Governing quangos – not so Wild West anymore?

Ireland has several hundred agencies set up by Government departments to do various things. These range from the slightly inscrutable, for example the ‘Bookmakers Appeal Committee’, to whom your appeals on losing a bet should definitely not be directed, to the instantly recognizable, such as RTE or the National Museum. These bodies, sometimes dismissively known as quangos, make up a sizeable part of the Irish State, as of other modern states. They spend a lot of money, most of which comes from taxpayers and the public, and provide many services.

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MacGill Summer School

I’m just back from Glenties, in Donegal. I spent a few days at the MacGill Summer School. The School is an annual event, and has been running since 1981. If you wish, you can watch every session on the Donegal County Council website here. I saw most of the sessions form the Wednesday evening to the last session on Friday. MacGill drew a certain amount of criticism this year. One letter in the Examiner described it “nothing more than a ‘talking shop’ or junket for ‘has beens’ or ‘wannabes’. It offers nothing constructive to help solve problems of this country.” In a piece in the business section of the Irish Times Caroline Madden suggests that for the cynical it might be “a talking shop where navel-gazing represents the chief activity”. I don’t altogether agree.

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‘On Wednesday We Wear Pirate Hats’ The BT Young Scientist &Technology Exhibition and the state of younger people in Ireland

I was lucky enough to be one of the judges at the BT Young Scientist’s exhibition in Dublin in the first week of January. This gave me two rather different opportunities to see Irish school children. First, I got to meet the people who put in projects. These included the eventual winners, Ian O’Sullivan and Eimear Murphy from Cork, and about forty other people, all aged between 12 and 18, whose group projects, all entered into the Social and Behavioural Sciences section of the exhibition, I got to judge. (Every single project gets judged three times, independently, and those in the running for prizes are reviewed by further judges.)

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Have your Say in Ireland – Seanad Éireann

The next Seanad will be elected, most likely in June 2016, in the same unsatisfactory way as the current Seanad. Most of the senators will be elected by the votes of local authority members, and members of the Dail. The Taoiseach will appoint eleven senators. Six members will be elected, most likely as at present, three by graduates of TCD, and three by graduates of the NUI. There is a slim chance, if the bill on electoral reform is passed very quickly, that six candidates will be elected by graduates of all higher education institutions (HEIs) in the state. Unfortunately, given that the next election has to happen by the end of March 2016, at the latest, it looks as if even this modest reform may not happen in time.

What can we do to make the best of this bad lot? The only part of the Seanad that has any shred of democratic legitimacy are the two third level panels. This is far from perfect, with a very restricted franchise, but it is the best we are likely to have in time for the next election. It is also the only place where Irish citizens living outside Ireland can influence Irish elections, and it might form the seed for more effective Seanad reform after the next Oireachtas elections.

If this is to happen, I think we need to get as many people as possible voting, and that means encouraging people to register for their votes, and use them. The Seanad electoral register closes on February 26th, and will be used from June 2015. The only requirements are that you must be an Irish citizen, and you must have graduated from the NUI or TCD.

From today, November 2nd, there are 116 days to go. Please help me to get the word out. I’ve set up a Facebook page for this at

Trinity graduates

Full information about the Trinity Seanad election and the electoral register is here. Short version, you have to fill in this form, sign it, and post it to Student & Graduate Records, Academic Registry, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin 2. It must be received by Thursday February 26th, 2015. You may not email it.

TCD degrees

Most eligible graduates attended Trinity, but there are also many DIT graduates who have TCD degrees. I’m not aware of any other such institutional links. Please let me know if I am missing any. Please note, you have to be an Irish citizen to vote, but you do not need to be Irish resident.

NUI graduates

Full information about the NUI Seanad election, and the electoral register is here. Short version, you have to fill in this form, sign it, and post it to National University of Ireland, Records Office, 49 Merrion Square, Dublin 2. It must be received by Thursday February 26th, 2015. You may not email it.

List of NUI colleges

The list of NUI colleges is longer than you might think. Besides the obvious, UCD/UCC/NUIG/NUIM, it includes RCSI, NCAD, the IPA, Milltown, and the Shannon College of Hotel Management. Some graduates of other institutions are also eligible, depending on exactly when you graduated – these include Mary I, St. Pat’s Drumcondra, NIHE Limerick (but not NIHE Dublin), Thomond College, and St. Angela’s. A full list is here. Please note, you have to be an Irish citizen to vote, but you do not need to be an Irish resident.

Funding universities – newish ideas from the IEA

There is an admirably bonkers new paper from Peter Ainsworth of the IEA with the title “Universities challenged: funding higher education through a free-market ‘graduate tax’”. I’m obsessed, amongst other things, with ways of funding higher education, so I read it cover to cover.

Some background first, as many people will not be familiar with the IEA. They describe themselves as a think-tank whose members, “all those associated with the Institute support free markets – though with different “schools” of free market economics being represented”. Their official history begins with a quote from John Blundell, their former director-general thus “Hayek advises Fisher; Fisher recruits Harris; Harris meets Seldon. In nine words, that is the start of the IEA.” This gives a pretty good idea of their perspective on the world. It isn’t mine.

The report itself, a concise 52 pages, has a good deal of useful material. There is a very good summary of how the UK got to their current situation, where a student loan scheme, intended to reduce Government payments to Higher Education, is now likely to cost more than the direct grant system it replaced. There is a very lucid analysis of the different economic perspectives of students, higher education providers, and the state. There is also a good description of the various perverse incentives in the current system in the UK. There is nothing on the perverse incentives on other countries, for example the US. There is less on the perspective of the families of students, but this is, I think, a relatively minor omission. There is a good review of the graduate premium to earnings, with useful data showing how it has varied over time, and between disciplines. There is particular emphasis on the variation between individuals in this premium, and the consequent uncertainty about investing in Higher Education.

Ainsworth’s key idea is this ” Universities should individually or collectively offer contracts to their students, who would agree to pay to the university they attended a given percentage of their [future] earnings. That percentage could vary by course and institution, though some agreement between universities could be helpful to achieve standardisation. Essentially, the university would be taking an equity interest in the graduate premium earned by the student, although any student who chose to do so could, alternatively, pay the full fees up-front prior to beginning their studies.”

He suggests that, based on a few models around the world, this might be between 4% and 10% of their income over a certain level, for a number of years, and that these payments should receive tax relief. This would be a private contract, and, as such, universities could securitize the earnings.

What’s right with this idea?

  • It could do a good job of aligning the economic interests of students and universities. Presumably institutions whose graduates were of very poor quality, as perceived by employers, would do badly. There would certainly be a strong incentive for universities to give students access to skills and competences, rather than information. Some of these would be specifically vocational, and others more generic.
  • Higher education would be free at the point of use, at least in the sense that there would be no upfront fees. These are, to say the least, a disincentive to poorer students. Ainsworth suggests that the state might choose to provide maintenance grants to support some students at university.
  • It would do a very good job of sharing the risk in choosing to do higher education between the students and the university, with the university taking all the downside risk – i.e. the student never gets a high enough salary to start paying.

What’s wrong with it? Ainsworth does try to address several challenges, for example, there would be an obvious incentive for universities to concentrate on subjects with a high graduate premium – putting less vocational course at risk. Such courses could instead be state supported, as a matter of public policy.

I see some further serious objections, which are not fully considered.

  • Incentives to select students – there would be a huge incentive to the university to cherry pick students, and I foresee a large premium on very low risk people, for example white male students from UK ‘public’ schools (i.e. private schools in other countries). Students with disabilities would be a significant risk to the university.
  • Incentives to select the courses provided – many universities, including all those I’ve worked in, provide courses which are actually uneconomic, or at best very very marginal. We also do a lot of experimentation, running course for a few years to see if they meet a need. These courses, and the associated innovation, provide a wider range of choices for our students, and support a wider range of voices and perspectives within higher education. I doubt that targeted government subsidies would, or could continue to support these.
  • Cost – the cost of collecting these funds is not discussed, apart from a suggestion that universities might get together to do it, or set up a common organization to collect the money. This is not unreasonable, but I suspect the costs would eventually eat up a sizable fraction of the money collected, perhaps 20% or more. The cost of collection is a critical part of any higher education funding system.
  • Risk – bringing in such a scheme is fraught with risk. There would be very large uncertainties, which would put at very serious risk any but the most well endowed (i.e. highly capitalized) of higher education providers. The education system requires fairly stable funding, if it is desired to provide a stable education. A reasonable estimate is that is takes 5 to 6 years from the start of development, to the first graduation of student from a new 4 year degree program. It might be another decade before the graduate premium from such a program could even be estimated. It would be very hard to make a business case for such an investment. The transition costs of any major shift in education funding are large, and are not considered by Ainsworth.
  • Feasibility – Ainsworth argues, on the basis of a number of examples, that such a scheme is feasible. The examples he gives are for small scale, highly targeted schemes. I’ve reviewed each of them, as best I can, and I remain very dubious of the ability to scale such ventures. One important example, CareerConcept AG seems to have had no media activity since 2011, which is surprising. Lumni looks much more promising, but has still only covered 5,000 students in four countries since 2002.

In short, I think the IEA report well worth reading, but I do not think that the proposals in it are feasible, desirable, or affordable. The UK desperately needs a better system of funding Higher Education. This isn’t it.

Gerry Haugh R.I.P.

I heard bad news today. I was up at the hostel in Knockree, collecting our daughter, and a few of her friends who had been away with the scouts. Gerry Haugh died at 11:35pm on Saturday March 19th. This will likely mean little to most of you.

When we first met I was 12, and he was 22, just starting as an English teacher in Belvedere. He was keen on, and knowledgeable about, the theatre, and I was in his first ever production in Belvedere. At a net cost of £57, generously provided by Fr. Noel Barber SJ, the then head master, he put on Robert Bolt’s play for children – ‘The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew’, set in the AV room at the top of what was then the Science wing of the School.

This was the first of exactly 100 productions. Recently he did the ‘Pirates of Penzance’, in which my son played the 43rd pirate on the left. His last production, though we didn’t know it, was his adaptation of the ‘Pickwick Papers’ which opened on March 10th last. At that performance twelve of the original cast of Bolligrew, the 3 Syntax 1 Class of 1974, met up for a meal, the show, and a presentation to Gerry, who was in great form. Very unexpectedly he fell ill last Friday, was brought in to the Mater in a diabetic coma, and died on Saturday night.

What did I get from him? Many tangible things, a love of theatre, cinema, and stagecraft; the fun of long days hill walking in Wickow, and hostelling in Ballinskelligs; my first trips to London and Stratford to see plays; lots of great books, and great poetry; and even, (I think) an A in O-Level English. But I also got lots of intangibles. He was witty, sharp, and honest. He could be tough, when necessary, strict, when needed. He never fell in to the twin traps for young teachers of wanting to be one of the lads, or wanting to be God. He influenced many hundreds of young men for the better. He was a truly good man, an exceptional teacher, and we’ll all miss him.

Gerry Haugh, jacket open, tie askew, as usual, with some of the cast of Bolligrew, 100 productions later

Death Notice Irish times March 21st.
Haugh Gerard Martin (Gerry) (Glasnevin and Belvedere college S.J.) – March 19, 2011 (peacefully) after a very short illness at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital. Only son of the late Desmond and Maire Haugh and sadly missed by his loving sister, Maureen, relatives, friends, past and present colleagues and students. May he rest in peace. Funeral arrangements later. Enquiries to Kirwan Funeral Directors, 0-8334444.

Funeral arrangements
Reposing in the Boy’s Chapel, Belvedere from 5pm Tuesday March 22nd, Removal at 7:30 pm to St. Francis Xavier’s Church, Gardiner St. Funeral Mass on Wed 23rd March at 11:30 am, in Gardiner St.

Gerry’s obituary from the Irish Times, Saturday April 9th 2011

Gerard Haugh: GERARD HAUGH, who has died aged 60, was a teacher of English and history at Belvedere College, Dublin, where over the course of four decades he made a lasting impression on successive generations of pupils.

Headmaster Gerry Foley said his sudden death shocked and saddened literally thousands of pupils, past and present, all of whom he encouraged to aspire to excellence.

“Generous and passionate in his belief in the principle ‘Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sé’, Gerry’s legacy is that he inspired others to be generous, to live life to the full and that in giving, their life would be meaningful and rewarding.”

“A true educationalist” is how one parent described him. “His priority was on the developmental stages of boy to manhood and a wish to nurture a love of the arts, humanities and a philosophy of ‘being’ . . . I always experienced him as operating from a stance of an ‘ethic of care and love’ and a belief that he could get more out of the boys than they ever imagined.”

A former pupil wrote: “Gerry was much more than an English teacher to me, he was a man I could always look up to, and more importantly he was a friend to every student.”

Born in Dublin in 1950, he was one of two children of Desmond and Maire Haugh. At University College Dublin, he was an attentive student of English and history, and an entertaining records secretary of the Literary and Historical Society. He graduated in 1971. That year also he began teaching at Belvedere College, and completed his HDip Ed in 1972.

His interest in and knowledge of theatre led to his first school production, which was Robert Bolt’s play for children The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew . It was staged in the science wing of the school for a net cost of £57.

Subsequent productions included Guys and Dolls, The History of Tom Jones and The Pirates of Penzance . He celebrated his 100th, and final, production last month. The author’s great-great-grandson, Gerald Dickens, attended his adaptation of The Pickwick Papers . And 12 members of the original cast of Bolligrew turned up at the opening night for a meal, the play and a presentation to the producer.

Gerard Haugh imparted a love of theatre, cinema and stagecraft to his pupils. He led them hill walking in Wicklow and hostelling in Ballinskelligs. He supervised their trips to see plays at Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s West End. Every year he organised the “Block Pull” from Dublin to Galway on behalf of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and Temple Street children’s hospital. And he also braved the elements to join pupils for the Christmas sleep-out in aid of Trócaire.

He is remembered as witty, sharp and honest. He could be tough when necessary and strict when required. He never fell into the twin traps of wanting to be “one of the lads”, or assuming to be God. He influenced many hundreds of young men for the better, one of whom now in middle age said: “He was a truly good man, an exceptional teacher and we’ll all miss him.”

He is survived by his sister Maureen, relatives and friends.

Gerard Martin (Gerry) Haugh: born April 13th, 1950; died March 19th, 2011

Claiming our Future

10 am We’re meeting up, a thousand people from all over Ireland in the RDS Industry Hall. This is a space more familiar to me from the Horse Shows of my youth. On my table, we have, among others, a union secretary (who was my contemporary in TCD back in the ’70s) , a Jesuit community activist, a worker for older people’s rights, a youth worker, and an artist. The Twitter link is #cof3010

10:30 We’ve started by doing a values exercise. We were asked to select five values from a list provided, and to suggest one more. We picked Care, Equality, Environmental sustainability, Solidarity and Accountability. We added ‘public conversation’ to the list. All of these will be added up across all the tables, and the final choices put up.

1:05 Key values identified from the voting system were :-

  • Equality
  • Environment
  • Accountability
  • Participation
  • Solidarity

12:15 Now we’re listening to Mary Coughlan, (not the Tanaiste, the singer) doing ‘My Land is too Green‘, and the ‘Magdalene Laundry‘. It’s going down very well. She’s a great performer.

12:30 The elephant in the room – what we all refuse to see. The alternatives that are possible. Myths that society must be run for the markets. What are the policy alternatives? Policy choices based on this document. Looking for policy option that can be implemented over 5 years, that might be transformative, and can be popularized.

12:40 Working on Section 2a Economy and Environment. Our priorities are :-

  1. Change the current development model and define and measure
    progress in a balanced way that stresses economic security and social
    and environmental sustainability.
  2. Regulate banking to change the culture from one of speculative banking
    to one where currently state-owned banks and new local banking models
    focus on guaranteeing credit to local enterprises and communities.

1pm Working on Section 2b Income, Wealth and Work. We need to look widely at models from other countries, e.g. Iceland, other Scandinavian countries, Wales, Scotland. How can we achieve better income equality? Property tax reliefs, pension tax relief, are all possible targets. Is equality or jobs the priority? Both are important. Equality could start at the next budget, and there is a lot of evidence that increasing equality increases many other desirable features of society. following discussion, our priorities were:-

  1. Prioritise high levels of decent employment with a stimulus package to
    maximize job creation in a green/social economy.
  2. Achieve greater income equality and reduce poverty through wage, tax
    and income policies that support maximum and minimum income

1:25 pm Lunch! Lots of choices outside in the grounds. A lovely day too.

2:30 Back from lunch – Votes from section 2a and 2b were
Economy and environment

  1. Change the current development model and define and measure
    progress in a balanced way that stresses economic security and social
    and environmental sustainability.
  2. Prioritise a legally binding national sustainable development strategy that
    caps resource use, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and implements
    measures to protect our life support systems.

Income, Wealth and Work

  1. Achieve greater income equality and reduce poverty through wage, tax
    and income policies that support maximum and minimum income
  2. Prioritise high levels of decent employment with a stimulus package to
    maximize job creation in a green/social economy.

2:45 Working on Section 3a Governance – we felt that it was critical to “reform representative political institutions to enhance accountability, equality, capacity, and efficiency of national and local decision makers”. Without this little joy could be expected.

3:15 Section 3b Access to public services, and public sector renewal. We had a long discussion about importance, or otherwise, of fixing the public service – “Make efficiency, integration, and equality the goals of public service reform”. It was felt that specific service delivery policies should have priority. I’m not sure I agree.

4:10 Votes on Section 3a

  1. Reform representative political institutions to enhance accountability,
    equality, capacity, and efficiency of national and local decision makers.
  2. Develop participatory and deliberative forms of citizens’ engagement in
    public governance and enhance democratic participation by fostering the
    advocacy role of civil society organizations, civics and ethics education in
    all school levels and a diverse media.

4:10 Votes on Section 3b Access to Services and Public Sector Renewal
· Make efficiency, integration, and equality the goals of public service

  1. Provide universal access to quality healthcare, childcare and services for
    older people.
  2. Invest in equality in access to and participation in all levels of education
    (preschool to university).

3:30 Listening to a rap group – least said , soonest mended.

3:45 Feedback time – show of colored cards – green red and yellow. Do you want to work together? Result – a forest of green cards!

3:50 Ideas for action

  • Sustainable Ireland, following the natural steps program from Sweden
  • Singing revolution, use music to sing the protest, record and spread it widely.
  • Charter for Ireland, on the liens of Charter 77
  • Progressive think tank
  • Virtual network of people and resources

4:20 Shaz Oye singing for us. Great voice, solo singer, gospel style, also sings with guitar. Very lively, very strong voice, very moving. Finished with ‘Talking about a Revolution‘, which can come off a sad cliche, but worked well with her voice.

4:30 Wrap up – Set of values chosen. Policy options identified. Infrastructure set up, on-line local, regional and national. Actions will continue. Each of us has written a postcard, addressed to us, with a stated action to be done over the next month. These will be posted out to us in a month. Build ‘Claiming our future’ independent and self-reliant. Make today a turning point for Ireland.

4:45 – Gloria sing for us. A great way to wrap up the day.

5:00 We all go home.

UK Election – even less democratic than I thought.

I got the UK election results from the BBC just now, and the figures are amazing.

UK election results

PartySeatPercentage of votes castChange in vote since last timeVotes per seatFair number of seats
Liberal Democrats57231119,788149
Plaid Cymru30.6-0.155,1314

This is embarrassing… No wonder Labour and the Tories oppose PR.