Neglecting the core business of undergraduate education

Despite the demands that are increasingly being placed on universities, their core ‘business’ is the education of young people, especially at undergraduate level. But the economic collapse, the globalisation of education and the ongoing obsession with international rankings, makes it inevitable that universities place a large emphasis on activities that could be described as ‘high profile’. Thus, universities are characterised these days by an emphasis on centres of excellence, ‘institutes’, university-industry interactions, university-university clusters, memoranda of understanding and initiatives of all kinds. Furthermore, the need for new income streams has created an emphasis on attracting foreign students who will pay high fees. This often means the development of completely new modules and even new programmes.

Achieving all of the ‘high profile’ objectives is important and absolutely necessary in the modern academic environment but it comes with a price. Here’s what happens: Some of the most capable academics are effectively seconded into ‘strategic’ roles in such a way that their contribution to the core business of teaching undergraduates becomes greatly reduced. This can leave a gaping hole behind, one that the ‘ordinary’ academics and post-docs have to fill. This is fine up to a point but it can rapidly get out of hand as the number of academics keeping the ‘show on the road’ becomes unsustainably small. This puts some degree programs in a very precarious state where their very ability to function is on a knife-edge. For example, at the end of this year I will have taught into nine separate undergraduate modules, not including project and project-related modules. As one of the few experienced people left standing, I will have been module coordinator for them all, meaning that I look after all of the administrative aspects of those modules. This includes the preparation of no less than 12 end-of semester examination papers in engineering, including repeats. That’s lot of ‘sums’ amounting to about 80 pages of equation-filled exams. Not only is this unsustainable for me personally but it leads to mistakes being made and I have made them. I am frustrated that I am being placed in a position where my ability to do my job to the best of my ability is compromised. And what does it say about the credibility of a program in which one person teaches such a wide range of modules?

My situation is hardly unique and reflects a malaise in the system, a malaise that is not visible in the gloomy third level funding figures that I presented in my previous post. In a perfectly understandable effort to make initiatives of all kinds, universities are, regrettably, neglecting their core mission. I think the average academic ‘on the ground’ knows this but I’m not sure that there is an awareness of this at higher levels. There seems to be a disconnect between the rhetoric used in policy circles and the realities faced by those academics who are holding the fort.

I think there is a fundamental problem in that decision-makers seem to think that teaching undergraduates is easy – anyone can do it and it will look after itself. It takes real talent to ‘head-up’ a strategic initiative but an inexperienced post-doc can easily fill the teaching gap left behind. A value judgement is being made and undergraduate teaching is bottom of the value chain. We pay lots of lip-service to the importance of undergraduate teaching and talk a lot about graduate attributes but we continue to make decisions – perhaps inadvertently – that weaken our ability to deliver on our core mission. Perhaps there is a presumption at high levels that those who might be termed ‘middle management’ can deal with the depletion of staff in an effective way. They can’t. The only process I can see is one that involves individual department heads besieging the Executive Dean with requests for resources – especially staff resources – and he who shouts loudest and most effectively wins. Departments are in competition rather than in collaboration. Part of the decision-making process involves metrics like staff-student ratios and discussions about staffing frequently involve all sorts of jargon like ‘backfill’. It strikes me that if one is to have a Faculty or College structure, the Faculty – indeed the university – should function like a single entity and allocation of resources should be done purely on the basis of need and not on the basis of civil service-like metrics. Essentially, resource allocation should take into account the concept of risk and the fact that some departments and programs might well be in a very vulnerable position – perhaps by virtue of their role in strategic initiatives – even if their metrics are satisfactory. When many staff make little or no contribution to the teaching mission, staff-student ratios mean nothing.

It seems to me that when universities adopt strategies that are heavy with new, forward-thinking initiatives, they need to build into those strategies a logical approach for protecting the core business. That is simply not being done at the very time when undergraduate education is in crisis. It is deeply, deeply frustrating.

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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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One Response to Neglecting the core business of undergraduate education

  1. cormac says:

    Couldn’t agree more. except in our place the studen numberse just get bigger and bigger to match the political ambitions of managers while the number of staff to teach them reduces year on year

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