Academic Elitism?

I have to say that this Leftfield column in the Irish Times irritated me. The author, Denis Cummins who is President of Dundalk Institute of Technology, seems to suggest, rather presumptuously, that anyone who raises questions about the role of the IoT sector is simply doing so out of a sense of elitism. Take this quote: “Today, the numbers of students entering higher education through the doors of the IoT and the universities have equalised. What is different is that many of our IoT students are, like me, the first generation in their families to enter higher education.” It’s not clear what Cummins means when he says “what is different” but he seems to be implying that Universities have remained the preserve of a social elite while the IoT have been looking after the ordinary folk.

This is ludicrous because very few Irish people have a long family history of third level education. The numbers attending third level, including the numbers attending universities, increased enormously in the eighties and nineties. Most of us who went to college in the eighties were from backgrounds where our parents were educated to Leaving Cert level at best. It really is disingenuous for Cummins to present himself as some sort of pioneer battling to challenge the establishment.

The fact is that the IoT sector faces some very significant challenges. I have written before in this blog about the large number of Level 8 programs offered by that sector that have entry points below 300. Tallaght, Blanchardstown, Letterkenny and Sligo have particular problems in this regard. The universities do not have this problem. Points are low when demand is low so it seems obvious that the IoT sector is offering many Level 8 programs which very few people actually want to do. Of course, there are some very notable exceptions to this and high-point programs (e.g. Dietetics in DIT) are to be found scattered throughout the sector.

Apart from the demand issue, there is a genuine question to be asked as to whether students in the sub-300 mark are actually capable of completing a Level 8 program unless there is an element of ‘dumbing-down’. Yes, the Leaving Cert only tests a narrow range of abilities, mostly the ability to memorise facts, and we should never label young people as being academically weak on the basis of such a limited assessment method; but, in my experience of over twenty years teaching on the same program, it becomes very difficult to maintain standards when the points reach the 350 mark, never mind the 300 mark. This often has to do with the students’ work ethic and motivation as much as innate academic ability but it’s still a problem. When the CAO points are announced in August, academics take great interest and they are always delighted when the points for their course increase. Why? Because we know that higher entry points generally mean ‘better’ students and we can cover more challenging material without fear of catastrophic failure rates.

When DCU and UL were created out of the old NIHEs and academics from other universities voiced concerns, the elitist argument was often levelled at them. But, in truth, there were genuine concerns as to whether the NIHEs provided the necessary breadth of degree programs, whether their research was up to university level, whether their facilities were adequate and whether the academics were suitably qualified. Thankfully, those institutions have since flourished and maybe there’s a lesson in there for those who might have concerns about the Technical University concept.

The third level sector will have to undergo significant change over the next decade. We should be able to have open discussions about the future configuration of the sector without fear of being labelled as elitist.

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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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3 Responses to Academic Elitism?

  1. I wasn’t clear who charge of elitism was being levelled at either. Certainly, the piece is at least partly aimed in part at some recent statements by Prof Browne of NIUG – it’s a pity the link supplied doesn’t work.
    However, I think the point on ‘mission drift’ is a serious one – it is employers (and perhaps society) that are primarily driving the drift to degrees.This creates a situation where colleges feel they have to offer degrees, yet the courses often attract very low points, as you point out.Not sure what the solution to this conundrum is.
    Re UL and DCU, I have no memory of official opposition to the upgrading of DCU either at UCD or Trinity, Are you sure about this? I think it happened relatively quickly. Certainly nothing like the longterm opposition WIT has encountered, rightly or wrongly (especially from DCU) – ironic because I am told that research success/funding at WIT is far beyond that of NIHE Dublin before the upgrade (this is not to say that I am a fan of technological universities)
    Regards, Cormac

  2. Greg says:

    Cormac, There were some opposition to UL and DCU at the time but in those days there was no internet of consequence so it was probably less obvious than it would be today. But, you’re right about where WIT, CIT and DIT are now compared to the NIHEs. My own view has evolved to thinking that there should be a University in the South East, built around Waterford, CIT and Carlow. (Madness for CIT to align itself with Tralee.) It would develop very quickly with the University branding. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of young academics around who are far better qualified than I, or many of my colleagues, were. My only concern in a lot of this is whether there is a sufficient supply of good students.

  3. cormac says:

    Yes, I remember as a postgrad in TCD, the expectation was that NIHE L and D would become 2 campi of a single university – two new universities was quite a surprise!
    USE is a good idea because it could reduce the braindrain of the best students from the SE to Dublin (they don’t come back), but I think the main concern is a ‘trigger’ effect’. Speaking politically, it’s hard to see the government holding firm in upgrading certain IoTs, and not others – a global upgrade is likely. After all, this is precisely what happened last time – WRTC and then CRTC went through quite a lengthy process while the other RTCs were soon upgraded without going through as strict a process. Many of us at WIT still think the best solution was DIT, WIT and CIT and leave it at that, but realpolitik intervened…

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