The Ronnie Munck Questions Answered

 

Here are my ‘answers’ to the Ronnie Munck questions. Apologies for the length!

 

1. Is the university a public good and if so, what does that mean? What level of industry input in its teaching and research agendas are we all comfortable with?

Here I take “public good” to mean meaning ‘having a predominantly public service role’ and I would answer the first question in the affirmative. Having a public service role means serving the needs of the society and culture both through the indirect benefits of education (general quality of life benefits etc.) and the direct benefits of providing the knowledge and skills that will add to the employment prospects of students. The correct balance between direct and indirect benefits cannot be decided in the abstract because it is program-specific. Many courses in humanities might be more focused on indirect benefits while courses in engineering must, by their very nature, emphasize direct benefits.

The answer to the second question is of the ‘it all depends’ variety. For some programs, industry has no role whatsoever to play in teaching and very little if any role to play in research except perhaps in a philanthropic capacity. In other programs, such as many programs in the sciences but especially engineering, industrial input is not only desirable but essential. But Industry should never ‘dictate’ and university should never dance to industry’s tune. (Industrialists are not experts on education yet are supremely confident about telling us what we are doing wrong.) In teaching, the role of industry should be largely an advisory one (although donations are welcome!) whereas in research it is quite reasonable and often desirable for industry to act in partnership with the university.

For universities to define themselves solely in terms of either the direct or the indirect benefits of education is to make the use of the word ‘university’ somewhat ‘oxymoronic’ in my view. In that sense I would view DCU’s decision to re-brand itself as the ‘University of Enterprise’ as a fundamental error – a term that might have a certain superficial appeal during an economic recession but which will seem unnecessarily restrictive in better economic times.

2. Do our university strategies reflect the needs of society at large and do staff and students feel they ‘own’ them?

If the question relates to our seven universities as they are now then, like most people, I would have to answer honestly and say “I don’t know”. But, in general, university strategies should serve the needs of society but one can argue all day about the definition of ‘needs’. I would guess that some universities are falling into the trap of defining those needs too narrowly, putting too much emphasis on economic needs only – hence the sense of alienation that many in the humanities undoubtedly feel.

I would suspect that students do not feel ownership over university strategies nor should they.

Many staff are completely alienated from university strategies and normally view them as edicts passed down from above, assembled by a small group of influential people – a sort of ‘inner circle’. Consequently, many staff across the disciplines can feel ‘out of the loop’. Part of the problem is that there is an obsession with branding and with a philosophy that a university cannot be good at everything but it can be good at some things – but only if it focuses. This is just a mantra in my view. That said, universities, at least within Ireland, are bound under the Universities’ Act to produce strategic plans and all-encompassing strategies that are little more than a restatement of the definition of a university are simply not acceptable. Thus, while they alienate many staff, focused strategic plans which emphasize the direct benefits of education are inevitable and university ‘management’ has the right, perhaps even an obligation, to produce them without violating academic freedom in any way – unless of course such plans attempt to coerce staff into teaching certain material in certain ways and to do research on certain topics. However, in reality it’s a big like the Terminator movie where the good guy says “come with me if you want to live”. In the case of university strategies it’s a case of “get with the strategy or you’re on your own mate”.

3. Is our teaching designed to increase the employability of our students and nothing more?

No. But, in fairness, I don’t think any credible commentator or policy-maker is suggesting this even if ideas related to employability dominate the discourse.

4. Should the research agenda be driven to the extent that it is by economic and state interests, and is there an alternative logic?

This is a complex one, not least being the fact that the state, through its politicians, formulates policy on the basis of advice from all sorts of stakeholders. Much of this advice comes from within the university sector. But, it is in the interests of many academics to influence the research agenda in a way that suits them. Thus, for example, many scientists predict Armageddon-like consequences if the state doesn’t fund their particular field of interest. Much of this is hype and politicians believe a lot of it, being convinced that ours will indeed be a ‘knowledge economy’. Across the academic world, how many times do we read in the conclusion of a paper, report or book that “more research is needed”. This fact – that academic researchers are not disinterested parties – is a real problem in my view. I have some sympathy for the state, i.e., the politicians, who are subjected to what is essentially propaganda from all sides.

The best way to look at university-based research is to see it in terms of its educational role, i.e., its role in fourth level education. There is universal agreement that the state needs to fund third level education so I find it hard to believe that the same thinking should not apply to fourth level education. If the state says that funding will not be provided for research in certain disciplines, it is saying that fourth level education is not required in those disciplines. If that is what the state believes, then so be it, but I suspect that the policy-makers are not even aware that they are making this assumption, consumed by the notion that research that does not have tangible economic benefits is little more than ‘pet projects’.

The current emphasis on the direct economic benefits of academic research is understandable but delusional. The idea that universities will play a significant role in job creation is fanciful. But in a whole range of disciplines, it makes perfect sense for industry and academia to collaborate on research projects. The flow of knowledge is not just one way because academics, at least those in certain disciplines, often have a lot to learn from industry.

Getting the balance right, both in terms of industrial involvement and in terms of the extent to which research funding is concentrated in ‘centres of excellence’ is not easy. Research policy is not science. I think that in a small country we need to take a system-wide perspective and recognise that the balance need not be the same in all institutions. I don’t think that all universities should necessarily be doing precisely the same thing especially if they differ in the range of their disciplines.

5. We all claim to be engaging with society but is this really ‘core business’ in an era of austerity?

I’m not entirely sure what is being asked here but I would say that all academics should engage with society regardless of economics. This engagement should involve more than simply educating the population or interacting with business and industry. Academic research should never exist in a sort of parallel universe, occupying itself with ideas that have little significance for anyone beyond a small cohort of inward-looking ‘experts’. In a book I’m writing at the moment I refer to a 1980s alternative rock band called “Pop Will Eat Itself”. The name was inspired by the notion that music had become completely inward-looking, constantly feeding on itself to produce a steady supply of derivative songs. I believe that academia should strive to avoid a situation where academic research ‘eats itself’; where it becomes a sort of taxpayer-funded private club. It’s not about trying to make everything we do ‘relevant’. It’s about taking advantage of our position to tackle problems that are important, the answers to which will benefit our society and, indeed, humanity. As I said in one of my previous posts, we need to be doing more than just “getting papers”. We need to avoid any tendency towards having a self-serving attitude to research funding. We must make credible arguments about the benefits of our research to society.

6. Are our students consumers of knowledge or our ‘customers’ (customer satisfaction include follows), or is there some other definition of student we might appeal to?

This whole consumer thing has been misinterpreted, I believe. I suspect that when people started using this term what they meant was that if we sometimes considered our students as ‘consumers’ we might be more conscious of the need to provide them with a high quality education. In other words, we should think of ourselves as being in some sense accountable to students. This is an idea that probably never entered the heads of some of the abysmal lecturers I had in the 1980s. I don’t believe that there was ever an intention that education should ever be seen as some sort of commercial transaction – “I’ll give you €5000 and you guarantee me the following learning outcomes”.

Personally, I like to think of education as a gentleman’s agreement. I commit to providing students with an organised, up to date and hopefully stimulating course. I commit to be organised and enthusiastic and helpful. The student, in return, commits to commit. One of the key problems that I see in the third level system is that many students do not fulfill their part of the bargain.

7. Is the current employment control framework, Haddington road, etc a sustainable human relations policy for the university?

Whatever about Haddington Road, the current staff recruitment policies are not consistent with the continued emphasis on high third level participation rates and with any purported ambition to make universities ‘research intensive’. My own department is on a knife-edge and is an illness or pregnancy away from ‘breaking down’ in the sense that we might conceivably be unable to deliver our courses. The only solution to a sustainable third level system is to recruit new staff or to rationalize the system by reducing student numbers and eliminating programs. On the research side, the emphasis on recruiting staff on short-term contracts mitigates completely against research which by its very nature is a long-term activity.

The ‘human resources’ issue however is not solely of the government’s making. Internal processes in which Heads of Departments lobby the Dean or equivalent manager for staff resources is a recipe for disaster and leads to management by spreadsheet. Simplistic bean-counting exercises miss out on a range of subtleties associated with ensuring that different departments in different disciplines have adequate staff numbers.

8. Are MOOCs simply the only way to go and can we just ditch traditional teaching methods?

Here’s a quote from my upcoming book:

“But, if one is talking about using MOOCs as vehicles for conventional third level education in the western world, one has first to recognise that traditional methods of education have worked well for decades and have brought us to where we are. When one considers the history of the world, the West is in a pretty good place now, despite the financial collapse. We should tread very carefully if proposing radical changes in how we structure our education systems.

We need to remember that education is usually hard and often tedious work for student and the ‘teacher’. I often see students who perform dismally in an end-of-semester exam only to ‘knuckle down’ over the summer to come back and ‘ace’ the repeat exam – no innovation required. Furthermore, effective education requires significant guidance, instruction, motivation and coercion. The latter is a word you rarely hear but, in my experience, students do need coercion of some kind. They will not study optimally unless forced, or at least strongly incentivized, to do so. Guidance is a concept that is often overlooked. It is not only about guiding and helping students through the technical ‘nitty-gritty’ of a subject but providing advice in a much more holistic sense. Guidance can extend to advising a student about what he or she should study and about the order in which subjects should be studied in order to build up an ordered mass of knowledge and skills. It is a big mistake, I believe, to view education as a process in which one simply ‘takes’ modules. Meaningful education involves undertaking a coherent program of study and it is not clear yet how this can be accommodated within a MOOC structure.

A problem I see in all of this is that the educators are not disinterested parties. Many seem to be seduced by methods that are more enjoyable to use and which are sold as promoting student engagement. Anything is better than a sea of blank faces in a lecture hall. But the hard question as to whether the students actually learn more effectively as a result of some innovation or other is rarely asked. Putting together a MOOC is probably a challenging and enjoyable experience. It produces something tangible for the lecturer (i.e., it looks good on his or her CV) and it showcases his or her talents to the world. It showcases the home university as well; a good marketing exercise perhaps. But the end-product has to be learning with understanding and this is not achieved in a single module. Effective and meaningful learning is about having a critical mass of knowledge and skills in a well-structured program.

So, my prediction for MOOCs is that they are an interesting development that will play a pretty insignificant role in the formal education of the vast majority (at least in the West) but may play a useful role in further and lifelong learning where not much is at stake for the learner.”

9. Are the too many senior posts at the university under present conditions, a slightly different question, are they over-administered?

The honest answer is “I don’t know” but it is interesting that the three ‘best’ Irish Universities, TCD, UCD and UCC are the most heavily administered (see Brian Lucey’s blog for the original data on this.) Who can really say what the optimum level of administration is – it’s not really a question that can be answered with any rigour. Incidentally, DCU is the least administered university in Ireland. The IoTs have much less administration, something that is probably consistent with their narrower missions.

10. Do we still value collegiality and creativity, or is it a case of ‘needs must’ and we need to run universities like businesses?

If ‘we’ means the academics themselves, then we do value collegiality and creativity. I have always worked in a collegial atmosphere and it strikes me that creativity is highly valued in the university sector. Most research is creative to some extent and the highest impact academic research is that which is most novel, i.e., creative. Academics care about research impact more than anything – it is viewed above all else as the measure of a person’s academic worth. Academics themselves look beyond the numbers and are very cynical about colleagues who churn out derivative work in low-impact journals.

I’m not sure however that the ‘managers’ think in the same way, generally having a bean-counting view of what academics do. While they might aspire to adopt a ‘business-like’ approach to university management, they will always fail because unlike business where the output – profit – is easily measured, the outputs from a university are not. But, it is not an easy balancing act. Academics must be accountable but the system must be managed in a way that recognizes and rewards the diversity of talents within a university and does not try to impose a one-size-fits-all view of the academic. In fact, I would suspect that well-run, successful businesses recognise this need to value diversity.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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