Sunday, January 24, 2010

Economics 24/01/2010: Knowldge Economy and Irish academia

Charles Larkin and Brian Lucey are having a go at the issues clogging up Irish third level policies in Sunday Business Post today.

Here are few takes and my views on them:

Hardly a week goes by without a government spokesperson discussing an aspect of the "Smart Economy". In the public and perhaps government mind this is equated with technology. We suggest that a truly "Smart Economy" is not based on technology -- the really smart economy is about flexibility, especially mental flexibility. Developing this should be the primary focus of the higher education sector. We suggest that there exist a set of interlinked issues that make the sector as it stands unable to do this.

Yes – Knowledge Economy is not about quantity of labs / patents / ICT applications etc. It is about our abilities to create new applications and tools, but more importantly – ability to deploy these in profit earning undertakings (I mean, of course, a broader notion of profit that can, should the individual owners of technology and/or skills elect to do so, include pursuit of non-monetary returns).

Irish higher education suffers from a severe conflict of mission. It is expected to deliver on innovation, education, social enrichment, economic growth, public health, improved lifestyles and put a chicken in every pot. Though research suggests that all of these and more arise from higher education, the effect varies across individuals and disciplines. The context is further complicated by the regional imperative.

Also spot on – the conflict between objectives of the universities that are political (and this now also includes science policies) and that are academic is best highlighted by the fact that Irish universities are no longer the hot beds of subversive thoughts. Instead, they are staffed and run by bureaucrats with singular mode of thinking – coalescence, assimilation and homogenization of staff to achieve pleasant singularity of view that can then be monetized via Irish and European grants.

Not a single Irish university today would have seen Keynes offering a job to Hayek. Only senior faculty are allowed, and even then – unwillingly – to express dissenting views. Any junior faculty member peeping their head above the grey mass will be thrown out as soon as their contract comes for a renewal. ‘Does not match strategic direction’ on a rejection letter for a job means that the candidate is simply not ‘slottable’ into the Borg collective of some department.

Can anyone expect any sort of creative excellence out of this?

Academic freedom is perhaps the simplest and yet most profound step. In essence this would involve the granting of "university" (i.e. degree granting) status to all third and fourth level institutions (inclusive of exceptional legal entities, for example the research-orientated facilities, such as the Royal Irish Academy and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies). The announcement by Minister O'Keeffe that he is to abolish the NUI is a first, faltering step towards this...
Care needs to be taken that we do not replicate the failures of the UK and Australia in similar reforms. Within the IOT sector new programmes go through a very rigorous evaluation. The issue is that existing programmes need root and branch reform to ensure that they are at the same quality and intellectual standard. With freedom comes responsibility, and the most important responsibility will be to offer educational programmes aligned with the fostering of flexible minds.

I fully agree – which probably means the authors are now at a risk of being branded ‘extreme’ in their views – freedom must be given to universities and all third level institutions, and they must be self-accountable for their actions. If one chooses to pursue EU and Irish academic handouts through so-called ‘collaborative’ piggy-back-riding on other EU researchers grants, so be it. They will sink in the long run, having reduced themselves to the backwater of unoriginality in thinking and output. If other universities chose to take a bolder position and once again become centres for debate, discussion, challenge and search (breaking away from their current tradition of serving as yes-men to the social regime of singular ideological hue) – they will thrive in the long term as their creativity will allow them to command a premium. The same premium the relative start ups of Stanford, UofChicago, University of California campuses, and so on – having arrived to the university game in the US well after the Ivy League institutions – now command over the majority of previously mighty, now completely mediocre Ivy League institutions.

Last night, RTE was showing the documentary about the Bog Bodies discoveries. In the entire lengthy feature, there was not a single point at which the documentary managed to show any disagreements between numerous Irish and international researchers. Instead, it was a saccharine, sonorous and harmonious blandness of: ‘Yes, I agree with my colleague on this point’ and ‘We all agree with our colleagues on all points’. I am certain that there were probably different views discussed by scientists amongst themselves. But the telling feature of the documentary was just how important consensus is to science’s image in the public. And this is frightening. Not a single major breakthrough discovery in science was delivered by consensual group-think of collaborative researchers.

Back to Brian and Charles’ essay:

Freedom should be extended to faculty wages. At present, within narrow bands, the best are paid the same as the worst, the most active the same as the least. …Evidence from the US indicates that salary freedom can assist in incentivising staff, but this can arise at the cost of over-reliance on casual and adjunct lecturers at the undergraduate level. …we need to ensure that in the newly freed institutions a motto of "every scholar a teacher, every teacher a scholar" is taken just as seriously.

I am not sure about the ‘over-reliance on casual and adjunct lecturers’. In my view, and a disclosure is due here – I am adjunct myself, adjunct lecturers are usually self-selected individuals with passion for teaching and with different sets of skills from other researchers and academics. If selected on merit, they can add serious diversity of thought and experiences to the universities. They are also key to linking universities to the real world. What is really sad about Irish universities is that casual lecturers are often selected for a single shot teaching, filling in for absent full time faculty. There is neither coherence, nor open-mindedness as to how adjuncts are selected, appointed and contractually hired.

Freedom must also of course mean freedom to fail. If a university were unable to deliver on the required educational outcomes then it ultimately would be required to fold or to be subsumed by another more successful university and mechanisms need to be put in place to deal with the fall-out if this happens.”

This really needs no qualification. Superb! I lamented on many occasions the lack of consolidation and closure in the process by which universities that thrive can gain market shares.

We suggested earlier that a truly smart economy involves the production of flexible thinkers. Such an education must be more than purely discipline-focused at the third level. …We can broadly consider three domains of intellectual activity in universities- humanities, letters and the social sciences (arts), life sciences and natural sciences. Mapping degrees to one of these we suggest that a true university education would involve an annual minimum of 15 per cent engagement with each domain.

Very well put. Again, on many occasions I raised this concern that we are not producing flexible, creative thinkers, but are focused on producing standardized degree-holders. Like a commodity product, these degree holders are then released into the real world where they go on to form a mass of uncreative, unchallenged and unproductive middle managers and functionaries. The future of Ireland Inc rests with people who can deploy creative and innovative thinking in management (not necessarily in the labs alone, but at all stages of production, marketing, delivery, sales etc). This is what I would call a real ‘knowledge-based’ economy. It is good to see that at least two of my colleagues are now publicly in agreement.

To adequately provide these postgraduate courses all academic staff in the university would be required to be active researchers, which would be achieved by a rolling tenure system. This would involve the granting of tenure for a prospective 5-7 year period, with biannual reviews.

Spot on!

Research activity and research quality are only loosely related but quality requires activity as a prerequisite. To ensure quality of teaching we suggest that again there be biannual reviews of teaching based on best modern practice. This would involve some element of student feedback but would also involve reflective portfolios and classroom observation. To oversee this quality issue we suggest a single evaluation unit within the above suggested ministry.

Sadly, although I agree with the idea of a review, I am not yet ready to place my trust in Ministry bureaucrats to deliver on such an objective. Fas experience shows that our public officials cannot be entrusted to do this job in an impartial, efficient and effective manner. I would rather suggest use of class numbers, relative to faculty averages, as a partial metric for academic wages. Taken, of course, over a period of time and within comparable disciplines. Students tend to vote with their feet.

A third element relates to funding. …Separating undergraduate from postgraduate education we suggest allows greater clarity to emerge. Persons seeking to take masters or doctoral qualifications in an area do so for one of two reasons -- a desire to seek entry to an area or profession (investment) or from a personal interest (consumption). There is no obvious reason why the government should fund the latter over other consumptions. In any case the operation of the tax/PRSI system should, in most circumstances, offer a return to society partly via the increased taxable earnings that the better qualified persons achieve, thus capturing the public good element of an increase in, for example, dentists, or telecommunication engineers, or doctors of literature.”

I actually disagree. PRSI and income tax place a surplus taxation burden on individual investment. If a person invests their own funds in education, they should be able to deduct the cost of this investment before they pay tax on capital gains. Secondly, if the society at large already benefits from the social good nature of higher education, then a person having invested in it for private benefit must be reimbursed for society benefit accruing not to themselves, but to others. After all, if my money paid for my PhD and I get a return of x% per annum, while the society gets y% per annum and a tax return on my PhD – is this not a case of double taxation?

This means that, while I fully agree that the state should not provide funding – except that based on merit and inability to pay considerations – for post-graduate studies, I disagree that PRSI/income tax should be viewed as fully functional means for capturing individual gains.
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