Universities offer ‘literacy clinics’ for students

Experts concerned over less academic students being pushed into college

Fiona Ó Murchú, a secondary teacher in Co Louth, regularly ploughs through students' essays. The results are not pretty.

There are the forest-style offerings, with little, if any, punctuation: “You have to fight your way through the words to find some kind of path of understanding.”

Then there are the confetti- style efforts, with punctuation everywhere. (“They look wonderful, but they don’t make any sense.”).

More recently, abbreviation-style essays are on the rise. (“They are peppered with text speak. They use the ‘&’, or ‘btw’ and so on.”)


When Ó Murchú looked for a simple grammar textbook to give her students, she could not find one.

“Part of the problem is that we’ve phased out much of the teaching of grammar, just like they did in the UK,” she says.

“Now, they want children to be creative thinkers, instead of focusing on rote learning. But it can go too far the other way.”

It prompted her to produce her own guide to grammar and communication, Write Talk,  targeted mainly at students.

Despite Ireland being the only English-speaking country in the euro zone, foreign students often have better grammar than Irish students.

“They are learning English in a more technical way – including punctuation and grammar – and we’re not.”

More applicants than ever will apply for a college course this year, according to CAO figures. However, one in six students at third level fails to get beyond the first year.

Dropout rates

Dropout rates are as high as 50 or 60 per cent in some low- points courses. Now, experts question whether Ireland is sending too many less academically inclined students to college.

Dr Greg Foley, an associate dean for teaching and learning at Dublin City University, sparked a debate last week when he said many students had unrealistic expectations about the study they needed to do to succeed.

The posting of lecture notes online was leading to a “dependency culture” among students and a decline in numbers at lectures, he said. “This is aggravated by the highly distracting smartphone culture in which they live,” he added.

Walking through a university library recently, Dr Foley did a straw poll as he watched students on their laptops: "I'd say about 40 per cent were on Facebook, or some form of social media."

In science, technology or engineering, for example, four hours of studying is needed for every hour spent with a lecturer. Yet the Irish Survey of Student Engagement study last year found many were not putting in anything near that. Four in 10 spend less than five hours studying each week.

However, there is another issue. A rising minority of students are not sufficiently literate or numerate.

Prof Mary Gallagher, who lecturers in French at UCD, is increasingly alarmed.

“It’s an epidemic, as far as I can see, and it’s extraordinarily worrying,” she said. “When you get to the point that a student is so grammatically poor that they can’t construct a sentence that makes sense in English, it’s difficult to know where to start.”

Her university is not alone in offering “literacy clinics” for struggling students. Many colleges are also offering maths tuition for students who cannot keep up with computer science and engineering courses.

Prof Gallagher, speaking in a personal capacity, said: "We need to stop pretending that 85 per cent of Ireland's youth are academically inclined, because this is a damaging lie. Germany, for example, avoids this damage: that's why apprenticeships rather than degrees are so highly valued there and why they attract such able people.

“Either Irish school-leavers are up to 50 per cent more academically inclined and talented than their European peers or else they are being misdirected into further academic endeavour when they would be better suited to following a more authentic, less pseudo-academic training.”

Businesses see the failings at first hand. Many grumble about simple grammatical errors in CVs, poor writing standards and casual emails.

"A growing number of employers are voicing their concern about falling standards," said Tony Donohoe, head of education with Ibec.

A recent Ibec survey found that more than a quarter were not satisfied with graduates’ ability to communicate in writing. “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,” he says.

Instead of sending students elsewhere, Prof Gallagher said, modern “corporate” universities are bent on increasing numbers and trying to retain students at all costs. This, she said, is resulting in “a dumbing down” of academic subjects and the shutting down of “hard” subjects.

“Hard or ‘unpopular’ subjects are either disappeared or reinvented in line with market expectations or with the university’s strategic business plan,” she said.

These trends may cheapen the value of degrees. “What is the point of degrees if they are not an authentic guarantee that people are qualified to do the thing they have studied? . . . I can assure you there are people walking around Ireland with a degree in French, German or Mandarin, and they are not able to read and to make sense of them . . . they are not honest qualifications.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent