You’ll have to bear with me on this one – I’ll get to the point eventually!
I have a nephew – Gary – and he’s a fantastic rugby player. In fact, he’s an all-round fantastic lad but of course I’m biased. Anyway, he has represented Ireland at U-18, U-19 and U-20 level. He spent a year in the Leinster Academy. But despite the fact that he was always a ‘stand-out’ player in Seapoint’s AIL campaigns, the coaches in Leinster decided that he would not be up to the standard required of professional rugby – he wouldn’t be alone in that, the attrition rate in rugby is huge. I’m not qualified to make a judgment one way or the other as to his potential but I can only assume that they knew what they were doing when they let him go from the Academy. Incidentally, Gary now has a 2.1 in Electrical Engineering from UCD, has recently packed in the rugby and is doing just fine.
But when I think of guys like Gary, I realise that we all have our own level. When I was at Cornell in the 1980s and I did some physics modules, I realised where I was in the pecking order. I was better than average in the Irish chemical engineering context but I was nowhere near the top physics guys in the US. No string theory for me.
Brigid Laffan’s piece in The Irish Times on IoTs (Institutes of Technology) and TUs (Technological Universities) has caused a little bit of a stir. Inevitably she has been accused of being elitist – a lazy argument in my view. Her argument against the formation of TUs was largely that the IoTs, on which future TUs would be based, did not have the research expertise and experience to justify university status.
To me that was to miss the point. As G.K Chesterton said “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem”. The problem with the TU concept is not that the existing IoTs don’t have a good enough research base – that would no doubt improve in time as DCU and UL have shown – but that there is a real demographic problem with creating more universities. As I have mentioned before in this blog, the IoTs are running many Level 8 programs (over 100) for which there is very little demand. They have a large number of degree programs for which the entry points are below the 300 mark, meaning that they are admitting people who are in the bottom 40% of academic ability as measured by the Leaving Cert. (Their courses are largely in the sub-350 point range meaning that they are mainly mining the bottom half of the population.)
Both the third level and fourth level systems are saturated in my view and no matter how much the research profile of the staff improves – which it undoubtedly would – there will still be the problem of a lack of suitably qualified students. Trinity has outstanding academic staff but its real asset is the fact that it attracts the best students, for reasons related to its history, its location and its policy of strictly controlling its intake (see my earlier post “What’s going on in Trinity”). The quality of any institution is determined not only by its staff and the resources at its disposal but by its students. Education is, after all, a partnership.
If some of the IoTs do get TU status they will be sustainable only if they take students from the existing universities. There is no scope for expanding the current university system – in my view – unless one is willing to seriously ‘dumb down’ the standard of the system or simply fill the system with foreign students. If the Government wants to spread the limited population of capable students around, that is a different argument, but the idea that there is a great untapped well of students ready, willing and able to pursue third and fourth level education, is fanciful.
The problem is that third level education is not just another level of education to which everyone can aspire. In fact it is a level beyond a significant proportion of the population. It sounds elitist to say this but it seems obvious to me. I will never be a ‘top class’ scientist of any description and my nephew, Gary, will never be a professional rugby player. Likewise much of the population will never be capable of succeeding in a Level 8 program. That is not to make a judgment about the inherent worth of people who just cannot cope with Third Level; it is just a fact of life.
The problem is that the education system has been hijacked by opportunistic politicians and academics anxious to increase their status. The real victims in this are young people who are being ushered into forms of education that do not suit their aptitudes or their interests. I see unhappy and unmotivated students all the time and surveys I have done within DCU show that a significant portion of students are doing absolutely no pre-exam study or an amount of study that is woefully inadequate.
We live in a time when nobody is special because everybody is special – to quote Lisa Simpson – but we have to admit that third level education is not something to which everybody can aspire just as Gary will never run in a try against Clermont in a Heineken Cup Final and I will not be making major breakthroughs in anything. We all have a level and a big step in finding contentment is to find yours and – crucially – to be given the opportunity to reach that level.