Change is in the air for the school leaving examination with a proposal to amend the number of bands in which marks are to be awarded. These will reduce from 15 to 8. A large part of the reasoning appears to be the belief that in doing so, and in encouraging universities to offer more broad based courses, the pressure on students to achieve high points will abate.
In parallel, the ever excellent Greg Foley has written a series of blogposts recently on aspects of the higher education system. He has looked at the issues of outsourcing, of course duplication, and at the case for a rethinking of “everyone needs a degree”. There is as ever much to agree with in his posts, in particular his views on duplication
His main thrust in that post is that there exists massive duplication and we need to think long and hard, and start now, on consolidation. He doesn’t pretend to have solutions, but instead urges the debate.
Underlying this however is a presumption – that such duplication is inherently a bad thing. That at least is how I read his article. There is also a focus on the teaching aspect of same. Both can be challenged
The origins of duplication lie, as Greg notes, in the interaction of
- a lack of a systemic overview (gee, no joined up thinking in an Irish context, now theres a novelty)
- individual autonomy
- the points system
- funding pressure
His call for an overview is a welcome one. But we need to think not just of whether we need mechanical engineering taught in every dublin Higher Ed institution. It needs to be both across the sector (that is nation-wide) and across the learning space (that is to say from undergraduate to doctoral).
Education is a pyramid. At the base we have lots of people doing fairly basic things – thats the bachelors level. Then we have an intermediate layer of people specialising in areas – masters. At the top we have people gaining deep knowledge and the ability to generate same into the future – doctoral training. Focusing on the bottom alone makes little sense. Lets instead think top down. Lets create national graduate schools, preserving institutional autonomy and values while drawing on the best elements of each institution. Lets think holistically for once.
At the base level duplication in the provision of courses is something that we should encourage, not stop. A university, and I have previously suggested that we should consider making a radical change and awarding all IoT’s the right to become universities, should have courses in humanities, arts, sciences etc. To have these is the hallmark of a university – universal knowledge available to all. Greg wonders if we need 6 undergraduate courses in mechanical engineering in dublin. The answer to that surely depends on what we want them to do. If we insist on having vocational specific denominated entry degrees at undergraduate level, and we want these to be widely geographically available, then yes, we probably do. The thrust of government policy is however moving against these kinds of courses, in the main driven by the perception that they distort the points system. I agree with that thrust – let undergraduate degrees be the places where people get broad, transferable, skills as well as the basics of specialised knowledge.
Lets think of a new system. At the top we would have a small number of National Graduate Schools (NGS). We could think of say a National Graduate School of Life Sciences, which undertook to manage graduate medical, nursing and dentistry degrees, one of Social and Management Sciences, which offered degrees in psychology, finance, organizational studies etc, one in Engineering and Design, one in Mathematical and Computational Studies…you get the picture. These would take over the management and organizational aspects of organizing doctoral and postdoctoral training. Courses would be offered by local and international faculty, the aim being to get the best people to deliver same.
Students who wished to enter into these would have to have graduated from approved masters degrees here or equivalent – this allows universities to alone or in collaboration design high quality masters degrees. Certification of the masters to be of appropriate standard should be under the aegis of an international and independent panel, which would also act as an oversight for the NGS. A student who takes a doctoral degree via a NGS would have that degree from whichever was the home institution of their doctoral committee chair which institution would also get any fees etc for that student. This provides the incentive for each institution to hire and retain quality research active staff.
At the bottom level, reconfigure degrees to make mandatory that students in one domain must take material form another. We really have three domains of knowledge : Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and Life Sciences. A student taking a BSc in Life Sciences should be required to take 1/3 of their degree from a combination of the other two domains, and so forth. That then allows, requires, for much flatter degrees – Instead of a BA in Actuarial Mathematics, a BA in Engineering and Mathematical studies, instead of a BSc in Environmental Science, one in Life Sciences . This in turn means much less pressure on points at the leaving cert as instead of competing to get into a course of 35 students are looking to get into one of 600. They then decide, as adults, how to shape their degrees.
This is a radical shift – but its entirely possible. It would shift vocational degrees, such as medical and engineering, entirely to a graduate level, which would in turn, I believe, mean people who were much more certain that they wished to be in that vocation. It would reduce heat of the points race, and allow the creation of heavyweight internationally competitive doctoral programmes. It may not be the way to go but in my view a wholescale top to bottom reevaluation and reorganization of higher education is the only way to go, not piecemeal changes.