Third level: the view from abroad

How do the systems in other countries select, stream and educate students, and how do they pay for them? Our correspondents assess the degrees of difference


Numbers up in the UK
University students in England and Wales now face bills of almost €11,000 a year. Critics said tuition fees would drive down the numbers applying for third level, but they are increasing, and people from the most deprived parts of Britain are twice as likely to apply as they were a decade ago.

The numbers going to all types of third-level institutions are expected to rise by a quarter over the next 20 years, but university budgets are facing tighter pressures. Already, most direct public funding of teaching costs has gone.

For the best universities, endowments are seen as the way to reduce their dependence on the state. Cambridge University, which has already gathered €6 billion, is preparing to try to harvest more from wealthy donors.

Prospective students are looking more to league tables before picking the university they want to attend. The University of Surrey found its numbers of applications increased by a third after it moved up the rankings in the Guardian university guide. Its achievement is now trumpeted on the homepage of its website: “I am absolutely delighted that we have reached eighth place and that all of the hard work of our colleagues has been recognised,” says Prof Sir Christopher Snowden, president and vice-chancellor of the university.

But there is concern about grade inflation. Last year 18 per cent of students gained a first-class honours degree, a rise of 50 per cent on a decade ago.

Campuses are also becoming less gender-balanced. This year the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said 580,000 people had applied for places: 333,700 of those were women and 246,300 were men. “There remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade,” says Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas.
Mark Hennessy , London Editor

Elite system in France
French third-level education is divided between the elite grandes écoles , public universities and instituts universitaires technologiques (IUTs), the equivalent of institutes of technology in Ireland.

About 10 per cent of third-level French students are enrolled in grandes écoles , many of which were founded in the 18th century. They are considered the equivalent of the Ivy League and Oxbridge, and admission is on the basis of highly competitive exams. Ninety-three per cent of graduates from the grandes écoles find jobs within two years.

“The grandes écoles are something very specific to France, [and exist] almost nowhere else in the developed world,” says Eric Charbonnier, an expert on French education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The grandes écoles are at the same time the pride of the French system and symptomatic of its worst failings. “The French system is led by a strong elite, but it deteriorates at the lower end,” he says.

About 75 per cent of third-level students attend public universities. Anyone with a baccalauréat – the Leaving Cert equivalent – can register. There are no other admission criteria, on the grounds that higher education must be open to all. But as a result, French universities have low prestige and a high failure rate, of about one in three, compared with an OECD average of one in five.

The remaining 15 per cent of students attend IUTs, which have shorter, two-year courses of study. Good lycée – secondary-school – students take up many of the openings in IUTs, because a diploma is more likely to lead to employment. But students who follow vocational training at a lycée , and who are natural candidates for the IUTs, are shut out because they fail the entrance exams.

Fees for third level in France are less than €500 a year, and universities suffer a severe lack of resources. Charbonnier says France should consider the Irish example: make them free up to bachelor’s degree and charge fees for master’s and PhDs.
Lara Marlowe , Paris Correspondent

Chinese study abroad
In China the main Irish colleges and universities are promoting themselves to students eager to learn in a safe, well-regarded English-speaking environment. Irish universities are not as well known as Harvard or Yale, but they are making inroads into this huge market. Studying abroad is a key goal for many students. Domestic universities are still a work-in-progress.

Although competition is intense for places at the big elite universities, such as Tsinghua, Beijing University and Renmin University, most of the children of the senior leadership are studying at an Ivy League college in the US. There are also more Chinese students in Australia than in the US: Australia has been promoting itself in China very well.

The obsession with third-level in China is promoting innovation. With so many students, focusing on individuals has not always been possible, and the socialist focus is also on the collective anyway. Socialist theory is still an important part of the university curriculum, and students can boost grades by doing well in Marxist thought.

Technical colleges are improving fast, especially those with close links to industry. But when China gets serious about something, such as promoting innovation, it usually succeeds. So while China is not competing with Ireland right now for university students, that time might not be far off.
Clifford Coonan , in Beijing

The ‘Cinderella’ effect
Comparing German and Irish attitudes to university is like the final act of Cinderella . In the fairy tale only Cinderella’s foot fits the shoe, but her sisters are so keen on the prospect of life as princesses that they will cut off toes to make their feet fit. For various reasons in Ireland, from Government policy to social expectations, the university path is considered the most attractive option, regardless of a school-leaver’s abilities. If the shoe fits, wear it – or make it fit.

German school-leavers either go to university or pursue dual training, in which their week is divided between lectures and work experience. “For everyone who doesn’t plan to be an academic, German alternatives to university education offer a solid grounding in theory and practice,” says Dr Gisela Holfter, a senior lecturer in German at the University of Limerick.

Reaching that stage in Ireland needs better vocational and technical training, particularly by getting firms to design programmes and assess trainees. A bigger task is to challenge the social perception that further education outside university is second best.

This doesn’t mean Germany is free of elitist attitudes to university education. Early streaming in German schools means children are put on a path to the Abitur , the Leaving Cert equivalent. If you don’t get on this path as a child you will find many obstacles in your way to university. The German system is self-selecting, so academics’ children are far more likely to enter university. Dr Fergal Lenehan of Friedrich Schiller University, in Jena, says working-class children face a greater challenge. “In that sense, the Irish system is more egalitarian,” he says.

Despite recent harmonisation of third- level education in the EU, Lenehan says, German universities retain distinctive features. With no fees, students can take up to three years for a more in-depth master’s. “Another advantage is the dominance of seminars over lectures, which makes teaching less frontal, more decentralised and more an intelligent conversation.”
Derek Scally , Berlin Correspondent

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