Monthly Archives: September 2018

Maths, rules and creativity

I’m a chemical engineer. I’m ok at maths – competent but not a natural like this guy with whom I went to secondary school. Nevertheless, I have written a book on mathematical modelling. The book is not all that advanced – it mainly contains calculus and ordinary differential equations – but I’m kind of proud of it. I think the writing of it was the most creative period of my career and that creativity was based on sitting down with a blank page and solving engineering problems of a particular kind year after year.

So when I heard maths guru, Jo Boaler, say this: “Maths should not be about rules, and right or wrong answers, and mindless memorisation but about creativity and ideas”,  I was a bit baffled. I’ve read Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, and I found it very creative in the sense that the author seemed to have a rare ability to make arithmetic far more complicated than it needs to be. Like that scene in Father Ted where Ted roars at Dougal “play the effing note”, I wanted to shout “just learn the effing rules!”.

So I’m on the side of Fields Medallist, Tim Gowers, who said:

It is quite possible to use mathematical concepts correctly without being able to say exactly what they mean. This might sound like a bad idea, but the use is often easier to teach and a deeper understanding of the meaning, if there is any meaning over and above the use, often follows of its own accord.”

Maths takes time. It requires patience and practice. There are no shortcuts – unless you’re a genius.


The Charter for Irish Universities

The IUA have been out in force what with the launch of Ireland’s Future Talent – A Charter for Irish Universities. The campaign started with this letter to the Irish Times. In the letter, the Director General of the IUA (Jim Miley) repeated the oft-stated point that state funding for Ireland’s higher education is the second lowest in the EU. This is true but only if that spend is expressed as a percentage of our notoriously inflated GDP. However, if the spend on higher education is expressed as a percentage of total government expenditure, Ireland’s spend is just below the median value and almost identical to Germany’s.

Later in the letter, Jim Miley argues “If the under-funding of third-level education continues as it has for the last decade, there’s a real risk that the earnings dividend of future graduates will be seriously eroded.” This is a very odd and badly thought-out argument. Countries where the earnings dividend of higher education is high tend not to be ones that we would associate with equity. The top five countries in this regard are Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. In contrast, the places where the earnings dividend is lowest tend to have the most equitable societies in the world. Readers will not be surprised to learn, therefore, that the earnings dividend of higher education is lowest in Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Finland. It is a pity that the IUA is promoting the idea of an elitist education system where those who cannot afford to go on to third level education are destined to be relatively low earners. Surely, it would be far more desirable to have a system that provided a wide range of pathways to high-earning careers? In fact, this was the case back in the 1980s when many professions were accessible without the need to go to university.

Anyway, what about the charter itself? The first thing that struck me about the charter was that it has a very DCU feel to it. The word “talent” in the title reminds me of our latest strategic plan which has the title “Talent, Discovery and Transformation”.

The second thing that struck me was that it seems odd for all of our universities to buy into a single vision. Surely DCU’s charter, for example, differs from, say, Trinity’s.

The third thing that struck me was that the charter contains no surprises. There are the usual pleas for more state funding coupled with more autonomy, something I would suggest that large swathes of the private sector would laugh at. Worryingly, the universities clearly want to be able to hire superstar academics on super-salaries in order to give themselves a quick boost in the international rankings. This is the Manchester City* approach to education. But wouldn’t it be great if the universities adopted the Leinster Rugby** approach and committed to nurturing the young talent we have through the university and IoT systems?

Apart from that, there are the usual suggestions around more engagement with industry and society, more funding for research and innovation, more international students and better access for disadvantaged and disabled students. There are plenty of random targets and the one that caught my eye was the target of a 30% increase in PhD students. I’m not too sure what problem this target is designed to solve but I suspect it is a target that is designed to serve the interests of the universities themselves. I don’t think business and industry are clamouring for more PhD graduates. In fact the structured PhD concept came into being because it was recognised that the traditional PhD was not serving the needs of business and industry.

There is very little in the document on teaching and learning other that some vague references to “digital learning” (whatever that is) and a “professional development framework” for lecturers.

In terms of university operations, there is a commitment to establishing more “flexible” and “accountable” structures. I don’t really know what these things mean but one thing I do know is that the consistent trend over the last two decades has been to bureaucratise both teaching and research in the universities; so I am sceptical of any stated ambitions to increase flexibility.

All in all, it’s a pretty disappointing document. There’s no real analysis of the role of the universities in Irish society and in the Irish economy. It’s presumed throughout that the universities must grow and climb in the international rankings as ends in themselves. There’s no serious analysis of how the universities might better connect with the secondary school system, the further education sector, and the professions to ensure better access to high-earning and rewarding careers for all segments of society. In an era when everyone talks incessantly about creative thinking, I see none in this document. It’s the same old, same old really.

*Manchester City are the current English Premiership champions. Their success is based on spending over a billion pounds on superstar players from all over the world.

** Leinster rugby are the current European champions and their success is based on nurturing home-grown talent through their academy system. 

Do we need to spend more on higher education?

Amid all the talk about our higher education system being it crisis, it is worth having a look around the EU and asking how much each state spends on higher education (tertiary education) and to what extent that spend benefits the economies of those states.

The graphs below show what percentage of government income is spent on education across the EU. Ireland is pretty much at the median for both total spend and HE spend.



Now we look at how the spend relates to GDP per capita and GNI per capita. The currency is PPP dollars and these are dollars adjusted to take into account the different costs of living in each state. (It should be noted that Ireland’s economic numbers are always distorted by the output from our very large biopharma sector and by tax laws that many would claim make Ireland a tax haven.)



CORRECTION: x axis should read % of total government expenditure.

So what, if anything, does any of this mean? What it means is that we need to be careful about simply arguing that pumping more money into education will lead to economic prosperity. The relationship between education spend and prosperity is a complex one and education is not always the cause and prosperity the effect: causality can flow in the opposite direction, i.e., wealthy countries (e.g. those blessed with valuable natural resources) can afford to think long term and pump more money into third and fourth level education, and into basic research. Furthermore, economically weak nations might see pumping money into higher education as a way of promoting economic growth while wealthy states might simply decide that they’re doing alright with a moderate level of investment in higher education. Germany is a case in point.

So what about the Minister’s claim that Ireland will have the best education system in Europe by 2026? Non-Irish readers should know that Irish politicians always set ridiculous targets and they always miss them. I’m pretty sure that at one time we were promised the best broadband not only in Europe but in the World! We all know how that worked out. And politicians are always talking about excellence – centres of excellence and that kind of thing. Former Minister for Health, Brian Cowen, once got so exasperated with all the talk of excellence that he is reported to have exclaimed “all I want are centres of f**king adequacy!”

Anyway, what about the Education Minister’s claim? Well, in truth, it is best described as “not even wrong.” The best education system for any country is one that is most appropriate for the type of economy that the country has, and the one that meets the needs and desires of its citizens. A country like Germany whose economy is based on manufacturing, doesn’t necessarily have to spend huge amount on higher education. A country like Romania might have to spend a lot on HE to build up the expertise required to modernise its economy.

What about Ireland? Should we spend more on Higher Education? It would seem obvious that we should, at least if you listen to the academic establishment as they repeatedly claim that the system is in crisis. But the establishment is not making a case based on any real economic argument – the data does not show that investment in higher education correlates with anything. Rather, they are arguing for their own survival and their positions in the international rankings. And implicit in their argument is the idea that more is better.

But what if we took the German approach and designed our education system to suit our economy and our people. In order to do that we would have to get rid of our national inferiority complex that drives us to focus so much on becoming a “knowledge economy” with a big emphasis on STEM industries. And year after year there are articles in the papers highlighting the fact that big-brand multinational software companies are finding it difficult to recruit computing graduates. And guess what? They always will because Ireland will never supply enough computing graduates to meet the needs of the multinationals that we have ‘encouraged’ to locate here. So we’ll continue to import the expertise.


Education spend data