We are where we are

How did third level education get so complicated? It should be simple. An organised and enthusiastic lecturer guiding motivated students through the learning process. But it’s not and here’s my take on how ‘we are where we are’.


Most of us have had experiences of lecturers who were just so dire it was almost like a Monty Python sketch. When I studied in UCD in the eighties, we had one lecturer who just told anecdotes about his career in the metallurgical business – while sitting in a chair and wearing a white lab coat!; one (a well know businessman at the time) who just used the business pages of the Irish Times as  his lecture ‘notes’; one who used to put an acetate of polymerisation reactions up on the overhead projector and simply look out the window in silence – he religiously got through four acetates per lecture; and one who mumbled his way through lectures (on seemingly random topics) aided by overheads that he appeared to have written on the DART. There were others. Of course this was unacceptable, although, paradoxically, some of our lecturers were ‘so bad they were good’. We knew they were useless and set out to write our own course notes which then got handed down and modified from class to class. In itself, that was a good learning process.

The generation of lecturers that followed recognised that this wasn’t good enough and became far more committed to their roles as educators. At the same time, third level participation rates increased and we had to work harder to coach the less academically able students through the system. Lecturing became Teaching. Some lecturers began to put so much work into their ‘teaching’ that they felt disadvantaged in a system that valued research above all else in the race for promotion. This and the unspoken recognition that many students were simply not capable of surviving in a traditional University system meant that teaching ‘quality’ became important and began to be a consideration in promotion procedures.

But, ‘quality’ in this context is hard to measure. It really needs a third party presence in the lecture theatre and a robust assessment of student learning. Instead, teaching quality, at least in the context of career advancement, became equated with teaching activity. It became important now to be seen to be active in Teaching and Learning R&D, even though few academics were really trained to do such things. Pilot schemes abounded (often never to be sustained), invariably ‘worked well’ or were ‘well received’ and learning innovation became the new buzz phrase. Much of this innovation involved the use of technology, not necessarily because there was an obvious need for it, but because there was a sense that this technology ought to be used for something. Now, it was possible to have an academic career without doing the really hard business of research/scholarship in your area of expertise. Instead of doing research in chemistry, you could do research on innovative ways of teaching chemistry – and you had a steady supply of subjects.

Semesterisation and Modularisation arrived and education was divided up into easily digested, bite size chunks. Exams became more frequent and shorter, the use of continuous assessment became widespread as a buffer against high failure rates and the large class sizes spawned assessment methods that de-emphasised basic skills such as writing. Examiners became more compassionate and condoned failure became widespread. Modularisation facilitated the proliferation of degree programmes and the Third Level Institutions began to design ‘novel’ programmes to ‘chase’ good students. Soon the number of programmes outstripped the supply of qualified students and many students undertook programmes for which they were totally ill-suited. As Third Level Education became the norm, the second level system was corrupted, becoming purely a means of entry to the Universities and Institutes. Rote Learning became an art form and was perpetuated at Third Level. The culture of entitlement flourished.

Universities became increasingly bureaucratic, education became more and more ‘managed’ and concepts like Learning Outcomes flourished, despite any evidenced-based discussion of their merits. Academics looked on much of this with cynicism but shrugged their shoulders, filled out the forms and went back to their research. Students remained largely oblivious.

At the same time, all sorts of people began to waffle incessantly about the ‘knowledge economy’ and how the 21st century would require radically new ways of working and thinking. It all sounded plausible but where was the beef? Employers still talked about the need for a strong work ethic, a willingness to learn and good basic skills but educators didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, everyone was obsessing about critical thinking and problem solving.


When I was a youngster I played a lot of cricket and we often used to laugh at the captain who ‘chased the ball’. Wherever the last boundary had been scored, that’s where he would place his fielder. This kept the fielders busy but didn’t solve the problem that the bowler needed to be changed. Our education system has become like the ball-chasing cricket captain.


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 We are where we are

  1. cormac says:

    Also, there is a connection between your two observations “Instead of doing research in chemistry, you could do research on innovative ways of teaching chemistry..” and “concepts like Learning Outcomes flourished, despite any evidenced-based discussion of their merits”.
    What frightens me most about the number of third level academics switching to the field of education is that much of the research in this field seems quite questionable – despite all the talk of research methodologies, there seems to be a great deal of fadishness. Far from being the storm troops of third level, educationalists are generally regarded with great suspicion, not least because many new educational ideas initiatives have been a disaster, from GCEs to modular systems.

  2. foleyg says:

    Yes, I dabbled in this kind of stuff a bit before I realised I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!

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