Failure rate in maths indicates distorted education policy

Mismatches between education and enterprise policies are becoming clearer

 Project Maths is meant to serve enterprise policy by increasing the maths competence of graduates.

Project Maths is meant to serve enterprise policy by increasing the maths competence of graduates.

 

Conflicting policies within Government are causing distortions in the higher education access process, adding complexity and even confusion to a system that should be quite straightforward.

Mismatches between education and enterprise policies have led to conflicting goals that don’t seem to mesh, distorting the traditional CAO supply-and-demand system and causing anomalies that are not easily explained.

The problems are not so obvious in the humanities and areas outside science, technology, engineering and maths. Here the distortions tend to come down directly to money, particularly the amount the State gives to the sector to educate our young people.

Current Government education policy calls for a steady increase in the numbers exiting higher education with degrees, so that our percentage of graduates per head of population remains as high as possible. The third-level sector is under orders to deliver more graduates, but is not being given the extra money required to achieve this.

Market distortion

The result is a typical supply-versus-demand distortion, with demand for places outstripping the supply of offers and driving up points requirements as a result.

This mismatch looks particularly acute this year: 80,000 students are looking for CAO offers, but more and more courses require points levels above 500 to secure a place.

Money would help the situation, assuming the main goal was to increase the supply of third-level graduates. But this goal runs counter to the fiscal controls to keep national spending down, so third level shouldn’t expect a windfall any time soon. Unfortunately the meat in the sandwich of this supply/demand conflict is the student

s. The mismatch is more complex when you overlay education policy and enterprise policy and begin to add the issues relating to the sciences, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) areas.

Education policy seeks to attract more students into Stem and has found ways to achieve this, most particularly via the bonus points for higher maths. But not all the students who take the higher maths paper plan to go into Stem subjects – some are taking higher maths just to win these extra points.

The scheme adds to points inflation generally, and leaves at a disadvantage those students who are not interested in Stem subjects or can’t cope with higher maths.

Knowledge economy

Their difficulties are completely ignored when you add in the pressures exerted by enterprise policy on the wider educational system. This policy aspires to create a knowledge economy in Ireland, where high-tech employment dominates and we achieve high levels of tech-based exports.

However, it’s not just about Stem undergrads: the innovation policy won’t work unless there are also plenty of postgraduates with master’s degrees and PhDs. For this reason, the higher-education system was tuned up to increase postgraduate output to help attract more foreign direct investment, a necessary part of achieving a knowledge economy.

The education/enterprise policies match up very nicely within this area of research, innovation, industrial engagement and foreign direct investment, and it has helped build Ireland’s reputation in this area.

But this nexus is not much help to the students outside Stem subjects – and may actually be harming their chances by sucking up extra resources to help make the enterprise system work.

I can’t say that the students who failed ordinary-level maths this year were in some way disadvantaged by the emphasis placed on education that serves enterprise. But something is seriously wrong in the wider education system if so many fail ordinary maths.

Project Maths

Does this tell us something about the success or failure of Project Maths, the new course meant to help students do better in the subject? The success of Project Maths is something that is meant to serve enterprise policy by increasing the maths competence of Irish graduates, hopefully encouraging more of them to take up careers in the sciences.

Still, something is not working in the education system, and it looks like a combination of trying to do it on the cheap and allowing enterprise to distort education policy.

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