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on what do we want from our universities anyway?

This morning, over breakfast, because I was alone, I happened on a debate between Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Brian Lucey and Stephen Kinsella. Those links are to their respective twitter accounts because that’s where the debate – on the surface at least – was happening. Ferdinand also blogs here and Stephen here.

Some declaration of interest: Ferdinand von Prondzynski was head honcho at DCU during my second run of time there and I’ve engaged with Stephen Kinsella on matters regarding debt forgiveness in Ireland in the past. Brian Lucey I’ve had no direct contact with although from his twitter posts I suspect he takes a healthy interest in the Property Pin where I occasionally (although less frequently of late) post on matters relating to property economics. I do occasionally find his limpet like questioning of assorted Green Party members entertaining on occasion. Until they started blocking him.

Anyway, I think this discussion had its roots in this blog post by von Prondzynski here about financial issues for a university in the US. The university in question is a) more highly ranked than any university in Ireland b) has more students and c) has a far bigger budget than the Irish university system as a whole.

Obviously twitter is a lousy place for an indepth discussion and to be honest, it’s hard for me to join in when I follow all three of the participants, only one of them follows me and my account is private so the other two can’t see anything. Plus there are times that 140 characters just is not enough.

One of the things that caught my attention about the debate – and there were a few – was this one by @vonprond:

@brianmlucey Our problem is that we cannot let go of the idea that universities are glorified secondary schools in a public bureaucracy

This caught my attention for a lot of reasons. I have never had the idea that a university is a glorified secondary school. When I was back in DCU for a postgrad a while back, during @vonprond’s tenure as boss actually, had I realised that he just saw his college as a glorified secondary school, I’d probably have taken my money elsewhere.

Most people in Ireland don’t see university as a glorified secondary school. They see it as a route to greater economic success and over the history of university education in Ireland this has been more generally true than untrue I think.

What is lacking in Ireland, however, is some sort of recognition that we don’t know how our education system as a whole should function and when I see people like these discussing the matter, along with an equity trader called Jeff, I question whether they are really completely attached to the reality of what education is supposed to achieve.

Both @vonprond and @brianmlucey have been on the record as being in favour of university fees. I am not sure what @stephenkinsella’s view on that subject is so can’t comment on that. However, when I see a debate on education functioning purely on where the money is coming from and how to rank yourself in terms of universities being marked by the amount of money coming (hence someone’s ability to recommend we do it on brand awareness) then I think there’s an excessive shallowness to the debate. In that respect, the only statement out of the debate that I would agree with in principle is this from @stephenkinsella:

@brianmlucey @jaff3 @vonprond think the important metric is return on investment, BBS clearly a positive, has been for 15 years.

How much money you spend is of secondary importance to how you spend it.

Ireland has a bunch of universities. We have Trinity, the so called brand leader, UCD, UCC and NUIG and NUIM, and UL and DCU. I don’t think I’ve left out any there. We have a bunch of Institutes of Technology in Waterford, Cork, Dublin and Tralee and Letterkenny and Galway-Mayo and Sligo and Athlone. And Tallaght and Blanchardstown. I may have missed one or two there because frankly it’s hard to keep up. On the tertiary education side, we have a lot of supply and we have an interesting amount of brand awareness in that the at least two of the institutes of technology, Dublin and Waterford, have aspirations to be universities. This is because they are aware of the value of being a university.

But all of this – to my mind – is a bit superficial. When I went to college the first time, DCU was a brand new university – I think the Dublin City University and University of Limerick Acts were passed around 1988 and I started in DCU in 1990. Did the change in name from NIHE Dublin to DCU change much at the time? For most applicants to that college I don’t think it did. At the time, DCU had, compared to Trinity and UCD, a higher proportion of students applying from outside Dublin City and at the time – though this will have changed in 20 years I suspect – it was thought that this was because the range of courses on offer there was different to what was available in other universities around the country – ie, there was stuff you could do in DCU that just wasn’t possible in UCC or NUIM for example.

In my case, this was sort of true. I read applied languages (translating with interpreting) at DCU, which you might, if you’re not really all that clued in on languages courses, think was just a glorified arts course. It’s why I went to DCU and not, for example, to UCC. In the meantime, I suspect a lot of the arts courses focussing on languages have upped the applied section of their course rather than concentrating purely on obscure literature.

DCU has since modified that course because – from what I can see – their metric has changed to be more bottomline oriented. I mean that in a partly negative way because – in my experience – companies which pursue the short term bottomline run into cultural problems after a while; this includes every single high profile bankruptcy in Ireland over the past 10 years. You need some vision and in terms of the debate about university education in Ireland, there is far too much debate about money and not enough about vision.

Where are we going to get the money from – we need fees – sensible other countries have fees – blah blah blah blah. But we don’t have an overall picture of  what it is we want to get from our universities. We can’t do this at the micro level – we are useless at that as witnessed by the fact that we have loads of unemployed law and architecture graduates because at the micro level this was seen as a good thing to get into for individuals. Unfortunately both at the micro and macro level this is going to cause problems.

Over in the UK, they are going through major arguments about funding universities, and student fees, and how to claw back the cost of university education. There have been arguments about graduate taxes, student loans, and whether either is fair on particular sections of society. This debate is not unique to Ireland and in both cases, the debate centres on the money issue rather than the vision issue. And possibly ethos.

At some stage about 10 years ago I also spoke to someone in DCU about possibly writing a PhD in a languages related discipline. I can’t remember exactly what I was looking into – because the idea got killed very quickly. It got killed because of the time frame involved. You could look at getting a PhD written and passed in – for example – computer science or microbiology or biochemistry in DCU in about 3 years. When I spoke to one of their humanities people, the time scale I was looking at was 7 years. The impression i took away was that if it took me less than 7 years to write it, I’d get a masters out of the thesis and not a PhD. I thought about my life a lot at the time and decided that if this was humanities academia, I wanted no part of it.

What am I driving at? Well it’s the diet function of life – a concentration on superficial numbers. Why did I go to DCU at the time? Simply because as an NIHE it had a superlative reputation for turning out graduates good at what they studied. I’m not sure it still has that same reputation to be honest. I went the second time because it was the only college that a) ran a course I wanted to do and b) was close to home. I’d go to UCD to do maths if they recognised the concept of lifelong learning in that zone.

University education in Ireland is curiously one dimensionalp; it concentrates – on a primary market of school leavers. Its distance offering sucks and its part time offerings can be hit or miss.

I’m inclined to think this debate is overly shallow for the moment as it concentrates on short term gains – obviously the importance of brand awareness is to get in students in the short term. But you don’t build brand awareness by merging DCU with Trinity as I think someone suggested this morning. If DCU’s brand is such that this is the only solution, then Trinity is not benefitted by this either in the long term or the short term.

A lot of brand purchasing has gone on with DCU. They have two external colleges now, namely what used to be Saint Patrick’s College of Education and the Royal Irish Academy of Music. A key issue for DCU in my view was the utterly dumb name they went for at the time. However, they are stuck with that now.

For the purposes of the institutes of technology – university status is not the be all and end all in world terms. California Institute of Technology and MIT are two key examples of what can be done on that ticket. What matters is that someone gets in to the top position and decides to be a centre of excellence in some key areas and then puts work into getting there. Not all of that is money – a lot of it is tidying up bureaucracy. To some extent, that can be done within the individual organisations although I’m not sure too many people in the Irish university system understand that.

At a macro level, however, we really need to look at things. Much of the grief I see in the system is based on glory hunting. Take a simple example. For years, we trained nurses through the hospital system. Now we train them through the university system. Why is this? Because nursing organisations wanted greater brand recognition for what they did. I’m not sure this has really benefitted nursing though over the period when nurses worked towards RGN and SRN.

Ironically – as it happens – UL radio ads are running on my radio RIGHT NOW.

I’ve long felt that the whole education system in Ireland needs to be looked at. We possibly need to look at how we interlink research and teaching at third level. I’m not sure we do that optimally – and I also think we need to stop trying to glorify things on a superficial level. There isn’t any point in saying DCU  in 1990 was better than NIHED was. It wasn’t. It pretty much had new headed paper and that was about it.

We have social issues in that some jobs are seen as better than other jobs. Despite the untold chaos visited upon the country by bankers, that’s still seen as a better job than, for example, street cleaning and nursing. This feeds into our university system whereby we have huge high points for desirable courses – caused by our tendency to value things on the bottomline in general – rather than in courses which might actually benefit society as a whole. In some ways, it’s a hierarchical level of brand awareness. Our universities are not better off for it.

I think that the best way for the universities to improve their brand awareness is not to concentrate on the money they are getting but how they spend it. The UK, for example, is riddled with universities offering courses that are designed to get in students and therefore money (note the arguments in the science arena regarding complementary medicines courses getting Sc degrees) but which have the ultimate impact of diluting the college’s reputation (looking at the University of Westminster which as PCL was the place to take an interpreting course in the UK (declaration of interest – alma mater and I have that qualification)).

In some respects, however, I think the colleges are stymied by the glory hunting of their hierarchy. I haven’t set up my own business but if I were to, I’d want it to be the best at what it does because that’s what gives you brand awareness (ask those who run This Is Knit in Dublin – they get the custom because they are extremely good at what they do and have built that brand awareness from the bottom up rather than the top down). It’s not the classification label on your headed notepaper.

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