Full-time third-level education for all is a luxury we can’t afford

Opinion: Third-level courses cost everyone a lot of money, whereas distance learning does not

Could it be that sending our children to college is an extravagance? Something that would be nice to have, but we can’t really afford and do not really need?

For many years we have been told that it is reasonable to expect to send your children to college, and that, if you can't afford it, you should be able to get assistance in doing so. We are also told that it is in the interests of the economy that as many people as possible get a higher education; that, as a nation, we cannot afford not to send our children to college. This may well be true, but the question here is: can we afford to do it the way we are doing it, either as individuals or as a nation?

As an engineering student in the 1970s, I would muse during lectures about the efficiency of the process. If the lecturer took an alternative approach, not only would a significant amount of time be saved by that lecturer but, more interestingly, a much greater amount of time would be saved by the 50 or 100 students sitting in the class. Now, 40 years later, there are many alternative teaching techniques available, but not a lot has changed.

I have become aware of many of the alternative teaching approaches through my work for the past 20 years with learning technologies, and, more specifically, in online distance learning. But the efficiencies I have observed in online distance learning have more to do with the type of student than the technologies used.

Teaching medium

Our distance learners seem to be able to cover material in less time than the full-time students and achieve better scores in examinations. How can this be so? Is it the teaching medium? Is it that they can replay difficult parts of lectures over and over again or post questions to their lecturers and classmates at any hour of the day or night? Perhaps, but I think it might be something else.

Our distance learners seem to be very highly motivated. They are very interested in the content and keen to achieve. They see the relevance of the knowledge, often directly in work they are currently doing, and seem to assimilate it faster and remember it better.

We have always been aware of the merits of “work-based learning”, which has been the basis of the apprenticeship system that has served us well for centuries, even in so-called higher professions such as accounting, law and architecture. So why have we moved away from this model of learning? Could it be that knowledge became so specialised that students had to travel to the source of that knowledge? Could it be that, as we grew richer over a few hundred years, first the middle classes and then the working classes felt they had the right to emulate the practices of the aristocracy?

We might argue about the reasons the current system of higher education emerged, but there is growing evidence that higher education can be supplied more cheaply and more effectively through a combination of work-based and online learning. As well as it cutting the cost of providing courses, the financial burden on individuals and families, as well as the State, can be reduced in other ways. As learners are mostly working and do not need to live away from home, they can more easily afford the fees, often with assistance from employers and with less subsidy from the State.

But what about the social development aspect of full-time higher education? Perhaps because I live in a small town in the west of Ireland, I have a broader range of friends than many in my profession, but my many friends who haven’t received a higher education would laugh if I suggested to them they were less socially developed than me.

Would school leavers be mature enough to survive in this new model of learning? Well, many believe that they were in the past, and that perhaps we don’t challenge them enough these days. Many young people don’t know what they want to do when they leave school. It could be argued that it is too early to choose a profession, and that it might be better to get a menial job in a field you might be interested in and take a little more time before committing to a course of study. This kind of flexibility is much more feasible with work-based online learning.

And what about my own children? Despite my advice to go and get a job when they finish school, they are insisting that they go to college just as I did. I am lucky that the State is borrowing money to subsidise them and I am well enough paid to afford to pay the rest. Others are not so lucky. Should individuals and the State be spending or borrowing so much for what now could be seen as a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people? An extravagance?