university) might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.

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:

The Higher Education Authority’s document, Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, can be accessed here:

While it is a disgrace, we can of course to have some fun. Complete bollocks invites derision. Ok, ok, ok, let’s play before getting to the serious point. As slagging goes, I think this will do:

A Prayer for The Landscape Process

For the sake of the stakeholders let us pray that the landscape process is robust and sustainable with sufficient key drivers, outcomes and benchmarks, that it is fit for purpose and in accordance with best practice, that its diversity of mission matches the diversity of needs, pathways, clusters and linkages and that its knowledge transfer services can keep pace with its rolling programme of thematic reviews. Amen.

Fun over! Jesus wept; this is the Higher Education Authority! Talking in bafflegab, unspeak or complete bollocks betokens managerialism which must be rooted out of the public service. The Minister for Education or the Oireachtas Committee on Education could take a stand by sending this report back marked “Unacceptable. Rewrite.” It is probable that without the scaffolding of fashionable buzzwords and phrases, the entire structure of the report would fall apart. Let’s put the question in a crude and easily understood form: without the complete bollocks is there anything of substance here?


Lest it be thought that I’m keeping quiet about it, I want to state at the outset that Orla Tinsley [i] is a friend of mine. I was one of her teachers in her earliest days at UCD and we’ve stayed in touch. I like her and I feel very protective of her. Now, that’s out of the way, let’s get on.

Ireland has the highest incidence of cystic fibrosis in the world. It could be said to be a particularly Irish problem. [ii]

Because infection poses a much greater risk, those hospitalised with CF have an absolute need for an area of their own.

Let’s accept that money to spend on health services is very limited now (It wasn’t always so.) and that there are many, many worthy claims on that money. We must therefore prioritise. We must set our priorities not by way of who can generate most noise or get most people on the street or imply some financial threat but by thought and discussion. [iii]

In terms of how public money is spent we need to identify what is important, what is of least importance and things in between. So where does CF beds fit into this? It doesn’t get more important than death. The very acceptance of special hospital conditions emphasises this. It isn’t a matter of quality of life. It’s a question of life or death.

Now if someone can tell me about a greater spending priority, I’ll concede and agree that spending should be routed there first. If someone has squandered resources intended for CF hospital facilities, their priorities are very different to mine or possibly they have no sense of priority and if so, they must go.

One of the best courses I took at UCD years ago was John Baker’s course in Political Argument. I opted to do an essay on Fairness. It turned out to be complex and interesting. Don’t worry, I won’t give details. However, I’ve lately been commenting on how “fairness” has come to be such a weasel word, used to signal virtue without saying anything very much.

This morning I heard Micheál Martin interviewed on RTE Radio and he was stressing the importance of “fairness”. Needless to say, the interviewer didn’t ask what was meant by the term. If it retains any meaning in political discourse, it now means doing nothing that would change the existing structures of economic inequality. It means that if there are to be charges or cuts, then everyone will pay and perhaps the rich will pay a little more but their income must remain so many multiples of the minimum wage.

What it boils down to is this: “I’m paid ten times the minimum wage because I’m worth it and the market says so. We live in tough times and I’m prepared to do my bit but it wouldn’t be fair to reduce me to five times or even eight times the wage of a café worker.”

Jesus wept! The interviewer didn’t even ask!!!

I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.

[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.

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:

I don’t want to say a word about Garret FitzGerald’s political career or his political perspective, his journalism or his other writing. I hardly knew him and became an acquaintance only after he retired. You see, I began bumping into him at all sorts of gatherings but what these gatherings had in common was political conversation. This was when I began to appreciate Citizen Garret.

Here was a former Taoiseach who turned up and stayed for hours. He didn’t need to be invited, didn’t need to be THE speaker. He was a far cry from a typical star political attraction who breezed in on time, delivered an anodyne speech, took polite applause and left. No, Garret took citizenship seriously.

He wanted to take a full part in national debates and “full” meant listening as well as speaking. He was looking for a persuasive argument and willing to change if he heard one. He disagreed and he required that you disagree with him.

Two little stories from the fairly recent past:

Tom Garvin was speaking in one of the large lecture theatres in UCD. Garret was in the audience. I heard a man in front of me whisper to his friend, “Poor Garret is lookin’ shook; he’s nodding off.” A couple of seconds later Garret looked up, “Tom, have you considered …?” Citizen Garret was very much on the ball!

On another occasion at a smaller gathering (It might have been the one at which I realised I was on nodding terms with Garret.) I was talking to two young women, students. They noticed Garret and one told me of a question she’d love to ask him. I advised her to go ask him but she was young and in awe, and anyway he was deep in conversation. Then he moved off in search of a seat. I gestured encouragement and over they went. They must have addressed him as Dr. because I heard him say “Garret”. All three sat and conversation began. They were still at it when I waved them goodnight.

Garret showed that Active Citizenship is the highest rank in society.

Ferdinand Von Prondzynski is at it again in  The Irish Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2010. He argues that there is no way adequately to fund universities without the reintroduction of fees. That may be so but it is long past time to hear his argument stripped of nonsense.

Something needs to be said at the outset: There is no connection between fees and the fact that poor people don’t go to college. Poverty determines one’s level of ambition and educational attainment, and keeps the poor away from third level education in any significant numbers. Apart from, let’s call them, access interventions which seek to increase the number of exceptions who get to college from poor backgrounds, any real change will require a systematic assault on poverty.  

Ferdinand offers a strange view that ‘free fees’ has undermined public understanding of inequality. Firstly, he seems to think that “many people” are beguiled by the absence of university fees into thinking “that we live in an egalitarian society in which access to this vital stage of personal formation is free and available to everyone, regardless of background or means.” I have never come across anyone who has so lost their grip on reality as to think like this. Secondly, he argues that the position of the deprived has “in some ways” been made worse “because some well-meaning people thought that ‘free fees’ had solved all social disadvantage problems and that no further resources were needed.” As before, I doubt that anyone thinks like this.

“What changed in the 1990s”, he says, “was that the rich no longer needed to pay and, to be fair, that some middle income groups now found it easier to afford college.” This is partially true but distracts attention from the fundamental improvement that has been ‘free fees’. Certainly rich people, even fabulously rich people, no longer pay fees. However, truth disappears in draining the word, “afford” of all meaning. My recollection of the days of paying fees has as typical, say, a technician on or slightly above the average industrial wage struggling hard to find fees to send a son or daughter to college. In some cases there was a need to find the money for fees for more than one family member. It is downright wrong to speak of such people being able to afford fees. The truth is that the removal of fees relieved many families of a dreadful burden.

Finally, Ferdinand says, “It is maybe a harsh thing to say, but “free fees” have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.” This is a plainly bizarre claim. I assume that it is based on the hope or possibility that the fees money which the rich and the likes of the struggling technician would have paid might have gone to the poor.

In the Irish blogosphere I’ve pursued Ferdinand on this issue. He steadfastly refuses to confer meaning on his notion of “afford”, to say who should pay fees. His is an argument of an all too familiar type which offers that simple solution: the rich will pay and all will be well for everyone else. The truth is that unless the majority of students pay fees, the income will be small and, no matter who pays what, the poor will still be excluded.

Ferdinand’s blog is here:

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.

By all means let’s have a public debate over university funding and fees but let’s first clear the ground of a tuft of oft-repeated nonsense. The notion that poor people are denied a university education because money goes to pay the fees of those who can afford it is silly.

Firstly, access for the poor is much more complex and deserves separate and serious thought and action.

Secondly, while there are people who can easily afford to pay fees, they are too few to make much difference and thoughts of sliding scales for the not so wealthy emphasise the point.

Thirdly, “afford” is not a simple, binary concept. There are those who might find the money but who can ill-afford to pay. Sure, “free fees” did not alter the class composition of students but it did lift a burden from many families who would otherwise strain to find the money. It is both cruel and dishonest to label these people as middle class and imply that they are whiners who are pretending that they cannot afford fees.

There is no painless “the-rich-will-pay” way to reintroduce fees. If significant money is to be raised through fees, most people will have to pay. Face this and debate the reintroduction of fees.

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.

The debate about the reintroduction of university fees in Ireland is ignoring a large and crucial group of people. They are being lost in poorly informed references to class and the kind of failure to understand the complexity of the term, “to afford”, which suggests that many commentators are very well off indeed.

The main beneficiaries of the abolition of university fees are not the rich. They are those who previously struggled and, yes, suffered; they paid fees, which they could ill afford.

Of course aiding the rich in any way is difficult to defend. That’s why those who want a return to fees emphasise the point. However, in this context it is irrelevant as the amount of money is not significant. Let those who are serious about gross inequality in income, talk about tackling it. Of course the number of students from poor families reaching university remains a disgrace that needs to be addressed.

None of this should divert attention from the reality that thousands of families were liberated from years of scrimping and saving by Niamh Breathneach’s progressive initiative.