Education journalism and entry to college

It won’t make me popular to say this but we have a problem with education journalism in this country. This morning there have been two articles, one in the Irish Times and one in the Examiner in which Philip Nolan, president of University of Maynooth, is given free rein to continue his campaign to make general entry the normal mode of entry to third level education. The idea that he has consistently advanced over the last number of years is that most students would be better off taking a broad range of subjects in first/second year only to specialise in later years. It’s superficially plausible but the devil is in the detail.

In making his case, Philip Nolan points out that 59% of their first year students have chosen general entry. In effect, the criterion for success is a marketing one, not an educational one. A majority of students like it, so it must be good.

I have no problem with general entry and we have a general entry science course in DCU. What I have a problem with is education evangelicalism. In this case, there remains a strong demand for denominated entry routes so it is hard to see why there is any need to radically overhaul a system that currently meets the needs of two groups of students: those that are quite definite about what they want to study and those that are less sure.

But if I were an education journalist I would have asked Philip Nolan some simple questions such as:

  • How are places allocated to specialised streams/courses at the end of first year, or second year, depending on the institution? Is it a competitive process and, if so, what impact will that competition have on student wellbeing?
  • To what extent is the student’s choice limited by logistical factors, i.e., timetabling etc.?
  • How will the issue of pre-requisites be handled?
  • If students spend the first one or even two years pursuing a broad education, what impact does that have on the depth of knowledge they acquire in their final specialisation? Is the five-year degree the future?
  • Is there any relationship between general entry / denominated entry and non-progression?

These are all the sorts of questions that need to be asked before people jump on the bandwagon. As for the critical skills module that Maynooth boast about, I think readers should read this by Daniel Willingham.

Finally, an anecdote. Two years ago I developed a first year module that I call Introduction to Bioprocessing. I deliver it to the BSc in Biotechnology class. There are usually about 20-25 students in the class and they have entered DCU via the denominated entry route. In this module, I get them to work in groups, give a presentation or two, do a bit of independent research and finally a bit of data analysis with Excel. The real purpose of the module though is to get the students together, to help them to form friendships and to create a sense of togetherness, a sense that they are on a shared journey, a journey that, all going well, will last four years. And sure enough, I see friendships forming in front of my eyes, friendships that will probably last for decades and will prove to be an invaluable resource for students making the difficult transition from secondary school to third level. So I have absolutely no doubt that denominated entry and the possibility of learning in small groups, with your friends, is not something we should dismiss

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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.
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