Damaged by a psychological blow

Tue, Sep 21, 2010, 01:00

PETER MCGUIREon how American College Dublin left its students in the lurch

IT HAS BEEN a difficult year for the American College Dublin, a privately owned college operating from Merrion Square since 1994. The college was established by Lynn University, of Boca Raton, Florida in May 1993, largely to facilitate programmes of study abroad. But the college has also attracted increasing numbers of Irish and foreign students.

Its founder, Dr Donald Ross, is a leading figure in American education. At one stage, some five years ago, he was the highest-paid private college president in the US, with an annual salary package of more than $5 million (€3.9 million). Today , he still acts as president and chief executive of American College Dublin.

Although a registered charity, the college should be something of a cash cow. About three-quarters of its 623 students come from overseas, many of them paying hefty fees. Irish and EU students pay €4,950 per year for doing the Bachelor of Arts degree course in psychology; non-EU students pay €8,650 per year.

For the psychology students, things began to fall apart in May when the American College alerted students that they would not be able to finish their studies at the college.

The crux of the problem was a dispute with the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). The PSI says it had no choice but to withdraw recognition for the course as it was seriously concerned about its overall quality. It maintains that it gave the American College adequate scope and time to improve matters and raise standards, but that this opportunity was declined.

In a statement last week, the PSI said that “as a commercial organisation, American College felt this standard was a challenge to achieve and decided not to accept these recommendations and, in turn, forgo attempts to achieve accreditation”.

PSI president Dr Niall Pender said: “Unfortunately, the PSI cannot award indefinite accreditation to a course when core standards were not met, as this would reflect poorly on the students graduating from those years and we would fail in our duty to protect the public.’’

The PSI decided to withdraw recognition for the course from November this year when its requirements – an increase in full-time faculty staff, the appointment of a lab technician, and an increase in the library holdings – were refused. The American College claims that it could not afford to implement the required changes and that the PSI was being unreasonable. The college asked for permission to teach currently enrolled psychology students with accreditation, and then wind the course down, but the PSI declined.

The PSI claims that the American College has made no real effort to lay out a plan as to how the college could meet some or all of the PSI’s standards.

Sixty-two students are affected by the decision and at least 15 of them are now pursuing a joint legal action against the college for breach of contract.

Approximately 50 students have now transferred to a three-year course at another private college, the Dublin Business School (DBS). But students says this course has an entirely different focus: while the DBS course emphasises psychoanalysis, the American College course was focused on behavioural psychology.

Six psychology staff have been made redundant at the American College.

Student numbers on the psychology course had been declining, with enrolment down from 150 two years ago to just 62 this year. The psychology course had a high dropout rate, which former students attribute to a steep decline in resourcing. The college has not employed a full-time librarian for more than a year, with most of the work being carried out by part-time student employees.

There are other questions about accreditation too. Seven psychology students say their degree was never fully accredited by the PSI, making it impossible for them to proceed with postgraduate study.

The overall running of the college was the subject of a recent robust report by a State agency which issues awards to the non-university sector. In a study posted on its website (hetac.ie), the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (Hetac), highlighted a series of institutional failures at the American College and made no less than 37 recommendations for change. The college was reprimanded for calling itself the “Irish American University” when it had no status as a university. Hetac also said the college lacked a clear vision for the future and called on it to address its continuing financial viability.

The college currently has liabilities of €2.8 million. In 2008 and 2009, its auditors, McDaid McCullough Moore, noted “the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast doubt over the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

American College Dublin says it has the resources to continue trading and to implement the changes required by Hetac.

Ronan Yore, who this week finishes his tenure as head of the department of psychology at the college, believes that staff and students feel let down.

“It’s very difficult to lose accreditation,” he says. “It is a matter of public record that PSI’s concerns relate purely to inadequate resources and not the standard of teaching. It’s not hard to understand the sense of betrayal which many students have expressed at its sudden demise.”

One psychology student, who was due to enter her final year, said that students felt the college had been in decline for years. “The psychology lectures were good, but the library was always full. The tiny cafe was overpriced, there weren’t enough computers, and the ones they did have were often broken. There was little in the way of student social life or activities. The facilities were appalling.”

In its review, Hetac expressed concern at the sense of detachment of the American College from the rest of the higher education community in Ireland. This, it claimed, led to a lack of familiarity with its statutory requirements under higher education legislation. “Quality assurance appears to be more a regulatory compliance chore rather than something embedded at all levels in the culture of the organisation,” claimed the review.

Last week, the academic dean at the American College, Dr Rory McEntegart, said the report was “not as positive as we might have hoped for”, but insisted that the college was working with Hetac to implement the recommendations.

Interviewed by The Irish Times, American College founder Dr Ross said that although the Hetac report was disappointing, it also commended the teaching staff at the college.

“We never wanted to end the psychology programme,” he said. “In relation to institutional review, it is not intended as a punitive process, and Hetac’s recommendations for improvement will be very helpful to us. We hope to introduce new courses, and we plan to continue on. We’re confident that the college is viable.”

‘I paid over €20,000 for a useless degree’

Alexandra Stingaciu (aged 22) has a psychology degree from American College Dublin, but she will never get it recognised by the Psychological Society of Ireland or be eligible for a postgraduate psychology degree.

Over the past five years at least seven psychology students at the American College were given places on the course despite failing to secure the minimum points requirements. The college admits that these students were never told that their degrees would not be recognised by the State body, Hetac, or the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). The students attended the same classes as accredited students and paid the same fees.

Stingaciu, from Lucan in south Co Dublin, missed out on a place by just five points and was delighted when the college accepted her anyway. “But I’d never have spent four years of my life and so much money on this course if I knew it was worthless,” she says. “I won’t be accepted into a Masters without PSI accreditation. I went to the college authorities, but they didnt do anything for me. I felt stuck. What could I do?”

Psychology student Ronan Ivers adds: “When you’re paying over €5,000 a year, you expect a certain standard. Instead, we saw the college going downhill. Everyone was just hoping to get his or her degree, but we never saw this coming. It’s been enormously stressful. American College wrecked the plans I had.”

Why this college crisis is an injustice to students

WRITING IN the American College prospectus last year, its American founder, Dr Donald Ross, stated: “We strive to create a nurturing environment that encourages each student to become the best he or she can be.”

But some of those working on the now-abandoned course take a different view. Felicity Heathcote, a lecturer on the course, says: “The decision to discontinue the course, without any meaningful provision for those students who have completed years one, two and three, constitutes a huge injustice and is a tragedy for both the students and staff involved.”

She was particularly upset for the more mature students on the course, who had blossomed in a degree programme, only to have their hopes and dreams crushed by having their course discontinued mid-stream.

Martin Walsh, one of my own students at Oatlands College, Stillorgan (where I am a guidance counsellor), opted to study this degree after his Leaving Certificate in 2008. He has been left devastated by the recent events and by the failure of the American College to meet the modest demands of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI).

Rather than commit resources and maintain the high standard of the course, the college has discontinued its psychology degree course and made all of the lecturing staff redundant.

The offer of an alternative programme in Dublin Business School (DBS) is of little use to students such as Walsh. The DBS degree is a three-year degree course, with a strong emphasis on psychoanalysis, whereas the American College programme was a four-year broadly-based psychology degree. The American College states in its 2009 prospectus: “We differ from most psychology degrees because we cover more in our four-year course than is possible in a three-year degree.”

In my view, students at the American College have been treated disgracefully. The PSI is perfectly correct to insist that the college maintain the high standards required of all programmes offered in Ireland, thus retaining its credibility in the eyes of potential employers of its graduates.

The PSI was also correct to refuse to extend accreditation for a further three years (to enable the college to fulfil its commitments to the existing students) without the college agreeing to bring the resources of the course up to the appropriate standards.

The fact that the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (Hetac), which accredited this programme in Ireland, would continue to accredit any programme offered by this college is, to my mind, another scandal.

Unless this matter is resolved to the satisfaction of the current student body, I will never recommend the American College to any student I guide, and would encourage my colleagues not to do so either. Brian Mooney