Students lose out as quality of third-level deteriorates

Opinion: Sensible fees regime needed if universities are to compete in global marketplace

Retiring professors have been replaced by part-time teaching staff on precarious contracts with few supports, teaching to large lecture theatres packed full of students. Photograph: iStock

Retiring professors have been replaced by part-time teaching staff on precarious contracts with few supports, teaching to large lecture theatres packed full of students. Photograph: iStock

 

By any measure the Irish third level sector is in financial crisis and students are being shortchanged.

In the near-decade since the recession, Irish universities and institutes of technology have suffered significantly.

No Irish university appears in the Times Higher Education top 100, published last month. Trinity College Dublin is ranked at 117, scoring well on indicators such as research citations and international outlook, but relatively poorly on teaching. In 2011, Trinity was placed 76th internationally. Most other Irish universities have suffered similar slides in international rankings over the years.

All this has happened because of years of underinvestment, cuts to staff-student ratios and the failure to retain quality lecturers.

Leaving Cert students are applying in ever-greater numbers to third level courses, but the hard reality is the quality of the courses and teaching on offer is deteriorating.

Retiring professors have been replaced by part-time teaching staff on precarious contracts with few supports, teaching to large lecture theatres packed full of students.

Statistics for non-progression levels in the Irish higher education sector are disturbing. Some 15 per cent of students who start third-level programmes in Irish third-level institutions drop out by the end of their first year.

Jaw-dropping

Average figures are lower for universities, but higher for institutes of technology. In some, non-progression rates are as high as 50 per cent, and close to a jaw-dropping 70 per cent in some level-six and seven courses.

By comparison, statistics from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency show that about 6 per cent of students attending British universities drop out during or after first-year.

The reasons for student failure are complex. Certainly students need to take responsibility for their own performance, but colleges in many cases set students up to fail via poorly designed programmes with too few staff or student learning supports.

Now that the economy is in recovery, there has been much debate about how to restore the fortunes of the third level sector.

The funding crisis is the biggest immediate problem, and the Cassells report made a number of recommendations, including the return of fees through a student loan system.

Student unions and opposition parties oppose the move with water charges-like ferocity, but the reality is that Government must make hard decisions on spending. Every euro spent on higher education is a euro less available to support primary and secondary students.

While education is a right, it is not cheap, and it has never been free.

Asking students to repay fees once in employment is reasonable. University-educated graduates will significantly out-earn those without a third level qualification over the course of their careers.

The introduction of a sensible, fair and equitable fee regime is essential if Irish universities are to compete in a highly competitive global marketplace for higher education.

Substantial reform

However, the sector must also undergo substantial reform before any new funding model is put in place.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that students – in particular undergraduates – are being taken for granted in all the discussion about funding. Any decision to introduce a fee regime must be taken in tandem with major reforms to how the universities teach students.

Fundamentally, we should ask hard questions about whether the university teaching model is the correct one for several professions.

Degree-level apprenticeships for technical professions – where rather than paying fees students are paid as apprentices by employers – should be seriously considered for a range of professions including construction and engineering, computer sciences, health sciences, nursing, some business programmes and journalism.

Universities and institutes of technology should be working closely with industry to develop technical educational programmes, which would be funded by industry at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Far too many students are wrongly encouraged to pursue purely academic university education when a far more practical – and equally important – technical third-level qualification would be just as valuable.

Why should an 18-year-old – and his or her parents – commit to spending thousands of euro on a four-year engineering degree when this qualification could be earned as part of an apprenticeship with a weekly wage?

Bachelor-level apprenticeships should be a rewarding alternative to arts degrees for thousands of young people annually, offering a direct route to a career.

Complex needs

Academic programmes, meanwhile, must be more responsive to the complex needs of students.

In the UK, the much-maligned Teaching Excellence Framework embarrassed several highly-ranked universities, which demonstrated poor performance when it came to student progression and retention, teaching evaluations for lecturers, and employment outcomes for graduates.

Some commentators have argued that a culture of not failing students will take hold, with standards dumbed down.

Any such move would be shortsighted, as it would ultimately damage the institution’s reputation, and do nothing to improve teaching performance, or employment outcomes.

Student evaluations should be taken seriously and programme boards should include stakeholders including students, external assessors and employers

The reality is that universities are being forced to ask fundamental questions about how they recruit, teach and support students. The HEA could and should look at introducing a similar model in Ireland.

If we are serious about improving quality, third level institutions should be encouraged to focus on ensuring:

Programmes are fit for purpose. They should be designed with the student in mind, not the lecturers. Programmes with low retention rates should be scrapped, and students who make the wrong choice should be able to move without penalty (removing the financial incentive for third level institutions to over-recruit and keep fee income from students who drop out).

Admissions systems need to be reformed to ensure students applying are a good fit for the programmes. Students should be required to demonstrate some aptitude for the content. The CAO system, while equitable, is not the best way to recruit students into many third-level programmes.

Evaluations

Student evaluations should be taken seriously and programme boards should include stakeholders including students, external assessors and employers. Programmes should be externally audited and the results published.

Lecture delivery needs to be re-imagined. Large group lectures need to be reinforced with suitable opportunities for students to ask questions and discuss issues in smaller-group seminars. Technology should be utilised to deliver lecture content, with teaching staff concentrating on smaller group seminars

Poor teaching performance must be addressed. Poorly performing teachers should be offered training and support to improve. Chronic offenders should be removed from classrooms.

All degrees should include an element of employability training to prepare graduates for the workplace.

There is no doubt that fees in some form will have to be introduced, but this cannot be allowed to happen until major reforms that put students at the heart of the system have been implemented.

Tom Felle is a senior lecturer in digital journalism at City, University of London, and co-founder of DMINR, a Google Digital News Initiative project aimed at making public data more accessible.