Not all Leaving Cert students are suited to third-level education
‘The most depressing evidence of the dumbing down of the Leaving Cert was the reaction of teachers to the exam papers reported in The Irish Times’
‘Encouraging large numbers of young people to enter third-level courses without assessing their aptitude for the subjects they propose to study or their capacity for self-directed learning will inevitably lead to declining standards and thwarted aspirations.’ Photograph: Getty Images
An editorial in this paper on the day of the release of the Leaving Certificate results commented that the fact that 60 per cent of school-leavers will go on to higher education “reflects well on the education system and the aspirations of young people”. Many of the lecturers who will encounter these young people in September would not wholeheartedly endorse this view.
It is true that the majority of Leaving Cert students aspire to third-level education, but the alarming dropout rates in some courses and the fact that third-level institutions must devote more and more resources to pushing students through the courses they have chosen suggest that many of those entering third-level education are not capable of the self-directed learning which ought to be its principal characteristic.
For the past 30 years, the Leaving Cert has been effectively an entrance exam for third-level education, which it was not intended to be. For the majority of third-level courses there is no aptitude test or interview, and the universities were forced to drop the matriculation exam, which was an alternative to the Leaving Certificate and did attempt to examine a student’s capacity for third-level learning.
The standard required in most Leaving Cert subjects has fallen sharply over the past 20 years. This is reflected in the fact that while the points requirements for many courses have increased significantly, the performance of students on those courses has not improved and in some cases has declined.
The most depressing evidence of the dumbing down of the Leaving Cert was the reaction of teachers to the exam papers reported in The Irish Times. Any questions that required the student to think, or even to read closely and figure what they were being asked, were condemned as “unfair” or not “student-friendly”. The English literature paper this year, while obligingly featuring the predicted poet, Paul Durcan, was condemned by one teacher for asking students to write about three aspects of his poetry in one hour.
The higher-level physics paper, meanwhile, was “presented in an unusual manner” and “gave the impression of being difficult”; most unfairly, it had a question on a topic that had been examined in 2015.
The Drumcondra tests are designed to test the mathematical knowledge of sixth-class primary-school pupils. If this is the standard of the pass Leaving Cert maths paper, it is not surprising that some students on third-level business courses are unable to calculate percentages.
The hordes of students who will descend on third-level colleges as a result of their inflated Leaving Cert results will join a system that is barely functioning due to cutbacks in funding since 2008. Between 2008 and 2014, spending on third-level education fell by 32 per cent, resulting in a rise in staff-student ratios from 1:16 to 1:20.
The decline in staff-student ratios is even worse than the figures suggest, as many undergraduate courses are now taught by poorly paid postgraduate students. With the exception of the building of a new Dublin Institute of Technology campus in Grangegorman, there has been very little capital spending on third-level education since 2008, and 40 per cent of the physical infrastructure is now below standard, according to the Higher Education Authority.
If the participation rate of 60 per cent is maintained, the number of students in higher education will rise by 20 per cent over the next decade. Unless funding is increased, there will be an inevitable decline in standards. The recent report of the working group on the funding of third-level education shows that for it to function adequately, government funding of third-level education must increase greatly or student contributions must increase. At a conference hosted by the Irish Universities Association in 2014, US education policy adviser Art Hauptmann argued that public funding could sustain a participation rate in third level of 30 to 40 per cent but not a rate of 60 per cent.
If funding an ever-increasing supply of third-level places while maintaining good standards is unaffordable, the question of why so many Irish students are being herded into third-level education must be addressed. In Germany, only 45 per cent of school-leavers enter third level, while 40 per cent take up apprenticeships.
There are apprenticeships in Germany and elsewhere in a wider range of occupations than in Ireland, and the jobs to which they lead are well remunerated and regarded. Germany’s youth unemployment rate is 5 per cent, while Ireland’s is 20 per cent. A significant number of our young unemployed have degrees. Yet we have skills shortages here and many new jobs are being taken up by immigrants.
Third-level education should be made available to all students capable of benefiting from it, not only to support economic growth but to contribute to a more civilised society. But encouraging large numbers of young people to enter third-level courses without assessing their aptitude for the subjects they propose to study or their capacity for self-directed learning will inevitably lead to declining standards and thwarted aspirations.
Sean Byrne is a lecturer in economics at Dublin Institute of Technology