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.