Archive for Simon Harris

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?

Ireland’s New Government

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by telescoper

I remembered this morning that I haven’t posted anything about the news that Ireland has a new Government, so decided to do a quick lunchtime blog on that topic. The election that happened earlier this year left no party with enough seats to form an administration and negotiations to form a coalition were drastically slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, however, members of the three parties involved in drafting the Programme for Government – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party – all ratified the proposal. A vote in the Dáil Éireann to formally approve the new Taoiseach was held on Saturday and a new Government formed. Its Ministers have now all been appointed.

Ireland’s new Taoiseach (the equivalent of Prime Minister) is Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil. He replaces Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael who becomes Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister). Under the terms of the coalition agreement they will swap places after two and a half years of the five year term, i.e. at the end of 2022 (assuming the Goverment survives that long).

This isn’t the kind of government that I wanted because it seems to only to offer more of the same short-sighted and socially divisive neoliberal economic policies that have led to disintegrating public services and increasing levels of poverty and homelessness over the last decade. Increasing GDP growth while at the same time worsening social outcomes is not successful government in my view. Tempering my disappointment, though, I do think the coalition represents a step forward in some ways. In my view there is very little difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in terms of policy, which means that there has been little substantive opposition from one when the other has been in power, which has been the way Irish politics has been for decades. Now that similarity in political complexion has been formally recognized and Ireland now has a proper opposition party in the form of a resurgent Sinn Féin led by Mary Lou McDonald. I know better than to try to predict political developments but I can see Sinn Féin rising in popularity in opposition, probably at the expense of Fianna Fáil as the incumbent parties are unlikely to find the immediate future plain sailing. I think Leo Varadkar will be privately happy that Micheál Martin is Taoiseach for what is likely to prove the toughest phase.

Ireland’s electoral system involves a single transferable vote and I know many people who used their ballot to “transfer left”. The Green Party clearly prospered from such transfers during the 2020 election, but now finds itself propping up a Centre-Right coalition. No doubt many who transferred left are dismayed to find that they inadvertently transferred right. What that does for the popularity of the Greens in future remains to be seen. I would comment however that the Greens have been pretty successful in getting their proposals into the Programme for Government and I welcome many of them.

Another thing well worth mentioning is the creation of a new Minister at Cabinet level with responsibility for Higher Education. That was a Fianna Fáil idea but I didn’t see it in the Programme for Government. There is a little bit of confusion* about what the title of this new position is. When it was first announced it was reported as “Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Research” though that seems to have morphed into “Minister for Higher Education, Innovation and Science”, which has left colleagues in the arts, humanities and social sciences feeling a bit disgruntled. It’s a pity that there isn’t an English word like the German Wissenschaft to use in such general contexts.

*UPDATE: I am reliably informed (by Twitter) that the correct title is “The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science”.

Whatever its precise name, the announcement of the creation of this new Ministry has received a cautious welcome from across the third-level sector. I also see this as potentially promising but I think I’ll reserve judgement until we see what it proposes to do. Interesting, though it was a Fianna Fáil policy to create this new cabinet position, the person appointed to it, Simon Harris TD, is actually from Fine Gael and was the Health Minister in the previous administration. I think the general opinion is that he did fairly well in that position, though reading his biography I see that he dropped out of university without getting a degree, which hardly inspires confidence in his commitment to higher education.

This isn’t the sort of Government I voted for, but I hope it can steer Ireland safely through the ongoing crisis reasonably safely. I’ll take it over the dismal collection of crooks and charlatans who are in power across the Irish Sea any day.