The Sunday Interview Anthony Brabazon
Original Article - Sunday Business Post 19.08.18
“In the real world, a lot comes down to the performance incentivisation systems. That’s where the rubber hits the road”
As dean of the UCD School of Business, Anthony Brabazon’s job is to supply a world-class education to an international student body of 10,000, in a time of huge global uncertainty and tightening university budgets.
If he wasn’t as busy as he is, Anthony Brabazon would probably be figuring out what business can learn from how a worm finds food. But one of the sacrifices of rank – he was earlier this year appointed dean of the UCD School of Business – is that time to pursue your own research interests is scarce.
Nevertheless, he can briefly hold forth on what multinationals might learn from worms. His particular expertise is something called natural computing algorithms. Put (over) simply, it’s about how behaviours from the natural world can be understood and processed, and used to solve problems. Which is where the worm comes in.
“A lot of natural phenomena are about problem-solving. A big one is how you get food. You have a big terrain out there – you could be a worm, a wolf or a person. It doesn’t matter. What’s the smartest way for you to find the resources you want?”
This is what the literature refers to as a “search problem” According to Brabazon most problems in life are search. The problem with problems is less that they exist” he says, and more about how to solve them.
“There’s an infinite number of strategies out there that your business could adopt, but what’s the most sensible one? You’re searching for a strategy within an infinite sea.”
Worms, or people, or wolves, he says, develop intuitive and logical ways to solve these problems all the time. And if they could be understood and rendered in a usable way, these techniques can be more broadly used.
“Can we look a natural phenomenon and distil something and say ‘this is really what’s going on in that process’? Distil it, put it into computer code and use it as a problem-solving piece of software for the real world?”
It’s a big question. But it’s one that Brabazon has had to put to one side while he focuses on the current day job aiming to deliver a world-class business education across a student body of 10,000, spread from the university’s home patch at Belfield to its accredited courses in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sri Lanka. And that day job comes its own set of big questions. Like how do you fund day-to-day education against the backdrop of a 40 per cent cut in central state funding? How do you prepare students for a changing corporate and political world? And above all, how should business leaders of tomorrow be educated in the aftermath of the most damaging economic crisis of the modern era?
When Brabazon left UCD in the mid 1980’s there were three options for BComm graduates like him. “You emigrate, you stay on to do an MA, or go into accountancy,” he says. So he joined the newly minted KPMG.
It was a first dose of reality for the young graduate, especially the tough reality of an economy in recession. “You were going into a lot of companies that were under pressure in their sector,” he says.
“It was quite humbling in that you were meeting people whose jobs were on the line in many companies if the contracts were lost or markets were lost. It made you aware at an early stage that there are high stakes in business.”
Eventually, Brabazon re-entered UCD as a lecturer, thinking he would do it for a year to see if he liked it. Twenty-six years later, he is head of one of the country’s largest and most important business schools. And he is in charge of educating business graduates who will face the same realities of boom and bust that he has seen. Indeed, their class will likely do more to influence – even cause – these swings of growth and recession.
So, in the aftermath of a worldwide economic crisis that saw business, finance and regulations rightly pilloried for constructing systems that engendered desperate recession rather than growth, how do you educate people to reduce the chances of that happening again?
“We’re not looking at ethics and sustainability as being separate modules – they’re themes we need to weave into the entire curriculum,” he says. Ireland, he says, still offers a reminder of the impact of financial mis-engineering, even if the next intake of undergraduates will have little meaningful memory of pre-crisis history.
“There’s a far greater emphasis on the role of business in society, the appropriate role of business in society, and thinking of the limitations of a raw capitalist system,” he says. “These issues permeate multiple courses. In this country we’ve seen firsthand what happened in financial services and the property sector.”
A big part of it, according to Brabazon, is not just understanding the pared-back financial mechanics of what happened, of how the global ebb and flow of finance was rapidly replaced by sclerosis – but also looking at why bankers, politicians and regulators allowed such a system to emerge. It is searching – again, a search problem – for the why, not just the what.
“In the real world, a lot comes down to performance incentivisation systems. That’s where the rubber hits the road; if people are strongly incentivised to do something, well then, we can’t be too surprised if their behaviour follows that,” he says.
“But I think it comes down to society taking a stand and saying certain types of behaviour are acceptable and certain types aren’t ….. Absent that, why should we be surprised if management look to tip the table?”
Brabazon thinks he is aided in this with the students he works with. He classes them as Generation Z – those following the put-upon millennials. And in addition to being more ambitious and career-focused, he says, the new intake is more radical and more engaged than previous generations. “We have seen around the world that there has been a reawakening of student activism. In the 1990s and the 2000s, student activism seemed to die away in most countries,” he says. But now undergraduates coming through the gates of UCD are “very interested in making an impact”.
“That’s not the same as earning the biggest pay packet that can possibly be earned. There’s a slight change in the way that people are looking at what they want to get out of life,” he explains. “Having an impact is not just on a company, but on social issues. That you want to make a difference, that you want to correct things you think are wrong.”
However energised modern student bodies may be, their education is unavoidably taking place against an increasingly pressing question of how it will be paid for. Brabazon says that 40 per cent of central funding for third level education in Ireland was cut during the recession, while student numbers increased by 20 per cent.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that something is going to give if you drop the resourcing by 40 per cent, while at the same time it’s increasing its level of output. One of the first things that’s going to give in that environment is the quality of the education we can provide,” he says, pointing to the example of Irish universities seemingly inexorable slide down the international ranking tables as an indication that the cutbacks are beginning to bite.
But Brabazon insists that Ireland must address shortfalls, or face the consequences.
“It comes down to our level of ambition as a country. If we want to maintain the progress the country has made in recent decades in an environment which is becoming ever more competitive,” he says.
“We have to ask as a country, do we invest in education infrastructure – and if we don’t, we will pay a price. Either you pay and make an investment now or you pay the price later.”
This, of course, begs the thorny question of how to pay for it all. The Cassells report on the future of funding the third level remains unacted upon, and universities have been forced to think creatively, and reach for untapped sources of funding, to plug the gap. Postgraduate and registration fees for undergraduates are rising, while Irish universities compete hungrily for overseas students and the revenues that their higher fees bring. There is also an increasingly reliance on the corporate sector.
Brabazon points to the example of the MA in aviation finance in UCD, part-funded by a consortium of graduate-hungry aviation leasing companies.
This, of course, is not without its problems. While it is tempting to turn to corporate wealth to fund much-needed educational programmes, there are well-founded concerns about the impact of the corporate dollar on universities. Some fear a drift away from the traditional idea of a university as a centre for independent thought and critical analysis, with curriculum dictated by companies rather than by academics or policy makers. Brabazon is not deaf to these concerns.
“It’s a debate myself and my colleagues would be very aware of,” he says. It is something he tries to correct for.
“We are looking to prepare someone for life, not just for the first two or three years of a corporate job. We are looking to provide people with conceptual frameworks, theoretical backgrounds, which will then sustain them over the course of a career.
“That said, we have to be mindful that people will be looking for the best start that they can get in their career. There is a balance there.”
There is also the option of some form of graduate tax or levy, which is one of the options proposed by Cassells. However, any form of levy on students, from taxes to fees, has faced opposition from proponents of universalism. Nonetheless, Brabazon can see merit in the proposal.
“The longer you spend in education, the research unambiguously shows that the better educated you are, the higher your earnings. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable that individuals could be expected to contribute towards their own education,” he says.
There is also increasingly competition to worry about. In 1945, Brabazon says there were about 500 universities around the world. Now there are more than 10,000 and in a global marketplace, Irish universities have to be sharp on their feet.
“The level of competition globally in business is far higher than it was. We’re competing as a nation in Ireland against countries which have far more developed education systems than we used to have,” he says.
When Brabazon left university, there were only a few Irish companies practising the kind of theory that interested him – operations research. It involves building and using complex models to solve difficult problems. Someone like Aer Lingus would use it to decide where their fleet should be kept, or a large semi-state like the ESB would use these modules to keep the lights on.
In time, it has grown to encompass and inform things like artificial intelligence decision-making, modelling and simulation, and to encompass the kinds of natural algorithms which hold such fascination for Brabazon.
Complex problems, difficult solutions it all sounds like the ideal foundation for dealing with Ireland’s educational future.