On Friday evening, I gave a public talk on the big bang at Blackrock Castle in Cork. I always enjoy giving public science talks, but this one was special (slides here). The venue was a beautiful castle overlooking the sea and I was enormously impressed with the science outreach work being done there by Dr Niall Smith, director of research at Cork Institute of Technology. I was equally impressed with the new observatory at the castle and the astronomy program of Niall and his postgraduate students. Superb work in a fantastic location, surely an inspiration for generations of young students.
Blackrock Castle in Cork: the white dome above the tower is the observatory
I left Cork early on Saturday morning in order to travel to Dublin to catch the High Flyers conference of the Institute of Physics (this is what physicists get up to on bank holiday weekends!). On my way to the meeting, I heard the Irish Minister for Education interviewed on RTE Radio One (Marian Finucane show, May 5th). The Minister had many interesting things to say on subjects such as RTE, the Catholic Church, a recent libel case in Ireland and the near-paralysis of political process in the United States (the latter is a most unusual topic for a politician over here). However, I was taken aback to hear him refer to “problems of productivity in the third level sector, particularly in the Institutes of Technology”, and disappointed that the interviewer didn’t seek some clarification on the comment.
I would very much like to know what the Minister meant by this comment. What do we understand by ‘productivity’ in the context of the third level education? How is it measured? Is it the number of students taught? Number of Noble prizes for research? Perhaps some Soviet-style quota of engineers graduated? Like all Institute lecturers, I have a heavy teaching load; we produce legions of exactly the sort of science, computing and engineering graduates that Ireland so desperately needs. I must say I grow weary of generalizations like this about third level academics from journalists and politicians, and such a comment from the top man in education is pretty serious. Not a scintilla of evidence was offered by the Minister in support of his remark, just a casually delivered public insult to my colleagues and I.
Here’s the thing, Minister Quinn: like almost all lecturers in the Institutes of Technology (IoTs), I teach between four and five different courses per semester to degree level, a larger teaching load than any third level college in the world as far as I know; add research and outreach activity to this and it is no surprise I am in the office until 9 pm at least four days a week. In terms of prep, each semester typically presents at least one new module to teach, involving months of preparation over the summer, where I would hope to be concentrating on research, finishing my book and attending conferences. (I teach diverse courses in mathematics and physics to students in the departments of computing, engineering and science, not to mention more specialized modules in quantum physics, cosmology and particle physics – how many Harvard professors can boast such a wide teaching portfolio?).
‘Yes, but what about other IoT lecturers?’, the Minister will ask. I imagine I have a more accurate view of the work of my colleagues than the Minister’s advisors and I have no complaints. Indeed, the limited time I have for research arises because other lecturers take on the bulk of student administration (the large number of classes in the IoTs necessitates a great deal of admin; Year Tutors and Course Leaders spend a great deal of time keeping track of attendance, assessments, lab performance and exam results). There are no easy lecturing jobs.
I love my job and stopped counting the overtime years ago. However, it is frustrating to hear the work of lecturers in the institutes and the universities denigrated by politicians who know nothing of what we do. The tragedy is, I suspect the binary system of universities and institutes has served Ireland very well, although few in charge of education seem to realize it. As they consider the future of the third level sector, I hope politicians and their advisors will make an effort to understand the current system, rather than indulge in unsupported generalizations.