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Death By Grade Inflation

September 27, 2012

Any examination process infected with the grade inflation virus is counting down its days if the requisite prophylaxis is not administered in time. Grades cannot rise indefinitely without eventually undermining the credibility and utility of the whole endeavour.

However, it takes time and, as with other self-sustaining dynamics such as witnessed here in the property boom, everyone can blithely continue on as if tomorrow will never come.

Come it will, and come it has for the GCSE examination in England and Wales.  It is the first fatality of the grade inflation epidemic which has for years been raging through these isles and beyond.

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Science Foundation Ireland, the Director General and the Renovo Debacle

May 22, 2012

In the previous post, Stifling Discovery: Science Foundation Ireland’s New Mission and the Jobs Myth, we examined the recent policy shift at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) that has led to the prioritisation of research commercialisation. From now on, research will only be funded where it can be claimed from the outset that it will make a profit and create jobs.  Basic scientific research and discovery will be marginalised and the previous post discussed the perils of this policy. The international evidence also suggests that even the purported economic gains from commercialisation are dubious and that wild claims about job creation are a fantasy of hapless government ministers.

This post examines Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by SFI’s newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson. He was appointed on the back of his commercialisation experience at Renovo.  One would expect that Renovo is a model for successful commercialisation but in fact it is a remarkable case study about a resounding failure to commercialise academic research.

Renovo attempted to commercialise the scientific research that Ferguson had carried out at the University of Manchester. It grew rapidly from a small private company in 2000 to a publicly traded company with over 200 staff, claiming possession of “the most advanced regenerative medicine in the world”. It received large sums of money, including £63 million of investors’ money, £58 million of investment from the pharmaceutical company Shire, along with £16.5 million of British tax-payers money in the form of grants and research tax credits.

However, all of the drug products ultimately failed their clinical tests and none were commercialised.  In 2011, the scientific research was terminated and all of the employees were laid off.  The investors were wiped and the company was delisted from the main stock market.

Renovo Share Price

Despite this, the company directors received very substantial rewards over the five years that it operated as a listed company. Mark Ferguson received £3.6 million including a golden handshake of £700,000 from the derelict company. His wife Sharon O’Kane, the Chief Scientific Officer up to 2010, received over £1.6 million. In addition, between them they netted £9.4 million by exercising a director’s option when the shares were at their peak in 2007.

The Renovo case provides a unique insight into the nexus between financial markets and research science, the concomitant pressure for short term results and the disastrous consequences. It raises serious questions for Science Foundation Ireland, both in terms of its massive drive to pour money into commercialising research and its selection of a Director General to implement this policy.

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Stifling Discovery: Science Foundation Ireland’s New Mission and the Jobs Myth

May 22, 2012

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is making hugely significant changes to the system by which scientific research in Ireland is funded. From now on, SFI, which awards around €150 million annually for scientific research, will only fund research where it can be claimed from the outset that it will turn a profit and create jobs. Basic scientific research and discovery are to be marginalised into a tiny category that SFI has classified as “research for knowledge”.

The changes were announced by the recently recruited Director General of SFI, Mark Ferguson, who was appointed on the back of his own commercialisation experience. The new broom follows a glossy report by the Research Prioritisation Steering Group, a huge quango made up of more than seventy state bureaucrats, privateers-du-jour and academic hacks. Government ministers have also jumped on the bandwagon and are enthusiastically hailing commercialisation as a major employment initiative that is now a key part of the Action Plan for Jobs.

Welcome to the new order of ‘commercialisation‘ in a research factory to be run by grey suited bureaucrats and quick fix ministers. Forget methodological analysis or a wider consideration of the public interest; this is a grab for short term profit for the few. SFI, the principal state agency for research funding, has altered it’s mandate in order to bet the budget on research commercialisation gambles.

In this first of a two-part post we discuss the broader implications of the rush to commercialisation in Ireland and draw on some of the research experience in other countries. We find that there is compelling evidence that SFI’s strategy is wrong for Ireland.

In part two of this post we examine the failure of Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by SFI’s newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson. The Renovo debacle raises further questions about SFI and it’s new research mandate.

Along the way in this post we also get an insight into the new ‘academic entrepreneur’ snake-oil that is seeping through the upper echelons of the Irish education system, inflating salaries at the top and misdirecting scarce resources.

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Book Review: Degrees of Nonsense, The Demise of The University in Ireland

May 13, 2012

Degrees of Nonsense: The Demise of The University in Ireland, Edited by Brendan Walsh

A Review by Martin O’Grady 

The first thing to be said about Degrees  of Nonsense is that this is an important book. It should be read by everyone who cares about our universities and everyone should care about them. That said, it is to be read much more because it begs rather than answers deeply important questions about what has, for some time now, been transpiring in higher education and in the Ireland which gives it its form. Answers will come after the right questions are asked and adequately debated.

I confess to having been somewhat misled by the title. Degrees of Nonsense is not to be taken literally. The book, though making some occasional references thereto, does not explore what degrees awarded by our universities tell us about the bearers. Grade inflation, for example, doesn’t get a mention.  That is a pity. Grade inflation and its concomitant secular erosion of standards is not just a symptom of a wider malaise in higher education. It is an enabling vehicle, which if it had been resisted determinedly by academics collectively, would have forestalled much of what is now being decried in this book. More of that anon.

Edited by Brendan Walsh, appropriately enough a lecturer in the History of Education at DCU, the book consists of ten contributions (including the foreword) from university academics unified around the theme that all is not well in Ireland’s halls of academe.

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Conference: What’s wrong with the University?

May 13, 2012

University College Cork, June 5 & 6, 2012.

For more information about this event, please click here.

These are testing times for universities and for those working in them. Staff are constantly exhorted to be more efficient without compromising quality; to compete with one another but also to collaborate; to be creative and be more accountable; and to foster autonomy in a regime of control. In short, public expectations of universities are confused and contradictory.

As universities have grown, they have embraced sameness, standardisation and technical rationality, which now threaten to stifle the heart of academic endeavour. Thus, a key question for those working in universities is how to deal, individually and collectively, with pervasive technologies of control. When is it right to resist bureaucratic instrumentalisation and the introduction of private sector practices, and when is there something to learn from them? In what spirit should we participate in attempts to measure our work, our teaching, our research? What are our job expectations, and how do we manage the uncertainty surrounding them?

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Gaming Examinations

April 5, 2012

What is Really Being Assessed?

Getting around an examination is a lot like getting around paying your taxes. You can cheat, which when applied to taxes is called ‘evasion,’ and risk unpleasant consequences if you are caught. A recent blog post addressed the issue of cheating in education.

Alternatively, you can use the loopholes left wittingly or unwittingly in the system by the powers that be. This, in financial management parlance, is called ‘tax avoidance‘ and it incurs no risks at all. Indeed, it may be positively encouraged.  We all know the myriad reliefs by which the rich in this country were, and still are in many instances, enabled to minimise their tax bill.

Examinations and other educational assessments can similarly facilitate avoidance – this time of work, learning and skill acquisition – while still allowing good grades to be obtained. In this post we focus on this gaming of examinations.

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Professor me arse

March 21, 2012

A chair for everyone in the audience!

Recently Dublin Institute of Technology hosted the bizarre, yet strangely inevitable, spectacle of the Institute awarding ten of its own academic staff “honorary professorships.” Bizarre because no such notion of professorship exists, and inevitable because it crystallizes the over-weening ambitions of the Presidents of the Institutes of Technology, who have lost sight of their mission during the recent period of expansion.

On the one hand, the prioritisation of growth has led Irish universities to hoover up academically unprepared students, undermining standards to the point where they have impaired their ability to distinguish between the good, the bad and the indifferent. On the other hand, the IoT’s have drifted away from their original mission and engaged in a head-long rush to be considered universities. In this post we look at how the latter has found expression in bizarre spectacles, such as the recent DIT dog-and-pony show.

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Grade Inflation: An Employer Opinion

March 14, 2012

The Network for Educational Standards receives a lot of interesting comments about grade inflation. In this post an employer writes about the difficulties of assessing graduates and their awarding institutions:

As an employer, we are entitled to an opinion on the subject and consequences of grade inflation, provided that our opinion is based on evidence we experience. Of course, our experience is only a factor of our own limited exposure. Our exposure indicates that in Ireland there is now a culture of entitlement that everyone has a degree, everyone has a first or second and that all of our academic institutions are centres of excellence in everything.

Assessing Awards: A business graduate with 1st class honours - but can he calculate a simple percentage?

In the absence of direction (we have asked unsuccessfully) of how to compare degrees, we have to decide which establishments offer worthwhile degrees in certain subjects. Obviously, we have turned to “QS Rankings” and similar, we ask students what points did their establishment accept for them to do a degree course and we also judge establishments on their “graduates”. For instance, if we interview a business graduate with a 1st, who cannot work out mentally to the nearest €500 what 12.5% of €3000 is, then we judge the awarding establishment, not the graduate.

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University President: Courses No Longer Challenge Top Students

March 12, 2012

Michael Murphy: brightest students are no longer challenged in Irish universities

The President of University College Cork has claimed that high achieving students are no longer challenged by courses in Irish universities.

Dr Michael Murphy recently told a chamber business group that the brightest students are shunning the Irish universities and are opting to pursue third level studies overseas.

Evidence of a stark decline in university standards was explained by the UCC President:

“For a start, surveys are now telling us that about 15 to 25 per cent of students in our universities are not challenged or motivated by their courses. The best students are telling us in public statements that this is the case.

The newspapers are telling us every August that the top point scorers in the leaving certificate are finding destinations overseas. I can tell you that academic colleagues tell me that they are sending their children to overseas universities and I can tell you that business is making it very clear to me that they are finding it increasingly difficult to fill posts that require academic talent in Ireland”.  (Interview on RTE News At One, 21 December 2011)

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Merger Mania and the Race for University Status

February 29, 2012

Will all the IOT Presidents Cross the University Line?

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has fired the starting gun on the race for university status . The criteria for designation as a ‘technological university’ were included as a mere appendix to a wider document with ambitious notions about restructuring the entire higher education sector.

For the most part, these HEA proposals are a mish mash of structural changes that have little to do with improving the quality of education. Written with the buzzwords of a jaded MBA module, the HEA document sets out how the ‘landscape’ at third level is to be upended into a new ‘configuration’ of consolidated institutions that will offer ‘differentiated’ courses in ‘clusters’ of ‘collaboration’.  Despite the intolerable blather, the objectives are reasonably sensible but there is utter confusion about how to get there.

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