Lecturer Greg Foley could scarcely believe what he was seeing when marking his students' lab reports recently.
“Some of the stuff I was grading was the worst I’d ever seen – even from good students. They just couldn’t see the rubbish they were handing up,” says Foley, an associate professor at Dublin City University’s school of biotechnology.
“Despite explicit instructions, I got graphs with no labels or units; tables not labelled. They were putting capital letters in the middle of sentences, commas where there should be full stops. It was almost as if they were word blind.”
So, Foley wasn’t in the least surprised when a senior official at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expressed concern last week at a “huge drop” in literacy standards among Irish university graduates.
Dirk Van Damme, a senior official at the OECD's directorate for education and skills, said latest data showed up to 6 per cent of graduates were functionally illiterate.
These rates, contained in an OECD study,were significantly higher than in Finland (2 per cent) or the Netherlands (3 per cent), though similar to the UK (7 per cent).
Low levels of basic literacy, or functional illiteracy, refer to reading and writing skills that are “inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level”.
In addition, the data – collected in 2012 – showed only 19 per cent of university graduates in Ireland reached higher levels of numeracy.
This was significantly lower than in countries such as Finland (37 per cent), the Netherlands (35 per cent) and England (25 per cent).
Mr Van Damme said the figures were "not good for Ireland" and indicated that university qualifications were not necessarily a guarantee against very low skills .
The findings come on the back of recent studies which show drop-out rates in some low entry point courses of up to 80 per cent, and an ongoing debate about whether Ireland is sending too many school leavers to third-level courses.
The data also poses several searching questions for the higher education system, as well as the Government whose aim is to ensure Ireland has the “best education and training system in Europe” by 2026.
So, what is driving this apparent decline in literacy and numeracy standards? Is is really something we should we worried about? What impact does this have on the status of a third level degree. And what can we do to shore-up standards?
Brendan Guilfoyle, a maths lecturer at IT Tralee, doesn't hold back when asked to describe numeracy standards among students over recent years.
"Within my subject, there has been a catastrophic collapse in numeracy," he says. "We now do Junior Cert maths for the first semester; we have to ensure basic numeracy is there if they are to continue. We start at a low level, literally adding fractions, to get them to a level where they are comfortable."
He feels the single biggest reason behind falling standards is the huge expansion in numbers going to third level.
It is estimated that almost 60 per cent of school leavers in Ireland go to college, one of the highest levels in Europe. This compares to about 30 per cent in countries such Germany.
While policymakers see this as a positive and a calling card for attracting foreign direct investment, Guilfoyle feels it is misguided.
“Third level institutions are taking in way too many academically unprepared students into what are essentially academic degrees,” he says.
“Apprenticeships have collapsed so students feel they have to go to a one-size-fits-all third level . . . institutes of technology have had mission drift and are trying to make themselves look more like universities, when what’s really needed are more vocational, apprenticeship-type options.”
More students are accessing third level on lower points nowadays. Colleges have responded by providing maths and writing support to help shore-up standards.
Dr Anna Kelly, director of UCD's access and lifelong learning, however, is firmly in favour of expanding third level for equality reasons, especially to students from poorer backgrounds.
She insists higher education remains highly competitive, with demand exceeding the supply of places. Special access routes for people from disadvantaged backgrounds – where students can secure places in courses at 20 per cent below regular CAO entry points – are fought over.
“These pathways are highly competitive. Sometimes, when people talk about the massification of third level, they think we’ve simply opened the doors. But the evidence isn’t there to back it up. We have far more students than we have places.”
She says at UCD they have a threshold of about 300-320 points which a student needs to score to manage at university.
“Anything less than that and we’re not doing them any favours, because courses are intricate, complex and demanding.”
Official data compiled by the Higher Education Authority backs this up: the strongest predictor of non-progression is prior educational attainment.
A student with less than 250 points is almost twice as likely to drop out of their course compared to a student entering with 305-350 points.
Yet, many colleges - especially in the intitute of technology sector, are admitting students on well below 300 points. Some courses don't even have a points threshold are known as "AQA" courses, or "any qualified applicant" who meets minimum subject entry requirements.
There is also , says Guilfoyle, a strong financial incentive for colleges to take on students on low points, regardless of how they perform. In addition, he says, colleges are incentivised – at all costs – to ensure students progress through college. In fact, some have faced the threat of financial penalties from education authorities due to poor student progression rates.
The fact that there are concerns over graduates’ basic literacy or numeracy raises troubling questions over the value of a college degree. These are questions being asked globally, not just in Ireland.
Dirk Van Damme of the OECD says figures show a university degree is not a guarantee against very low skills.
"The fact that we have more higher education graduates does not mean that the economy and society is well served by the skills they need," he told The Irish Times.
He says some large firms, such as Ernst & Young, no longer look at university qualifications in recruiting staff, because "there's no evidence university equals success".
“Universities still ask unconditional confidence in their assessment function; and for disciplinary, technical skills they probably have good arguments,” says Van Damme. “But for generic skills, things are less clear.”
Despite the warnings, Irish employers’ surveys indicate that most are broadly happy with the standard of third-level graduates.
A 2019 study shows a total of 84 per cent of employers said they were satisfied with the standard of graduates’ written communication, though it dropped to 66 per cent in the ICT sector.
However, Tony Donohoe of employer's group Ibec says standards such as writing are a concern in some sectors, with a growing number of businesses unhappy at falling standards among staff.
“Accurate communication makes good business sense and reflects credibility and attention to detail, especially in emails and letters where the tone and culture of a business is set,” says Donohoe.
Foley feels standards generally at third level have lowered and worries that higher education is turning into an extended form of secondary school. He believes several factors are at play, such as poor student engagement, an almost unconscious dumbing down and shortened attention spans triggered by use of digital technology.
“We’ve lowered our expectations so much that we tolerate poor work from students . . . and I am as bad as anyone. I could have failed two-thirds of my class in a module earlier this year.
“But there has been a dumbing down. It hasn’t been an edict from on high, but there is a prevailing sense of exasperation from lecturers and it’s very hard to hold the line against it. And students know that if they hand in shoddy work, they’ll pass.”