Inside third level

 

A former college president lifts the lid on third level, where he says lecturers have light workloads, research pet projects that have no benefit for Ireland Inc, and management is poor, writes PAUL MOONEY

IN A recent address to students in the University of Limerick, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn was refreshingly candid. Quinn said neither he, his officials in the Department of Education or the Higher Education Authority (HEA) “had a clue” if lecturers are doing their jobs. He went on to urge the students to be “critical consumers” of the education they receive. Using the analogy of a shop or a restaurant, he went on to say, “People can exercise choice by moving to another supplier of the service”.

So, if you live in Cork and don’t like the standard of lecturing you can pushback against the individual lecturer (who will be marking your term paper) or move to Dublin, Limerick or Galway? I don’t think so!

Quinn’s first challenge should be to examine how the third-level system actually works. Are lecturers doing their jobs?

WHAT ARE THE WORKING HOURS OF ACADEMIC STAFF ?

The third-level sector operates two semesters each year, typically October to December and January to April. Each semester lasts 13 weeks (normally 12 weeks teaching and one “reading week”). University lecturers effectively teach for 24 weeks each year. During each of those 24 weeks, they teach for a maximum of 16 hours – but this is often negotiated downwards with trade-offs against a range of research and administration duties.

In some cases they don’t teach at all; in others they teach for just a couple of hours each week.

If you are following the numbers here, third-level lecturers who are scheduled to teach for less than six months each year, actually teach for 16 hours (maximum) during each of those 24 weeks. Assuming that they work a 35-hour week, the rest of the time during term and all of their time outside of term, is taken up with preparing lectures, research and administration activity.

PREPARING FOR LECTURES

A good lecture is a thing of beauty. The best lecturers are brilliant teachers. They keep themselves and their materials up-to-date, staying close to their specialist subject. They demonstrate a real interest in delivery using a range of engaging teaching techniques eg, problem-based learning.

However, other lecturers are lazy and don’t update their material. When at college myself, we had one lecturer who “worked through a single book” with us. Turned out that he was using that same book and technique for over 15 years. In the worst cases, the notes go from the notebook of the lecturer into the notebooks of the students, without going through the minds of either.

So, performance under the heading of teaching is a mixed bag. Some lecturers are gifted. Some are awful. And there is no real consequence (upside or downside) for either group. The truth? Students are lucky if they can access lecturers from the inspired group.

RESEARCH ACTIVITY

Aside from teaching, academics spend their time completing research. This all sounds quite noble. Academics (and this is true for many) are helping Ireland Inc move up the value chain towards becoming a smart economy.

Yet if you strip away the layers, you find that a good percentage of university lecturers are actually completing their own research for a PhD during work hours.

It still qualifies as research, but the notion that academics are focused on a couple of key topics that will promote Ireland Inc, is not even close to reality. The reality is that almost all academics complete research which interests them personally. While this is adding to the store of knowledge in the world (a good thing), the relevance of this research to the broader world (economic or social progress) often goes unquestioned.

THE QUALITY OF RESEARCH?

Beneath the surface of the question “what are our academics researching?”, resides an even more difficult question. What percentage of academics are actually capable of doing research that can add value?

While the answer to this differs between institutions, the percentage of third-level lecturers that have the ability to produce economic or socially useful research is limited.

Yet the system is designed on the mistaken assumption that 100 per cent of academic staff have this ability. Having a post-graduate degree (an entry requirement for this job) means that people in the group are highly educated, but not necessarily smart.

Without doubt brilliant minds in academia have led breakthroughs in technology, medicine etc. But the outputs from these exceptional people mask the fact that the majority of third-level lecturers are just that – people with masters or PhD degrees who should be able to teach really well but are not “researchers” in the sense of being capable of breakthrough thinking.

By granting research time to all academics (and not quantifying expectations or measuring outputs), the system is poorly designed from a productivity standpoint. The outputs don’t measure up against the inputs.

WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS IN THE WAY OF CHANGE AT THIRD LEVEL?

There are three roadblocks which get in the way of effective performance in the third-level sector.

– Firstly, the culture is not supportive of teaching.

– Secondly, the senior teams are seldom skilled in the area of performance management.

– Thirdly, there is no effective management system which drives performance.

THE CULTURAL ISSUES

Within the third-level system, the culture typically elevates research above teaching. Teaching duties are sometimes delegated to junior lecturers (sometimes postgraduate students trying to make some money to put themselves through college).

In some universities and colleges, it’s almost a mark of prestige if you don’t give lectures at all – particularly to undergraduate students (sometimes seen as the lowest form of student life). The proactive academics are focused on publications (publish or perish) and getting monetary grants for the organisation. That is prestigious work. Preparing or delivering great lectures to a bunch of undergraduates has nothing like the same prestige.

MANAGEMENT ISSUES

WHY IS THERE A MANAGEMENT PROBLEM AT THIRD LEVEL?

Most managers in the third-level system are academics (or former academics). Sometimes they have never worked outside of the university system and have no performance benchmarks. Sometimes they hold managerial jobs on a rotational basis (ie, they are really peers rather than bosses) and will be returning to a full-time academic role when their turn is completed.

There is therefore little incentive to make waves while in the chair.

The job of university president has increasingly become boundary management, looking outwards rather than inwards. The enormous legal fees spent annually to deal with performance issues and cases is staggering, money that should be spend internally in improving the educational system for students. Why? Because performance management has never been taken up as a serious topic in the sector and many senior managers are not trained in how to deal with this.

PERFORMANCE ISSUES

There is often no performance management system in place in third-level institutions for the academic staff. Sometimes systems are in place but they have effectively died on the vine. No targets or standards set, just a requirement to teach X syllabus to Y students. And the quality of that teaching normally cannot be observed.

In relation to research, there are very few output standards and almost no downside to not meeting these.

Yes, there is a measurable outcome in terms of the actual students marks – but students are clever and work around the bad lecturers. Even where the outcomes are poor, there is usually no downside for a lecturer if students continually underachieve. Many colleges, recognising this, have set up peer support schemes to help lecturers improve their teaching and these offer really useful development opportunities. Because these are normally voluntary arrangements, in my experience it is those lecturers who are already brilliant who take up this opportunity; the poorer lecturers keep their heads below the parapet.

There has been talk for years of introducing a formal performance management system across the sector and some organisations have made progress – but it is hotch potch, depending on the appetite and the managerial skills in place within individual institutions.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

It is difficult not to conclude that the system is designed more on the basis of convenience for the academic staff (eg, no classes before 10am on Monday and none on Friday afternoon) rather than for the education of the students. Without doubt some courses are quite onerous in terms of class contact time and related project work. But a huge number of courses are much lighter in terms of teaching and class contact time.

Short contact hours and really long holidays is not good preparation for students trying to get ready for what lies ahead.


Dr Paul Mooney was president of the National College of Ireland from 2007-2010.

As a student he attended NCI for four years and Trinity College for six. He subsequently taught on a Masters programme at DCU. He now runs the consultancy firm Tandem Consulting.

AND, THE ANSWER IS?

Based on my experience I would propose the following action:

MORE CONTACT TIME

The third-level sector should move from two to three semesters each year. This would increase the teaching cycle from 24 weeks to 36 weeks a year. It would be a much better training cycle for students (who have to face a 46-48 week-long year in the real world when they exit university). It would provide a 50 per cent productivity increase with four-year degrees being completed in less than three years.

PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT

We need a robust and transparent system of performance evaluation (not “I’m working from home marking papers”). This should focus on evidence of changes made in teaching practice and set specific teaching standards to be reached. It should also address the research output to be produced (and this cannot be the pursuit of personal interests). Given the complexity of the sector and the range of topics taught, this is not simple. But it will never happen if we don’t start the dialogue now.

RECOGNISE TEACHING

All university staff should teach, unless they have a full-time research schedule, which is signed off by a high level in-house committee. “Not teaching” should be the rare exception rather than the norm.

ADDRESS UNDER-PERFORMERS

Every high-performance work organisation has an ability to address underperformance. Now adequate protections have to be built into the system to ensure that people who have a different political viewpoint to the management or simply hit a black patch are protected. But here I am talking about dealing with chronic underperformers, the five people which everyone in the organisation can name in five minutes who have not done a decent days work since the Millennium. They have no role to play in a modern university.

LET THE CRITICISM BEGIN!

No doubt this article will be labelled as unfair and a witch-hunt. The suggested restrictions of academic freedom will be seen as evidence of a philistine mind at work, someone who doesn’t understand or appreciate the outputs from 1,000-plus years of academic endeavour, polluted by the narrow concerns of economics.

And there will be a range of exceptions reported, notable academics working long hours and making key breakthroughs to disprove the points made here.

Yes this article is focused on the negative. It ignores the culture of collaboration which exists within the system and the sharing of information. It also ignores the productivity gains achieved in recent years, with the numbers of students now completing third-level education at an all-time high. Perhaps, the greatest sin, is that I have ignored the fact that Irish higher education is underfunded vis a vis international comparators.

My hope is that while the views expressed are controversial, this will start a dialogue. In a system which is almost 100 per cent funded by the State, we have the right to expect the highest standards and outputs.

Ruairí Quinn is paid to oversee the education system. While he cannot be responsible for every single individual or practice employed, he is responsible for asking the big questions.

And it doesn’t get any bigger than managing the performance of the academic staff across the sector. We need to have the courage to begin to discuss and address these issues head on.

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