The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 3. Duration

I think we need to reduce the average time that students spend at third level. This is one area where I have been accused of elitism in the past, but my basic thesis is this: far too many students are spending too much time struggling through college in an attempt to get an honours degree and perhaps even Level 6 and 7 qualifications. In the universities, we almost feel an obligation to drag people through all four years once they have survived the first couple of years. There have been times in the past when our exam board meetings have been almost farcical such was our ‘compassion’. This leads to what we have today – at least in my experience – and that is a burgeoning failure rate in the final years of degree programs.

It is my view that many students who attend third level have the capacity and the commitment to study to Level 6 or 7 at most. To be eligible for Level 8 – a four-year program – one should have to meet certain standards in second and third year. I believe that all students should be given an ‘escape’ mechanism after each year – and they should have to avail of it. That means giving all the universities the ability to award qualifications at Level 7 (and maybe even Level 6) and to introduce demanding standards for Level 8 qualifications. Furthermore, the universities have to be open about this and not see the ‘production’ of Level 7 graduates as a failure on their parts. More importantly, we have got to get past the notion that not achieving Level 8 standard reflects a personal failure on behalf of the student. But this requires a buy-in from society and an admission by employers that many jobs do not really need four years of third level study. Indeed, there are some three-year degrees around that are validated to Level 8.

Many of our students in DCU, even those who are not academic high-flyers by any means, perform perfectly adequately on their INTRA work placement which they do at the end of third year. They then go on to stumble through final year where it is hard to see what personal benefit they gain and what added value the employer will eventually get as a result. This is particularly evident in project work where the weaker students perform satisfactorily only as long as they are given precise instructions on an almost daily basis. Independent research is beyond them.

We have got to stop thinking of education as a ladder that everyone is encouraged to climb and if you don’t make it to Level 8 rung (at least), you’re a failure.

Next Tuesday, I’ll talk about innovation.



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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3 Responses to The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 3. Duration

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland – 3. Duration

  2. Al says:

    Your model was only a full time education one?
    Could there not be more adaptation to allow people who are in employment to pursue further/higher education? (Ignoring the further/ higher education terminology debate)

    The idea relating to escape mechanism is interesting but it would probably mean a large effort would be required to determine what appropriate programmatic learning outcomes would be needed at each year…

  3. Greg Foley says:

    You’re right on both counts. Despite all the rhetoric, we haven’t really grasped the part-time and lifelong learning nettles (the CSO figures are very interesting in this regard – no progress in part-time education in last decade.) But youngsters who might only be able for Level 6/7 (or who might only want to go to that level now), could well decide a few years down the line, with the benefit of experience, that they would like to ‘upgrade’ to Level 8 and even Level 9. But we need for not only the educators but also the employers to buy into this.

    On the escape mechanism, you’re right in saying that the we would have to ensure that each year of a four year degree programme ended in a meaningful way, so that 2-year, 3-year and 4-year qualifications would all make sense. We wouldn’t want a situation where a 3-year degree is just a 4-year degree with a random bit chopped off.

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