This is the text (more or less) of a letter I lashed off the the Irish Times last week. Not surprisingly given its length, it didn’t get published but why waste it?
The recent ESRI report highlighting the difficulties that school-leavers face in making the transition to third level education has already sparked much comment. This problem has been known to the third level institutions for some time and while efforts have been made to make the transition smoother for incoming students, only so much can be done with the resources available. Many of the suggestions for solving this problem will inevitably focus on the second level system. Novel, but largely invalidated methods of teaching and learning will be advocated. However, the worst way to approach the transition problem is to use it to inspire more tinkering with the second level system. (The ‘second-worst’ is to make third level more like second level and this has been happening.) The second level sector will always be confronted with the challenge of serving the needs of tens of thousands of school-leavers with very different needs and expectations. Furthermore, the Leaving Certificate will always be an examination that must be administered in a fair and transparent way and, given the stakes, it is only right that students know precisely what is expected of them. This very much limits the ways in which the Leaving Certificate can be constructed and changes to this examination must be introduced slowly and carefully.
The simplest way to address the transition problem is to adequately fund the third level institutions so that they can fully resource the teaching of First Year. This is a crucial year in which the ways of third level education can be fostered. However, with the drastically reduced level of state funding and the increased expectations for third level institutions to be centres of enterprise and innovation, teaching of First Year comes somewhere down the pecking order of priorities. The problem is exacerbated by the impending return to a more common entry-type system in which it may become even easier for the incoming student to become ‘lost’. Essentially, more staff are needed to contribute to the teaching of First Year. (Technology is not the answer for these young students.) But this can be done in a cost effective way, while killing two birds with the one stone, by increasing the level of research funding, especially in non-strategic and neglected areas like the humanities. It is not often appreciated that research students play a crucial role in delivering undergraduate teaching at third level. By recruiting more research students, by training them properly (this is not intended to be a form of cheap labour) and by making real teaching (as opposed to demonstrating) a compulsory part of structured PhD programmes, we will not only improve the research output of the third level institutions, but operate a much more formal and respected system of Teaching Assistants. This is the norm in the United States where the ‘TA’ is a key member of the teaching team.
I hate to use a cliché but some joined-up thinking is required here. In education, everything is connected and we need a much more cohesive approach to our teaching and research strategies.
Update: Will flesh out TA ideas next week!