Drive to attract students undermines academic education, says professor

Broad skills better for graduate employment, Maynooth forum will hear

Prof Richard Arum was speaking ahead of a keynote address he will give at the NUI Maynooth education forum today. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Prof Richard Arum was speaking ahead of a keynote address he will give at the NUI Maynooth education forum today. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Thu, Jun 20, 2013, 01:00

GENEVIEVE CARBERY

The Irish third level sector could learn a “cautionary tale” from the United States where a drive to please undergraduate students as clients and “not demand too much of them” can undermine the academic core, New York university professor Richard Arum has said.

His study invovling several thousand students , Academically Adrift, showed that graduates with broad skills such as critical thinking a were employed more than those with narrow occupational skills had “important implications for Ireland in the current economic climate”, he said.

Prof Arum was speaking ahead of a keynote address he will give at the NUI Maynooth education forum today.

Universities struggling with resources could learn much from the US in raising revenue but it is a “cautionary tale as if not done carefully it can undermine the academic core and function of the institution”, he said.

A trend in the US for colleges to compete on gyms, accommodation, support services and social life saw “traditional academic functions” being “downplayed” he said. “The model is to keep students happy as consumer and clients....and the way to keep them happy is amenities, entertainment and not asking too much of them” he said.

The number of full time academic faculty was decreasing while the number of support staff was dramatically rising, he said. Students were being given “half the academic demands” of several decades ago” he said.

His study found over a third of students tested on their broader skills such as thinking critically, reasoning complexly and writing ability did not improve by even one point after four years of college. It showed that in the labour market those with the broader skills have the “ability to avoid unemployment and unskilled employment,” he said.

He argued that acquiring these broader skills at third level has become even more important given “occupations you prepare students for today might not exist later” he said.