‘Dumbing down’ of third-level education

 

Sir, – Any suggestion that our education system has been “dumbed down” should be viewed in the context of the shift in expectations that has occurred over the last few decades (Dumbing-down will ‘screw up’ economy, Morgan Kelly warns”, Home News, March 10th).

While a good education is a desirable asset perhaps it has all gone too far, as now every child is expected to aspire to reach third-level.

Not only that, but our institutes of technology are hoping to achieve university status, putting further emphasis on the fact that a third-level degree is now a basic requirement for most jobs. Several decades ago it was possible and normal to find employment with just a Leaving Certificate qualification. The Civil Service and companies such as Aer Lingus, RTÉ, and most of the banks were happy to accept employees straight from school who received on-the-job training – and several went on to hold senior positions within those organisations. Only a small number of candidates went to university, where entry requirements varied but in some cases amounted solely to an ability to pay the fees. There was no pressure on students or schools to attain high CAO point levels or the status of degrees.

I am not advocating a return to the situation where only the privileged few could attend university, but many current students are attending university not because they want to be there but because it is expected of them. School league tables and the allocation of places based on the popularity of courses, which dictates the points required, have both contributed to an intense pressure on children to perform.

Students of average ability, the majority in any society, often struggle to reach their target point level while their parents struggle to get additional tuition for them in an attempt to secure their child’s future. It is this madness, rather than a “dumbing down” of exams, that has led to students achieving higher grades in exams. The emergence of a market in grind schools is proof of this.

Children have to wait for their CAO offer to discover what place they have been allocated, and rather than studying something they have an interest in, they often get allocated something they are unsuited to. It is perceived that any degree is better than no degree, and those who leave the education system with just a Leaving Certificate find it difficult to get anything other than low-paid work.

A third-level qualification has become a basic necessity, but worse than that, more and more graduates find themselves having to embark on further studies such as masters degrees and doctorates to stand out from the crowd and get employment in their field. It is therefore inevitable that our universities have many students of average ability registered, but it is not the answer to make exams more difficult and fail them. They have been led to believe that society will judge them based on their academic achievements, and the annual media interest in school results and points levels bears this out.

An alternative would be to reduce the emphasis on school league tables and points by offering a suitable alternative to university degrees for more students. Further investment in post-Leaving Cert courses, where a broader range of courses could be offered in State-run colleges that would confer a qualification acceptable to relevant employers, is an option. The institutes of technology could be used for this purpose rather than upgrading them to university status, and potential employers could be involved in designing modules that would give students required skills. The current range of courses offered in universities could then be modified to avoid competition.

It is time to change the perception that every child has to get a degree and that every college has to be a university to be valued. Then, and only then, can we consider making third-level exams harder. – Yours, etc,

BA KEOGH,

Stonepark Abbey,

Rathfarnham,

Dublin 14.

Sir, – Morgan Kelly warns that “despite the IT revolution”, administration has grown at an alarming rate in the university sector. Surely it is partly because of the IT revolution that this expansion has occurred? All that management software has to be used to justify the expense of both itself and management.

With this IT revolution has come the advancement of the institutes of technology. Paul Hannigan, the chairman of Institutes of Technology Ireland, wants more profiling of the customer, calling for more data to be be collected in the “handshake” between second and third level (“Why colleges need to know their students better, Education, March 11th). This, he asserts, is to help the institutes to “contextualise” academic results, “ease the transition” of students, gain a more “holistic view” of them in order to “enhance services” – all of this designed to better retain the students, to maintain those bums on seats.

This edu-business babble is embarrassing. What next – loyalty cards to gain academic credits?

With the institutes represented as having such an academic wish-list by their spokesman, Prof Kelly must view the institutes of technology on the march to university status “as further evidence that Irish universities are beyond repair”. – Yours, etc,

JUNE O’REILLY,

Lecturer in Communication,

Cork Institute

of Technology.