ADRIAN WECKLER ASKS a thoughtful question, "Why can't Irish education produce a Nobel laureate?" It's something I thought about when watching Patrick (at right) and John Collison jet off to the States for their university experience. Adrian brings the focus closer to home by articulating several key questions that I believe should be discussed by anyone charged with implementing the Hunt Report. I've some ideas below the break, after I clearly disclose that my opinions should not be taken as those of LIT, my current employer.
Adrian Weckler poses four questions for consideration.
1. How are colleges to improve standards (recruit top people, attract best students, create the best research) without the reintroduction of student fees or additional exchequer funding?
Institutions of higher education can neither attract nor keep key staff without paying for those people. In today's climate, if a university tries to top up an academic's salary, the bean counters at the Higher Education Authority will descend with a vengeance. That constraint probably won't change, meaning even if a highly-regarded academic brings in millions of euro of additional funding through European funding or some other method, there's no legal way of directly rewarding that hard work in terms of a salary increment. When those same highly-regarded academics use teaching assistants to deliver modules in their stead, rumbles of disapproval from students in lecture halls who selected courses because of the professors. They may get less-qualified staff teaching them instead if a European research programme intervenes with a scheduling conflict.
On the outside world, previous employers expected me to sell or produce a revenue stream greater than 2.5 times my annual salary. I'm well on my way to that goal this year but I know I won't be earmarked as a beneficiary of any of that new revenue stream. I'm not complaining but by the same token, my pay packet has been docked more than 15% since the beginning of 2010 due to pressures on the Irish Exchequer. So I'm earning less while generating more revenue. Thankfully, I grew up in a household that revered the sense of sacrifice so I'm sticking with the teaching job even though it's paying less and imposing more workload.
2. At a more general level, Irish third level institutions currently trail their counterparts in leading European and US cities in innovation and achievement. Is this of concern and, if so, how can it be reversed?
I think more formal and funded collaboration needs to happen between Irish third level institutions. I know plenty of innovative thinkers who teach in Irish Institutes of Technology and in Irish Universities. Make it easy to pull for collaborating institutes to pull down the money and more shared research work should happen against clearly defined deliverables. This means the Higher Education Authority of Ireland needs to have a bigger slush pot to spread around in generous fashion.
There's a question about broadband:
3. Eircom wants the state to help fund a new fibre network. Do you intend to do that? (Note: that's a spending commitment.) If not, do you have a plan (or any thoughts whatsoever) on how high speed broadband should be rolled out nationally outside urban centres?
I believe all schools, libraries and council area offices should be funded to provide open wifi access to people inside the buildings and to cars parked outside. This may run counter to the State wanting to nail down the identity of anyone using any kind of internet access point. There are ways of balancing both service levels by clever use of FreeFi services.
Then there's the issue of jobs.
4. What kind of industry development would you prioritise, and how?
I would boost funding for start-ups by setting aside several hundred million euro for Irish banks to use as funds for underwriting the overdraft and current account of High Potential Start-ups. With this kind of instrument, bank managers wouldn't feel obliged to call founders in for frequent reviews of spreadsheets and small companies would know they could meet payroll when accounts payable slowed down.
I'm interested in where these discussion questions go and whether any political parties in the upcoming general election articulate clear positions on them.
Download the Hunt Report (385k PDF).
Adrian Weckler -- "Why can't Irish education produce a Nobel laureate" on Your Tech Stuff, January 23, 2011.
Previous references to Adrian Weckler on my blog.