When Jackie Lavin made her ill-fated appearance on RTE’s Prime Time, she actually did education some service. One of her key points – albeit clumsily made – was that students spend too long at college, only to end up ‘not having a clue’. Whatever about their not having a clue, the suggestion that students spend too long at college is one that deserves serious consideration.
The argument for having an extended period in higher education is that as well as acquiring knowledge, students acquire all sorts of higher order skills like critical thinking, not to mention general maturity. That is true, of course, but the truth of this proposition is not the issue. As with many aspects of education – notably PhD-level study – we are not using the correct ‘control’ in making our argument. Let’s consider two students; one spends three years at college while the other spends four years. In theory, the student who spends four years acquires additional knowledge and additional ‘skills’ in critical thinking etc. But what about the person who has spent the ‘fourth year’ in the workplace, perhaps even in a workplace that is not directly related to his or her studies. The key question now is this: does the extra year in higher education contribute to the development of the student to a greater extent than the year in the workplace? The answer to this question is not obvious and depends on both the aptitude of the student and his or her ability to study at fourth year level, and on the quality of the employment in question. In other words, Jackie Lavin’s suggestion that (some) students spend too long at college is one that is worth taking seriously.
In DCU, our students undertake a compulsory six-month placement in business/industry at the end of a shortened third year – a tacit admission of the value of work-based education. This is our INTRA program. There is general agreement amongst the academics and most of the students that the INTRA experience is hugely valuable and it is something that we are desperately trying to keep afloat in these days of recession and unpaid internships. We find that our students mature enormously during their six months in the workplace and many of them, despite being academically limited, are rated very highly by their employers.
In my view, many of our students should not return for further academic study immediately post-INTRA. Many prove to have little or no capacity for the more independence-requiring, research-focused curriculum of final year. Some even seem to regress as the year goes on and failed marks at final year are becoming increasingly common. Many students would be far better off staying in business or industry where they can continue to develop and receive further training, perhaps to return to higher education at some later date. In effect, they would personally benefit from an exit qualification at the end of the INTRA placement.
As academics, we are often guilty of a sort of arrogance in that we assume that universities and institutes are the only places where education occurs. Yet, I think most of us who teach at third level would probably agree that much of our knowledge and understanding of our disciplines has been acquired ‘on the job’ in our role as educators. The reality is that education continues throughout all our lives and when young graduates enter the workplace, they continue to learn and to acquire all those higher order skills like critical thinking over which we in higher education seem to be claiming ownership. But, we do not have a monopoly on education.
The education system needs to become more flexible and it needs to acquire the characteristics of a network or web rather than a ladder. We need to provide students with the ability to negotiate their own individual pathways through the network, perhaps stopping off at various points along the way, only to step back on when they are ready to do so. We need to recognise the educational value of work and to see education as a much more seamless activity that does not stop at the gates of the third level institutions. Why shouldn’t students, for example, graduate with a Level 7 qualification, only to ‘top it up’ to Level 8 some years later, perhaps through innovative, online and project-based education in fields of study in which they are actually interested and in which they have genuine industrial or business experience? Actually, interdisciplinarity might emerge quite organically in this way.
As the demands on third level increase and budgets fail to keep apace, we need to embrace new, more flexible, ways of education that are not only more cost-effective but more geared towards the needs and, especially, the aptitudes of our students. Employers need to play their part too because they seem to have a growing sense of entitlement when it comes to education.