Paul Mooney: “Inside” Third Level?

This article by Paul Mooney titled “Inside Third Level” has been the most-read article on the Irish Times website over the past day.

As someone who works in an Irish university, I find it odd that an article with such a title can provide a description that is grossly at odds with even basic facts about how universities work.

In attempting to explain to the public how academics work, Mooney starts by focusing on teaching hours, with a dismissive nod towards the fact that lectures need to be prepared. Then he declares “Aside from teaching, academics spend their time completing research.”

A non-exhaustive list of items related to university work that Mr. Mooney has missed includes

  • Exam preparation and grading and exam board meetings.
  • Meeting with students and answering queries via email.
  • Maintaining a class website or Blackboard page with lecture materials provided before each class.
  • Supervision of post-graduate students.
  • Departmental committees and time spent as Department Head of Deputy Head.
  • Service to the university such as promotion boards, recruitment, open day talks, organising and participating in seminar series and promotion of postgraduate programmes.
  • Service to the profession such as refereeing journal articles, editing journals, commenting on research by colleagues, organising conferences, sitting on doctoral viva committees.
  • Public service such as writing articles intended to explain issues to the public or participating in policy debates via a range of other avenues (e.g. I blog, write policy papers, appear at Oireachtas commitees and on broadcast media etc.)

All of this is before you get to what Mooney calls “staying close to their specialist subject” (not an easy task these days if your subject is macroeconomics) but, combined, the amount of hours involved in these activities is far greater than the total related to teaching and teaching preparation.

In relation to research, Mooney’s attitude is that it should help “Ireland Inc move up the value chain towards becoming a smart economy” and that management should ensure that research “cannot be the pursuit of personal interests” (God forbid that you are actually interested in what you research).

I don’t think these attitudes are worth wasting too much time on, as I suspect that even the most Smart-Economy-buzzword-afflicted government minister could probably see that such an approach would be the death-knell for the Irish universities. I will note, however, that Mooney’s claim that “a good percentage of university lecturers are actually completing their own research for a PhD during work hours” is a long way from true. As far as I can tell, you cannot get a permanent lectureship in a university in this country any more without a PhD.

How can someone claiming to be an insider produce such a misleading and distorted view of what happens in universities? The only answer I can come up with is that Mooney does not, in fact, have any experience working in what most of us would recognise as a university. He is a former President of the somewhat grandiously-named National College of Ireland.  A complete list of full-time courses available here .  Put bluntly, based on this experience, Mr. Mooney isn’t in a position to say how full-service Irish universities actually work and this is reflected in his contribution.

The disappointing thing about the factual inaccuracies in Mooney’s article is that, apart from when it’s misleading people, the article does make some good points about problems with higher education.  He is correct that academics may neglect to put effort into teaching because the system tends to emphasise research output. For a far more thoughtful input on this see Michael McMahon’s excellent TED talk: There are some real tensions here and it’s not an easy problem to solve.  I also agree that 24 weeks is a limited amount of teaching by international standards.

Finally, Mooney is also is also correct that Irish universities don’t have proper performance management systems.   I’m not so innocent as to claim that all Irish university lecturers are doing a good job on either or both the teaching and research front and a performance management system that recognises the importance of both areas and is integrated with promotion policies, is something that I would strongly support.

Unfortunately, the kind of ill-informed material that makes up the bulk of Mooney’s article will hinder rather than help with making progress in improving our universities at what is a very difficult time.