And so details of the HEA plans for the ‘clustered’ approach to the third level system are emerging. I heard Tom Boland on the radio yesterday and although I don’t agree with everything that he said, a lot of what he said sounded reasonable and plausible. But something being plausible and something being right is not the same thing.
The first thing I would say is that to some extent much of the discussion around the configuration of the third level sector is beside the point. Nobody can convince me that reconfiguration will lead to better student learning even if it does reduce costs – and even that is debatable. An improvement in the standard of our third level graduates requires changes to our primary and secondary school systems and changes to societal attitudes. There needs to be a reappraisal of the presumed need for mass third level education – at least at honours degree level. It needs to be accepted that third level education should be hard and the need for a greater level of student commitment must be recognised. Other forms of further education, such as new apprenticeship models (e.g. in the IT industry), must be promoted and valued equally. What we have created is a decidedly homogenous system that is unsustainable either in terms of cost or in terms of its ability to maintain standards. I think we have been overly-influenced by Tony Blair’s famous “Education, education, education” sound bite as if education was the solution to all our ills. But you can’t educate a country out of an economic recession.
That said, there is nothing obviously arguable about incentivising institutions to collaborate although the use of negative incentivisation in which institutions are penalised for not collaborating seems to be a recipe for collaboration for collaboration’s sake. But if anyone thinks inter-institutional collaboration will lead to an increase in the quality of the education that students receive, they are deluding themselves.
One of the areas in which it seems that institutions will be expected to ‘perform’ is in the area of student retention. Incentivising high student retention rates is a strategy that is fraught with danger. An obvious side-effect would be to incentivise dumbing down – dragging the standard down to a level that meets the abilities of the weakest and least committed students. The assumption in this sort of policy is that poor student retention is a consequence of poor teaching or poor levels of student support. It reflects the generally negative perception of educators within Ireland. Too many policy makers, and journalists, would seem to have been educated in times, and in disciplines, in which the work rate and commitment of academics was either poor or just not obvious to them.
Poor student retention, which is largely a first year phenomenon, is typically down to two things (i) colleges accepting students who are simply not capable of surviving at third level and (ii) poor commitment by students. In DCU, we run numerous extra tutorials and ‘clinics’, manned by highly motivated staff yet attendance at these is often poor and our first year marks are often abysmal. There is not much else we can do other than make the exams utterly trivial. Incentivising high retention rates also raises the spectre of pressure being placed on academics to raise grades, something that has never yet happened to me in my career. Ultimately, penalising institutions for poor retention rates without a rigorous analysis of the underlying causes would go completely against any drive towards quality.
It looks like institutions will also be incentivised to meet a number of other targets, notably in research. We are in an era when there is mass confusion about the role of research in third level institutions. I’m no economist but the idea that university research is going to play a significant part in reducing our appalling unemployment rate is fanciful. Universities might spawn the occasional start-up with small numbers of highly qualified employees but what this country needs is large numbers of new labour-intensive industries. These will probably not be very hi-tech at all. There is a complete lack of realism about what university research can deliver directly to the economy and far greater emphasis needs to be placed on the role that university research plays in the education of our population.
Interesting times ahead though.