‘Sure they only work six hours a week’: Defending Irish academia

By Patrick Walsh

Irish universities and the academic blogosphere are currently full of academics reflecting upon their position, as they attempt to generate responses to increasingly restrictive, and frequently ill-thought out new policy directives. Reflection of course comes naturally to the academic –some would even argue it’s what we do best. But the time for reflection is over, now is the time for action. However, by action, I don’t mean the type of direct action witnessed by our striking colleagues in Britain, at least not yet. Instead we need to engage fully within the public debate on the purpose and future of our universities, to try and change, and pardon the cliché, the hearts and minds of our critics, within government and within wider society.

For too long we have allowed stereotypes about university life to go unchallenged in the media and wider discourse. We have allowed ridiculous perceptions about our working hours, (6-10 hours a week, 6 months of the year, if some are to be believed) to go uncontested, leading to a false image of us as glorified teachers, but remarkably lazy ones at that. This feeds into an existing pernicious narrative which has served in the past to demonise the teaching profession. It has also led to confusion in official circles, leading to the absurd idea that the one of the best ways to increase efficiency across the whole education sector, broadly defined, is to increase teaching loads by one hour for everyone from a teacher of junior infants, to a professor of thermo-dynamics, because clearly they are the same thing. Misinformed perceptions of our working hours are but one instance of the popular misunderstanding of Irish academics. Others might include, the common, and sometimes interlinked, belief that we are all grossly overpaid, something not helped by the excessive salaries earned by those at the top. That however is the top, and does not reflect the majority or the experience of those of us at the most junior levels, who often spend years on poorly remunerated short term contracts. Here as elsewhere the reality differs from the perception. Such views are of course exaggerated when they are focused on the Arts and Humanities, where the point of our discipline is frequently called into question. After all, it is claimed, we have no economic function, and in these ‘difficult times’ historians, philosophers and literary critics are unaffordable luxuries.

Such philistinism is allowed go unchallenged, partly because as a group, academics are unwilling or unable to step up and defend their position, to explain our contributions to society, to elucidate the role of the universities. It is no longer assumed, if it ever was, that universities are a good thing. During the boom years it was easier for us to coast along; money and students were plentiful, as indeed were graduate jobs. The latter is of more importance than we might think, at first glance. Students, their parents, as well as policy makers, university administrators and other stakeholders in the university system were happy with our role, or with what they perceived as our role, at least until debates about declining standards and grade inflation began to be aired. These debates were important, and raised an issue that remains an ongoing concern, and one that arguably cannot be addressed fully within the current climate of cuts and searches for ‘efficiencies’. Proper teaching no less than research needs resources and flexibility.

I however digress here from my main point. The academy has failed to tackle these issues head on. Instead we have stood meekly by (apart from some honourable exceptions), as ever more restrictive and unrealistic work practices have been brought in. Research budgets have been slashed, libraries have become increasingly under resourced and understaffed, and hiring of researchers has become increasingly difficult. These are issues which affect how we work and how the universities function. Without any cutting edge research there will be no cutting edge teaching, and then where will the smart economy be? To prevent this happening, we need to demonstrate the value of what we do. Academics need to communicate effectively that we are not just teachers, but also researchers, and good ones at that. We need to demonstrate how our research informs our teaching and how it contributes to wider civil society. In sum we need to explain why universities matter, and what we do in them matters too.

This must start within the universities. Too many students pass through college, without ever understanding what the purpose of the institution is. Explaining this might be one place to start, and here I don’t just mean glib slogans, with their laudable but vague aspirations. Shaping global minds matters, but we need to explain how this shaping happens. One possible approach might be to bring in mandatory multidisciplinary modules, where every new student would be introduced to some of the exciting research being discovered on a daily basis in each university. Such courses might address such major themes as climate change or globalisation, or perhaps more philosophical questions such as what does it mean to be human, taking perspectives, from say medicine, science, philosophy, history and sociology to name but a few disciplines. Such ‘big picture’ courses would serve not just to showcase the varieties of research ongoing in our universities, but also to show how these different elements connect up. Importantly they might also help introduce students to new modes of thinking and therefore help break the cord that still draws them back to their narrow focused Leaving Cert training.
This after all is what university teaching and research is about. It is about the complex processes that make up our lives, and introducing our students to these complexities, whether as scientists, economists, or historians helps us to develop our own research. Students in my experience respond to fresh ideas, even, maybe especially, those that are still only half baked in our minds. Teaching and research therefore go hand in hand. We cannot do one without the other. Only by constantly challenging ourselves in the classroom can we fully formulate new ideas, while only by being consistently exposed to the same new ideas can students realise that there are no easy answers, and that sometimes there are no answers. This of course is a lesson that goes beyond any disciplinary or classroom boundary; it is part of the knowledge society that the university is supposed to shape and define.

Changing student mentalities matters for several reasons, not least because that’s part of our job; if we cannot persuade them of the value of what we are doing, and what they are increasingly paying for, then we are failing. It also matters because their experience affects how other stakeholders see us. The quality of our graduates, not just their degree marks, but the skill-sets they emerge with and the contributions they make to society at large reflect on the institutions that train them. We must also remember here that today’s students are tomorrow’s voters, and policy makers. It is therefore in our interests to ensure they get the best possible education, and understanding of what the university is about.

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26 Responses to ‘Sure they only work six hours a week’: Defending Irish academia

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » ‘Sure they only work six hours a week’: Defending Irish academia

  2. CarolC says:

    “Too many students pass through college, without ever understanding what the purpose of the institution is. ”

    I’ll agree with you there. In Science, we had lectures about how we could use our degrees for careers in industry and government, but were never on how the university itself was laid out! I think they expected us to absorb it by osmosis….

  3. Perhaps I can paraphrase “Too many students pass through college, without ever understanding what the purpose of the institution is… ” to ‘Too many students pass through college, without any idea why they ended up there’. A significant proportion of students, especially in the Liberal Arts/Humanities/Social Sciences and to a lesser extent in Law and Business, are only in college because
    a) Mammy expected them to go
    b) all their friends were going
    c) they were too embarrassed not to put down something on the CAO form

    I think we should get rid of them – send them away for 15 years and replace them with adult learners who missed out in the past but who could now benefit from a degree, and whose contribution to our society would be enhanced by the challenge of college.

    The other big fix would be to abolish lectures. There is place for the big performance lecture by the top level expert, but dictating notes to 400 students in Boole 4 or the Schumann or Theatre M, while it may look like teaching, isn’t always learning. Once people understand that facilitating and scaffolding learning in higher education is a small group, labour intensive craft, not an industrial process, then it becomes much easier to explain why it costs so much (and you would improve the quality of graduates, and the nations intellectual infrastructure)

    my 2c

  4. Carol,

    Learning by osmosis sounds about right! And most students dont even do that, and cannot be blamed for it either.


  5. Mike,

    Thanks for your insightful, and perhaps even provocative, comments. I think you are definitely right about the reasons why some students come to college. I have certainly encountered some from all of your three categories, and have occasionally pondered what to do about these ‘passengers’. The reintroduction of fees might help here, but I am far from convinced about this as a solution. Instead it might be more beneficial to make it harder for students to coast through college; then only those who are actually interested might take up places. These are, however, questions that need further consideration.

    Your point about adult learners is well made, and certainly this is where universities,and the state, should be looking , in these straitened times, for new students. They may not bring in the cash that international students do, but they do bring life experiences and viewpoints, that are not always present otherwise. Incentives may be needed here, but the benefits to wider society will be worth it.

    Regards lectures, I think they still have a place, but they need to be accompanied by small group teaching, and this is an area that is labour intensive, and one that needs proper resources, as you rightly point out. Seminar groups of up to 25 students are not adequate for such purposes, yet they are all to common these days. This is an argument that should be developed further within debates over teaching workloads and student numbers.


  6. Noel says:

    Having worked in universities for years (both in admin and teaching) my experience has been that I would never tell a leaving cert student what to do, but I would tell them what not to do, and that is to go to university immediately. Do anything for a few years then when they are older (and I’m only talking in their twenties) they can consider university. For me a 20 year old graduate is an oxymoron!

  7. puesoccurrences says:

    I agree with you that universities and academics have been complacent in justifying their existence, especially in the humanities. I think the absence of multidisciplinary, investigative courses serves to prove your point.

    Most of academia seems to me to be concerned with struggles within the university (eg money and space allocated to one school/department over another) or between universities. Since most students want to go on to higher education it is just a question of enticing them to one university over another, one course over another. Rivalries are important for maintaing high standards, but there is definitely a forest being lost by staring at trees.

    Probably the difficulties begin with the leaving cert which builds an expectation of learning in a particular way that is very difficult to break through. The leaving cert is a reflection of a wider view of education as an accumulation of information. This feeds into political ideas that the only thing important to come out of universities is graduates with sets of information and tangible skills. Information and skills are important, but surely we are offering something more. Academics should take an interest in secondary education, too.


  8. Cormac Walsh says:

    At a recent seminar in NUI Maynooth, Prof. Erik Swyngedouw, a leading scholar in human and environmental geography commented that David Cameron was right when he argued that the social sciences and humanities were failing to demonstrate their value to society. His point was that when he discussed the same issue with leading academics, they also argued that the capacity of the social sciences and humanities to communicate meaningfully to an audience beyond the academy was seriously in question.

    The call for engagement with public debate needs to be much more broader than just focussed on the role of universities. Academics of all disciplines have a responsiblity to engage with current substantive issues of pulbic and political debate in order to convincingly demonstate their relevance to society. A key part of this is actively persuading students of the relevance of the subjects they are being taught. Current undergraduates are often worried and concerned about their future employment prospects and with good reason. They can be forgiven for not always appreciating the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

  9. Pingback: Defending Irish Academia and the Role of Universities in Society « Ireland after NAMA

  10. Thanks for your comments Cormac. You have raised some really important points. I do think that the debate over the linking of research funding to the ‘Big Society’ in the UK raises some issues we have to address. While the idea that a government might trample over academic freedom and try to link national research funds to their own political agenda is quite worrying, I do think that the controversy highlights the need as academics, to show how our research does make a meaningful contribution to society. The ‘big society’ aside, I think the importance of humanities and more generally academic research and teaching do make a valuable contribution to civil society, and that we need to explain how we do this. I am planning a piece on the point of humanities research in this vein, but it would be great to have a number of other disciplinary perspectives – if you would be interested in contributing a piece from a geography/social science perspective, it would certainly be welcome here!


  11. Patrick,
    A timely and well written article that is generating some well needed discussion. I think part of the problem here is to do with the shrinking of what is constituted as meaningful to society, which I think is being increasingly understood as something with economic value, value to the economy, economically valuable. The linking of research in the UK to the ‘Big Society’ smacks of fascism and could seriously curtail what is actually meant by society. But I think that we can see similar issues in relation to arts funding in Ireland (see http://www.ncfa.ie/) and other sectors that have been conscripted gradually into justifying themselves in the (tangential) capacity to contribute to ‘knowledge’ and ‘creative’ economies and are now struggling to justify their worth in a time of constricting resources.

  12. Thank you for all the comments and apologies for delayed response, its been a busy day!

    Juliana, I entirely agree with you about how the peresistence of internal and external rivalries can prevent what would seem like obviously beneficial developments. But then neiether you nor I hold thepurse strings! Colloboration and maximisation of intellectual resources seem to me obvious routes forward.

    I am interested in your point about secondary education, I wonder might this be a route towards making a positive contribution to the endless, circular debate that has gone on since time immemorial, about the quality/lack opf quality of incoming undergraduates?

  13. Cormac and Cian, it is great to get your insights from another disciplinary background. I whole heartedly agree about the need to communicate beyond the universities; only by showing the value of our knowledge can we make it count for anything. Here I think the role of some of your colleagues and some of the economists over on Irish Economy.ie has been invaluable indisecting and explaining the collapse of the property bubble and its impact. But there is much more that can be done.

    Cian, I might hesitate to equate Cameron’s tories with fascism, no matter how much I dislike their policy platform, but that may just be my inner cautious historian. However this inititiave is a troubling one, and one that has echoes with some recent statements here by the HEA and others. (See the recent comments by the new Chairman of the HEA). It also leads to the question when can we expect the call for projects linked to Fine Gael’s NewEra or Five-Point-Plan vision statements? Mind you I would love if all funding applications just called for a 5 point plan!

  14. “But the time for reflection is over, now is the time for action. […] Instead we need to engage fully within the public debate on the purpose and future of our universities, to try and change, and pardon the cliché, the hearts and minds of our critics, within government and within wider society.”

    Two things strike me about that. The first is that “action” is taken to mean “debate”; the second is that you adopt the old sales model of trying to persuade the punters that they should buy what you want to produce, rather than producing what they want to buy.

    Y0u will appreciate that I am using deliberately provocative terms in the second part, but I do so because it seems to me to be equally provocative, indeed disrespectful, to see the punters (however defined) as being wrong. It also seems to me that the sales model is unlikely to be successful: the public is accustomed to various provider groups proclaiming their value to society — and the necessity of retaining their current pay and conditions. Other industries have delivered productivity improvements by changing their production models; why, the public may ask, hasn’t yours?

    Now, I don’t myself take the “6 hours a week is too short” view, or even the “they’re overpaid” view, but I don’t think you can counter them by urging the public to support the status quo.

    To return to my first point, the sales manual suggests that “show, don’t tell” is a more effective approach. Niamh Hourigan (whose Understanding Limerick I am currently reading) has, I think, shown the value of the Academy (as well as considerable personal bravery). Don’t tell us how valuable your work is: show us.


  15. Brian J Goggin says:

    Sorry about the mistake in the HTML.


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  17. Brian,

    Thank you for your most interesting, and indeed provoctative comments. My point, perhaps not articulated clearly enough (ironically) was that academics need to be less passive, and more forceful in their explanations of the value of their role. Clearly within this there is a need to demonstrate the wider value of academic research. The research you highlight, by Niamh Hourigan, sounds to me like an excellent example of this, and there are many more examples out there drawn from a range of disciplines. As an historian I have used my professional expertise to engage with the planning process, to give but one istance, while colleagues in economics, geography and elsewhere have made invaluable research based contributions to the ongoing political and policy debates about the future of the country.

    I would disagree with you, however, that there is a productivity issue here. Productivity is not an issue with the academy, although marketing/product placement might be. Changing work practices, however, to counteract perceptions about productivity, i.e. increasing teaching loads universally by an hour per week (as proposed under the Croke Park Agreement), seems to me a cosmetic response which ignores the reality of university teaching. There is much work to be done here, and perhaps your suggestions about improving our sales techniques are worth pursuing in furthering this agenda, although always with the proviso that such selling does not mean ‘dumbing down’ or indeed following short term policy goals.


  18. Mike Cosgrave says:

    I see the debate has moved on to measures of teaching productivity – I think we have an unfortunate habit of assuming a relationship between time and productivity. We tend to default to an assumption that, for example, 24 contact hours equals a 5 ECTS credit module. the numbers vary, but the principle is the same, and it produces this notional 150 hours a year or 6 contact hours a week as a university workload.

    There are several measures which are more meaningful

    One is how much learning in appropriate for a 5 credit module, and then how can that learning best be accomplished. That may be 5 contact hours, or 100, depending on the material, the discipline and the level, and the ability of the student.

    A second failing of the 6 hours a week metric is that it takes no account of the number of students in the class. An academic who teaches 30 credits a year to classes of 200 students is a very different kettle of fish to an academic who teaches 30 credits to classes of 20 – that’s 6,000 “insert new unit”s v 600 “insert new unit of measurement” (Let’s have a competition to name that unit of teaching and learning)

    At the moment, our system makes some very crude nods towards different levels of student in how FTEs are weighed between under and postgrad students, but as the system operates, 1 academic talking at 700 first years (or 7,000, or 70,000) is much more valuable that the same academic conducting a final year seminar with 15 students.

    This model, then, is biased in favour of ‘extensive’ teaching – maximum number of bums on seats but we need a model that accounts for intensity of teaching as well.
    We’ll never come up with a perfect system for measuring teaching and learning ‘productivity’, but we can surely do better than the simplistic bean-counting which we use at present. We are about to have a Seanad election in which the most extraordinary mathematics will be used in order to disguise the fact that many Senators will be elected by a handful of Councillors; surely we can do similar math on our teaching time to account for numbers in the class, their level of ability and the challenge posed by the learning outcomes of the module.

    This is not simply a sleight of hand to get rid of the six hours a week; it is a suggestion that we move towards a way of counting what we do in a way that better reflects what should be happening in our universities.

  19. Patrick: thanks for replying.

    I quite agree that all that stuff about an extra hour a week is a load of old cobblers. And it’s a measure of input: it says nothing (much) about productivity.

    What I was really getting at was that the teaching side of education (like many service industries) has not really changed its production model in a long time: get young folk in a series of rooms, over three to four years, and talk to them. There are decorative flourishes around the edges, and some lecturing/teaching folk do very imaginative new-tech things, but there have been relatively few innovations in programme (as opposed to module) delivery. With more students to be processed, the system must come under strain. But some manufacturing industries, and some other service industries (Ryanair?), seem to me to have radically changed how they do stuff, bringing down the costs and raising the quality for consumers.

    I’m not very happy with “improving our sales techniques” because that means persuading people to buy what you want to make (or the service you want to provide) rather than listening to what they might want: given that you want the taxpayer to pay for the service, I don’t think you can dismiss what the punters want, even if they want “dumbing down” or “short term policy goals”.

    Let me go back to your original post, where you said: “Too many students pass through college, without ever understanding what the purpose of the institution is.” I think you’re absolutely right, provided that we change “the purpose” to read “the workers in the institution think the purpose”. I’m not trying to suggest that there is anything wrong with the purpose as you see it: my point is rather that yours is not the only possible purpose and you and your colleagues are not the only people entitled to propose possible purposes.

    It seems to me that, rather than asserting the primacy of the purpose you prefer, you would find it easier (and perhaps more productive) to make the case that the institution must pursue your purpose [b]as well as[/b] meeting other folks’ wishes: preparing Jason and Kylie for gainful employment, saving Ireland by instituting the smart green economy, producing the essential professionals like, er, lawyers and accountants and all that sort of thing. Other folks’ purposes are not going to go away but (to take an example) I suspect that the current economic crisis, and the performance therein of (some) university economists, may have convinced the populace that there is a need for your independent working thinkers: Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and other Professional Thinking Persons [url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majikthise#Majikthise_and_Vroomfondel[/url]. And the production of those working thinkers, through a form of apprenticeship, may be close to the purpose of the institution as you see it.

    It seems to me that there is a need for open discussion on how the different proposed purposes can be fulfilled, but I am not convinced that a single production model, let alone the existing single model, can meet all of those needs. However, I don’t think the answer lies in shunting most teenagers to Institutes of Technology or elsewhere: institutional change like that would be messy and time-consuming. I’d prefer to see the existing institutions get on with it.


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  22. Brian Hanley says:

    Excellent post Patrick.
    I have to say that the point made by Brian Goggin is superfically attractive but also a bit glib:
    ‘To return to my first point, the sales manual suggests that “show, don’t tell” is a more effective approach. Niamh Hourigan (whose Understanding Limerick I am currently reading) has, I think, shown the value of the Academy (as well as considerable personal bravery). Don’t tell us how valuable your work is: show us.’
    A great many historians for example (though I don’t happen to be one of them) may be doing cutting-edge work on 18th century Ireland, or any variety of what might seem obscure topics. You are also ‘encouraged’ to publish in referred journals- by their nature few people will see many of your articles, key as they are to your career. Books published by university presses, assumed to be crucial to your reputation as a historian, often cost silly sums to buy (and therefore don’t sell). So ‘show, don’t tell’ isn’t as easy as all that.

  23. Brian Hanley says:

    “I have to say that the point made by Brian Goggin is superfically attractive but also a bit glib: […] So ‘show, don’t tell’ isn’t as easy as all that.”

    “Glib” is perhaps the wrong word: I didn’t say it was easy and I don’t believe it will always succeed (or should always succeed).

    To come to what may be the nub of the issue, I can contemplate with equanimity the possibility that an outside body — whether that be The Market or a Soviet of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers — might decide that it did not really want any more cutting-edge work on 18th century Ireland, thank you very much, and that folk carrying out research on the matter should either turn their attention to Jedward Studies or continue their researches on their own time.

    Your C18 researcher might ignore the public/citizens/customers/consumers. Or might, as some folk suggest, attempt to convince the public/etc of the value of the work: that is the sales model, and is something of an advance from the first position. A third position might be the adoption of a marketing model, attempting to discover, refine and meet the needs or wishes of the public/etc. A fourth might be to roll over altogether and research aspects of Jedward that would please the public/etc (which don’t include semiotics). And a fifth, depending on who wins the struggle, might be to accept the directions of Comrade Ball’s Soviet or of Comrade Murdoch’s television producers.

    “The question is who is to be master, that’s all.” But serious engagement with the public, rather than with a notion of the public good, cannot be avoided.


  24. Thanks for the comments, certainly plenty to ponder here.

    I agree with Brian Hanley that there are impediments within current academic carreer structures which can make it more difficult for us to to get our work noticed beyond the academy. These challenges can be overcome either through excellent writing, good marketing and indeed through allowing ourselves to publish in different formats for various audiences. Here Brian’s own recent works, The Lost Reolution and his documentary history of the IRA are good examples of work that has done this.

    Within my own field, as a historian of eighteenth century Ireland, these challenges can be greater, but they are surmountable. In the past I have written a guidebook for the OPW drawing on my academic expertise, which had a print-run of over 8,000 copies; clearly this reached well beyond the academy. The success of the much trumpeted 1641 Depositions Project in TCD has also shown how once obscure topic can reach a broad public audience, once imagination, talent and hard work are applied.

    The onus is on us therefore to find ways to demonstrate the value of our work, and why its worthy of consideration, and indeed funding. This does not mean giving up our own research interests, and instead following the diktats of outside agencies, or enslaving ourselves to a misconceived notion of what the’public’ wants. (The semiotic study of Jedward will have to wait!).


  25. @Patrick:
    “The semiotic study of Jedward will have to wait!”

    Phew! Relief all round ….


  26. Pingback: Weekly round-up: 6 April 2011 « arts management ireland

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