The student of 2024: two versions of campus life in 10 years’ time

At best, third-level education will deliver vision, accessibility and diversity. At worst, it will deliver a two-tier system of exclusivity on the one hand and cheap education on the other


Best-case scenario : vision, accessibility and diversity
Seán, who is 20, meets his team at the third-level hub a couple of times a week, never attending a lecture. In 2024, formal classrooms have been replaced with online learning, flexible break-out spaces and informal “learning foyers” where students can interact as teams.

The third-level campus has everything Seán could need. He studies online, sometimes listening to lectures on the campus jogging trails.

Seán doesn’t drink or smoke, so that helps with the finances, as does his heavily subsidised accommodation. His campus is smoke- and alcohol-free anyway, including his on-campus accommodation, a commercial partnership with affordable rates.

The importance of students’ presence on campus, where they can bond and develop creative partnerships, has been recognised. Seán is aware of the wider world and spends much of his free time coaching soccer in the local community, as part of a scheme linked to his third-level institution.

Seán did well at second level, despite his dyscalculia, and at third level he uses free software that helps his study.

He accesses Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology from his college’s online library, then meets his team leader – what used to be known as a tutor – with a dozen other students, aged between 18 and 30, to engage in problem-based interactive learning. Today they’re discussing their business venture, part of a widespread entrepreneurial culture among students. Seán’s team has members from art and design, social sciences and computer engineering working together on the project, along with a law student cutting her teeth on contracts.

Everyone’s preparing themselves for portfolio careers, where they will earn from various sources rather than being employees. Among Seán’s team are a “mature” architect and a solicitor who are dipping back into third-level to retrain. These mature students study part-time and pay per module, although the distinction between part-time and full-time study has all but disappeared. The system is to offer accredited learning through life; traditional three- or four-year degrees are less common.

Funding third level hasn’t been a problem for Seán, who grew up on a working-class estate with intermittently employed parents.

Low-interest Government-backed loans have become available, not requiring a guarantor. He’ll have 10 years to pay back the €10,000 per year he is borrowing at 2 per cent annually, and he’ll probably start making money before he has graduated. Increased Government funding has also improved the student-teacher ratio, on which this new system of learning relies.

Worst-case scenario : exclusivity v cheap education
Lucy, who is 24, works in retail by day and studies part-time online by night, through a for-profit provider. She’s been collecting “digital badges” – accreditation of each module she takes – towards a qualification, and paying per module.

Because she’s not a full-time student and has no campus, she gets none of the supports that a third-level campus provides. Full-time third-level education isn’t an option for her now that fees have been reintroduced.

The quality of an Irish third-level degree has plummeted further. Third-level institutions are putting through as many students as they can, and the commercial sector is driving the academic programme. University education mimics the UK and US models of 2014, whereby students were saddled with higher debts to buy into a third-level brand.

The baby boom that started at the turn of the millennium has created more third-level students than Irish higher education can cope with, reversing the expectation of almost universal access to third level.

A historical lack of investment in education means that universities are overlooking the realisation that if you want people to learn to a high standard there has to be a good deal of learning support.

Access to third level is limited to the well-off, as more baby boomers study abroad and the young unemployed end up on long-term welfare from a young age, raising mental-health concerns.

Relatively rich 18-year-olds attend university, following the US pattern where the wealthy go to the Ivy League and everyone else learns online. International students, who can afford to pay, take places that could have been available for Irish students.

Yet Lucy is still one of the lucky ones. Even part-time and distance learning isn’t an option for people who can’t afford it. Elearning is seen as a way to cut costs and increase access without offering the interpretation and shared understanding available on campuses.

Third-level institutions have adopted a bums-on-seats model, and Ireland’s reputation for having a highly educated young workforce has all but died. Facebook, Google and the other tech giants are withdrawing from the land of saints, scholars and techies.

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