Universities should offer broader course choices for students

‘How wise is it to continue to require students to make career-forming choices at the age of just 18?’

‘Students entering higher education face a vast and arguably overwhelming array of options. This array mainly reflects the policies adopted in third-level colleges, of segmenting broad entry courses in the arts and science faculties into separate specialised entry streams with limited numbers in each stream.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Students entering higher education face a vast and arguably overwhelming array of options. This array mainly reflects the policies adopted in third-level colleges, of segmenting broad entry courses in the arts and science faculties into separate specialised entry streams with limited numbers in each stream.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

The Government has established an expert group, chaired by Peter Cassells, which is “to identify and consider the issues relating to the long-term sustainable funding of higher education in Ireland and to identify options for change”.

How we fund the system is an important issue but is it enough to consider who and how we fund while not considering what we fund?

Research published last year by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) provided new insights into the experiences of young Irish people as they went through the transition from secondary school into higher or further education or into the labour force.

This research, as well as recent publications from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), suggests that, in addition to considering changes at second level, it is timely to look at how our higher education system should develop in the years ahead.

Participation rates in higher education have increased rapidly in Ireland over the past three decades. Nowadays most teenagers complete the senior cycle – the retention rate of the cohort of students entering second-level education rose from 82 per cent in 1997 to more than 90 per cent in 2008. While not directly comparable, of those students applying for a place through the Central Applications Office (CAO) in 2013, 60 per cent were successful in obtaining one.

Students entering higher education face a vast and arguably overwhelming array of options. This array mainly reflects the policies adopted in third-level colleges, of segmenting broad entry courses in the arts and science faculties into separate specialised entry streams with limited numbers in each stream.

For example, the number of level 8 (degree) courses on offer through the CAO system rose by almost 240 per cent between 2000 and 2013, approximately twice the rate of increase in student applications and acceptances.

Associated ‘prestige’

It is now widely recognised that this segmentation has increased the points, and the associated “prestige”, of many courses relative to the original broad entry courses. But rather than improving educational opportunities, this segmentation has actually reduced real choices as students can only indicate preferences for a limited number of the courses on offer – more than 900 at level 8 and more than 450 at level 6/7 for 2013. In effect, students now have to make specific choices before entry which previously they made after entry.

 

The segmentation has also greatly increased the complexity of the decisions each student needs to make during the CAO process, giving rise to additional stress, according to the ESRI research.

The Minister for Education and the HEA are now putting pressure on third-level colleges to reduce the number of course options. Indications are that the number of course choices has dropped this year – but how great a reduction in course choices should we seek? How wise is it to continue to require students to make career-forming choices at the age of just 18? The ESRI research finds evidence that many students in higher education, having entered their chosen course, wish that they had followed a different path. This finding is consistent with what has been observed by academics and college administrators. It is hardly a surprising result given that many subjects at third level are not taught at second level. How can we expect the student make an informed choice?

To take the question to a different level – is our higher education system suited to future generations who will have to deal with multiple changes in career and skills requirements over their lifetimes? Would exposure to a wider variety of disciplines within the arts and sciences prepare them better for this changing environment?

This may be the moment where the Irish university sector should begin to move systematically to a much broader entry system, such as that operating in the US, where most students enter the single faculty of arts and sciences, majoring in one or at most two disciplines at the end of four years. This change would require more than simply a narrowing of options in the CAO. It is much more akin to the scale of change which Maynooth University plans to implement in 2016, as reported in this newspaper on March 4th. Maynooth is proposing to halve the number of choice offerings and to become the first Irish university to offer the US-type broad entry into arts and sciences.

This broader setting allows students to explore a whole new range of subject options and to discover their preferred direction and real aptitudes after and not before they enter third-level education. The logic is that, post-entry, they must surely have a better chance of finding the right course combination.

More resources

Undoubtedly such a system would require more resources and adjustments to the current resource allocation model in higher education. In the case of some three-year degree programmes, for example, a fourth year would need to be added. But against these clear resource costs would be the reduced costs (economic, social, and psychological) of young people having made the wrong choices, dropping out or switching, and often re-entering third-level education at a later stage.

 

We often hear it claimed that our people are our key resource. For this claim to have legitimacy, we need an education system at primary, secondary and tertiary levels that is fit for purpose.

To get there, we need to have the courage to go beyond considering how we fund education and ask some very tough questions about what it is we want to fund, recognising that these will not be popular among many stakeholder groups. In the case of the universities, is it time for more of them to adopt the type of approach planned by Maynooth?

Prof Frances Ruane is director of the Economic and Social Research Institute and a former member of the Higher Education Authority

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