The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 3. Duration

I think we need to reduce the average time that students spend at third level. This is one area where I have been accused of elitism in the past, but my basic thesis is this: far too many students are spending too much time struggling through college in an attempt to get an honours degree and perhaps even Level 6 and 7 qualifications. In the universities, we almost feel an obligation to drag people through all four years once they have survived the first couple of years. There have been times in the past when our exam board meetings have been almost farcical such was our ‘compassion’. This leads to what we have today – at least in my experience – and that is a burgeoning failure rate in the final years of degree programs.

It is my view that many students who attend third level have the capacity and the commitment to study to Level 6 or 7 at most. To be eligible for Level 8 – a four-year program – one should have to meet certain standards in second and third year. I believe that all students should be given an ‘escape’ mechanism after each year – and they should have to avail of it. That means giving all the universities the ability to award qualifications at Level 7 (and maybe even Level 6) and to introduce demanding standards for Level 8 qualifications. Furthermore, the universities have to be open about this and not see the ‘production’ of Level 7 graduates as a failure on their parts. More importantly, we have got to get past the notion that not achieving Level 8 standard reflects a personal failure on behalf of the student. But this requires a buy-in from society and an admission by employers that many jobs do not really need four years of third level study. Indeed, there are some three-year degrees around that are validated to Level 8.

Many of our students in DCU, even those who are not academic high-flyers by any means, perform perfectly adequately on their INTRA work placement which they do at the end of third year. They then go on to stumble through final year where it is hard to see what personal benefit they gain and what added value the employer will eventually get as a result. This is particularly evident in project work where the weaker students perform satisfactorily only as long as they are given precise instructions on an almost daily basis. Independent research is beyond them.

We have got to stop thinking of education as a ladder that everyone is encouraged to climb and if you don’t make it to Level 8 rung (at least), you’re a failure.

Next Tuesday, I’ll talk about innovation.


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The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 2. Duplication

The Minister has mentioned the problem of duplication on a number of occasions and has confused it with the proliferation of courses available through the CAO system. There is some link there of course – courses are developed without a system-wide strategic perspective (a price of autonomy?) – but there is also the reality that the world of education has evolved considerably in the last 30 years. Many fields of study have split, with some justification, into highly specialized sub-disciplines and, likewise, many new multidisciplinary programs have emerged. There is probably a good case to be made for many of these to be accessed by denominated entry. There is also the fact that many entirely new disciplines have emerged and many disciplines have even ‘graduated’ from Level 6/7 to include a Level 8 option.

Given the greater complexity of the third level education landscape, it is not surprising that some degree of duplication has emerged. The classic ‘solution’ to this problem is to merge and/or cluster institutions, pretending that this will fix the problem. This is a perfect example of ‘kicking the can down the road’ – changing the notepaper and passing the buck to someone else. Mergers are highly successful in the private sector where ‘downsizing’ is routine, but they rarely lead to savings or improvements of any kind when done in a public sector context.

If you want to reduce duplication, you have to tackle the detail. I would appoint someone (now!) who knows the third level system well, who has experience of teaching and research and who has a proven record in change management. I would get that person – a sort of ‘Duplication Tsar’, rather like the Cancer Tsar of the Health Service– to actually come up with a discipline-by-discipline plan for reducing duplication, starting perhaps with the Dublin colleges only. That person would have to somehow rationalize the system, suggesting acceptable mechanisms by which programmes could be wound down, staff could either retire early, seek voluntary redundancy or transfer between institutions, and do so in a way that does not damage research and teaching and doesn’t lead to IR mayhem. If workable, proposals would have to be backed by necessary legislation.

But there are many practical problems to be overcome here and that is all the more reason why we need to start doing this now. For example, if you want to consolidate the teaching of, say, mechanical engineering (which is taught in six third level institutions in Dublin!), how would you actually go about that? Would you end up moving equipment (which can be big) as well as staff? Would class sizes increase to unrealistic levels? Would this put excessive strain on the physical infrastructure in the ‘chosen’ institution(s)? Would many staff become redundant, albeit still in employment? We need to examine these things. Streamlining the system and eliminating unnecessary duplication means dealing with all the ‘hassly’ stuff. Too many policy makers, especially politicians, have far too much of a bird’s eye view of the systems that they manage; they are strategists when tacticians are needed; they are ‘Directors of Football’ when we need good coaches.

So if duplication is going to be reduced, it will be a slow painful process and it will have to be managed by a good tactician; not someone who takes the obvious route, merges institutions and walks away presuming that the problem is going to be solved by someone else. Unfortunately that approach is the norm in this country.

Let’s begin to look at the duplication problem now (because it’s going to take a while) and let’s get stuck into the hassly stuff. We might find that reducing duplication will not only reduce costs but improve quality as well.

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The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 1. Outsourcing

When governments run unsustainable budget deficits they can raise taxes or cut spending or do a combination of both. Which approach is best at any given time is one of the problems that seems to constantly occupy and divide the minds of economists.

At the moment, the education system is like a government with a runaway budget deficit and it is using a mixed approach based on cutting staff numbers and furiously trying to generate new ‘funding streams’. The problem however is that it is trying to do this while student numbers are increasing and there is now the added expectation that universities should be hubs of innovation – innovation in the sense of transforming knowledge into products, patents and ultimately, jobs. The numbers don’t and won’t add up until something radical is done. In the meantime, quality suffers.

I think we need to ‘outsource’ parts of our third level system. Or perhaps a better word would be ‘divest’. Now, this is not the policy of a raging neoliberal but it is based on recognising the fact that the predominantly state-funded third level sector has assumed responsibility for almost all forms of advanced education. We need to unload some of that responsibility.

In a previous post, I mentioned how the sector – in search of opportunities – has taken on the education of many professionals, from actuaries to accountants to lawyers to nurses. There is no real reason why almost all advanced education should be channelled through the state-funded third level system. Many degree programmes, for example, are of benefit to the student only if they have external recognition from a professional body of some kind. Actuarial Maths is probably the best example of this. The purpose of a degree in actuarial maths is largely to provide students with exemptions from the professional actuarial exams. In that instance, the third level sector is essentially playing a subservient role, providing a service to a specific profession, a service that in the past was provided by the profession itself. The problem is that having a degree programme in actuarial maths is a sure thing for third level colleges – it will always attract plenty of high-quality students along with the increased funding that those students represent. So, although the university benefits, there is a net cost to the state, a cost that would in the past have been shouldered by the companies who trained actuaries within a model that was more akin to an apprenticeship.

Furthermore, there are subjects that have traditionally been taught in third level institutions when I believe they would be better provided by the private sector. In a previous post I gave software engineering as an example of this approach. Why could software engineers not be trained using an apprenticeship model, perhaps in partnership with the third level sector? Coding is a young person’s profession and why not get young school-leavers into the ‘action’, so to speak, when they are young, bright and enthusiastic. Our minds are often at their sharpest when we are in our late teens and early twenties – that was the old cliché about mathematicians – so why are students spending so much time at college when they could be trained on the job in high-end companies? This is an urgent question given the current move to create more than 1000 new third level places in ICT courses. Again, the state is doing all the heavy lifting, presuming that the universities and institutes are the best and only place to provide advanced education and training in computing. But are they really? More creative approaches are needed.

Albert Reynolds is said to have remarked to one of the Smurfits that there is ‘more to running a country than making boxes’. And indeed there is. Designing an education system that meets the needs of the individual, the society and economy is a huge and complex task. None of this is easy stuff but we do need to think seriously about how the state education system can work more closely with business and industry because the state sector clearly cannot do it all on its own. That is manifestly obvious. Companies and professions need to contribute a lot more and they need to take on more responsibility for the education and training of their future employees and members. They need a change in mindset. At the moment they have a curious sense of entitlement and the state is willing to oblige.

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The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – Preamble

In the wake of the Grant Thornton report, I’ve decided to do a coherent series of posts on the third level sector. We all know the third level system is struggling but in many ways it is performing heroically in the face of totally unrealistic expectations. I know the public sector-bashers will find this hard to believe but if private sector companies improved their productivity as much as the third level sector has done in recent years they would be doing very nicely indeed. Just consider that there has been a 25% drop in state funding per student since 2006, a statistic made possible by a large reduction in lecturing staff numbers and a large increase in student numbers. My own teaching load has increased by 50% in recent years. Then think about calls by the Minister and others for us to ‘do more’ or to ‘get our houses in order’.

Anyway, over the next 10 days, I will put together some thoughts on the third level system. I’m not going to focus exclusively on the funding issue – that is to a large extent a political problem. I’ll also look at various issues related to quality, issues that are not necessarily funding-related.

One of the key points to be made, however, is that it is absolutely crucial for education that the economy recovers. Education and the economy are in a co-dependent relationship and it is not correct to see one as the ‘driver’ of the other. Unless there is a strong employment market for graduates and unless the state finances are healthy, all discussion about the education sector will remain in the realm of crisis management, in the realm of fantasy (e.g. the innovation obsession) or in the realm of the hypothetical. For example, there was a sudden interest in the German apprenticeship model of education last year but the whole discussion, while interesting, was pretty meaningless in the absence of a functioning, manufacturing-based economy with a strong demand for apprentices of all kinds. Furthermore, the lack of opportunities for bachelor’s graduates in many disciplines – including the politicians’ favourite, the STEM subjects (36% graduate employment in 2012) – drives the development of fourth level education, not because such a level of education is absolutely necessary, but because it serves the important function of providing students with the chance to do something more rewarding and meaningful than being unemployed. Fourth level education then becomes a funding opportunity for the third level institutions rather than a pressing need for the economy and the society.

A malfunctioning economy means that it is very difficult to  design and optimise a third level system because many perfectly reasonable suggestions for its improvement – especially streamlining – could mean consigning young people to unemployment. In that sense, even a bloated third level sector plays an important social and cultural role during times of recession.

But let’s not be too fatalistic and over the next 10 days I will try to identify where key changes can be made.

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The DCU mergers and TUs

The recent furore about the proposed merger of DCU with St. Pat’s and others is interesting because if this merger is problematic for unions and staff, we can only imagine what IR battles lie ahead in the third level system.

The big one will be the move of some institutions to TU status – if the international panels so recommend. Academic contracts within the IoT sector are quite different from those in the university sector and that seems to have been forgotten in all of the discussions about TUs. I can imagine that many staff in the IoT sector are quite happy with their existing contracts – for all sorts of valid reasons – but these will have to be torn up and replaced with very different ones if the new TUs are to be credible.

Interesting times ahead!


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Evaluation by Walking Around

In much of the discourse on third level education it seems to be assumed that the dominant form of formal teaching occurs through the medium of the lecture. But for anyone who embarks on a science or engineering degree, just as much time will be spent in laboratories. Personally, I find laboratory modules to be a fantastic way to not only teach students but also to understand them. For example, when you observe a group of students taking 40 minutes to do a calculation that should have taken them less than five minutes, you get a good sense of the level of their computational skills.

In management theory, there is a concept called ‘management by walking around (MBWA)’. It came to fame in 1982 with the publication of the famous book In Search of Excellence. I’m no management guru so I don’t know what the current thinking is on the MBWA concept, but there is no doubt that TBWA, i.e., ‘teaching by walking around’ can a very effective way to teach.

I thought about this idea again recently because I’m trying to put together a paper (on some laboratory experiments I’ve designed) for an engineering education journal. Having taught on a multidisciplinary program for many years, I have a backlog of teaching-related material that is genuinely novel (I think!) and I think some of it might be worth sharing with the community. But one of the hurdles that you encounter when trying to get education-related papers published is that you need to be able to present some sort of evaluation of whatever novel approach you are presenting. This presents a real difficulty I believe, not just for me who’s trying to get stuff published, but for the teaching innovation field in general. Many education-related papers I read incorporate an evaluation process that involves little more than some sort of student survey. Inevitably it is found that students ‘engage’ more and report improvements in their understanding of the material. On occasion, grades are shown to improve. But most of these evaluations raise as many questions as they answer and while I am an amateur in this kind of research (as are most of us who dabble in education research), I always get the sense that there is an element of confirmation bias at work. There is so much that is uncontrolled in studies like these that I tend to see them as new approaches that I might try out rather than as methods that are scientifically proven to work. I think that when you are dealing with groups of human beings, it is very difficult to be scientific and as educators we have to rely a lot on our experience and our instinct.

My approach to evaluation is to simply be reflective about what I’m doing. And, when it comes to laboratory-based initiatives, I like to evaluate by walking around (EBWA). I watch the students, listen to them and interact with them throughout the day, getting an intuitive sense as to whether the new experiment is working or not. If I think it’s not, then  I get rid of it and come up with another. Whether that will be good enough for the reviewers of my next paper remains to be seen.

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On Interdisciplinarity

On perusing some documentation in advance of a staff meeting recently, I noticed a suggestion that interdisciplinary degree programs should be used as an ‘output’ in their own right. The implication is that interdisciplinarity is something we should aspire to because, well, interdisciplinarity is self-evidently a good thing. Or is it?

The view that the future development of science (and the humanities) will occur at the boundaries between disciplines is widespread. It all sounds so plausible and we often hear stuff about the 21st century being different, requiring radically new perspectives and new ways of thinking. Indeed, interdisciplinary science is often favoured by research granting agencies and sometimes it is impossible to gain funding unless one collaborates with researchers from other disciplines. Some scientists are natural collaborators and this bias in the funding process does them no harm. Indeed, an academic can boost his or her output very significantly by forming collaborations. But being a collaborator is not quite the same as being an interdisciplinary scientist. Collaboration usually involves a group of people working on different aspects of a common problem.

So what about teaching?In my view, it is not possible to teach interdisciplinary science or interdisciplinary anything at undergraduate level. To be able to work on the border between disciplines, I think you need to have a thorough grasp of each of those disciplines. I was convinced of this as long ago as 1985 when I was a graduate student at Cornell University. There, I had a conversation one day with Mike Shuler, one of the founding fathers of the then embryonic field of biochemical engineering. During that conversation he explained how he insisted that all of his PhD students take quite a few formal courses in biology. It wasn’t possible, he stressed, to do high quality research in biochemical engineering unless one had strong foundations in both chemical engineering and biological sciences. It came as no surprise to me to hear that Shuler was noted for the rigour of his work, from both engineering and biology perspectives.

The harsh reality is that to become a scientist or engineer who works on the borders between disciplines, one needs to invest many years in becoming an expert in each of the relevant disciplines – or at least in large chunks of those disciplines. Not many people have the intellectual ability and the commitment to achieve the breadth of expertise required. Collaboration is probably the best we can do when problems of an interdisciplinary nature arise. Of course, we should not assume that all of the ‘best’ problems are to be found on the boundaries. Many of the great questions in science (in cosmology, for example) reside firmly within defined disciplines and people who choose to remain ensconced in their own field should not be viewed as simply reluctant to change.

A key point in all of this is the distinction between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. I have taught for many years on what was intended to be an interdisciplinary program but in reality it’s a multidisciplinary one. Our graduates nearly always pursue their careers in one of the disciplines that they study – usually biology. Very few emerge as interdisciplinary thinkers – I think that is beyond the vast majority of undergraduates. They tend to focus on the subject for which they have a natural aptitude. The value of the program is that it offers students a choice and a little bit of flexibility in the planning of their future careers.

It is interesting to note that in flagging a proposed move towards interdisciplinarity (or was it multidisciplinarity?) in its degree programs, NUIM’s President, Philip Nolan, was quoted some time ago as saying: “We want to combine different subject areas, to allow students to approach problems from two different perspectives; someone who combines computer science with geography can approach a problem as a computer scientist, but also as a social scientist.” I honestly don’t think it’ll work and the danger is that this kind of approach can provide students with insufficient grounding in anything.

I think we need to remember that disciplines exist for a good reason. A discipline is often underpinned by some core principles and methods and to really get to grips with the discipline, the student has to be immersed in those things. If you do a bit of this and a bit of that, even if those bits are reasonably substantial, the danger is that you provide insufficient immersion in at least one the disciplines that the student studies. In that case, the whole premise of the inter/multi-disciplinary approach is undermined.

PS Just noticed that another perspective on this topic that just appeared here.

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