Funding higher education: asking the wrong question

The entire focus of the recent debate on the funding of HE has been on the precise way in which extra cash can be raised to deal with the obvious shortfall that currently exists. No attempt has been made to look at the cost side.

We need to ask the simple question how can the cost (to the taxpayer)  of third level education be reduced?

I suggest there are quite a few ways in which we can do this (all views personal – as usual!):

  • Give institutions more autonomy and refrain from setting arbitrary targets or imposing conditions that actually impose a cost on the institutions. Targets, no matter what they are, always impose a cost. For example, if you demand that institutions increase their research student numbers by 30% (why?), then those institutions will have to invest in research support infrastructure that will enable academics to seek and win the necessary research grants. You cannot wave a magic wand and assume that by setting a target and then exhorting academics to try harder, targets will be achieved.
  • The TU project is another instance of Government effectively setting a target that imposes a cost on institutions. The very act of merging institutions imposes a significant initial cost and an ongoing cost associated with administering an institution that might have campuses that are hours part. The proposed CIT-Tralee merger is an obvious case in point. This is all against a background where we know that the cost per student in a university is about 30% more than in an IoT. While some might argue that mergers will lead to a reduction in duplication, the effect of eliminating courses in some institutions will be to add to the burden on families who will have to fund the costs of travel and accommodation.
  • Accept that the primary function of all HE institutions is education. Demanding that institutions be drivers of economic growth, both regional and national, through the generation of intellectual property, start-ups etc., also adds additional overhead costs for institutions. In effect, costs that should be associated with job creation and economic development are lumped into the education budget when in fact they belong in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. We see the same thing in the broad area of health where the HSE carries out many functions that are more to do with social work than health per se.
  • Taxpayer-funded HE institutions, but especially the universities, need to get out of the business of running degree courses where the primary purpose of the programme is to provide quite specific workplace skills rather than education in a broader sense. Programmes like these are better done, using an apprenticeship model, by the private sector but perhaps in partnership with institutions. This is a model that worked well in the past but the institutions took it upon themselves to take on the cost of training everybody from computer programmers to accountants to actuaries to solicitors to health professionals of all kinds. We chose in the 1990s to fix a system that wasn’t broken.
  • The number of total student-years in the system has increased enormously because the four-year honours degree has become the dominant form of higher education. We need to at least examine this trend and ask is it really necessary that so many of our students spend four years in college or 18 years total in full time education. Some numbers on this: In March 2008, there were 38K applications for Level 6/7 CAO courses with 56K for Level 8 courses. In 2016, the figures were 34K and 65K. The trend is clear.
  • We need to seriously, once and for all, tap into the opportunities that online learning present. But there is no point in all institutions charging off and doing their own thing. Developing high quality online learning tools and environments is difficult, costly and time consuming. We need a national approach and we need to create a single institution whose sole mission would be to provide online undergraduate education in partnership with existing institutions.

In conclusion, our HE institutions need to become leaner with a renewed focus on their educational mission. At the moment we are trying to be too many things all at once. That’s my opinion anyway!

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In defence of the Leaving Cert

At this time of year it is usual for all sorts of interested parties to emerge from the woodwork and denounce the Leaving Cert. It is portrayed as cruel. It is said to be biased against those from disadvantaged areas. It is said that it rewards little more than rote memorisation and stamina. It is claimed that it does not equip students with essential ‘21st century skills’ like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.

The fact that the Leaving Cert is a very high stakes, one-opportunity examination does indeed cause students a good deal of stress. The claim is usually made, therefore, that by introducing continuous assessment and de-emphasising the final, all-or-nothing exam, much of this stress will be lifted. But where’s the evidence? Assessment in the third level sector is now very diverse; continuous assessment is used extensively and the semesterised system means that there are more, less-demanding examinations. But as I mentioned in a recent post, stress levels among third level students are at an all-time high. Of course financial and personal factors might be at the root of this, but there is no real evidence that the modular system, where students are assessed regularly and often, is proving to be less stressful for students. In fact, one could argue that the cumulative effect of constant, low-level stress caused by the frequent assessments is actually more damaging than short periods of more intense stress. To use the academic cliché of all academic clichés, more research is needed.

The idea that the Leaving Certificate is unfair because it favours middle class students who can afford to go to grind schools is absolutely true. But this is not really a consequence of the exam per se; it is more a consequence of our two-tiered education system in which we, as a society, have made it possible for sections of our society to buy an educational advantage over others. We do the same thing in health care where queue-jumping is not only tolerated, it is actively encouraged. This is a problem for society, not the designers of the Leaving Cert.

One of the most commonly promoted ‘fixes’ for the inequality discussed above is to introduce teacher assessment, i.e., assessment of students by their own teachers. Unfortunately, however, there are good grounds to believe (see here and here) that teacher assessment introduces biases that standardised tests do not. This is not really the ‘fault’ of teachers; it is simply an inevitable consequence of their humanity. This is one of those areas where we need to be very wary of our intuition because as pointed out by Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt and others, our intuition is often wrong because it is susceptible to all sorts of unconscious biases. As Haidt says, we are the conscious riders on our subconscious elephant and it’s the elephant who is usually in charge even if we like to engage in a lot of post-hoc rationalisation.

Does the Leaving Cert only reward rote memorisation? You certainly need to have a good memory to do well in the Leaving Cert. In fact you need a good memory to get a H1 in an honours degree programme. But as Daniel Willingham and others have point out, memorisation without understanding is actually very difficult and I think we can safely say that while many of our high-pointers have engaged in a bit of rote memorisation, they have done so while simultaneously acquiring a good knowledge and understanding of the subjects they have studied.

As for this whole concept of 21st century skills and the obsession with ‘problem-solving’ and all those nebulous concepts that educationalists like to talk about these days, there are two key points: First, predictions that the future world of work is going to be dominated by developments in artificial intelligence and automation, and that most workers will be focused on higher order activities like creativity and problem solving, are pure speculation. The world of work has changed considerably since the early 1990s when the internet first emerged, but we still need workers who are reliable and conscientious even if they are not creative; workers who have a great eye for detail even if they are not necessarily great critical thinkers; workers who even though they might not work well in groups, are innovative and original in their thinking. The world of work will always need diversity and it will always need the maintainers as much as it needs the creators.

The second point is that even if we want the education system to be a breeding ground for creative and critical thinkers, it is not at all obvious how we should go about achieving this. The great and creative thinkers of the 20th century (and there were many) were taught using what many refer to disparagingly as the ‘factory model’ of education – what you and I would call traditional, teacher-led education. There is no convincing evidence to suggest that the 21st century is so radically different from the latter decades of the 20th century that we need to fundamentally change the way we teach and assess our students. Many educationalists and self-appointed gurus seem to be making a lucrative living  saying these things but they do so in an evidence-free zone.

Even as a trained engineer, that most pragmatic of disciplines, I find it fundamentally depressing that so much of our conversations around education are, in a sense, anti-education. In fact, the word ‘education’ has largely been replaced by ‘skills’. The idea of acquiring knowledge seems to have been devalued to the point where the students being taught facts of any kind is derided because “we have Google”. But acquiring knowledge is one of the most life-enhancing things that any young person can do – it is far more transformational than acquiring problem-solving skills. It affects our entire quality of life and not just our job prospects. How can anyone understand the nuances of Brexit, for example, without having some knowledge and understanding of the British Empire and the Second World War? How can you understand the plight of the Palestinians if you know nothing of the Holocaust?

The Leaving Cert has its problems but it is the culmination of 6 years of secondary school learning and anyone who does well in the Leaving can consider themselves to be an educated person who has studied a broad range of subjects, from science to history to English Literature. Yes, the Leaving Cert does not prepare students for third level education but no system in which teachers and parents provide so much guidance (and coercion) will fully prepare youngsters for the transition that awaits them. It is our job in third level to ensure that this transition is managed well. Just as it is unrealistic for employers to expect us to produce industry-ready graduates, it is unrealistic for us to expect the second level system to produce independent-learning, third level-ready school-leavers.

The way we assess students in the Leaving Cert does need to be tweaked constantly but a radical overhaul is not justified.

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Grade inflation: doesn’t bother me

The recent and impressive study on grade inflation in the IoT sector comes at an appropriate time. Exam boards are coming to an end and the various drivers of student grades are fresh in our minds.

There is absolutely no doubt that grade inflation is occurring, i.e. third level students are getting higher grades and doing so even when their second level performance would suggest that their grades should be getting lower.

The usual explanation for grade inflation is that third level has been ‘dumbed down’ and the implication is that the dumbing down has been ‘enforced’ by management.

Just to get the second of these out of the way, I can say with total conviction that never in my 30 years in DCU have I ever felt any pressure from anybody in a managerial position to inflate the grades I give to my students, or to dumb down the material that I teach.

What I have seen over the years is an extremely compassionate body of academics, many if not most of whom are parents themselves and who inevitably want to do their best for students, even if in some cases we are a bit misguided. At exam boards, therefore, student marks are routinely raised for all sorts of quite legitimate reasons. Students are looked at holistically and most reasonable academics recognise that assessing students is an inexact science and there is almost an obligation on us to give students the benefit of the doubt, especially when they are as over-assessed as they are in the modern modular system. In my experience, this whole process is driven by us, the academics: no managers are involved.

So what about the dumbing down? The whole concept of dumbing down is predicated on the idea that there exists some objective third level standard and that this standard was set some time in the relatively distant past. Personally, there has never been any immutable standard for the courses that I teach. I set a ‘standard’ of sorts and it varies from year to year and from class to class. I used to do this unconsciously but now I do it consciously. After a few lectures and tutorials with a class I get a sense of where they are at academically and I adjust my teaching methods accordingly. In general, weaker classes require more ‘spoon feeding’ and so they experience a slightly different ‘me’ than stronger classes. But in both cases the goal is the same. As an aside, I think it is very interesting how group dynamics seem to shape the overall class performance and I think this goes some way towards explaining why CAO points only correlate weakly with third level performance. I have a feeling that a small number of students can set the tone for a class and if the tone-setters are high achievers with a strong work ethic this can rub off on the entire class. The opposite is also the case unfortunately. The important point in all of this is that the ‘standard’, whatever that means, is not constant but is constantly varying, not only downwards but upwards as well.

But even if we were to accept that there is some universal standard ‘out there’ that all autonomous institutions should be aspiring to, are there any reasons why students should be getting higher grades? Of course there are and they are all pretty predictable. Improved teaching is the obvious one and it is worth noting that many of the developments  in the whole area of third level T&L (the National Forum, for example) are driven by the IoT sector.

But there is a danger, I admit, that we are becoming ‘lawnmower academics’, cutting a swathe through the third level forest, creating a smooth, predictable path that all students can navigate, albeit a path with lots of academic hurdles of ever increasing number and ever diminishing height. But even that is not quite the same as ‘dumbing down’; it is more a case of creating a system in which it is easier, and more acceptable, to score highly. The old days of having to be a genius to get 70% are long gone, and rightly so. However, within the modern highly-managed and structured system, a system that incorporates large elements of continuous assessment, there is still plenty of scope to challenge students. And challenge them we do.

So I’m not bothered by grade inflation. As readers of this blog will know, however, I am bothered by the extent to which many students do not fully commit to their studies. These are the students who fail repeatedly and scrape through with low H2.2s or H3s when with a bit of focus they should be well capable of getting H2.1s.

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Should the second level system go modular?

This letter in the Irish Times by Seán de Brún of Mary Immaculate College has a certain air of plausibility about it. There is no doubt that a modular system where students are assessed in a variety of ways should, in theory, result in students acquiring a more rounded set of skills, skills that cannot be assessed by an end-of-year written exam.  Furthermore, the idea that a modular system might be less stressful for students than the all-or-nothing system that we have at the moment also rings true.

But there are a couple of reasons as to why I would tread carefully here:

  • Stress and anxiety levels among third level students are an increasingly worrying problem. No doubt, many mental health problems from which students suffer have nothing to do with the fine detail of the education system per se,  but there is certainly no evidence to suggest that the modular system, with its increased emphasis on continuous assessment, is reducing stress levels.
  • Although the modular system used in third level does allow one to assess students in a variety of ways, there is really no evidence to suggest that it leads to better – or worse – learning. We just don’t know and our thinking tends to be guided by little more than anecdote and gut feeling.
  • More fundamentally, though, we need to ask ourselves what the Leaving Certificate is for. In the last couple of decades, the Leaving has effectively become an entry examination for higher and further education. It is essential, therefore, that whatever way we design the second level system, it should not only provide students with a broad education (to enhance their lives in a general sense) but it should also prepare students for the rigours of third level education. Discussions about the Leaving Certificate, and indeed the entire second level curriculum, should take into account the fact that for most students, leaving secondary school represents no more than the end of the beginning of a process of lifelong learning. We should adjust our expectations accordingly.
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Evidence-based education

The recent furore around the funding of new drugs for cancer and CF caused me to have a look at the website of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics. They look like an impressive outfit and they conduct very rigorous and highly mathematical cost-benefit analyses of new drugs coming onto the market.

It is odd though that the same sort of rigour is not used throughout other areas of government. In education, for example, we tend to do many things for political reasons or on the basis of submissions from stakeholders with a vested interest in a particular outcome.

If we had an NCPE for education, here are just three economy-related things they might look at:

  • The economic value of publically funded, academia-based basic research
  • The contribution of PhD-level education to the economy
  • The economic value to the regions of rebranding IoTs as TUs

In many ways these are harder questions that the ones the NCPE tends to ask but they are not impossible. Brian Lucey’s group in TCD, for example, have carried out a number of studies of this type, including one on the economic value of the third level system as a whole and, more recently, one on the economic value of international students.

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Ben Goldacre, Surrogate Outcomes and Education

I was at Ben Goldacre’s fascinating talk in the RCSI yesterday and much of what he had to say about bad drug trials resonated with me as an educator. His point that some branches of medicine were riddled with “endless pilot studies” sounded to me like it could have been said about teaching and learning research

One of his more interesting points concerned the issue of “surrogate outcomes”. An example of the might be if you were to test a new heart drug and use, say, blood pressure as a measure of the drug’s efficacy. You might find that the drug does lower blood pressure but when you dig down into the data you might find that the drug has absolutely no effect on the incidence of heart attacks. In some cases, the surrogate outcome might even be in direct opposition to the desired outcome.

It seems to me that education research has a big problem with surrogate outcomes. Whether it’s students answering questionnaires or teachers/lecturers making a judgement about student ‘engagement’, the fundamental question as to whether students have learned better or not is rarely answered.

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Some thoughts about fairness after 30 years in DCU

I first came to DCU in 1986 as a sprightly young 23 year old with an MSc from Cornell and having seen a lot of changes over the years, it’s worth taking a bit of time out from marking to reflect. (Any excuse!)

There is no doubt that the third level sector is facing a lot of problems (not all resource-related) but it is important to recognise that many of these problems reflect wider trends in society, trends that are extremely positive, but which have a downside. Our society is fairer, more compassionate and more caring than it ever has been. Parenting is better, teaching is better, but our expectations of our pupils and students seem to be getting lower.

It’s interesting, for example, to see the reaction of everyone from students to teachers to parents when the Leaving Cert exams are held every June. It is particularly interesting to think about how people perceive the whole concept of fairness. Exams are seen to be unfair if unexpected questions are asked, if very challenging questions are asked, indeed if there is any suggestion that students have to do the very things that we claim we would like them to do, like thinking outside the box. There is a strong belief throughout our culture that for an exam to be fair, students must not be thrown any curve balls. There is also a strong belief that fairness demands that students know precisely what they need to do to achieve a high grade. Furthermore, people want a highly transparent and accountable marking system, one that enforces very strict marking schemes that must be followed rigorously by the examiners. All of these things lead inevitably to a culture of learning to the test. If we want to ‘deconstruct’ the Leaving Cert, then we, as a society, must revaluate many of our current ways of thinking about fairness, accountability and trust.

In third level we have made many changes supposedly in the interest of students but which may have caused a lot of harm. When we moved to a modularised and semesterised system, we made a conscious decision to organise and package our students’ learning into easily-digested, bite-size chunks, all with the best of intentions. (As an engineer with something of a systemising mindset, I was all in favour of modularisation.) But, in the process, we stripped our courses down, reduced the amount of contact time and ‘outsourced’ most of the work to the students themselves in the form of ‘independent learning’. We bolted on an American system which works well when students are forced to study continuously through the use of homework, quizzes, mid-terms and finals, but we tried to retain the traditional British and Irish values of students being required to drive and control their own learning. Unfortunately all of this was done at a time when students were growing up in a highly distracting internet age and it turns out that students do far less independent learning than we want them to. So, our students, whose study habits have been formed by the Leaving Cert but who no longer have the guiding hand of the secondary school teacher, use a just-in-time approach to ‘learn off’ small chunks of material, material which is often examined using final exams that are even shorter than those used in the Leaving Cert. This approach to learning, coupled with semesterisation, means that students retain very little of what they have learned from one year to the next. Anyone who has read even a smidgen of cognitive science will not be surprised by this.

It was also unfortunate that many of these changes happened to coincide with the turn of the century. The dawn of the 21st century seemed to create a sort of millennium mania in which everybody from experienced educators to education gurus like Sir Ken Robinson to companies flogging Edtech software (and now to Toy companies) began to suggest that education needed to be revolutionised. The basic notion being peddled was that because we lived in an increasingly digital world, everything had changed. The story went that the current generation was made up of digital natives who needed to learn differently and in different ways. Problem solving and creativity were re-invented as 21st century skills. The idea of actually knowing stuff was seen as a remnant of the 19th century. The idea of knowing things off by heart was singled out for particular scorn.

The result of all of these cultural and pedagogical changes was that we took our eyes off the ball. We began to accept that students studying engineering at college couldn’t do basic algebra and calculus, or that students at all levels had difficulty constructing grammatically correct sentences. We realised that students’ attention to detail was terrible but we tolerated it. We knew that students digital skills were not what they needed to be but we convinced ourselves that this generation does not need to be taught these things.

We’ve known all of this for years now and most academics I know are in a constant state of exasperation coupled with frustration. I think these feelings ultimately stem from confusion about what constitute fair and reasonable expectations of our students. But confusion about fairness is not unique to education.

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