Soapbox

November 7, 2011 12:01 am

The gap between rhetoric and reality at Irish universities

The government’s response to the country’s economic crisis has placed universities under increasingly onerous constraints

Ireland wants to be known as the “innovation island”. It has done an excellent job convincing technology-based multinationals to locate subsidiaries there and presents an advanced educational system as a key competitive advantage. Unfortunately there is a growing gap between rhetoric and reality.

The reality is that Ireland has a primary and secondary education system whose students’ performance is slipping compared with other OECD countries and the positions of its universities are rapidly eroding in global league tables. One finger points towards the Leaving Certificate examination taken at the end of secondary school. A vehicle established decades ago to eliminate favouritism in university admissions, it served the country well. It no longer does.

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Points in this examination determine whether students gain admission to the higher education institution and programme of their choice. The tests promote rote memorisation, formulaic answers and a teach-to-the-test mentality. Students who score highest are those who can memorise and regurgitate the best. As a result they start college sorely lacking in the ability to analyse, critique, synthesise, formulate substantive arguments and write essays that engage these skills. In my former position as dean of the University College Dublin School of Business, tired of batting back requests to “tell us what will be on the test”, we spent two years designing a curriculum to teach students to think. Our students were intelligent and motivated, but handicapped by a high-stakes educational assessment vehicle.

The Irish government’s response to the country’s severe economic crisis has placed universities under increasingly onerous constraints. The government’s reduced investment in the sector has precipitated larger class sizes, fewer full-time academic staff, lower levels of student services from a strained administrative staff and an ageing physical and technical infrastructure. Highly accomplished academics are being lured away by attractive offers from overseas. As a result Ireland’s universities and business schools are less competitive internationally. As flawed as rankings are, the uniform decline of Irish universities in global league tables in the past two years is worrying. Investment in research and education in the early 2000s had produced a noteworthy improvement. Those advances are quickly receding.

Comparative statistics indicate that the sector was lean even before the recession. It had done remarkably well despite functioning on a fraction of the resources available to universities elsewhere.

How has the government responded? In timeworn tradition, it commissioned a report – to develop a 20-year vision for higher education. The commission selected was sparse in academic representation but well-stocked with members of government departments. Not surprisingly the resulting Hunt Report called for greater government control over the university sector and recommended that responsibility for strategy development be vested in the national Higher Education Administration. This same HEA had so poorly managed the process of streamlining employment after the

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