The fallacy of broad course choices at third level

A few years ago the then Minister, Ruari Quinn, got it into his head that there were too many programmes within the CAO system. The basic idea was that institutions were deliberately manipulating the supply-and-demand nature of the system to create seemingly high prestige courses, thus enhancing their own reputations in the process. There was clearly an element of truth in this, with some institutions more culpable than others in this regard. The belief too was that the sheer number of courses available was confusing to students and forcing them to make ‘career-defining’ decisions at the tender age of 18 or 19. Somewhere in the mix the idea was formed that large numbers of students were making poor choices, leading to poor performance and even high drop-out rates at third level. This was despite the fact that drop-out rates are strongly linked with CAO points, suggesting a link with academic ability. Furthermore, it began to be believed that by changing the way students are selected for third level, we might also change the way they learn, placing greater emphasis on critical thinking as opposed to rote learning.

This led to the formation of the TGRUSE, headed up by Philip Nolan of UM, which set out to examine the whole process of entry to third level education. This was a reasonable thing to do as it is self-evident that the system needs some sort of rationalisation. The precise degree to which the system needs to be rationalised, however, is unclear, and there is a danger that the reduction in the number of denominated programmes is becoming an ideology rather than a rational response to a genuine problem. I like to think of it as an obsessive tendency towards tidiness, something that is evident in the whole Technological University project.

But after starting with the basic aim of reducing the number of denominated programmes, the idea of a more generic entry system has become a broader philosophy whereby it is suggested that students need to have a broad and general third level education, and only specialise in the latter years of their studies, or even at Masters level. Thus, multidisciplinarity is in vogue, spearheaded by UM, and influential people are making the argument that the rapidly changing nature of the 21st century workplace (that again!) means that students should be broadly educated and highly adaptable – as if those of us educated in the 20th century were educated to be inflexible automatons. Arguments are made, for example, that the modern graduate should be able to discuss scientific developments from both a scientific and a sociological point of view; or from a scientific and economic perspective. Remember this is a 22-year old graduate that we are talking about.

Much of this is badly misconceived in my view and I believe that a big part of the problem is that many of the key ideas are being suggested by politicians and senior academics who are, frankly, disconnected from the realities of undergraduate teaching. (I probably shouldn’t say that.)

Let’s look at this idea of multidisciplinarity in a little more detail. It has a seductive quality about it. It conjures up images of the polymath, of the creative and original thinker, of the intellectual. But here’s the thing: after teaching on a multidisciplinary degree programme for more than 20 years, my view is that for most students (there are exceptions) multidisciplinarity doesn’t work as intended. Students learn well when they are immersed in a single discipline. The knowledge, skills and the basic philosophy of that discipline become second nature to the student and their working memory is freed up to think critically and even creatively. When, however, they cover a very broad range of subjects, their knowledge of each area tends to be superficial and they become even more prone to learning by rote. In teaching chemical engineering to biotechnology students, for example, I find that they are very prone to the Einstellung effect. The Einstellung effect occurs when a person is presented with a problem  that is similar, but not identical, to problems they have worked on in the past. The person attacks the new problem in precisely the way they have done before, rather than standing back from the new problem and thinking about it in an unbiased way. This stems from a lack of knowledge, a lack of experience and a lack of confidence.

In pure employment terms, it is interesting that our graduates tend to find work in quite conventional areas and are rarely, if ever, employed in roles where they use the full range of subjects they have studied. It is questionable whether the multidisciplinary perspective is really wanted by employers at all, at least at entry level. Furthermore, while our students have a certain degree of flexibility in their choice of careers, there are areas in which they are completely uncompetitive because the employers want the specialist, not the generalist.

Although I might be accused of bias, I think the typical career path of professional engineers is a good template for education generally. A graduate engineer will have been immersed in their discipline for four years and will emerge into the work place with a well-defined set of basic engineering skills, but obviously still lacking many work-related skills. Over time, that young graduate will learn about the workplace both through the pain of experience and, ideally, through effective mentoring. The graduate will continue to learn and will probably get to a point where he/she has to do some sort of additional formal education; in finance or management, perhaps. The point is that the young graduate had the knowledge and skills required to get a start but it was always only a start. All the other stuff comes from lifelong learning and indeed it seems odd to me that many who are making the argument for broad-based education are imagining graduates who have the attributes of someone who previously might have had ten years of experience in the workplace. I think this is where the disconnectedness is coming in. We are imagining graduates that don’t, never have, and won’t ever, exist. Indeed, if there is a problem with graduates these days, it is that they lack the very basic skills that employers want, not any vague ability to approach problems from a variety of perspectives. It seems like we want our graduates to run when they have difficulty walking. And much of this comes from woolly thinking about the ’21st century workplace’.

As a final point, I’d like to say something about school-leavers. Every year I attend the Higher Options careers fair in the RDS and I talk to dozens and dozens of students. I am frequently struck by the maturity of them (especially the girls) who are well informed and have a very good idea of what they want to study. Many have no interest in being channelled into a generic system; they know precisely what they want to do. In science, many will be quite sure they want to study a biology discipline and will have zero interest in physics, for example. What is the problem with providing them with a direct route into, say, genetics, in that instance? Is it really better to throw them into a generic science course and force them to compete in an environment that cannot provide them with the supports that they might have had in secondary school? And even though they might study genetics, who knows where they might end up? Isn’t that what we’ve been saying for years – the undergraduate qualification is just a start and CAO choices are not career-defining at all. Our education system needs to give young people the best possible chance of a good start to their careers. After that, it’s up to them.


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 21st century, education, Leaving Cert and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The fallacy of broad course choices at third level

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The fallacy of broad course choices at third level

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