Refunds controversy shines light on quality of third-level learning

Deterioration of staff-student ratios among factors posing risk to calibre of education

NUI Galway upheld complaints filed by students over recent years and accepted their expectations had not been met. Dozens were refunded some or all of their fees.

NUI Galway upheld complaints filed by students over recent years and accepted their expectations had not been met. Dozens were refunded some or all of their fees.

 

Students were left without basic equipment. Printers were faulty for months on end. The outdated studio regularly broke down – and when it did work, the quality was poor.

Students reported little or no feedback on assignments they handed in for the first semester and had to request them in order to get an idea of how they were performing.

“These problems are not new ones,” wrote postgraduate journalism students in a complaint to NUI Galway. “Having discussed them with past students of the course, it is clear that they have existed for a number of years.”

One student recalls: “It was a very stressful time. I had taken a loan out to pay for the €8,000 fees, but if felt like it was for nothing . . . We were promised industry experience, but I ended up getting a work placement through a friend in the end. We felt we were just left to fend for ourselves.”

When asked what could be done to improve students’ engagement with learning, most responses related to improving teaching provision or the quality of interactions with staff

NUI Galway upheld the complaints filed by students over recent years and accepted their expectations had not been met. Dozens were refunded some or all of their fees.

The development shines a light on the quality of teaching and learning in our universities at a time when many say they are struggling to cope with falling State investment.

Student as consumer

It also reflects a shift in the attitude of students who, increasingly, see themselves as consumers and are willing to call out what they see as poor standards.

While it is difficult to say if resources were to blame in the case of these journalism students, there are growing concerns over the quality of teaching and learning at third-level generally.

Staff/student ratios have increased significantly due to growing student numbers and restrictions on hiring additional staff.

It means facilities can often be overcrowded, with outdated technology and reduced access to one-on-one tutorials.

The casualisation of staff can mean research students are regularly left with heavy teaching loads – even though many have little or no teacher training.
The casualisation of staff can mean research students are regularly left with heavy teaching loads – even though many have little or no teacher training.

The casualisation of staff can mean research students are regularly left with heavy teaching loads – even though many have little or no teacher training.

A report commissioned by the State body responsible for quality assurance in higher education, the Quality and Qualifications Ireland, flagged some of these concerns recently.

The review of the quality of teaching and learning in public higher education institutions found spending cuts had pushed some third-level college courses to “crisis point”.

Lecturer contact

More recently, the Irish Survey of Student Engagement – a poll of more than 35,000 students in Irish third-level institutions – found that third-level students in Ireland had less contact with their lecturers than in other countries,

When asked what could be done to improve students’ engagement with learning, most responses related to improving teaching provision or the quality of interactions with staff.

It’s little surprise, then, that the Government is quietly carrying out its own review into the quality of higher education.

A possibility which policymakers in Ireland may consider is a UK-style “teaching excellence framework” to measure teaching quality.

The measure has proved controversial, with some critics arguing that it is wrong to try to evaluate something as complex as teaching.

If the Government is serious about its ambition to have the best education and training system in Europe, it’s an issue it will need to address sooner rather than later.