Hardly a week goes by without a senior academic or opposition politician commenting on the “crisis” in the Irish higher education system. The crisis, it seems, is one of funding, the argument being that state funding has declined so much that we are close to a tipping point where the quality of our institutions will start to plummet.
However, just as in Zeno’s paradox where Achilles can never quite catch the tortoise, we never seem to actually reach the point where we are willing to admit that quality is, in fact, declining.
Others point to the fact that we are falling in the international rankings but our “get-out-of-jail card” is the fact that it is generally accepted that, although influential, one’s position in the rankings is a poor proxy for quality, especially in broad area of teaching and learning.
So, is there really a crisis of quality - now - and is it caused by a lack of funding? I believe there is a problem, not necessarily a crisis, and it has little to do with funding.
The fundamental problem in higher education is that standards are declining due to a combination of poor student engagement, a quiet and almost unconscious dumbing down, a gradual and quite deliberate move to turn higher education into an extended form of secondary school, and an over-emphasis on initiatives that have little or nothing to do with education.
Anyone who doubts that there is a problem with student engagement should talk to students some time. They will freely admit that although they might spend a reasonable amount of time doing assignments during the semester, they do little or no actual study until just before the exams. In effect they study topics once and cognitive science tells us that knowledge acquired once is rapidly forgotten.
Students are aided in this approach by the fact that in the semesterised system, they are tested on small “chunks” of material in short (two-hour) exams and because of the increased emphasis on continuous assessment many students only need to achieve very low marks to pass or even do reasonably well in the subject.
There is one ray of hope, however, and it is this: work placements seem to transform students.
Recently when I asked my final year students what the highlight of their studies had been so far, every single one them replied that it was their nine-month stint in industry. Maybe that’s telling us something.
Is the system being dumbed down? Talk to academics, from any discipline, and most will express a sort of weariness at the relentless drift towards mediocrity. This process is not being driven by the perennial bad guys, namely “management”.
It’s more a case of the cumulative effect of a large number of influences: the poor basic skills of incoming students and the fact that we are failing to impart these skills; a sense that it is better for students to learn something at a low level than very little at a high level; an increased tendency for students and external examiners alike to see challenging assessments as unfair; a recognition that rote learning is alive and well in higher education and that to ask the unexpected is to risk mass failure and the inquisition that will follow.
Yet, despite all of this, employers seem to be happy with the quality of graduates these days so maybe the word “crisis” is being overused.
All of this is occurring against a background in which a teaching and learning “mafia” has emerged in higher education. This group of academics see fellow academics purely as teachers and students as pupils.
They make careers out of making university education far more complicated than it needs to be and they are determined to find solutions to ill-defined or non-existent problems, usually by employing so-called “student-centred” methods for which there is little or no evidence.
The result is that academics and the administrators supporting them are overburdened with bureaucracy. The best example of this is the fixation with “learning outcomes”, something that forces academics to write, and administrators to manage, long module descriptors which students never read and which add absolutely nothing of value to the students’ learning.
But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe it’s all about signalling to the world how organised and committed we are.
Finally, it is worth asking what universities are for. If you ask the person on the street what a university is for, they’ll probably say “education”. But the mission of universities has expanded greatly in recent years and not just because governments have demanded it, but because the universities, who now operate in a higher education market, saw this expansion as an opportunity.
It was interesting to note that when, last year, Trinity announced a plan to develop a €1 billion innovation campus, nobody stopped to ask if that really is what a university should be doing?
It seems that we have sleepwalked into a time where it is taken for granted that the job of universities is not just to educate but to drive short to medium term economic growth.
And we’ve done so at the very time when universities say the quality of the education that they can deliver is about to tumble. Perhaps we need to learn to prioritise.
Dr Greg Foley is an associate professor at Dublin City University’s school of biotechnology. He is writing in a personal capacity