The Irish Times view on higher education: students under strain

A survey shows that despite improvements since the pandemic, many have still considered quitting their courses

Like so much of the population affected by the pandemic, students attending higher education had their lives turned upside down. Many were undertaking courses, but without the college experience – no in-person lectures, few opportunities to meet classmates and limited engagement with lecturers.

Much of that has changed. A survey published last week provides a broadly positive picture of the student experience, with improved rates of feedback on learning and satisfaction with courses. The findings are contained in a poll of more than 40,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students by StudentSurvey.ie, which is funded by the Higher Education Authority.

These improvements are, however, from a low base. There are still plenty of warning signs that the student experience is not what it should be. More than one in three in higher education said they have seriously considered quitting their courses due to financial pressures, personal reasons or other factors.

These findings are echoed by student representatives who say the rising cost of living, long commutes and high rents are undermining aspects of the college experience. Another concern surrounds the level of interaction and support from college staff. Fewer than half of students believed lecturers provided detailed feedback on tests or assessments, while only one in five said they regularly discussed course topics, ideas, or concepts with academic staff outside a scheduled class.

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The Government says it has responded by cutting registration fees, improving grants and expanding safety-net funding for students in difficulty. It is also, slowly, improving core funding for the sector. However, higher education remains underfunded based on the Government’s own calculations to the tune of almost €300 million a year. Austerity-era recruitment restrictions mean many courses are overcrowded, limiting the level of support for students.

For a country which likes to portray itself as among the top in the knowledge economy, this is hardly good enough.