Why should the state fund academic research?

Many academics would scoff at the very idea of asking this question. To them, it is so self-evidently obvious that  research should be funded by the taxpayer that they view the question as preposterous.

In these recessionary times, the prevailing paradigm is that academic research should be a driver of growth in the real economy. Thus, much of the language around universities these days involves words like innovation, enterprise, start-ups, knowledge economy etc. But let’s suppose (with good reason I believe) that the direct contribution of academic research to the economy is likely to be small, except in some niche areas where small numbers of highly qualified people are employed.

Now, if we put those immediate and relatively small economic benefits of academic research aside, what exactly are the main benefits? If you had to walk into a sort of Dragon’s Den full of hard-nosed, sceptical policy-makers who control the purse strings, what would you say in your pitch? How would you sell academic research in an evidence-based  way such that the bottom-liners would buy it?

I’ll leave that with you as I head off to the sun for a couple of weeks! Maybe I’ll try to answer it when I come home and if anyone wants to do a guest post on this blog (on this topic) I’ll be happy to oblige.

Posted in education, Research | 1 Comment

Signalling and the Structured PhD

‘Signalling’ is the idea that the value of third level education is not just that it provides students with knowledge and skills that are useful in the workplace but that it acts as a sort of marker for certain innate qualities that the student had in the first place. (Signalling is discussed in more detail in this very interesting UK report: “Methodological Issues in Estimating the Value Added of Further Education, Higher Education and Skills: A Review of Relevant Literature”). Thus, it is not always the content of a degree that is important but the innate characteristics that are required to have earned that degree, and especially to have earned a particular grade in that degree. There is no doubt that many employers, especially those in ‘non-specific’ areas like management consulting, see signalling as a key part of their recruitment methodology; they recruit the person not the discipline. The signalling idea has important policy implications because there might well be more cost-effective ways of sending the correct signal to employers, a signal that matches the student’s attributes to the employer’s needs.  (I should say that I am taking an entirely utilitarian view of education purely for the purpose of this argument!)

Signalling is even more important in PhD education. When PhDs were rare, the very fact of having a PhD sent out a pretty clear signal to the employer about the qualities of the person who had earned the doctorate. PhD graduates were characterised by being highly ‘academic’ and having an independent mind-set. But things are more complicated nowadays. PhD students now range from the outstanding to the average, from the highly enthusiastic and intellectually curious to the unmotivated, from the fiercely driven and ambitious to the ones who are just serving their time. The quality of PhD theses is similarly variable.

So, in that kind of environment, it makes sense to structure the PhD process. By ensuring that all PhD students acquire certain ‘transferable’ skills, we reduce the variability somewhat. Nowadays, PhD students, whose numbers are many, have very varied personal and academic attributes. Soon, however, employers will be more confident that candidates with PhDs have a basic set of skills that can be applied in the workplace no matter whether their PhD is in molecular biology or pure mathematics or romantic poetry. Structured PhDs are here to stay because they improve the signal being sent to employers.

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Recommended books about education and related matters

Here’s a list of some books about education and related subjects that have influenced my writings in this blog. All are worth a read in my view. If not quite contrarian, most of these books challenge the consensus in some way. I’m including Mary Gallagher’s book not so much because I necessarily agree with it but because it is probably the best exposition of a particular philosophy of education, one that might be seen loosely as representing the ‘left wing’ consensus.


  1. Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T. Willingham.
  2. Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it, Tom Bennett.
  3. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain.
  4. Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth, Alison Wolf.
  5. Perfect Rigor: A genius and the mathematical breakthrough of the century, Masha Gessen.
  6. Bad Education: Debunking myths in education, Philip Adey and Justin Dillon.
  7. Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou.
  8. How learning works, Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro Lovett and Norman.
  9. When can you trust the experts?, Daniel T. Willingham.
  10. The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker.
  11. Academic Armageddon, Mary Gallagher.
  12. How Universities can help create a Wiser World, Nicholas Maxwell.
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Education, Work and Jackie L.

When Jackie Lavin made her ill-fated appearance on RTE’s Prime Time, she actually did education some service. One of her key points – albeit clumsily made – was that students spend too long at college, only to end up ‘not having a clue’. Whatever about  their not having a clue, the suggestion that students spend too long at college is one that deserves serious consideration.

The argument for having an extended period in higher education is that as well as acquiring knowledge, students acquire all sorts of higher order skills like critical thinking, not to mention general maturity. That is true, of course, but the truth of this proposition is not the issue. As with many aspects of education – notably PhD-level study – we are not using the correct ‘control’ in making our argument. Let’s consider two students; one spends three years at college while the other spends four years. In theory, the student who spends four years acquires additional knowledge and additional ‘skills’ in critical thinking etc. But what about the person who has spent the ‘fourth year’ in the workplace, perhaps even in a workplace that is not directly related to his or her studies. The key question now is this: does the extra year in higher education contribute to the development of the student to a greater extent than the year in the workplace? The answer to this question is not obvious and depends on both the aptitude of the student and his or her ability to study at fourth year level, and on the quality of the employment in question. In other words, Jackie Lavin’s suggestion that (some) students spend too long at college is one that is worth taking seriously.

In DCU, our students undertake a compulsory six-month placement in business/industry at the end of a shortened third year – a tacit admission of the value of work-based education. This is our INTRA program. There is general agreement amongst the academics and most of the students that the INTRA experience is hugely valuable and it is something that we are desperately trying to keep afloat in these days of recession and unpaid internships. We find that our students mature enormously during their six months in the workplace and many of them, despite being academically limited, are rated very highly by their employers.

In my view, many of our students should not return for further academic study immediately post-INTRA. Many prove to have little or no capacity for the more independence-requiring, research-focused curriculum of final year. Some even seem to regress as the year goes on and failed marks at final year are becoming increasingly common. Many students would be far better off staying in business or industry where they can continue to develop and receive further training, perhaps to return to higher education at some later date. In effect, they would personally benefit from an exit qualification at the end of the INTRA placement.

As academics, we are often guilty of a sort of arrogance in that we assume that universities and institutes are the only places where education occurs. Yet, I think most of us who teach at third level  would probably agree that much of our knowledge and understanding of our disciplines has been acquired ‘on the job’ in our role as educators. The reality is that education continues throughout all our lives and when young graduates enter the workplace, they continue to learn and to acquire all those higher order skills like critical thinking over which we in higher education seem to be claiming ownership. But, we do not have a monopoly on education.

The education system needs to become more flexible and it needs to acquire the characteristics of a network or web rather than a ladder. We need to provide students with the ability to negotiate their own individual pathways through the network, perhaps stopping off at various points along the way, only to step back on when they are ready to do so. We need to recognise the educational value of work and to see education as a much more seamless activity that does not stop at the gates of the third level institutions. Why shouldn’t students, for example, graduate with a Level 7 qualification, only to ‘top it up’ to Level 8 some years later, perhaps through innovative, online and project-based education in fields of study in which they are actually interested and in which they have genuine industrial or business experience? Actually, interdisciplinarity might emerge quite organically in this way.

As the demands on third level increase and budgets fail to keep apace, we need to embrace new, more flexible, ways of education that are not only more cost-effective but more geared towards the needs and, especially, the aptitudes of our students. Employers need to play their part too because they seem to have a growing sense of entitlement when it comes to education.


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Education and Johnny Giles

If you read a lot about education there are times when your head goes into a spin: so many philosophies, so many ‘best practices’, so many innovations. It’s at these times that I think about what John Giles might say on an RTE post-match panel. Gilesie’s recurring view is that football is a simple game: when you don’t have the ball, you work hard to get it back; when you have the ball, you control it and pass it to one of your own players, trying to create a scoring opportunity in the process. Complicated systems are not his thing.

Education, at least third level education, is, like football, a simple process. The lecturer guides the students by organising existing knowledge (in the broadest sense of the word) for them, by explaining that knowledge, and by encouraging, facilitating and incentivising the student to – as Giles would say – do the right things. And the right things to do in education are to acquire the basics of your discipline through hard study and to build on those basics through practice and reflection, acquiring higher-order abilities (like problem-solving and creativity) in the process.

The real problem in education is in encouraging and enabling students to do the right things. But, like the football manager, there is only so much we can do once the ‘game’ has started. Students are not blank slates. In football, setting out with a 4-2-3-1 formation is fine but it’s useless if the players ignore it and wander out of position with abandon. Likewise, no method of teaching, whether it be traditional lectures, flipped classrooms or new modes of active and problem-based learning will be effective unless the student buys in to the process by supplementing formal learning with his or her own independent study and practice. (Of course students need to be taught how to study and practice effectively.)

For me, this has always been the crux of education and rather than obsessing about the advantages and disadvantages of any particular mode of teaching, we should be focusing more on the student mindset. Why do some students aim for 40% when others aim for 80%? Why do so many students not have any ‘plan’, not understanding, for example, that poor results in one year can have all sorts of knock-on effects like missing out on work placements or on opportunities to do postgraduate work?

While you can put all of this down to the natural variations in humanity itself, it strikes me that given the investment made – by all parties – in third level education, there is scope to have some sort of formal ‘life coaching’ or mentoring (peer-based, perhaps) for undergraduates. Many seem to suffer badly from short-termism and it would useful for them to take some time out every now and then and really ask themselves where they are going and what they would like to achieve in life. Yes, they are young, with their whole lives ahead, but isn’t that the point? They do need to be encouraged to ask themselves the hard ‘where-do-I-want-to-be-in-five-years’-time’ sort of questions. Sadly, many tend to drift and stumble, often painfully, through what could be a high point of their lives, only to emerge with a mediocre qualification in a subject in which they have little interest.

Now, it’s quite easy to simply dismiss this argument with the well-worn “I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do when I was in college and look at me now” sort of argument but I’m not sure that is good enough anymore. The world has moved on, third level participation rates are vastly increased and a degree is no longer a guarantee of anything. Expectations are much greater in all walks of life.

We need to spend a lot more time getting into the heads of our students and less time theorising about teaching methodology.  We need to encourage them to figure out what they actually want out of their education and we need to do our best to ensure that the education system and the student work effectively in partnership towards well-defined goals.

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Extenuating Circumstances

Sitting beside one of my colleagues at an exam board meeting the other day, I noticed that she had a list of students who had submitted ‘extenuating circumstances’ documentation on foot of absences or poor exam performance. It was a long list.

Now, there are many students who endure significant hardship as they progress through their education – physical and mental illness, family problems, financial problems etc. – but it does seem to me that  the use of ‘extenuating circumstances’ is a growing phenomenon that requires some analysis. Consider that a few years ago our external examiner pointed out that 50% of our final year students had missed at least one exam. Reasons ranged from illness to family bereavements to sleeping late!

Now, I’m as sympathetic as the next person (or maybe I’m not!) but it does seem to me that there is a growing number of students who lack a certain… resilience. Resilience, as psychologist Maureen Gaffney would say, is a hugely important asset in life and while it is important to be compassionate, it is also important that we encourage resilience in our students. But, our exam board meetings nowadays are characterised not only by large numbers of failed marks but by the presence of large numbers of ‘Is’ to denote illness, ‘As’ to denote unexplained absences, and ‘Ds’ to denote deferrals. This year, I calculate that 18% of our students failed to attend for all their exams, for various reasons ranging from the tragic to the trivial. As it happens, I have the broadsheets from the year 2000 to hand and the rate then was 6%. 

Of course, people do get sick and sadly bereavements do occur, but I have a sense – perhaps an unfair one – that the student population is getting less resilient as time passes. (Or maybe students are just lest committed.) While one might argue that I am simply being unsympathetic, I do believe that absence from exams is an issue that deserves some open-minded analysis. I think we owe it to our students to conduct such an analysis.

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Teaching, learning and personality

Over the years I have taught quite a few people with ‘unusual’ personalities. In some cases, these have been people with diagnosed conditions such as Asperger Syndrome. In others, it has been people who were highly anxious, people prone to depression, people who were shy to the extent of having social anxiety disorder and many who were simply just very introverted. Then there were students with dyslexia, students who were somewhat hyperactive – especially during lectures! – students with a highly developed sense of entitlement and students who were so bored and/or tired that they regularly put their heads down and went for a snooze right under my nose. In other words, all of humanity is to be found in university classrooms and lecture halls.

It is simplistic, therefore, for us to think in terms of a generic student. While personalised teaching is not practical, we should be conscious of the fact that how a student wishes to learn, and learns best, is very much linked with their personality. I’m not talking about ‘learning styles’ which is a controversial concept to say the least. The learning style idea has more to do with a person’s supposed cognitive preferences rather than their personality. For example, in theory (and if such a thing as a learning style were to exist), both introverts and extroverts could be ‘visual learners’. When talking about the effect of personality on learning we are really talking about creating the right environment in which someone of a given personality will learn well. It’s not about the precise way in which the material is presented. That is ultimately determined by the course content.

For example, I recently decided to divide one of my classes into groups so that they could tackle a number of problems in a cooperative way – I had believed the hype about learning in groups. But once the groups got going, I could see that there were quite a few students, good students too, who did not seem to be enjoying the experience, while others were taking to it with gusto. It was clear that many students were of a personality type that was not conducive to working in a group. These students, more introverted and of a ‘thinking’ personality (in the Jungian sense), and needed a bit of peace and quiet to be able to work effectively.

One can argue that working in groups is part of normal working life and it should not be avoided in the education system. But we do need to be aware that in activities that require some hard thinking, there are many people who are much more effective if they can work alone without taking part in a brainstorming session. Indeed the whole issue of whether brainstorming sessions work at all is the subject of a lot of discussion and argument as a quick perusal of the management and psychology literature will readily prove.

Students who may not take very well to a brainstorming session often perform perfectly adequately when taking part in team-based activities. Indeed, in the course on which I teach in DCU, we run a final year module that is team-based and it is very rare that a student has any difficulty in taking his or her full part in the team project. But this kind of project, which is laboratory-based, is quite different from one where a tricky conceptual problem is being addressed. It is more task-oriented and the success of the team depends on each member playing a full part in ensuring that their respective tasks are completed as required. It’s not a question of people sitting around a table shouting out suggestions.

One can make the same arguments about many different modes of teaching and learning. For example, although it is fashionable to criticise the traditional lecture as a mode of teaching, many students are clearly quite comfortable in that environment. Despite many statements by commentators of all kinds about the ‘uselessness’ of lectures, there are many students who attend lectures assiduously, who have the ability to concentrate and who are avid note takers. They often sit close to the front, are not afraid to ask questions and are clearly benefiting from the experience. There is also a large group who like the anonymity of the lecture and are happy to learn in their own quiet way.

So, what does all this mean? We obviously cannot cater for every personality type but we should be conscious of the fact that teaching innovations that assume that all or even the majority of students will respond in a certain way should be treated with a lot of scepticism. Indeed, many innovations are strongly biased in favour of extroversion in my view.

The reality is that education is a not a science and to talk about education without considering the personality of students is a bit like economists trying to understand economic systems without taking human behavior into account.

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