On Tuesday the Irish Times carried an opinion piece by Paul Mooney entitled ‘Inside Third Level‘.  I sent the IT the following response, but it’s not been carried so I’m putting it on the record here.

For someone who has worked in the university sector and has been the President of the National College of Ireland, Paul Mooney’s level of ignorance as to what lecturers and professors do and the purpose of the higher education is quite remarkable.  What is even more striking is that his opinion piece in the Irish Times (Inside Third Level) lacks the rigours of analysis that one would expect from an academic.  Assertion, anecdote and the partial, cherry-picking of data does not constitute evidence-informed analysis.

Where is the data and its systematic analysis to underpin the conclusions drawn?  Where are the international comparisons that would set Ireland in context of other higher education systems?  Where is the standardisation against staff/student ratios and funding that should be a part of such comparisons?  Where is the wider contextualisation and reference to the myriad of reports on the higher education sector over the past decade?

Put simply, this is not good science or analysis; it is jingoistic playing to the gallery and would make a very good example for students as to how to produce a selective story.

Let’s get one thing absolutely straight – academic working hours is not contact teaching hours and nor should it be.  The job of lecturers is divided into three main tasks:  1) teaching,  2) administration, 3) research.

Contact hours are only one element of teaching.  The other elements are lecture preparation, marking and meeting students to discuss their work and assignments.  All three are time intensive.  For example, meeting students one-on-one to give advice and critically appraise their work takes time, especially if you are teaching very large introductory classes.  Direct classroom hours are deliberately not heavy – it is not called ‘reading for a degree’ for nothing.  Students are meant to be reading the ancillary material and undertaking their assignments.  Lecturers aid them in this reading and in their self-learning. The pedagogy of higher education is philosophical not sophist and nor should it ever be sophist.

Administration, related to both teaching and research, is not a trivial task and takes time to do professionally.  The fact that students or the public do not see this work is neither here nor there.

Research takes time and resources.  It takes a lot of reading, a lot experimentation, a lot analysis, a lot of thinking, a lot of debate and a lot of writing if it is to be rigorous, systematic and valid.  It can fail.  It is not something that can be done well in a few hours.  If it could be done quickly and easily companies wouldn’t spend vast sums of money on it, and states wouldn’t give huge contracts to consultancy companies for it.  As a supposedly seasoned researcher, Paul Mooney should know this.

The fact that Ruari Quinn, the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority do not have a clue if lecturers are doing their job says far more about the Minister and those bodies than it does about the higher education sector.

There are four good pieces of evidence that in fact it is doing its job: first, it is producing courses that are very highly scored by external examiners, the vast majority of whom come from outside Ireland.  Second, it produces graduates which the country holds up when it seeks to entice FDI to Ireland and who compete very well in the international labour market.  Third, we perform very well in attracting EU research monies and in publishing research in international refereed outlets.  Fourth, there is not a huge ground swell of complaints from our main customers – students.  In fact, Paul Mooney produces not one bit of data that even hints that the sector is not doing its job beyond saying that contact hours align with international norms (Ireland is not exception in this regard) and a lot of bluster and conjecture.

Neither does he provide one jot of data to support the statement: “the percentage of third-level lecturers that have the ability to produce economic or socially useful research is limited.”  Furthermore, such a statement belies an assumption that third level research should be instrumental in nature.  Here, worth and value get hopelessly conflated.  Third level research serves diverse constituencies and purposes, and so it should.  Newman’s ‘The Idea of a University’ has lost none of its veracity.

He also seems to be under the illusion that there are no key performance and management indicators operating in the sector.  In fact, all the third level institutions compile such data on all their activities.  All teaching is externally validated.  All publications and research funding applications are judged by peers.  Promotion is tied to academic performance.  Departments are subject to external quality reviews.  Any project with research funding is subject a range of audits, including daily timesheets for many HEA and EU projects.  All staff do PMDS.  Regular reports are prepared for the HEA.

Academics working long, productive hours is not an exception, it is the norm.  And the three month summer break in the university sector is a myth; holiday entitlements in Maynooth are 20 days plus 9 (Christmas and Easter).

The first rule of publishing in academia is to get your facts straight and to produce an evidence-informed analysis.  If his opinion piece was a student essay, I’d give it a ‘F’.

Rob Kitchin


Students took to the streets in Dublin on 3 November 2010, protesting against a proposed increase in registration fees for third level courses. Undergraduate education in Ireland is nominally free, though the spiralling level of registration fees (from  €900 euro in 2008 to €1500 this year) raises important questions about what exactly ‘free’ means. The emphasis on fees, however, directs attention away from the other important barrier to participation in third level education. The only state support provided to students is an annual maintenance grant, which is means-tested. A student who qualifies for a full grant, and who lives more than 24km from the college she plans to attend, gets €3,250 a year to cover living expenses. Taking the college year at 35 weeks, this works out at €92.85 a week to cover all living expenses, including rent, food, bills and travel. This grant has been already reduced by 5% this year, and may well be reduced further. ‘Disadvantaged’ students may receive an additional €3,105 a year, but only if they meet a range of stringent conditions.

Unlike many other OECD countries, Ireland has no state-backed loan scheme to help students fund education, so students turn to part-time jobs or commercial loans, both of which are increasingly difficult to access. The way in which grants are paid out further contributes to financial worry for students – they are paid out by VECs or local authorities in 3 installments throughout the year, but there are considerable variations in the timing of the payments, and payments are often late. As a result, some students are experiencing significant financial hardship, which in turns affects their ability to complete their third-level education. Third-level institutions can provide emergency support from student hardship funds, but this is a stop-gap measure only.

If Ireland as a ‘knowledge society’ has any validity, then we need to address barriers to third-level participation and completion. Fees are an important factor, certainly, but so too is financial assistance for those bright and capable people with limited means to afford the other costs associated with studying (like living expenses). Let’s not forget this important fact as the debate over fees takes centre stage.

Mary Gilmartin