Something is rotten in the state of education…

The problems facing higher education in Ireland are widely debated. More often than not, debated from the same old norms and trite arguments of seasoned academics and polar opposites alike. What is sadly not debated as much, is not the problems facing higher education but rather the problems of higher education in Ireland. There is no other way to say it other than bluntly; the dispersion of university level education within Ireland has been controlled purely upon political basis over the last few decades. Disclosing my geographical home as the Southeast of Ireland will immediately attract criticism and unhelpful argument against that point, attempting to dismiss it as “sour grapes”. However, I openly invite anyone to debunk the assertion by formulating an argument based on proportionality or other similarly rational foundation. After all, university level education is supposed to be for the people not just choice within one area? Without even touching upon the case for a university in the Southeast of Ireland, proportionality is simply not observed in the Irish sphere.

So what are the problems of higher education in Ireland today? The primary focus is of course upon access to higher education at university level. Even in a post Celtic Tiger Ireland, the cost associated with leaving home, never mind living in Dublin (which houses over 42% of our universities despite only housing 25% of our population, encouraging yet more centralisation) are grossly prohibitive for the majority of young people and their families. Certain celebrity, professorial sorts from the Dublin university sector, have written about the issues in higher education and pushed forward suggestions such as a 3-semester (deliberate oxymoron?) academic calendar to make staff work harder and students benefit more. Perhaps they miss the glaringly obvious cost of living for anyone moving away from home, affording greater rental costs, greater travel costs and quite possibly having to work part-time to afford such – detracting from their studies – due to this greater exposure to higher education. Pardon me for dismissing this as the popularist angle of making academic staff out to be the bad guys (yet again) rather than the greater issues affecting higher education.

Centralisation usually happens due to protected interests. Lodgings central to the castle walls in medieval times; keep your friends close but enemies closer. So what is being protected in the Irish education sector that it provokes such defiance from existing university heads whenever the subject of a new university is addressed? Simple, money. Universities within Ireland have found themselves in the very undeserved position of beneficiary to very large sums of uncontested funding, purely by virtue of their label. This pot will not increase if the number of beneficiaries does, so who could blame them for protecting their patch of land? It’s just a pity that not one has the dignity to admit the real reasons rather than trying desperately to formulate a supposedly well-grounded academic argument against expansion – arguments that are accepted as baseless in non-academic circles.

Why not shake it up? The IoT sector competes against each other (and the universities) for funding from the HEA, EI and other sources. All without guarantee of funding, to promote their research ambitions and sustain research jobs. Unlike the universities, the IoT sector does not have the luxury of research bursaries to cover employment costs. People can, and do, lose their jobs.

We have been long told that the purpose of research within the academic sphere is to promote and extend our innovation and expertise, to strive for what is best. Why not make it that way and open the competition for all organisations in the higher level sector to compete on an equal footing for this money? Defenestrate the rule book of university funding and open the floor for the best in class without prejudice. Surely that should be the aim? Get what is best for Ireland?

However, as is typical with the Irish (and indeed the human) condition, appearances count. Universities, by name, matter. Metrics adjudicating on the quality of an establishment are somewhat catch-22 when numbers of PhD students who cannot be supervised without adequate PhD level mentors, who cannot be attracted without full time positions that cannot be offered without guaranteed funding, somewhat precludes anything but a university from measuring up to that old chestnut. Then of course there’s the reflective and qualitative argument that staff within the organisation need to be at PhD level too but how exactly do you retrofit that requirement without sacking all current, deficient staff and/or upsetting those media facing academics who worry about staff research time being assigned to tackle personal PhD pursuits (but who themselves, seem to have endless time to guest slot on daytime news programmes)? What does a PhD really mean to the quality of teaching anyway, other than ignorant perception? Members of the “real world” will accuse all of academia of being too lazy to get a “real job”. I’m sure that would be refuted but lets face it, the perception is relative and immeasurable by each others’ standards. I had a math teacher in secondary school, who’s knowledge, teaching skill and devotion far outweighed the performance of any PhD that I have yet met in my life – he was not one of that privileged association himself. However, that evidence is anecdotal and by academic standards inadmissible as any argument. Herein is forged the problem that perception is still outweighing reality when it comes to both judging and rewarding the performance of higher education organisations. Not since Iona Technologies crawled out of Trinity’s basement in 1991, could I point the finger at a marvel of achievement from the Irish university sector. That’s a whole Celtic Tiger and dot com bubble ago. What have they been doing apart from meeting the standard on paper? Or getting guest slots on RTE News?

The problems of higher education in Ireland are all pointing towards value for money. From students’ and parents’ perspectives, where’s the value for money in moving away from home for a deluge of stealth costs associated with a pricy education? From a government perspective, where’s the value for money in higher education research? Excusing of course the ~40% return through taxation. For the taxpayer on the street, where’s the value for money in their taxes being used to unquestionably fund an impenetrable and unshakeable university sector that actively fights to prevent others competing on an equal footing? From a national perspective, can we allow an archaic attitude to prevail, assuming the status quo will eventually turn up something, despite alienating and displacing 1000’s of prospective business owners every year?

Trying to disrupt the university sector by widening the group has been met with nothing but resistance from… the university sector. It’s not working. Metrics used to measure quality and performance are outdated and let’s be honest, just ever so slightly drowned in self-interest for certain parties. Research and innovation works on the premise that anybody can have a great idea. Open access education works on the assumption that everyone has equal access to the highest level of education that they desire. The university sector in Ireland affords neither of these bases and ultimately precludes too great a number of game changers from ever having the opportunity to make that change. What’s good for Ireland will not be good for vested interests and therein will be the resistance. Just remember we are not in generational debt because vested interests were ignored nor because somebody asked what was best for Ireland…

Looking back on 2012

It’s that time of year again, when we all get a little sentimental and start to reflect on the events of the past twelve months (possibly even beyond) and begin to forge new commitments for the new year ahead. I typically write a blog post at this time of year, acknowledging some happenings of the year. One of the few posts that I ever write these days – my lament towards my lost pastime of blogging. 2012 wasn’t a particularly good year for me personally. In fact it probably ranks as one of the worst years ever for several reasons, all of which are personal. However, I will try to recount the memories, both good and bad, for no other purpose than to air my thoughts and have something to review in years to come (listed in no particular order below).

  • Rest in peace Mum – as those close to me will know, 2012 saw the passing of our Mum after battling Alzheimer’s disease for some time. Words cannot really capture the sense of loss felt, nor would it do much justice to try to reflect such in this post. It would not be fitting however, to go without mention in my significant events of 2012.
  • Space Dive – the last Austrian to leap from nothingness to household name was Arnold Schwarzenegger, mostly thanks to Hollywood. However, on October 14th 2012 another Austrian literally lept from nothingness to being a household name. That Austrian is Felix Baumgartner and for those living under a rock this year, he is now the record holder for the highest ever parachute jump, having plunged ~24 miles and breaking the sound barrier in the process, from a helium-filled balloon. This was definitely the “moon landing” of our generation and I suppose, fitting that it was achieved by a man born the year of that landing.
  • Olympic triumph – 2012 could not be closed out, without mentioning the event that got the entire country talking and by event, I mean the entire games (main and paralympian). Of course the athlete who grabbed the biggest headlines was Katie Taylor, who showed the nation and the world that female boxing deserves to be on the same stage as its male equivalent. Her fights brought a nation through the agony of every blow to the ecstasy of gold medal triumph. While mentioning this tremendous achievement, it would be remiss to end without also mentioning the double gold medal achievement of Michael McKillop in the Paralympic Games; inspiring hope in so many and proving triumph over adversity, Ireland is truly on the world stage of athletics.
  • Sandy Hook – my deepest sympathies and thoughts with every single person touched by this incredible tragedy. I will not rant and rave like some have done and detract from the sheer anguish, pain and suffering caused by this masacre but regardless of your thoughts on gun control, you have to concede that no access to guns for non-criminals would surely go a long way to preventing such terrible events as this. Of course this wasn’t the only shooting in the US this year and I choose it not to ignore nor compare tragedies but purely because of its recent happening. My sympathies are with all who have lost through such tragedy.
  • The day the world ended – or didn’t. It just goes to show that not even the Maya could cause as much panic as a bunch of IT consultants intent on milking every cent they could from unsuspecting clients. Nobody truly believed nor spoke about the end of the world in the same way as the panic that spread across the globe in advance of Y2K and its infamous “bug”. You can’t make much money out of the world ending; nice to know our priorities…
  • Gangnam Style – we may never fully understand. However, one thing is for sure, it wouldn’t have happened without the internet. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever said that before. I’m not sure what else to say.
  • Curiosity about Mars – yes, us Earthlings managed to put something else on Mars this August. Our new rover, named Curiosity, touched down in early August and has been dominating dinner table conversations ever since… Oh wait… Seriously though, it is an achievement worth mentioning, even if the significance of it will never be quantified in the lifetime of those who witnessed its occurrence.
  • Yes Governor – Waterford City managed to attract none other than Gov. Brian Schweitzer from Montana to its annual Tricolour Celebration, commemorating the creation and peaceful meaning behind the Irish flag. Gov. Schweitzer is hotly tipped to be the next democrat candidate for the White House in 2016 and to have had his attendance and support in Waterford prior to his epic journey, should he undertake it, was a true honour. I was fortunate enough to have a quick chat with the man himself and even grabbed a cheeky photo (thanks to Lee Grace).
Brian Schweitzer and I

Brian Schweitzer and I

  • Save Waterford – please do. For as long as I have lived, I have been painfully aware of the mistreatment of Waterford City and the Southeast region of Ireland by successive governments and the carving up of the country into Dublin, Cork and Galway only. In November, a protest march against the proposed cuts to Waterford Regional Hospital and the downgrading of the city’s status was organised through a grassroots campaign in the space of a week. That Saturday, in excess of 15000 people marched through the streets of Waterford City, in solidarity with one another. People from right across the Southeast came together to be heard in support of the region, one of the few times that stupid GAA fuelled barriers were broken down and ordinary people acknowledged that they were all in the same boat. I was quite moved by the peaceful display and hope that I will see far more of it in the future.
  • Facebook IPO – hit like if you want some shares. The floatation of Facebook was probably one of the most eagerly awaited events of recent years and it happened in May of this year. Naturally stock traded well for the first couple of days (so too did Eircom – remember that?). The rest of the story will be confined to the annals of historic flops. It’s suffice to say that you can build an internet company, get a billion followers, get them to generate their own content and give commercial interests a mechanism of advertising therein to the masses but your company is still worth nothing if you don’t actually do anything. Never be fooled by initial hype and early trades, the intangible will never have value on the same scale as the tangible.

I’m sure I’ve missed a million things that have grabbed my attention this year but I am neither in the mood to ponder further than the time taken to write this nor am I enthused enough to think that it might somehow matter. I am simply marking the passing of one year and the beginning of another; that is all the significance. Hopefully 2013 will be filled with opportunity and event to invoke greater positive feeling, this time next year.

Progress! Advancement! Improvement!

Everyday I marvel at what the world has achieved as a collective of minds operating together, for either the greater good or simply to beat the other guy. I marvel but I also lament this reckless approach towards “improvement” that seems to have picked up many developed cultures and is sweeping them towards the precipice of their undoing.

I learned to program computers when I was eight – I was a freak and that’s how it should be. These days kids everywhere seem to be doing the same, if not breaking records and causing a stir on various application stores throughout the marketplace. It’s brilliant; it’s amazing that computing has become so accessible such that it can now influence young minds to the level by which we previously used to think it great that kids knew how to use a TV remote. I wonder if any of them know how to climb a tree or is that beyond reach for the 20+% who are classified obese in Irish society

Beyond childhood wonder, our “progress” has seen huge change in the workplace too. Most factories have now automated to the extent that labour truly is the only cost to be worried about and they have managed to resolve that issue by uprooting and resettling in a different country to keep the investors happy. It was recently said to me, with respect to a pharmaceutical plant, “it’s amazing, you walk in and there’s almost nobody on the factory floor, everything is automated but they do have a large IT department”. Well, that is amazing. A situation whereby dozens of shift workers would have been employed on a continual basis, usurped by the almighty transistor and its human button pusher. Somehow though, it’s good for the economy…

Third level qualifications are all but taken for granted these days but where are they leading us? Academic outfits have adopted the line that “we need X% of PhDs within our staff” – why? Are your current staff unable to do the job that has raised the money to pay for PhD programmes, etc? No, of course not. It’s just a metric. It shows “advancement” and helps others to compare organisations on face[less] value. However, many pursuing PhD ambitions consider it to be “slave labour” and various other unpleasant associations. Do I wish I had a PhD? Hell yeah. Everyday of my miserable life. The problem however in this world is that finding a unique idea that interests you, when everyone else already has one, is kind of difficult. Plus for some reason or other, to get a PhD these days you need to travel – sadly not something I have been able to bring myself to do for many a year now. Apparently the internet that has given rise to such great levels of research is in fact useless when it comes to publishing your work and gaining appreciation for it. I wonder if Newton flew Ryanair…

So, where are we then? Progress! Advancement! Improvement! I may be guilty of being somewhat glib here but from a cursory glance, it appears that these 3 chants of the developed world have given rise to workplaces that employ less people, business practices that demand higher entry levels keeping people in education for longer, and brainbox kids that will quite possibly soon be the breadwinners of the family unit because Mommy and Daddy are unemployed because of Progress! Advancement! Improvement! or whom are stuck in long term education with no disposable income. It’s hardly surprising that we have an unemployment crisis in this country at the moment, is it?

I know, I hear you. Progress! Advancement! Improvement! – it will solve itself. This is only a glitch as we migrate towards new capacities and occupational ways of life. I hear you, I really do. I am certainly not a technophobe; in lesser societies I would be locked up for my inappropriate and frequently public relations with technology – a technophile through and through. However, in the vane of Progress! Advancement! Improvement! ponder this if you will. If one person operating a computer can replace the need for 20 people on a factory floor, just imagine what you could do with a computer controlling their terminal…

Viking Marathon

As the cat is out of the bag in the last couple of weeks: yes, I am running the Waterford Viking Marathon on June 30th. Persuaded to run due to the local nature of it and a chance to raise some funds for the local Alzheimer’s Society.

If you can spare anything at all, please call me, knock on my door, tell me to come to you or donate via PayPal on my page All help would be greatly appreciated.

Those of you who know me well will know that this charity is a very personal one to me so I’m trying to give it a big push.

Many thanks in advance.

Museum of Me

Now, if ever there was a title that sounded self-indulgent, here it is. However, its coinage is not of my own doing, albeit my activities and that of millions of others, indirectly led Intel to create that phrase and its associated Facebook analysis. Yes, the Pentium Pushers have hopped on the Facebook bandwagon by creating a very elegant gimmic that analyses your Facebook profile to discover the things you talk about most, the people you interact with most, and the general impression of your life on Facebook. They create a polished video of your life through Facebook mash-ups and things from your profile and give you a set of pictures to take home as a memento of your trip down virtual memory lane. I think it has been around for quite a while now but I only dropped by myself in recent days to get the experience of my life, literally. Why not drop by and indulge in your own personal exhibition

Free Speech vs Social Acceptance

Interesting piece on censorship in social networks. While inconclusive as to whether or not censorship happened in this instance it does raise an interesting question with respect to free speech while maintaining a socially acceptable existence. I had read earlier in the week that Google’s “What Do You Love?” search experiment ( is also removing offensive keyword searches and preventing people from searching on lewd terms. Is cleaning up the web infringing upon the 1st Amendment in the US and similarly held beliefs in other zones?

Google Plus Nothing

I finally got my Google Plus a/c sorted about two weeks ago now and have been playing with it ever since. Like most of my peers I have been an early adopter of many social networks and mobile networking apps. I’ve been on Twitter for too long to remember, Facebook too and have engaged in a year long experiment with Foursquare that has now drawn to a close. There has also been a spattering of other services that have come and gone without really featuring in my life (nor providing annoyance to my friends).

The striking thing about my connected life until now is the vast array of apps that I needed to interact with the various networks and also the frequently, limited functionality of those mobile apps compared to their desktop counterparts. Sometimes so bad, I’d rather make the slowest quip in the world than try to broadcast it from my phone. I used to be very anti-smartphone, not getting the phone-omenon in the early days. I still stand by my opinions at the time as things were just not ready for mass market in my estimation. Times have obviously changed and even I have now gone through several smartphones and a vast array of apps for those devices. I guess knocking the adage on its head applies here: There’s no whore like a reformed prude.

Upon investigating Google Plus for the first time, the interface was immediately apparent, as a well thought out, socially unifying experience. Facebook has always been shrouded in privacy concerns and locking down information was ultimately more trouble than it was worth. Of course, I still believe that if it’s that sensitive then don’t put it online! Facebook was great for getting back in touch with old friends whom I haven’t seen since school days and it served its purpose in such regard. However, I saw little benefit in joining groups related to my interests because updates were easily lost in the deluge of friend status posts and other garbage (sorry folks). Facebook allowed me to connect with lots of people, share photos to my friends in a more private way than Flickr but not much beyond.

Twitter grabbed me from the word go. As soon as I heard about the service, being a long time blogger (back then) I could see immediate advantage to concise information broadcasts from trusted peers and leading experts. It was like a 1950’s vision of the future cartoon, where all the information on the web would be available in one, tiny, 140-character burst – get your proton pills folks! However, as time went by I found myself craving more detail from Tweets. Twitter still features in my daily life; a convenient disposal chute for my garbage and a constant stream of what is happening in the world at any moment in time.

Foursquare was an experiment for me. Although not liking the idea of broadcasting my location to all and sundry, I decided to throw myself into it 100%. Within two weeks I had succeeded in annoying lots of folk with Foursquare checkins, cross posted to Twitter and Facebook. Straight away there was a problem. So many of my friends didn’t use Foursquare and so many didn’t care about my checkins, to the point of annoyance. Little value in such a service – all things considered. It was partial fun while it lasted. I gained a multitude of badges, held 20 mayorships simultaneously, uploaded some tips and photos of locations that I visited. However, ultimately the experiment yielded a big fail for me. Foursquare has potential but not within my catchment area. People don’t actively use tips, nor post photos of interesting things at locations. Businesses are not savvy enough to capitalise on rewards and offers for regular visitors or even the mayor. Then there were all the reasonably regular (at least at one stage) “Foursquare is over capacity” messages that prevented you from using the service to checkin. Ultimately it boiled down to a silly game/ego trip that produced very little of value.

Google Plus on the other hand offered granular privacy out of the box, through the concept of circles. The notion of circles was instantly intuitive and worked so well that not only did it guard whom you shared information with but also allowed you to filter friend updates from those whom you may follow just for interesting material (e.g. tech experts and others). Sharing is so powerful, yet so easy on Google Plus. My photos, my status updates, interesting articles I find, videos I like, links that are worthy of a +1, it’s all there under one roof. On top of that they have nailed the checkin system of Foursquare in a way that Facebook never did, in my opinion. I always found Facebook checkins pointless because cross-posting from Foursquare to Facebook just annoyed people so why do it directly? With checkins on Google Plus I can checkin somewhere and only share that with a select circle (e.g. family). That way the valuable information is broadcast to those who may be interested and it doesn’t annoy anyone else. I love the way I can filter, follow and organise my contacts. I like that the interface is simple yet feature rich. I love the Android app for Google Plus. It makes using Plus on the move an absolute joy. No clutter, no mess, and no inhibiting limitations unlike so many other apps for similar services.

I’ve been so taken by Google Plus that I’ve hardly interacted directly with Facebook since getting my Plus a/c. The only thing bringing me back occasionally is a group of friends who haven’t made the jump to Google Plus yet. My Twitter activity is probably more or less the same in terms of my output but I’m finding more and more interesting stories/discussions and in greater detail, through allowable verbosity, on Google Plus. Facebook looks like it may have served its purpose for me and as soon as other friends have migrated to Google Plus, I can see it fading into the distance, barring any shake-up on the horizon. I’ve gone from regularly using 4/5 services to now using almost Google ‘Plus’ nothing.