Why do we talk about third level education in a language that is so different from that used when talking about Second Level? Take the issue of merging third level institutions. My reading of this whole process is that is often a sort of knee-jerk, obsessive-like behaviour. I cannot really detect any real coherent thought process when it comes to merging IoTs, for example. I think I’ve said before that this kind of approach to policy-making comes from an over-emphasis on systems and, in particular, a systemising mind-set. Tidy, well-organised systems appeal to us all, especially the male of the species (check out the work of Simon Baron Cohen) – and it is still predominantly males who formulate policy. We see the effect of this mind-set throughout the Irish public service where there seems to be a real lack of any kind of creative thinking other than to fiddle with systems. The HSE and Irish Water are perfect examples of where our obsession with system tidiness has lured us into holes that are very difficult to get out of. Rather than dealing with real tangible problems, we set up new systems and organisations charged with dealing with those very same problems.
When it comes to second level we seem to be a lot more tolerant of ‘messiness’. There are thousands of schools all over the country, often very close together, teaching exactly the same material. Duplication is rampant in the second level system. But we accept it for all sorts of perfectly valid reasons. Furthermore, we accept that there can be many types of schools: religious, ‘Educate Together’, community, co-educational, single sex, etc. Somehow, we seem to understand that the system does not need to be tidy and homogeneous to be effective. In fact, we are quite happy to celebrate diversity.
But when it comes to Third Level, we still seem to think of it as being somehow fundamentally different: we see the third level sector in a much more business-like way. For policy-makers, the purpose of third level education is solely to ‘produce’ graduates and, increasingly, to produce them efficiently. While I would be the first to agree that third level education must be responsive to the needs of the economy, that it should conduct research that impacts on society and that it should be run in as cost-effective a way as reasonably possible, the idea of seeing the third level system as akin to a major company producing a single product – graduates – is a fundamentally destructive one. Seeing third level in this way is part of the reason for our obsession with the ‘system’.
Third level education in Ireland is now a form of mass education – it is firmly embedded in our culture in the same way that Second Level is. The problem is, though, that it is expensive. This contributes to the mind-set which might see the downsizing or closing of regional institutions as a perfectly reasonable, business-like, approach to managing the ‘system’; and this when a more comprehensive analysis of the economic and social value of those institutions might suggest an alternative approach.
As a country we extol the value of third level education and boast about how we have a highly educated workforce. But I don’t think we really know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. We have no vision.