The University ‘Scam’


Although I kind of agree that university education has become ‘a confidence trick and a scam’, I suspect I agree for different reasons from those given by academics who have signed up to DCU’s Defend the University campaign. At the risk of repeating myself, my view of the university is that it must remain true to some core principles of learning – learning for the good of it and all that – but it must also be responsive to the needs of the society, the culture and the economy. And universities must be accountable: how and to whom they should be accountable is arguable but the principle of accountability is irrefutable in my view.

The decline in the standard of university education in the last 15-20 years is not related in any way to managerialism or commercialism or neoliberalism or any other ‘ism’. (Incidentally, anyone who denies this decline is welcome to have a look at some exam scripts with me next January.) The decline has to be seen in a cultural context. It’s roots are mainly sociological and it is no coincidence that the decline in standards has mirrored the increase in economic prosperity that we have experienced in the West. As our prosperity increased and the world became more globalised, we somehow got a sense that our future lay with our superior ability to think and be creative. We convinced ourselves that we could educate ourselves onto some sort of higher plain of existence while the poor sods in the developing world could do all the physical stuff and pay themselves buttons in the process. There was, perhaps, a slight hint of racism about this – we were too good for the old industries and our future would lie with knowledge and creativity. At the same time, many who had become prosperous recognised that manual and technical work is hard and often monotonous and set about ensuring that their offspring would get the education that they didn’t get – and make life easier and more fulfilling in the process. The drive towards third level education for all was well and truly on.

But, as this was happening, something else was also occurring. Steven Pinker has argued that the world – at least the western world – has been getting less and less violent. In a broader sense, I think it is undeniable that the West has become a more and more compassionate place. Take the case of Ireland. There is a lot wrong with our country especially the ineptitude with which it is managed both politically and economically, but it is a much more compassionate place that ever, despite austerity. We have, in many ways, a shameful past and there is still far too much inequality, but at least there is far greater awareness than ever of what is wrong with our society. This general increase in compassion has meant that we have pandered to a generation –perhaps more than one – of young people. That which is difficult and challenging is now seen as ‘unfair’. That which is inherently tedious is seen as needing to be fixed and made more ‘engaging’. (None of this is helped by the rise of distracting technology.) Every student is now seen as ‘special’, someone who should be allowed to learn at a pace and in a way that suits them. Objective standards seemed to be frowned upon. For example, I was at a talk quite recently where a Teaching and Learning ‘expert’ was talking about how, with Moodle, one could set assignments that were matched to the ability of the student! The idea that the student should have to reach some objective standard seemed like a quaint concept from the past – at least in that guru’s mind. This is a way of thinking about education that has nothing to do with commercialism or managerialism: it is the product of a generation of educators and a teaching and learning ‘culture’ that has succumbed to an overly compassionate approach in which it is seen as unfair to expect a student to simply ‘keep up’. In this new culture, the idea of a student attending lectures, taking notes, going to the library to flesh out their notes and studying on their own is seen as old-fashioned. The truth is this: a good portion of the blame for the decline in third level standards must be laid at the door of the people doing the educating. We cannot blame managers. Many years ago (1988) when Ireland miraculously beat England in the European Championship (thanks to Ray Houghton) and Bobby Robson had to explain the defeat to the media (who were, as usual, blaming the English league ‘system’), Robson, with his usual passion, made the sensible point that England lost simply because they spurned half a dozen clear-cut chances. As Robson said, it was due to the fact that the various strikers didn’t put the ball in the ‘back of the net’ when they had the chance. Likewise when we look at the education system and how the standard has declined, we cannot blame the ‘system’; we have to look at ourselves. We have to look at what we do in our lectures, at the way we set our exams and at the way we mark those exams. I can say, with some embarrassment, that I have dumbed down my courses. Nobody has forced me to do this and when I ask myself why I have done this I think it is because (i) I have a quite natural need to be liked by students and (ii) I am a reasonably compassionate person – I don’t like to see people dropping out of college.

If we want to improve the standard of our third level education system, we need to take the advice of a Swiss colleague of mine. During one of our (endless) discussions about the level at which we were teaching, he suggested that the way to improve the standard was simply to make the material harder! Challenge people early on so that if they can’t make the grade, they don’t waste too much time. This will probably leave a smaller group of students who can keep up. In effect, we have to be somewhat ‘brutal’ – brutal at least in the context of the compassionate age in which we live. This ‘brutality’ is seen in all walks of life. Most young people who aspire to careers in sport will never make the grade. If only one in fifty young rugby players who enter the provincial academies actually make it as professionals, we just assume that they were not quite good enough to play at the highest level. We don’t blame the coaching staff. On the other hand, if young third level students can’t make the grade, we blame the quality of our lecturers, that they are not being sufficiently supportive and that they are not making the material ‘engaging’ enough.

We really must stand up and be counted and call the bluff of the ‘system’. If we hold the line and all hell breaks loose, then so be it. Let’s see what happens. But if we want to change the system, we have to be prepared to take whatever heat comes our way.


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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21 Responses to The University ‘Scam’

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The University ‘Scam’

  2. “We convinced ourselves that we could educate ourselves onto some sort of higher plain of existence while the poor sods in the developing world could do all the physical stuff and pay themselves buttons in the process.” And that is not related to neoliberalism in any way? It is suggestive of a connection at the very least.

    • foleyg says:

      Andrew, I’m not up to speed on the terminology economics (isn’t neoliberalism used most often as a term of abuse?) but I do think that the “education, education, education” thing is a consequence of globalisation. We cannot compete in many areas of industry and business so in a sense we had to re-imagine our economies and our societies. Going down the education route seems like an obvious and sensible one – and politically attractive – but I think it postpones the real debate about how our economy and perhaps our society, needed to to evolve to cope with a globalised world. We seem to have chosen the ‘knowledge economy’ without much real thought. For example, I find the continuing emphasis on IT in our industrial development policy somewhat puzzling. If you look at last year’s data on student first preferences in the CAO, only about 4000 students chose computing-type degrees and that is even with all the hype. That’s quite a small number to support a ‘world class’ sector. By comparison, there were huge numbers (I can’t remember the exact figure) choosing courses in the humanities and caring professions like nursing and the various allied health profession. It seems to me that the current policy is dependent on ‘re-programming’ young Irish people so that they choose careers in jobs that really they don’t want to do.

      As it stands, I think the country has a serious problem with vision or rather a lack of it. It needs to ask real questions about where its future lies. I’m not convinced by we can simply educate our way out of depression and back to prosperity.

      • You’re right, neoliberalism usually flung around as a way of not having to take somebody else’s argument seriously, but there are principles that are generally regarded as neoliberal in a more neutral sense (i.e. deregulation, forcing open foreign markets to ‘free trade’, privatization, etc.)
        I agree with you though, that the emphasis on STEM (specifically IT) is curious given that as you point out there isn’t a great interest in these areas, but also in the sense that there aren’t the jobs there for these graduates. A disproportionate wedge our IT sector is in the realm of service industries: support, marketing, localization, etc. The engineering and scientific research for these tech companies largely takes place abroad. So why are we pushing for STEM graduates if they will be obliged to find work elsewhere? It’s not as though we have an infrastructure for budding entrepreneurs either.
        I would point out however that we are on the right path in some areas. Our focus on digital humanities (via a cross-institutional structured PhD, centres such as the Long Room Hub in TCD and An Foras Feasa in NUIM, the Digital Repository of Ireland, etc.) is putting us out in front in an area which is of increasing importance internationally, allowing us to do something new while also sticking with some of the things we are good at. It seems like that might be one way (in education, admittedly) that we might find some of this vision which we need. Students do want to study the humanities, as you rightly point out, so this is one way of playing to our strengths.

  3. Al says:

    Could you enlarge your analysis to look at a greater context here.
    It may not be that learners arent “ready for it” or “up for it” completely; and that the delivery method of “bums in seats” and more importantly assessment methods that have a battery farm approach may also be important elements in addressing the potential of a question of decline?

    • foleyg says:

      I think the key issue is the student motivation one. I think there is only so much we can do to improve student engagement and commitment . There is also the problem – and I get into trouble for saying this – that if you increase participation rates, the average standard of the intake drops, the lecturers reduce their expectations and everyone loses out, especially the good students.

  4. Dear Greg,

    I read this post, and one previously (‘finding your level’) with jaw dropped. I wonder if you have reasoned out what you are advocating?

    Your dismissal of teaching and learning “culture” as a kind of antithesis to meaningful learning simply does not add up. We know more now than we ever have about how people learn. This is based on more than five decades of research evidence, which states that going into a lecture room, speaking for 50 minutes, and leaving is a waste of everyone’s time. You might as well just give a bulleted list of topics with the equations and go have an early coffee. What you mean to say is that students “back in the day” were better able to cope with that. While I think it is simplistic, I agree that some of my most memorable learning experiences were when the lecturer was awful and I had to go figure it out for myself.

    However, when the teaching and learning community advocate a system of teaching that might capitalise on this idea that students engaging with material in a meaningful way (i.e. to try to understand it rather than just learn it for an exam), you dismiss it, perhaps because who was advocating it. Your scorn, for example, with the option of providing variety in assessment, means that you blindly dismiss out of hand different means of assessing the same learning outcomes. Do you not think this is possible? What we want to know is if students understand a topic. Can you not conceive that there are a variety of ways to check this? What a brave lecturer that “teaching and learning ‘expert'” was, willing to negotiate that minefield with students and correct those various assessments.

    Our teaching and learning culture has had to change, and still has to change to meet the needs of our population. More students are attending third level. This does not imply that there was some halcyon time when everything was wonderful. In the previous decades, there were problems with low participation outside the professional classes, and this is still a problem we face today. Just today I heard of a report penned in the 1960s expressing concerns over lecturer quality (especially in relation to drunkenness). We live in a world where we will be ranked based on our performance globally, affecting inward investment etc etc. We can’t stay in the days of the comely maidens dancing at the crossroads with 10% obtaining a degree. I agree it would make our jobs a lot easier, if we had one in that scenario. Massification brings problems, of course. But the solution cannot be to just ignore our responsibilities to produce an educated society. We need to work on how we cope with the very recent surge in numbers over the last two decades. This takes experimenting, not putting a head in the sand and grimacing about the good old days. Nor does it require that we give good marks or go easy because we want to be liked.

    Your Swiss colleague, who you seem to agree with, makes a callous, frankly despicable, suggestion about making first year really hard, so those not up to the mark won’t waste much time at third level. We have struggled and still struggle with representation across all sectors of society at third level. It is a simple fact that children of professional parents will go on to higher education as a matter of course; whereas 1 in 4 children from a non-manual working class family will take this route. I doubt that the former group are as a whole cleverer. It is acknowledged, again by a lot of research, that there are a wide range of issues affecting 1st year performance; many of these outside the academic domain. The response from the teaching and learning community is not to just make everything easier. I challenge you to identify this hypothetical person, because they are not reading the education literature! The response is to think beyond the lecture room and exam, not to dismiss them, but not to make them the sole means of teaching and of learning. What genuine problem does an engineer solve in the confines of a two hour exam with no reference material? How do you know your graduates are any good at problem solving?

    Of course your greatest fallacy is that you rely on the Leaving Cert as a measure of how good students are academically. This is farcical. This measures how good students are at learning things off. Not at creativity, design, innovation, social justice, or a range of other attributes important to society. We don’t need 60,000 actuary graduates every year. Even in this narrow remit, we are not doing well in comparison to OECD. The best and brightest that you want to reserve 3rd level for aren’t as good as they could be. Your implicit snobbery about level 6 and level 7 suggests the possibility that students at these levels are a failure, not capable for the demands of Level 8. In my short career I have already seen dozens of students starting at Level 5 (FETAC) or Level 7 and working their way up to graduation, post-graduation, and jobs that certainly pay more than my salary, and probably even yours. Who was the gatekeeper with these students? How come they did well in a system that you purport feeds them everything and expects nothing? I suspect that the threat of your losing of the keys is the real root of your concern.


    • foleyg says:


      Thanks for the comment. It has only appeared now because I’ve just realised that many comments have been going to Spam.

      Anyway, there’s a lot in here to talk about and I’ll try to reply to as much as I can….

      When I “dismiss” teaching and learning culture, I am criticizing two things: (i) a general tendency – in my view – to over-teach and to spoon-feed (to the point of pandering) and (ii) a tendency to adopt unvalidated educational ideas that while superficially appealing and plausible are actually not properly validated. Take the example of ‘learning styles’. My reading of the cognitive science literature is that there is no real evidence to support this concept and similar concepts like multiple intelligence. Yet these ideas are still advocated despite the real logistical problems they would cause. You might like to check out some of Daniel Willingham’s writings here. I think we need to be very careful about adopting methods purely on the grounds that they are more ‘engaging’ both for the student and – crucially – for the lecturer. They have to be proven to foster effective learning because being engaged is not the same as learning and measuring the effectiveness of learning is not easy. It is important to say, though, that I have never suggested that lecturing was either the best or the only way to teach – it really all depends on the topic and what the precise purpose of the lecture is. I rarely give a full lecture myself, spending just as much time on problem-solving sessions in which I can interact with the students and see what level they are at. It is when I do this and when I ‘teach by walking around’ in laboratory modules that I realise how woefully prepared many students are for study at honours degree level. The level of their mathematical skills, in particular, is staggeringly low and I’m not just talking about first year students so its not solely a problem with the Leaving Cert. I also talk a lot to students informally – and I’ve surveyed over 400 hundred of them formally – and I have absolutely no doubt that many students lack the commitment necessary for college education. They are fine, likeable people but they are not putting in the amount of independent study that they need to. I think they severely underestimate what is required.

      Incidentally, I do think that being able to listen to a lecture, extract meaning and record key ideas and facts in your own set of notes is actually a valuable life skill and shouldn’t be dismissed. Also when I criticised the ‘Teaching and Learning’ expert, I was criticising the idea that all students should not reach an objective standard – he was suggesting not so much that the assessment method matched the student’s learning style (if such a thing were to exist) but seemed to be suggesting that similar assessments of varying difficulty could be offered to students to accommodate their varying ability. Of course, it is good to assess with variety, but surely everybody must be assessed in the same way? In fairness and now that I think about it he was probably talking about assessment as a means of aiding learning (formative?).

      On the very question of assessment, I don’t have scorn for anything and I think that variety is important – key in fact. I assess in different ways myself – everyone who teaches on a science or engineering program assesses in lots of different ways – exams, lab reports, term papers, projects, group work, computer calculations etc. But designing good assessments is tricky. I recall many years ago when I did a graduate level module in the US and it was assessed by a ‘take home’ exam, it took we a whole week to finish it. But the curious thing was that although this sounded like a great idea – promoting real thinking and all that – I found that I could recall very little of the content of the module a few months later. Now you might argue that content is not so important and the exam would have helped to develop my problem solving skills – perhaps – but again, cognitive science suggests that knowledge is a key component of the ability to think about, and solve, problems. Thus while the assessment method seemed very forward-thinking it was flawed in my view because I committed nothing to memory. Indeed, it is interesting that people talk a lot about the evils of rote learning but the problem nowadays is that students are not rote learning when they should be and rote learning when they shouldn’t be.

      On the massification issue, I am not advocating an elitist system. But, I think we have created an education ladder when we should have an education network. I am all for the massification of third level education but not for the massification of honours degrees. Part of it is that I believe many students are simply not ‘able’ for honours degree, many don’t really want to study to that level and trying to force or even encourage everybody up the ladder is actually counter-productive both for the society and the individual. For example, there is a big ‘push’ on to encourage students into STEM subjects – the promise of jobs in the ‘knowledge economy’ being the carrot. The result is that we have a large numbers of students with no innate interest in the subject that they are going to study for four long years. I recently polled my second year class of 35 and only one student had ever read a book about any aspect of science or ever accessed science-themed websites. I actually feel sorry for many students – for me it would be like having to suffer four years of education theory! I don’t think the system is really responding to the real needs of young people.

      Regarding the chat with my Swiss colleague, I am not advocating some sort of heartless cull just for the sake of it. What I am saying is that unless students are made aware – early – of the challenges of third level, they will suffer badly and often for the whole four years. Our failure rates have increased steadily over the years – we even have repeat finals – despite all of us trying harder and harder. And make no mistake, we take our teaching very seriously – DCU always has. It is genuinely upsetting to see students repeating over and over as we do our best to drag them through the system. There is a huge level of compassion for students because many of us have recognised that students are being herded through a system that is not matched to their ability and their interests. I don’t think it is right to put the sole blame for this kind of thing on an out-of-date system that uses obsolete teaching methods – there’s loads of innovation going on, at least in DCU. This is a cultural problem.

      Although you dismiss the Leaving Cert (and of course it has a lot wrong with it mainly due to the fact that it has become an entry exam for a massified honours degree system and must be as fair and transparent as possible – notwithstanding the inevitable problems caused by economic and social inequality) but we generally find that Leaving Cert points correlate quite well with the general class performance (if not each individual) and we’re delighted when our entry points increase. Classes with higher average points often seem to have a much better work ethic and attitude.

      In my view, the Leaving Cert will prove to be impossible to fix unless we decouple it – at least partly – from entry to third level. But while it is easy to talk about fostering creativity and innovation, it is extremely difficult to devise an assessment system that rewards such skills in a way that is open, reproducible, fair and transparent. We are talking here about qualities that are quite subjective. Indeed, I find it endlessly frustrating to hear people – Ken Robinson, Lord Puttnam, newspaper columnists etc – talk incessantly about how the education system needs to be revolutionised to reward all the attributes you mention. This talk has been going on for years! But I have no recollection of any single real, tangible, workable suggestion as to how we can organise a mass education system in such a way as to achieve these things. Suggestions like the introduction of continuous assessment or project work are not suggestions at all because they just kick the can down the road. CA, for example, poses the same challenges in rewarding basic skill and knowledge at the same time as creativity and initiative – in a fair and transparent manner.

      Anyway, nice to discuss these things.


      • Hi Greg,

        No problem re delay, thanks for publishing a long comment and for your response. Discussion is important, I agree!

        You are criticising learning and teaching culture for advocating spoon-feeding and adopting unvalidated ideas. I would counter this by saying that many teaching innovations (and certainly any I advocate) involve pushing work back on the student (I can give examples from my own practice and more), although it may be better structured in describing what we expect of them. This is exactly the point of not just giving students lots of stuff, but actually involving them in content generation. Re unvalidated ideas: this is why we as teaching staff and curriculum designers need to liaise with and work with experts (I mean experts, not gurus). Learning styles are a myth, and a good example of someone who acts on gut feeling rather than relying on literature and evidence (this applies to both sides of the fence). It is difficult to validate particular innovations unless they have been tried and tested, so there is a chicken-and-egg scenario. However, grounding them in general, well established educational theories is I think a valid approach. I have been heavily influenced by cognitive load theory, so that is what I hang any change in my teaching approach on.

        The criticism of the learning and teaching expert was that they assessed learning outcomes differently, not that they considered different learning styles (as I understood your original article’s paragraph).

        Re maths ability etc, of course, we all agree on capabilities we see in our students, and this is not just an Irish problem. But colleges can’t have it both ways. Whatever about points, we set the minimum entry requirements. We say to students, if you reach these requirements, you should be capable of completing this programme (in answer also to your Swiss friend). If we are finding that is not the case, then there is a moral onus to increase those minimum entry requirements.

        Regarding educational innovation etc, I would argue that it is too piecemeal, currently still at early adopter and keen enthusiast level. Joining up the individual bits into overall programme design might begin to show impact.

        On a personal note, as someone who has studied Leaving Cert performance and college performance extensively, the correlation you find between the two would set alarm bells ringing for me! I remember a J Chem Ed paper from about 1928 that said something like it was easy to predict how very good students will do and very weak students will do, but not how the bulk in the middle will do. Does it not concern you that you find your students’ college performance follows that students obtain in this highly criticised, obviously flawed exam?

        I had hoped for a short comment. Oh well!


        • foleyg says:

          Not much time to reply – 18 lectures next week! Crazy. I suppose if I am sure about anything in the whole T&L sphere it is that the most important determinant of student learning is student commitment. I have tried lots of ‘innovations’ over the years – I might write my next blog about my experiences – but I keep coming back to the idea that education is a partnership that needs a buy-in from both parties, student and lecturer. While the Leaving is flawed I do find that I get a much greater buy-in from students with higher points. I see that already with the surge in our points which have gone from about 365 to 485 in a few years. The general vibe in the class is so much better. Of course there are all sorts of variations with that basic observation – some people develop in different ways from others etc. But if I have a problem with what I call the T&L ‘culture’, it seems to trap many lecturers and teachers (especially young lectures in my experience) into a belief that being a better teacher involves doing more for the student rather than doing better. Actually, I’ve written an ebook on this and many other academic matters which I’m going to make available for iPad and Kindle and it will be released next month. I’ll supply the details on my blog in a few weeks time. I hope it will be provocative and I’m sure some people will hate it!


  5. Absolutely, even if sometimes summer results look like this:

    Sometimes the have to. The students are able, they just try to go for the easiest path to their degree; pretty much like I did.

  6. foleyg says:

    Al, if I understand what you are saying, it is that if we adopted more innovative, more engaging approaches to teaching, we would have much better outcomes. I’m not convinced. I can only speak for DCU when I say that there is a huge amount of innovation going on but I don’t see the benefits emerging. The old idea of students just coming to lectures to passively listen to a lecturer drone on are long gone – universities haven’t been like that for some time. There is a huge amount of variety now in third level teaching. But the basic problems still remain. It seems to me that there is no magic bullet or bullets – it really needs a change in student mindset. Unfortunately, the mindset of the student seems to be firmly established in second level and we do not seem to be able to deconstruct it in third level. That’s what I mean when I say that we have to be more ‘brutal’. Students have to get the message that they are in a completely new environment when they come to college. I don’t think we’re getting that message across. Greg

    • Al says:

      My emphasis would be more towards reflecting on the assessment side of things.

      • foleyg says:

        I agree that much of learning is driven by the way we assess. But setting challenging assessments that reward creativity and critical thinking – as well as basic knowledge and skills – is not easy and very risky The way we assess is also linked in the mind of the students – and the population generally – with fairness. Many people equate predictability with fairness, particularly at second level.

  7. Totally agree with ” the way to improve the standard was simply to make the material harder!” academics are free to teach and assess what and how they want, they should use that power. Even if summer exam results look like this:

  8. Thanks a million for this, you had me laughing out loud throughout the post, you’ve created a hilariously exaggerated version of the grumpy old lecturer routine “Things used to be so good in the olden days … grrrr, young people today … students are so lazy now … and they expect us not only to be an expert in our field, but they also want us to learn how to teach as well”

    It is funny stuff, but I think you went too far in a few places:

    • “anyone who denies this decline is welcome to have a look at some exam scripts with me next January” – might be just your problem, might be anecdotal evidence.

    • “Every student is now seen as ‘special”’ – imagine that! If we start treating them like human beings they’re only going to start demanding human rights! etc.!

    • “This is a way of thinking about education that has nothing to do with commercialism or managerialism” –are you serious? The more education becomes a business, the more that objective standards will be throw out the window, commercialism of education means that if you pay your fees, you get a qualification. It is _everything_ to do with commercialism and managerialism.

    • “I can say, with some embarrassment, that I have dumbed down my courses.” – well that’s your problem, I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years and I haven’t dumbed down my material, so I think this might be just your problem.

    • “This ‘brutality’ is seen in all walks of life.” – again, speak for yourself, not for me and not in my name, I’d never wish to expose anyone to brutality, or be seen to justify it.

    • “Most young people who aspire to careers in sport will never make the grade.” – sport and education serve very different purposes, it’s a pointless analogy.

    • “we blame the quality of our lecturers, that they are not being sufficiently supportive and that they are not making the material ‘engaging’ enough.” – who does this, I have never, ever encountered this in my entire teaching career either as a lecturer or an external examiner, who do you think is blaming you?

    • foleyg says:


      Actually I’m not that grumpy at all! Quite cheery actually but passionate. My own time in UCD in the eighties was characterized by having to endure many abysmal lecturers so I’m not hankering for anything.

      On the exam scripts thing, I don’t work in a vacuum and I and my colleagues discuss these issues – a lot. In my ‘circle’ there is a general feeling of almost despondency around exam time. These are not reactionaries but committed people who take their job very seriously and are slightly embarrassed by how low their expectations have become.

      On the ‘special’ issue, I am not saying that people are not ‘special’ in the human sense – that would be a ludicrous thing to say. I treat my students very well and I think they enjoy being taught by me – I am not an old grouch ranting on about ‘standards’. I am trying to make a serious point – not very well obviously – that there is an atmosphere (for lack of a better word) that teaching methods should be tailored to the individual, structured so as to accommodate different ‘styles’ of learning (no such thing actually), to accommodate students of different capabilities and to allow students to learn at their own pace. It is taken as a given that developments like these are inherently good. I am not convinced that they are, at least at honours degree level. Fine, if we’re talking about primary and secondary education where you are giving a young person a basic foundation, but is by no means obvious to me that such an approach leads to either better learning or that it gives young people better training for the workplace.

      On the managerialism and commercialism thing, all I can do is repeat what I have said before on a number of times: Nobody has ever dictated to me what I should teach, how I should teach it or what grades I should assign. I know nobody in DCU who has had to endure such meddling either and we are the ‘University of Enterprise’. Perhaps it is a problem in other universities (especially in the US) or in other faculties in DCU, but I haven’t seen it. So although I don’t like everything the managers do and have fears about universities being dictated to by business and industry, I remain convinced that academics still retain the bulk of the control over their teaching. If individual academics have had the experience of having their teaching interfered with by ‘managers’ they need to be talking about it, not in terms of generalities like ‘mangerialism’ but in terms of actual specifics in which meddling has occurred. If they are fearful there are ways of ‘whistle blowing’ anonymously.

      If you haven’t dumbed down, that’s great. But I have and so have many of my colleagues. I don’t know what you teach but my own teaching has been severely impacted by the general decline in basic mathematical skills in the west generally. There are things I simply cannot do now that I used to do because the maths skills just are not there. Again I talk to colleagues about this a lot (I don’t write my blog from a bubble) and many people I talk to agree that they have dumbed down too.

      On the ‘brutality’ issue, I think you’ve deliberately taken that word literally as if to imply that I am advocating some sort of mean-spirited culling of students. In the blog I tried to explain what I meant which was that life is hard, some things in life are very hard and some of us will fail at some of the hurdles that life puts in front of us. But we should not expect the height of the hurdles to change to suit us and we should recognise that failure is not always a bad thing. As I said, many students struggle for years through a third level education, suffering trauma and huge financial stress in the process. At many exam boards at which I have sat, we have had very long discussions about individual students, asking ourselves if we are actually doing the student any favours by letting them scrape through (technically by breaking the rules) or if they would be better served by leaving and going on to do something else. The problem is that once you adopt what is superficially the compassionate approach, you find – at least in my experience – that they get to third or fourth year and you feel that you almost owe the student a qualification. Or maybe you’ve seen none of this wherever you work in which case you’re fortunate not to have been put in situations like these.

      Actually, I think sport is a very good analogy and I use sporting analogies in my teaching a lot, especially when talking about study habits, the need to build basic skills and the need to practice. Student actually respond to idea that sometimes study is a bit like having to get up early to go to training or whatever, even on cold winter mornings. It’s not much fun but it has to be done nonetheless. I find students tend to buy in to that analogy.

      Finally, the ‘we’ that you mention at the end of your comments really refers to society in general not us the lecturers obviously. But if you read any comment on education generally – and I read a lot – poor educational outcomes are nearly always blamed on the ‘system’, especially the methods of the ‘teachers. Teaching methods are ‘out of date’, students aren’t being ‘engaged’ etc. If you haven’t that perception of the type of commentary you get about educational matters all I can say is that I am surprised.



  9. “My own time in UCD in the eighties was characterized by having to endure many abysmal lecturers so I’m not hankering for anything.” — I wonder would you agree with me that it’s good for students to have some poor lecturers, it helps them develop independent study skills and learning strategies?

    “On the exam scripts thing, I don’t work in a vacuum and I and my colleagues discuss these issues – a lot. In my ‘circle’ there is a general feeling of almost despondency around exam time” — I hang around with people that agree with me also, so I’m not sure about this point.

    “there is an atmosphere (for lack of a better word) that teaching methods should be tailored to the individual, structured so as to accommodate different ‘styles’ of learning (no such thing actually)” – it might be a DCU specific thing. I know you are familiar with Daniel Willingham’s work on learning styles, and his idea that they don’t exist; are you familiar with his other work – he thinks the brain doesn’t “like” to think, he doesn’t think the brain exhibits neuro-plasticity, he regularly makes several completely incorrect assertions about computers, and thinks memorization is the same as problem solving. I think he is making a pointless statement when he says that there is no such thing as learning styles unless he can do an experiment to show that it doesn’t exist. His argument is “well I don’t see it happen”, he needs to read Popper’s Falsifiability demarcation criterion for scientific statements.

    “by no means obvious to me that such an approach leads to either better learning” — well try out an experiment and see how it works, have a go with the Felder-Silverman model and see if it works, then you’ll know, just give it a go, and if it doesn’t work, happy days, it’s not for you, but I know a lot of engineers who use it and find it helpful.

    “Nobody has ever dictated to me what I should teach” – dude, you are lucky, I have to teach what I’m given 😦

    ” If they are fearful there are ways of ‘whistle blowing’ anonymously.” — seriously, have you read The Protected Disclosures Bill 2013 that covers whistleblowing, it’s a toothless piece of legislation.

    “If you haven’t dumbed down, that’s great. But I have and so have many of my colleagues” — they might be just telling you they have to make you feel good.

    “I don’t know what you teach but my own teaching has been severely impacted by the general decline in basic mathematical skills in the west generally.” – I’m a computer science lecturer, which is a highly numerate discipline the way I teach it, but the weakness in students’ mathematical ability didn’t cause me to dumb down the material, I just to teach the hard maths in a different way, but achieve the same understanding.

    “The problem is that once you adopt what is superficially the compassionate approach, you find – at least in my experience – that they get to third or fourth year and you feel that you almost owe the student a qualification.” – Where I teach we have a saying “Students have a right to fail, it is unfair to deny them this right”. That is not how I understood your original post, I thought you meant make it very hard for them at the start so that they could even get in, or get past first year.

    Sports and Education — The analogy makes it seem like you are advocating an elitist approach to education, since we know sporty people are the elite, but I think I know what you mean now.

    “If you haven’t that perception of the type of commentary you get about educational matters all I can say is that I am surprised.” — As I can say is that I am aware of this sort of think on the comments section of The Irish Times by BrightRedShoes47 and other researchers, or on whiny educational bloggers, but seriously no one whose opinion is worth worrying about. The comment I don’t like that I constantly read is the crap that the public sector is slow-moving and bloated, and the private sector is nimble and active. I worked in the private sector for years, and let me tell you it ain’t that nimble, and just because we’re in the public sector doesn’t mean we don’t pay tax too!

    this is good stuff,


  10. foleyg says:


    I shouldn’t really be replying as have a lab coming up in ten minutes but can’t resist. Briefly:

    I agree that there were courses that we had back then that were ‘so bad they were good’, a topic I talk briefly about in an ebook I’ve written based on this blog – out in December,

    I don’t really just talk to people I agree with – in fact I would be known for being a reasonably independent thinker who often would be better keeping his mouth shut but all I can say is a large number of academics to whom I talk, not just in DCU (but admittedly in similar disciplines) is that they are frustrated at the lack of basic skills and a bit baffled as to how students can get to second and third year of college while lacking the ability to do basic algebra for example.

    The whole learning styles thing and the idea of tailoring instruction to the student is a big issue that is fascinating both in terms of whether it leads to better learning and as to whether it is an appropriate way of preparing students for life. I might write something on it when I get the chance. I am a fan of Willingham I admit but he is not alone in his view on learning styles. Have a look at “Bad Education” – can’t remember the authors but it’s an interesting book albeit quite focused on the English system. Or “Teacher Proof”, again I forget the author but its a very funny book as well as giving an interesting perspective from a real teacher.

    Over the years I’ve given loads of things a go. My next post will be about my experiences of ‘innovation’. I’ve kept some, modified some and discarded some – for all sorts of reasons, both pedagogical and logistical. My conclusion from everything I’ve done is that the mindset of the student is crucial and we have limited ability to change that mindset (although – and student mindset is not just an educational issue, it’s a cultural one. Obviously we are obliged to do our best to encourage them to commit.

    Finally, maybe I’m being over-sensitive to commentaries but the general sense I get from a lot of what I read – and the perception of the mass media and politicians and their advisers is important, probably more so that that of credible academics – is that all the ills of the system are due to failures of the system itself. Take the latest Forfas report in which it makes the point that the ‘system’ is not delivering the graduates that the country needs for the IT industry. It states that 44,000 jobs will need to be filled over the next six years. But what is not mentioned is that in this year’s CAO system, only about 4000 students expressed a first preference choice to do an IT-related course. Nobody has seriously stopped to consider that students are not doing IT courses simply because they don’t fancy a career in that sector! That’s a perfectly reasonable position to hold and the relatively low interest in IT-related courses is not necessarily the system’s’ ‘fault’.

    Anyway, got to go………

  11. Thanks for this, hope the lab went well…

    “the idea of tailoring instruction to the student is a big issue” – I definitely take learning styles to mean that the lecturer needs to vary their delivery mode, in contrast to the idea of individual tailored instruction which is a silly idea, if the students learn everything in a manner that best suits them they won’t develop the learning strategies and skills to be fully rounded learners. We want the student to know how to learn. I think the best way take learning styles is as a reminder to teach around the cycle.

    “My conclusion from everything I’ve done is that the mindset of the student is crucial and we have limited ability to change that mindset” — agreed, student disposition is a vital element to learning, some studies (Hattie, Marzano, etc.) show this, and also say quality of instructional material and promptness of feedback as big hitters also (stuff we can do from our side of things). And from the sound of things, that you experiment around with teaching approaches, you are taking care of your end of things, so the students have to step up.

    “Nobody has seriously stopped to consider that students are not doing IT courses simply because they don’t fancy a career in that sector!” — agreed, we see it here every day, and more importantly we don’t want to recruit tens of thousands of IT students this year, and end up with a load of unemployed graduates in four years time, like regrettably has happened in the building industry.

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