In the wake of the Grant Thornton report, I’ve decided to do a coherent series of posts on the third level sector. We all know the third level system is struggling but in many ways it is performing heroically in the face of totally unrealistic expectations. I know the public sector-bashers will find this hard to believe but if private sector companies improved their productivity as much as the third level sector has done in recent years they would be doing very nicely indeed. Just consider that there has been a 25% drop in state funding per student since 2006, a statistic made possible by a large reduction in lecturing staff numbers and a large increase in student numbers. My own teaching load has increased by 50% in recent years. Then think about calls by the Minister and others for us to ‘do more’ or to ‘get our houses in order’.
Anyway, over the next 10 days, I will put together some thoughts on the third level system. I’m not going to focus exclusively on the funding issue – that is to a large extent a political problem. I’ll also look at various issues related to quality, issues that are not necessarily funding-related.
One of the key points to be made, however, is that it is absolutely crucial for education that the economy recovers. Education and the economy are in a co-dependent relationship and it is not correct to see one as the ‘driver’ of the other. Unless there is a strong employment market for graduates and unless the state finances are healthy, all discussion about the education sector will remain in the realm of crisis management, in the realm of fantasy (e.g. the innovation obsession) or in the realm of the hypothetical. For example, there was a sudden interest in the German apprenticeship model of education last year but the whole discussion, while interesting, was pretty meaningless in the absence of a functioning, manufacturing-based economy with a strong demand for apprentices of all kinds. Furthermore, the lack of opportunities for bachelor’s graduates in many disciplines – including the politicians’ favourite, the STEM subjects (36% graduate employment in 2012) – drives the development of fourth level education, not because such a level of education is absolutely necessary, but because it serves the important function of providing students with the chance to do something more rewarding and meaningful than being unemployed. Fourth level education then becomes a funding opportunity for the third level institutions rather than a pressing need for the economy and the society.
A malfunctioning economy means that it is very difficult to design and optimise a third level system because many perfectly reasonable suggestions for its improvement – especially streamlining – could mean consigning young people to unemployment. In that sense, even a bloated third level sector plays an important social and cultural role during times of recession.
But let’s not be too fatalistic and over the next 10 days I will try to identify where key changes can be made.