Grade Inflation Again!

This is my last post for a while due to changing circumstances. It’ll be back in the New Year I hope.

One of the core drivers of the grade inflation debate is the idea that the ‘quality’ of the student intake should correlate (strongly?) with the grade distribution on exit. While I would agree that CAO points are important, and have said so on many occasions on this blog, the correlation between entry requirements and grades tends to weaken as one progresses from 1st to 4th year.

So, even if one ignores things like discipline mix, variations in the level of support provided to students, differing levels of continuous assessment employed, and the generally changing educational landscape, this begs the question: what spread of grade distributions across the universities would make us confident that no grade inflation was occurring? In other words, what would the ‘exposers’ of grade inflation like to see?

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Education, the 21st Century and Traffic

Crawling through Ballymun today it occurred to me how little has changed despite ‘The 21st Century’.  As the economy recovers there is a noticeable increase in traffic volumes especially at rush hour.

The very existence of rush hour implies that the vast majority of people are still working the traditional way. They get up early, get into their cars (or hop on a bus or whatever) and commute to their place of work, returning home at roughly the same time every day. That is the reality of daily living for the bulk of the working population.

We can talk all we like about flexible working and remote working but that is still the preserve of the few. Why is this important? It’s important because as academics who have a lot of flexibility in the way we work, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of believing that everyone can work like us – they can’t.

We need to remember this when we are peddled nonsense about  how ridiculous it is that students are dragged to a lecture at 9am when they could be learning flexibly and remotely at times that suit them. Students need to get up early, come to campus and get stuck into learning in a learning environment; because life is like that and education is supposed to prepare you for life.

Posted in 21st century, education | Tagged | 1 Comment

Defining Quality in Third Level Education

In a recent, thought-provoking blog, Ferdinand Von Prondzynski pointed out that we currently have no real definition of quality in the third level sector. He also made the important point that constantly saying that the sector has maintained quality while suffering substantial cuts might be a case of shooting ourselves in the foot. After all, if quality has not been compromised despite the cuts then the corollary is that there was fat in the system!

But quality has been compromised and declining quality means:

  • Lecturers over-teaching to the point where they become stale and uninspiring and operating at far less than 100% of their ability, a process not helped by the greying of the sector;
  • Lecturers teaching subjects outside their area of expertise;
  • Increased reliance on part-time adjuncts who, while highly knowledgeable and valuable in their own way, do require a lot of ‘minding’ by the permanent staff and often cannot teach to a schedule that is student-friendly;
  • A reduction in time allocated to the laboratory teaching that is crucial for modern STEM programs;
  • Increased group sizes in laboratory modules, diluting the student experience;
  • A potential curtailment of opportunities to do meaningful final-year research projects, an inevitable consequence of the increase in student numbers;
  • Crude, automated methods of assessment (think multiple choice) being used to cope with huge class sizes;
  • A general reduction in contact time not because it is pedagogically appropriate but because it makes teaching loads manageable (this is talked up as ‘smarter teaching’);
  • A reduction in time available to develop innovative and potentially better ways of course delivery – these things need a lot of time and resources especially if we’re talking about digital methods.
  • A reduction in the number of long-contract technical support staff who are absolutely crucial for maintaining and improving the quality of laboratory modules.
  • Ageing equipment that is embarrassingly out of date compared with what is available in modern industries – the need for regular and substantial capital investment in teaching laboratories has never been dealt with effectively in this sector;
  • Student-unfriendly timetabling of lectures due to severe logistical constraints caused by lack of space and high teaching loads;
  • Inability to offer genuine choice to students, also due to logistical constraints.

These things are happening now and the problem is that they are not, for the most part, quantifiable with simple metrics.

We cannot really afford to wait another 18 months (or more realistically until after the next election) to receive what will inevitably be a menu of fairly obvious funding options from the Minister’s Expert Group. We don’t need this group. Between the HEA statistics department, the CSO and the OECD we have all the data we need to make political decisions now. There is no real justification for the delay

Posted in education, quality, Third Level | Tagged | 4 Comments

Education, the Public Good and Ryanair

Every now and then there is some activity in the education sphere that centres on the notion that education is a ‘public good’. I have to say that I find the notion of a ‘public good’ somewhat confusing – I wish people would just talk in plain language and say what it is that they want. My understanding of the idea of education as a ‘public good’ is the following: since all of society benefits from education, education should be paid for by society, i.e., by the state. Furthermore, nobody should be excluded from being educated to the appropriate (for them) level on the basis of inability to pay. That’s all very fine but even if we are to assume that the state has unlimited capacity to pay for education, is it true to say that the benefit of education to society is maximised if it is all left in the hands of the state? Are we absolutely sure that by excluding the possibility of interacting with the private sector we are not missing valuable opportunities that would benefit society even more. Education is not quite like defence which is a public good for sure.

Take the case of Ireland, a country that has been in deep recession with appalling levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Is it a good idea to just keep pumping state resources into education in a non-directed, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of way? Or might it be better to target key industries, industries that are likely to offer the best hope of employment creation. Surely there are few better contributions that we can make to society than helping young people to find employment. Surely it makes more sense to design a nimble educational system that can respond to the needs of the economy while still retaining the core role of serving the overall needs of society. The two things need not be mutually exclusive. There is absolutely no reason why Greek and Roman Civilisation cannot be taught alongside Enterprise Computing where the latter works closely with the software industry while the former just carries on as it always has. For example, it is quite clear that the agrifood sector is entering a period where the opportunities for growth will be enormous. Should our education system just ignore this fact and carry on as normal. Or would it not make a lot more sense for the education system to work with agrifood companies to ensure that we are able to capitalise on these opportunities. This is not about serving the needs of corporations – it is about providing students with the knowledge and skills that are likely to help them build careers. And for most people having a rewarding career is a key part of their personal happiness.

It is for this kind of reason that in my department in DCU we recently convened a panel of external advisers (6 in total, 3 from biopharma industries, 3 from academia). We met for a day and put together a roadmap for updating our Biotechnology program, the idea being that it should continue to meet the needs of the modern biopharma industry. We did not do this to serve the needs of biopharma companies; we did it to further the careers of our graduates. I would make absolutely no apology for involving the private sector in this way.

Everyone in education wants to maximise the benefit of education to society but I suspect that those who have claimed the moral high ground of ‘public good’ have a broader, essentially left wing agenda. Those of us who see the education system as being not quite so simple are no raging neoliberals with some sort of fetish for involving the private sector in education – we are simply being realistic and doing what we believe to be best for our students. I know people hate the term but our students are ‘customers’ to the extent that we owe it to them to do everything we can to get a head start in life.

We need to stop drawing false battle lines and have a realistic debate about how to cope with the challenges ahead. There are three main challenges in my view and these are: (i) increased participation rates, (ii) expectations for third level institutions to be engines of economic growth (and not just through their educational roles) and (iii) the prestige ‘arms race’.

The rise in participation rates is good up to a point but if not matched by an increase in resources, it inevitably leads to a reduction in quality – at least in some disciplines. There is also the genuine worry about dumbing down to suit the less academically gifted.

The expectation that universities should be drivers of economic growth through applied research and innovation incurs a significant cost on institutions. Academics are withdrawn from teaching roles, new and many administrative staff are appointed and capital expenditure, mostly state-funded, is targeted at centres of excellence. The cost per job created suggests that this is an economically inefficient way to do things.

Finally, the prestige ‘arms race’ is a less tangible but potentially far more destructive than either the rising student numbers or the emphasis on research and innovation. As was shown in the documentary The Ivory Tower the constant emphasis on making institutions more prestigious and more attractive to students has driven up the cost of university education to such an extent that there is now over 1 Trillion dollars of student debt in the US. Yet, despite the massive resources put into American campuses, more than 80% of American undergraduates fail to complete their degrees within four years! The huge expenditure on improved facilities, superstar academics, centres of excellence etc. does not seem to have improved the quality of the undergraduate experience. As ranking mania gets stronger by the year, there is an increasing worry that European institutions will get caught up in this prestige arms race. One could argue that the move in Ireland towards the creation of Technological Universities is part of this race. As  recent research in TCD  has demonstrated, the Institutes of Technology lag far behind the universities in terms of translating research into start-ups and expecting Technological Universities to somehow morph into engines of economic growth, and to do so without huge investment (by the state), is just nonsense. The reality is that the TU concept is driven by a desire for prestige.

I think third level institutions need to get back to basics. Universities are primarily about undergraduate education, closely followed by postgraduate education, and then by research and scholarship that should address the problems of society as much as possible. That is my ‘Ryanair’ view of education – third level institutions doing their core job, doing it well and doing it efficiently. Most Irish third level institutions should be like this. Two or maybe three should aspire to greater things.

Unfortunately, we have all become obsessed with a ‘business class’ view of education – and the costs are unsustainable and ultimately will only be possible if students pay ‘business class’ fees.

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Thoughts on Academic Pay

This is another post inspired by one of those impossible Twitter discussions.

I suppose the first thing to note is that asking what the average academic is paid is actually a very difficult question bordering on the meaningless. Even if you look at permanent staff only, you cannot compute any kind of meaningful average unless you have a detailed breakdown of how many people there are at each grade and at what point on the pay scale they are sitting. To make things even more confusing, it depends on when they signed their contract of employment. At the moment there are 5 pay scales in the universities (I’d have 2-3 scales at most and maybe I’ll expand on that idea at a later date) and let’s just look at the pre-Haddington Road figures:

Lecturer (below bar)              41.5 – 51.7K

Lecturer                                   50.2 – 81.4 K

Senior Lecturer                       71.9 – 94K

Associate Professor                 83.0 – 110K

Professor                                 114 – 146K

Bearing in mind that the average industrial wage is about 35K (although that term is somewhat meaningless given the disparity in earnings across the sectors: in the ICT sector the average salary in 2013 was around 52K), it is clear that many academics are ‘well’ paid with pensions to match. But are they paid too much? I suppose that depends on their grade and how hard they work. Obviously you’d want to be able to demonstrate that you work very hard – and effectively – to justify a professorial salary of 146K a year or even 94K a year at SL level.

But let’s take the Lecturer scale – the so-called career grade – where there are lots of good people who for various reasons, often to do with resource limitations, have not been promoted and are unlikely to ever be. (Incidentally, surveys suggest that Lecturers do more teaching than any other grade.) When they reach the top of the scale (in their mid-thirties at least), are they overpaid? To put Lecturer pay in context, it is worth noting that in 2013 the average salary of a chartered accountant was 87K. In my own discipline (chemical engineering) salaries for those with 3-5 years’ experience were in the range 50-60K, at which point anyone aiming for an academic career would  be just completing their PhD and still quite some years away from a permanent academic job, insofar as these exist anymore.

Looking at things from an international perspective, does a lecturer at the midpoint of the Lecturer scale deserve to be paid 1.9 times the average industrial wage or about 1.3 times the average wage in the ICT sector? In Germany (where gross salaries are significantly lower than in Ireland), I reckon, based on some very unscientific research last night, that the average academic salary there (based on the ‘W2’ grade) is about 1.4 times the average industrial wage there. However, academic pay is supplemented by family allowances and performance-related bonuses so it’s hard to pin down an exact figure. And, rightly or wrongly, you tend to think of the average industrial worker in Germany as being particularly highly skilled – otherwise what’s the point in the renowned German apprenticeship system? Incidentally I don’t know how German pensions compare with our own but the pension issue is wider public service issue anyway.

One interesting aspect of the German system is that the basic salary of a ‘Professor’ (W3) is about 1.3 times that of a ‘Lecturer’ (W2). In Ireland a full professor earns roughly 1.9 times that of someone at lecturer scale, based on the midpoint of each scale. I suspect there is a lesson in there somewhere.

The one thing we need to remember in all of this is that the teaching aspect of the academic job is an important one for society and if, for example, we were to slash academic salaries and/or pensions, we would further weaken the attractiveness of academic careers. Already there is a strong sense that the academic career is far less attractive than it used to be. In some engineering and IT disciplines, for example, the earning potential of young graduates makes the academic career particularly unattractive. It’s not quite a case of paying peanuts and getting monkeys but if we are to take seriously the idea that education is crucial to the country’s future, we have to pay the educators well – relative to other professions in Ireland, not Germany. Otherwise academia becomes a place of last resort and nobody wants that.

One of the key points to be made about this whole ‘debate’ is that much of the comment in the media about the public-private divide is voiced by those who are self-employed and being self-employed is no doubt a very stressful way to work. Many, if not most, high profile journalists and media commentators are self-employed and they have a particular and understandable perspective on all of this. But there are many employed in large companies in the private sector, whether they be in ICT, agrifood, pharma or financial sectors who may not have ‘jobs for life’ or state-supported pensions but who are rewarded very, very handsomely indeed through not only their basic salary but through many other mechanisms including bonuses, share options and various benefits in kind. In many areas of the private sector there is huge scope for the well-qualified and talented to earn salaries that are multiples of what can ever be earned by equally but differently-talented academics. That essential difference has to be part of the public versus private debate.

I suspect though that there will always be the perception that public servants generally are overpaid and not just because of the pension issue. Many will continue to view a public sector job as being cushy, pressure-free and operating in an accountability-free zone. (Pay rates in Quangoland don’t help the cause.)

The best response from academics, especially those in STEM disciplines where the academic job becomes very multi-faceted indeed, is to be more vocal about what we do and to make the academic job, in its totality, far better understood. I mean, the fact that we still get asked about our ‘summers off’ says something about how badly we have communicated what it is that we do.

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Teaching Entrepreneurship – Revisited (Guest Post)

This is another guest post from Joe McDonagh, lecturer in the business school in ITT.

“We need to start teaching our students about how to be entrepreneurs and that is not the same as trying to teach them to be entrepreneurs. Hopefully, though, doing the former will result in the latter.” (G.Foley, 2014).

Entrepreneurs are made, not born; but not all can be made entrepreneurs.

The ever open-minded, and non-ideological, Greg Foley has accepted my offer of a blog commenting on his recent post on entrepreneurship, in which I would like to add to some of his contentions. Successful entrepreneurs are an important part of Irish economic policy and, since the Telesis report in the 1980’s, successive State strategies have pointed to the importance of indigenous Irish businesses. Thus we need entrepreneurs to start businesses which can grow and which, ideally, can be export orientated.

All very well in theory. Very few, even many on the hard left, would speak against Irish businesses. In principle it seems fine to say that we should teach students and others how to be entrepreneurs. The problem is that many are called but few are able. It may, further, be a good idea to educate all in some way so that Irish society as a whole is more sympathetic to entrepreneurs. The problem with this idea is that Irish society is, in the main, very sympathetic to entrepreneurs, whether towards the majority who form small businesses or even towards the more “sexy” gaming, computing or technology start-ups. Most do not believe, like the former Anglo-Irish Bank head, that Irish society is bordering on the Communist; few countries have as a low a corporation tax rate or one of the most successful state enterprise bodies in the world.

So if Irish society is pre-disposed to enterprise then how should we educate Irish people in it? As with all education/training targeting is the key. Most businesses are, on average, begun by those in their thirties; the reason being that it takes until then for entrepreneurs to  get life experience, get educated, get an idea, get contacts and then, paradoxically it seems when they are married and probably have young children, feel that they need to answer their inner existential dilemma and start a business. This existential dilemma comes about because the psychology of entrepreneurs involves a need to achieve, a feeling that only they can make themselves successful, and have a feeling that you really don’t want to work for anyone else anymore. So we should not just have college based courses for undergraduates but we should bring them back for refresher courses when their “inner” entrepreneur wants to express him or herself, after they have graduated.

Those are the necessary factors. The really important, sufficient, factors for success are a tolerance of risk, an appreciation of a reasonable level of risk and being able to evaluate when it’s worth taking a gamble on a business idea. Many of us, quite reasonably, want a high level of certainty in our lives. Successful entrepreneurs don’t mind uncertainty so much and they are willing to take the chance many of us just don’t want to. So that’s why we can have very many entrepreneurship courses and the amount of entrepreneurs won’t be much greater than the international average. America has a name as an enterprise culture but that’s because successful businesses there, with 300 million plus people, make so much more money than in smaller societies. Most people there, just like here, don’t start businesses.

However, if we do educate in how to: start a business, access (venture) capital, understand basic accounting and manage cash flow it may be a slow burner for some; they may be ready in a decade or two after they leave college. For those who are ready to go from college, or even prior to that, the mentoring of a big brother/sister is often very helpful. Mentors have seen much of it before and are a great help in avoiding the potholes. Also good are the college based enterprise centres with lower rents and overheads. This is the area in which government needs to help new businesses most. Commercial rates are simply too high, as inefficient local authorities seek to find easy funding from businesspeople. Finance from banks, even before the present economic slowdown, has also been hard to come by as the financial institutions- themselves very risk averse, except for loans to large developers- have traditionally not been very sympathetic to small businesses, and often exact a high price for modest financing. The market isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be, as we saw from the poor roll-out of broadband throughout Ireland, so the government needs to get involved to supply cheap or guaranteed financing for good business ideas.

Good business ideas are the key and can be engendered in the intellectual hot house which is the third level sector which, at its best, produces critical thinkers able to produce iconoclastic ideas in every sphere. It may take years for some to act on these but clever students and lecturers working together do often produce great ideas. And it doesn’t really matter where you’re from or what gender you are or what race you have or even whether your family had a business themselves; we can all start businesses. The question is do we want to? If we provide information on how to do so, with basic legal and accounting advice supplemented with case studies of successful and unsuccessful businesses, then people can be in a much better position to make their own mind up and to take an educated gamble either now or some time in the future, when they feel the need to do so.

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The OECD Report and Teacher Bashing

The most recent OECD report on educational indicators received some coverage in the media but one would think from that coverage that the only issue of concern to the OECD was teachers’ pay. The report showed that Irish Teachers are paid better than the average and this was the focus of nearly every radio discussion I heard and every online discussion that I read. High profile radio shows like Matt Cooper’s ‘The Last Word’ focused exclusively on this issue. Given that Matt and most other commentators neglected to mention that Irish teachers spend longer in the classroom and teach bigger classes, one has to conclude that coverage was deliberately slanted so as to generate controversy – it was simple populism in the pursuit of ratings.

Indeed, the coverage raises the question as to why teachers seem to be held in such low regard in this country. I think there are three reasons. First, many people, especially those over the age of 40 will have had some pretty negative experiences of secondary school in particular. These may have involved only a small minority of teachers but I suspect that a negative experience at a young, impressionable age tends to stick with you.

Second, many people have an issue with the length of teachers’ holidays. There is perhaps an argument to be made that the school year should be extended, meaning that teachers would spend less time per week in the classroom, perhaps making their job less stressful in the process. However, I think the person in the street does not quite appreciate how stressful being a teacher must be. At the end of the university year, I and my colleagues always find ourselves mentally exhausted; and our job is nowhere near as demanding as that of the secondary school teacher. There is something uniquely stressful about having to stand up in front of a class day after day and that point needs to be made more forcefully by teachers. They need a decent chunk of time out of the classroom to remain sane in my view.

Thirdly, teachers do themselves no favours every year when they hold their annual conferences. While it is only a minority of teachers who attend these (union) conferences, the attendees come across as somewhat unprofessional. They really need to rethink how they run these annual events. Indeed, teachers would get a lot of kudos if they ran high profile conferences dealing with substantive pedagogical issues, somewhat like the ResearchEd conferences started by Tom Bennett in the UK.

Anyway, back to the OECD report. It’s gigantic (750 pages) so realistically all you can do is flick through it and pick out statistics that catch your eye. One of the things that emerge from the data is that acquiring a good education pays a greater dividend in Ireland than the OECD average. What that means I’m not sure but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Anyway, here are some eye-catchers. I’ll return to the report and dig out some more at a later date, time permitting.

  1. Ireland is tenth in terms of third level participation rates and along with South Korea has experienced especially large growth in this sector in the period 2000-2012.
  2. Taking all levels of education into account, our mean levels of literacy are below average.
  3. Our IT skills are nowhere near where they need to be. 23% of our 25-64 age group have ‘good’ ICT and problem solving skills. This compares with 34% in the UK. Top of the pile is Sweden with a rate of 41%.
  4. Our third level graduates are young – below the OECD average. (Somewhat surprisingly, Germans are even younger.)
  5. We are below the average for the percentage of third level students whose parents also have a third level education, not surprising perhaps given the huge growth in this sector in the last couple of decades. This is reflected in our high ranking (6th) in terms of upward educational mobility.
  6. In terms of employment rates and earning power, the value of a third level education in Ireland is better than the OECD average.
  7. The full-time employment rates of Irish female graduates is below the OECD average. Interestingly the Netherlands is the lowest. Obviously there are all kinds of issues here related to child care.
  8. There is a strong correlation between literacy levels and earning power and in that regard the value of literacy in Ireland is greater than the OECD average.
  9. Across the OECD, educational attainment correlates with good health (as self-reported), engagement with the democratic process, volunteering and levels of trust.
  10. Over all levels of education, our spend per student (2011 figures) is above the OECD average, even higher than mighty Finland. But Finland spends more on third level.
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