Education: What’s the point?

I’m currently dipping in and out of a book called “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism” by Ha-Joon Chang, a left-leaning economist from Oxford or Cambridge – can’t remember which. It’s easy reading and interesting, even if it is a little lacking in hard evidence at times. The entries related to education are particularly interesting, especially the idea that there is no convincing correlation between mass third level education and economic growth. Of course, education is always worthwhile for its own sake but the question of whether the economy, as opposed to the society, will get a return on the huge expenditure on education appears to be unanswered at the moment. Anyway, I’m following up on some of the references in the book and hopefully I’ll have a better understanding of the issues soon.

There is no doubt that education is seen by most observers to be a key ingredient of our (presumed) economic recovery and the protection of education spending is something of an article of faith among politicians, teachers and the public. At the risk of appearing very right wing, here’s my position: I believe that far too may people are studying at third level, but our society has backed itself into a corner where a third level education, in particular the completion of a four-year honours degree, and even a Master’s, is seen as essential for  operating successfully in the workplace.

My experience of teaching at third level is that a very large percentage of students on honours programmes are out of their depth and only survive because of ‘dumbing down’ and a highly ‘compassionate’ approach by examiners at Exam Board meetings. An interesting point, though, is that  even when very academically weak students go on work placement (e.g. DCU’s INTRA programme), they often return with glowing reports from their employers. There are many ways you could interpret this but my feeling is that it reflects the fact that an honours degree is not required for many jobs, especially in industry. Thus students who are academically weak are perfectly capable of being effective in the workplace. It’s hard to see how we can ever turn back the clock on all of this and get to a stage where the lack of a honours degree is not a sign of inadequacy.

By the way, in case you think I’m being elitist and suggesting that we deny students the opportunity to study at third level, I’m pretty sure that a decent percentage of students attending University would actually rather not be there! There is a shocking lack of commitment shown by many students. I’ll provide some hard evidence for this next year when my colleagues (Jenny Lawler and Mike Parkinson) and I have fully analysed some student behaviour data that we have collected.

That’s the rant for today!

PS By the way, you can comment by clicking on the little graphic at the top of each post – the thing that you see in comics. I can’t remember what you call them.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Education: What’s the point?

  1. Niall says:

    It begs the question though, is the current system of assessing student, biased in ways, yes an academically strong student may get high grades etc. but are they any more suitable to enter the work place than weaker students?

    In industry, in many businesses, whether or not you can recite and regurgitate every mutation from a particular gene or what ever doesn’t matter in the slightest, to me much of the university methods are the same as the leaving cert, learn it off and write it down as fast as possible, except for engineering, in a 2 hour window you have to prove that you understand something on paper, whether you do or not!

    personally, universities should spend as little time in the lecture hall as possible, and as much time in a lab, learning first hand, there you would not only provide above graduate lab skills and knowledge in the various areas but, a student will learn more passively in a lab in one day than a week in a lecture hall. there is too much focus on 100% exams, break it up, assignments, lots of them, inspire a student to figure something out, and not just learn something that’s going to be forgotten 3 weeks down the line!

    there’s my rant over, 07:14, disaster at 9:30

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