The recent proposals to government regarding the changes in university entrance procedures are to be welcomed but do not go far enough.
The proposals in essence suggest that there be a shift away from the proliferation of courses with small numbers of available spaces, and towards a smaller number of more generalist courses. The objective is to reduce the points pressure, which, it is alleged is driven in part by these courses. This is of course a mere reflection of the fact that the points system is a pricing mechanism, and if there is reduced supply (small numbers of places) then the price (points) will rise. Combined with the secular increase in numbers going to third level and the desire by government over the years to increase the participation ration and the result has been to increasingly fragment and make more costly (points wise) college entry. This has not been helped of course by the shifting of monies by middle and upper class parents from college fees to grinds – the removal of college fees (now being stealthily reintroduced) has has little if any impact on participation ratios by lower socioeconomic classes.
The proposals therefore in so far as they reduce the pressure at school leavers are welcome. We might consider however if the logic of these proposals is fully thought through.
First, the effect of this is going to be to make the first year of college even more stressful for students. The pressure to enter into the specialized course of choice will shift from leaving cert to college. With concerns already vocal about dropout rates, especially at IoT and lower point university courses, expect to see much greater pressure for grade inflation, more educationally dubious cross module compensation processes and frankly a more litigious university environment. Without reform of the leaving cert, to promote a greater sense of critical thinking and a more holistic student better able to thrive at third level, this issue is doing what we excel at, kicking the can down the road.
Second, there is a logical follow-on from the increase in generalist courses combined with the goernment desire to retain free fees. The logic of funding university education is that a more educated population is one that is both socially and economically richer. The nature of a university, as opposed to a corporate training center, is that it provides broad (universal) skills to the broad (universal) population. Universities are good at providing public good education : we see a lot of private third level colleges opening offering “book rich” degrees in Law and Business and so forth, but none that I am aware of offering the intensive capital heavy low immediate payoff science and engineering courses that the government actually want. At present there is a dreary commercialism creeping into the discourse, with the only thing that appears to be valued being the linkage of activities with (perceived or even articulated short term ) corporate need. This of course ignores the fact that corporates often change their needs and needs are often confused with desires. It also ignores the element of societal good, represents a subsidy from the non corporate sector to the corporate sector, and leaves universities open to the rapidly changing whims of the market. The university is one of the great inventions of mankind and the great universities did not become great by pandering to every half articulated whim oe whinge related to the then immediate needs of business. To be effective universities need to go back to what they are good at – universal transferable skill provision, such as the ability to think clearly, argue persuasively, critique and be critiqued and to take a body of knowledge and form judgments on same. And this is exactly what industry want, by the way. Industry groups and guilds run professional training and certification.
In the area I am most familiar with the Chartered Financial Analysts run a suite of, in effect, degrees. The requirements for these change regularly in response to industry needs. The CFA also liase very closely with universities without dictating – A set of broad skills and some specific skills are identified and universities are encouraged to incorporate those. In other words all sides benefit – universities get close linkages to industry, industry gets to work with universities, and students get to know they have skills which are basic to an industry. But to gain a CFA they still have to pass three difficult exams and work in the area. We should leave professional industry certification and the accompanying skills to those that are best suited – the industry. The logical end is twofold. First, we move to graduate level those courses that are professional and certified, such as engineering, medical, business, legal etc. Second, we move to an undergraduate programme which is broad at all times. We could consider life science, natural science, math and engineering, arts-humanities-social science as the main blocks of human knowledge.
Lets have 4 degrees at undergraduate level – not 400. Lets require that all students take at least 25% of their degree outside their area, from all other areas, and to take broad competence within. Thus a student taking a BA in AHSS would have to take business, language, history etc, as well as courses in biology, in physics, in computer science etc. Lets mandate critical thinking, IT, communications skills, teamwork and other “soft skills” as grafuate requirements. And lets allow graduate schools to dictate the required core skills to enter there and the fees required to do so. This would be a truly radical transformation of the Irish third level and one that would truly justify free fees.