Defining Quality in Third Level Education

In a recent, thought-provoking blog, Ferdinand Von Prondzynski pointed out that we currently have no real definition of quality in the third level sector. He also made the important point that constantly saying that the sector has maintained quality while suffering substantial cuts might be a case of shooting ourselves in the foot. After all, if quality has not been compromised despite the cuts then the corollary is that there was fat in the system!

But quality has been compromised and declining quality means:

  • Lecturers over-teaching to the point where they become stale and uninspiring and operating at far less than 100% of their ability, a process not helped by the greying of the sector;
  • Lecturers teaching subjects outside their area of expertise;
  • Increased reliance on part-time adjuncts who, while highly knowledgeable and valuable in their own way, do require a lot of ‘minding’ by the permanent staff and often cannot teach to a schedule that is student-friendly;
  • A reduction in time allocated to the laboratory teaching that is crucial for modern STEM programs;
  • Increased group sizes in laboratory modules, diluting the student experience;
  • A potential curtailment of opportunities to do meaningful final-year research projects, an inevitable consequence of the increase in student numbers;
  • Crude, automated methods of assessment (think multiple choice) being used to cope with huge class sizes;
  • A general reduction in contact time not because it is pedagogically appropriate but because it makes teaching loads manageable (this is talked up as ‘smarter teaching’);
  • A reduction in time available to develop innovative and potentially better ways of course delivery – these things need a lot of time and resources especially if we’re talking about digital methods.
  • A reduction in the number of long-contract technical support staff who are absolutely crucial for maintaining and improving the quality of laboratory modules.
  • Ageing equipment that is embarrassingly out of date compared with what is available in modern industries – the need for regular and substantial capital investment in teaching laboratories has never been dealt with effectively in this sector;
  • Student-unfriendly timetabling of lectures due to severe logistical constraints caused by lack of space and high teaching loads;
  • Inability to offer genuine choice to students, also due to logistical constraints.

These things are happening now and the problem is that they are not, for the most part, quantifiable with simple metrics.

We cannot really afford to wait another 18 months (or more realistically until after the next election) to receive what will inevitably be a menu of fairly obvious funding options from the Minister’s Expert Group. We don’t need this group. Between the HEA statistics department, the CSO and the OECD we have all the data we need to make political decisions now. There is no real justification for the delay


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.
This entry was posted in education, quality, Third Level and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Defining Quality in Third Level Education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Defining Quality in Third Level Education | educationandstuff

  2. I would add to this list:
    – Out of date course contents in area of high turn over such at computing.

    Refreshing / updating course contents take a lot of time. As the teaching load in terms of hours delivered and amount of students taught has increased greatly in the past few years, course contents is suffering.

    I now teach stuff in my Software Development courses which I know I should not but lack the time to do anything about it. Hours per week have gone from 16 to 18 in my case, and while I had classes of 25 third years and 12 4th years a few years back, they are now 45 third years and 29 4th years.

    Under these circumstances, anybody who says quality is being maintained hasn’t got a clue or is knowingly lying.

  3. Greg Foley says:

    18 hours a week is unthinkable!

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