Choosing what to study

In my last post I drew attention to a discussion on Sunday on RTE’s Marian Finucane show. Let me pick out one other item from that conversation that merits a little attention. Dr Sean Barrett (of the TCD Economics Department) also argued that students should not be constrained in their choice of subject; we should, he said, ‘let people do what they actually want to study.’ So if they all end up taking programmes in the arts and humanities, and nobody does science, then that’s fine. Restricting them in their choice is the same, he suggested, as an airline telling would-be passengers that they can’t fly to London, they must fly to Leeds-Bradford instead.

The latter comparison is a good one, and helps to highlight the unreal nature of Sean Barrett’s point. The equivalent airport scene as suggested by him really is of passengers turning up at Dublin airport and, despite full flights to London, insisting that the airline use the plane destined for Leeds-Bradford to fly them to London instead. That just isn’t how it works. To suggest that students could make an unrestricted choice of institution and programme which would then have to be honoured by the sector is totally impossible. Programmes have to be designed and resourced. If students could insist on their choices where two years ago huge numbers opted for civil engineering, when this year they all want to study poetry, the sudden shifts in preference would create chaos in the system. And redeployment of staff is not the answer: charming though the thought is, an engineering lecturer transferred to a new department might not be the perfect person to teach poetry.

But I suspect that the real issue is more subtle. Nobody seriously believes that a constant free-for-all would be manageable. Rather, I suspect that Sean Barrett’s complaint is that university places are made available not on the basis of known trends in student preference, but rather of national strategic priorities as determined by government or expert groups of one kind or another; and he has coupled that with a criticism of the focus on science and technology and R&D.

I might disagree with him on his specific points on science, but overall there is a valid issue here that should be debated: how are we as a country determining what the distribution is to be between different subject areas? Is the total number of places available in different subjects determined by a deliberate decision or is it just the result of ad hoc developments over time? Should universities and colleges when deciding on numbers in particular courses be guided by financial considerations, pedagogical considerations, or the known current national priorities as set by government?

It seems to me that an unrestricted laissez faire approach is unsustainable, not least because it would be hostage to ephemeral fashion. It could however also be argued that government has not always been very good at identifying what the national needs are. And yet, notwithstanding criticisms such as those by Sean Barrett, it seems right to me that the availability of student places should be influenced by real national needs. The question becomes how and by whom these should be identified, and how they should be reflected in student places while also maintaining a substantial capacity for courses to be developed that are not identified as priorities but that form part of the fund of programmes that every civilised country should have.

As a country, we don’t know how to do this. And right now there is a risk that this will be addressed solely in the form of government determining priorities, attaching funding to these and treating higher education providers as mere agencies in implementing all of this. That is not the way to go. We need to have a shared process that identifies short and medium term priorities and agrees on ways that these can be pursued without tying all of higher education to passing trends. Getting this right will be complex and requires a much more active two-way dialogue between universities and government. Now is a good time to start.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

5 Comments on “Choosing what to study”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    I endorse this argument completely. It’s not just in the national interest that there be priorities and some strategic thinking on what subjects are resourced to what level. It’s also in the students’ interest. If there are fields of study which are popular with students, yet where there are few to no job opportunities, should we really be standing back and allowing students to apply in unrestricted numbers to these courses?

    For instance, in my province (and across most of Canada) opportunities for schoolteachers at any level are few and far between, due to declining birth-rates – and they’re getting fewer; every year another school board announces school closures and job losses. Yet schools of education are still accepting enrolments and churning out B.Ed graduates everyone knows will end up working in a different field or else spending years trying to get by on the odd bit of casual supply-teaching in the hope of being considered for a permanent job. Is this in anyone’s interest? Of course not.

    Not that I’m at all surprised that this (and the other points you summarised in your earlier post) is Barrett’s view; it’s very much a free-market economics perspective. It’s all very well teaching unfettered free markets as an economic theory; it’s certainly not a theory that works particularly well in practice.

  2. Vincent Says:

    The relevant section is about 1:20 and on, into the show.

  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    It’s a very interesting discussion and one that should be teased out more by all interested parties. But one of the most important questions raised in your post, I think, is that of how and by whom subjects should be identified. I agree that it is not feasible for all students to take a course in classics or archaeology, but it seems to me that sometimes in the rush to meet programme targets, certain sectors that are, as you state, part of the range that every civilised country should offer, tend to get forgotten about and left behind a little.

    It is certainly worth thinking more about where and how PhD and Masters programmes are being funded, particularly since the government appears to have a long-term plan to boost Ireland’s knowledge economy (or some such term) by attracting much greater numbers of international researchers.

    And one final question really strikes me as important (and fills me in part with dread): who would we trust to make those decisions?


  4. Berna Cox Says:

    “If there are fields of study which are popular with students, yet where there are few to no job opportunities, should we really be standing back and allowing students to apply in unrestricted numbers to these courses?”

    Is there room in this debate to look at why particular fields of study are more popular than others? Very many students make their undergraduate choices based on misinformation, false perceptions and tradition. And, in addition to starting from that poor base, they must then factor in the fickleness of the points system. Could we please attempt to equip them with solid, up-to-date information via a decent career guidance system and maybe they’ll choose multiple destinations rather than overloading (or hijacking) the London plane?

    • Wendymr Says:

      Berna, as a former academic now transitioned to a ‘career development practitioner’ (fancy name for a career counsellor), I couldn’t agree more. I work with adults, not young people making initial career decisions, but many of the adults I work with are making career changes. And the number of those who always had a dream of wanting to teach, or who remember an inspirational teacher whose footsteps they want to follow in, is pretty high. Now, that’s a huge credit to teachers out there, which I applaud. But then I start to explain about the labour market for teachers (this is in Canada) and it’s clear that most of them have no idea.

      There is plenty of occupational and labour market information out there, publicly accessible through simple Googling in every developed country. There are lots of career-assessment tools, some of them freely available if you don’t mind the ads. Yes, there should be plenty of trained, competent career advisors available to students. I have no idea what the system is like in Ireland now, but when I was at school I had no idea what the career guidance teacher – who only had the role part-time – actually did. I got more career advice from my headmaster than from the careers teacher.

      There’s a field of study for you to open up, Ferdinand, if it’s not already offered at DCU: a postgraduate diploma in career development, with sensible entry prerequisites (eg BA in HR or psychology or social studies, or relevant work experience).

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