The Paradox of Third Level Education

As Al Pacino says in Godfather 3,  “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”. I hadn’t intended to write any more blogs before Christmas, but I can’t help it!

Earlier third week I wrote a letter to the Irish Times stating my view that the primary cause of the third level crisis was the unsustainable student numbers. My basic point was that by increasing the percentage of school leavers that attend third level, the standard must decline. To me, this is self-evident and examples of this effect are to be found in many walks of life, especially sport. How often do we despair when we hear that sporting authorities are going to wreck our favourite competition by increasing the number of teams, thus making many of matches redundant or of poor quality?

It is harder to say this when it comes to education because it sounds like you’re making some sort of value judgement about people when you say they are not academically able for honours degree education.

But there is no getting away from the fact that many people who are simply not ‘up to it’ are coming through the third level system. Unfortunately the people actually working with students know this but aren’t articulating it often or loudly enough. Those higher up the ‘food chain’ are either oblivious or have a vested interested in continuing along the same path.

The response of the educators has been to focus on the weaker students and adjust our teaching and assessment methods to ensure that these students have a realistic chance of progressing. This is partly for quasi-political reasons but mainly out of sense of compassion for young people who are in a situation that is not really of their choosing.

Indeed, there seems to be some deep cultural forces at play that make us want to make life as easy as possible for our students. I don’t think this is just about Quality but reflects a wider trend towards pandering in western society. I have sat at dozens of exam board meetings in which condoned failure has been rife, mainly out of a sense that it would be somehow ‘unfair’ to enforce exam regulations rigorously.

The result of all of this is that the more gifted students are not challenged and do not develop as they should during their four years in college. They do not need to develop as independent workers and thinkers because those skills are no longer required to get through a system that is designed for the weaker students. This is disastrous for the person and the country.

We therefore have a paradoxical situation whereby our obsession with increasing honours degree participation rates is actually lowering the overall educational standard in the country because so many people are being educated to a level that is inappropriate for 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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