Third-level education – yesterday’s idea?


Sir, – David McWilliams, in “Third-level education is yesterday’s idea” (Opinion, March 10th), makes some interesting points, in particular about the impact of the printing press and the pressure placed on today’s teenagers, but his article is based on a misunderstanding of what someone can get from a third-level education. If anyone really thinks it is only about receiving a “parchment of paper”, then it is a while since they have sat in a seminar room or lecture hall. McWilliams seems to argue that a third-level education is merely about transmitting information and that “the value of the stock of knowledge is falling because anyone can access it online”. He overlooks a fundamental problem that has arisen with all this widespread information, evidence of which we have seen in the Brexit referendum and the last American election campaign: how does one rate this information? How does one understand bias and how does it work? How does one know how to detect a lie based on tweaked truth? How does one weigh up evidence and critically assess its value? How does one build an argument based on research? How does one take research to the level of a “finding”? A third-level education provides the space, time and guidance to learn how to think critically and assess and analyse information.

When I teach history to my students in UCD, these are the skills I am seeking to help them develop. When students leave us with a BA degree in arts and humanities, they will have a credential and a piece of paper that may keep the rain off their heads, and even our “blessing”, but they will also have developed skills to help keep them afloat in a world drowning in seemingly limitless information. They will be able to think critically, discuss complex ideas confidently and place all the vast amount of information they will be exposed to in context and know how to interpret it. I hope these are life skills that will stand to them in any career path they take, but will also help them to navigate a world in which lies masquerade as facts and in which we need people equipped to decipher and defend the truth. – Yours, etc,



School of History,



Dublin 4.

Sir, – David McWilliams’s piece “Third-level education is yesterday’s idea” (Opinion, March 10th) is thought-provoking but misses the point. Universities sell qualifications (degrees), not knowledge. A good degree is a signal to prospective employers that a job candidate is diligent, organised, self-directed, and can work to deadlines. More cynically, it also shows that the individual in question can submit to the seemingly arbitrary dictates of ossified authority figures – essential for success in any hierarchy (whether educational or commercial). Until society finds a more rational and affordable way to enable (mostly young) adults to develop and transmit such signals, this particular ossified authority figure believes that the academic arms race will continue, and students will therefore continue to compete to acquire flashier and ever-more expensive credentialist signals (BScs, MScs, PhDs, etc). – Yours, etc,




Bray, Co Wicklow.