President Higgins and higher education

 

Sir, – This year, a pandemic year, more than 700 lecturers and teaching support staff were nominated by students and colleagues for the DCU President’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching. A close reading of the nominations indicated that this extraordinarily high level of satisfaction was not at all driven by grade inflation but by a genuine recognition by (mainly) students that lecturers and colleagues had gone the extra mile to ensure that our students received the best possible education under very difficult circumstances.

So when I read the President of Ireland’s ill-informed diatribe (yes, it was a diatribe) about grade inflation and other matters, I have to admit that my blood pressure began to boil (“Grade inflation undermining quality of university degrees,President Higgins warns”, News, June 8th).

Mr Higgins harks back to an imaginary golden age of education purity, but as someone who studied in UCD in the 1980s I can safely say that the reality was altogether different.

My experience was often of ill-prepared, unaccountable lecturers who rambled on about seemingly random topics with no regard for the fact that ultimately students wanted a coherent set of notes that they could study, a perfectly reasonable wish. We survived by organising a network of peers who passed on notes from year to year.

Of course, the modern third-level environment is not perfect. It is quite “corporate” – there is no doubt of that – but a lot of that is driven by the fact that Government funding is woefully inadequate. Indeed, I often find myself pondering questions like “Why are universities getting involved in this?” or “Why do I have to fill out this form?” But the world is changing and people – especially parents and school-leavers – see education in very practical terms: they want their education to offer them a path to successful and rewarding careers and lives. And who can argue with that?

As for grade inflation, what’s so magical about 70 per cent? For many years, the gold medal of undergraduate education was the “first-class honour”. This was awarded to students who averaged 70 per cent, a target that was entirely arbitrary. Now, in a modular system with a large emphasis on continuous assessment, average marks much higher than 70 per cent are perfectly possible, and so what?

One of my abiding memories of assessment back in the 1980s (and physicists will get this) is an exam question (which I will never forget) which read “Discuss the laws of conservation of momentum and energy”. Such a question would be ridiculed nowadays. These days, we agonise constantly about assessment because if there is one truth in education, it is that assessment drives how students learn.

Having come to DCU (then the National Institute for Higher Education) in 1986 as a raw 23-year-old, I have seen education transformed. There are many aspects of the modern third-level system that make my job harder and more stressful than I would like but I have absolutely no doubt that the main beneficiary of the transformation of this sector has been students who are now taught by highly committed, reflective lecturers who constantly seek to innovate and improve their practice. I think President Higgins owes it to my colleagues to withdraw his comments and seek to engage with those of us actually doing the teaching. – Yours, etc,

GREG FOLEY,

Associate Professor,

School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.

Sir, – In a recent address on the state of the universities, President Michael D Higgins raised a number of fundamental issues with commendable directness and clarity. These included grade inflation and its corruption of knowledge and standards, the consolidation of an econometric conception of education, hiring practices that diminish academic freedom and livelihood, and the self-designation of university presidents and provosts as the CEOs of major financial enterprises.

Of particular note was the President’s remarks on the willingness of tenured academics to collude in the ongoing degradation of the university by their inaction and apathy. “If not theirs”, he asked, “whose responsibility is to adequately defend the great traditions of scholarship and their settings, which, while defective in so many ways in terms of inclusivity, have served us for centuries, that have over these centuries spearheaded new movements of thought, new paradigms of existence?”

One wonders how many university CEOs, governing bodies, deans of humanities and sciences, department heads, named chairs or subject professors generally will respond to the President’s request to them to respond to the gravity of the situation. If even a small, courageous section of those who enjoy or have enjoyed the benefit of tenure were to lend voice and active support to the President’s call for a post-pandemic renewal of the social purpose of education, then a clearing for serious change would open. – Yours, etc,

Prof JOE CLEARY,

Yale University,

New Haven,

Connecticut.