Becoming a cramming factory?

It’s that time of year again, and the deadline has passed for applications to the CAO for student places in 2010-11. Of course we don’t yet know how this will be distributed across Institutions, programmes and courses, but what we do already know is that this year sees a record number of applications, as young people opt for the safety of a better qualification. We are told therefore that numbers of applicants are up 10 per cent on last year.

Of course, this is not just any other year, and any increase in the number of students could create problems, as the additional students will receive no extra funding at all. This means that the services – including teaching – that are offered to students will inevitably be affected.

It’s hard to know what universities should do at this point. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week the RTE radio programme Morning Ireland looked at the impact of additional student applications, and also considered information coming from students quoted on the programme. suggesting that, with previous cuts, higher education institutions were  becoming ‘cramming factories’. On Wednesday the chief executive of the HEA, Tom Boland, was on the programme accepting that the additional student numbers would cause a burden, but suggesting that during the current economic difficulties it had to be a case of ‘all hands on deck.’ He also suggested that students should be prepared – to a greater extent than in previous years – to receive an offer for a course that had not been top of their list.

It is hard to argue with Tom Boland’s call to the colleges to come forward and help. It is easy to see that for the next year or two, and maybe substantially beyond, the sum paid to colleges by the government for educating each student will be much lower than it was only two years ago. And it is likely (and probably right) that the institutions should support the drive to bring greater numbers into higher education, at least up to a point.

However, there are also some issues we need to address.

• Are we clear on how many students, or what percentage of the age cohort, we are able to take in without fatally compromising quality and standards? What steps should we be taking to avoid such erosion of quality?
• As funding continues to be much lower than before, and as both school leavers and mature students indicate a desire to go into (or return to) higher education in significant numbers, are we clear on what model of third level pedagogy we should now adopt, given that the traditional model is becoming less workable?
• As in all these circumstances it is becoming more important than ever that students leave secondary education well prepared for the methods and objectives of higher education, are we doing enough to enter into a dialogue with the secondary sector and with the Department of Education to ensure that we have a shared understanding across the education sectors and institutions of how this process of preparing students should be undertaken?

The main problem that we face at the moment is not that we are being asked to do more with the same or decreased funding, but rather that we are doing this without any consensus about these issues and therefore without any real understanding of the objectives and methods of higher education in this new climate. In short, we are muddling through. In the first moments of economic crisis this was understandable, but now it will no longer do. This isn’t about higher education structures or institutional issues, but rather about how we can offer our programmes with reduced resources while maintaining acceptable (or preferably, excellent) quality. If we don’t get this right, then we are probably heading for inadequate cramming factories. But I believe we have it in us to do better than that.

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7 Comments on “Becoming a cramming factory?”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    Batt O’Keeffe, given an unchallenged opportunity to set out his stall on RTE radio this morning, indicated that his government, ‘for the first time’ was intending to take a strategic look at higher education (he was referring to the Hunt report). This is some commentary on the FF-run government (who have been in virtually uninterrupted power for most of my lifetime) in general and the Dept of Education in particular. What have they been doing up to now? Given the almost complete dearth of any policy-making vis a vis the sector, let alone anything that is vaguely evidence-based, one wonders how the system is being expected to respond to the challenges you outline.

    I think you are dead right in relation to the issue of pedagogy. The rise of digital technology and the net means that the basis of much education has changed irrevocably. There is now no scarcity of information, and the notion of HE institutions as the privileged gateways to knowledge are over. So where does that leave ‘teaching’? The memory-based and ritualistic Leaving Cert is an anachronism and virtually no preparation for the modes of engagement with knowledge that are increasingly required at the HE level, or indeed in many workplaces.

    So are the Minister for Education and his sycophantic media followers leading a debate on how education at all levels is going to contribute to this so-called ‘knowledge economy’? Don’t hold your breath. They are more interested in demonising teachers and lecturers and whipping up a frenzy of envy and derision.

  2. Jilly Says:

    In answer to Perry’s key pedagogical question, I think that the role of university teaching now (more than ever) is to train students how to think, something which as he highlights, the woeful Leaving Cert does not do.

    And with regard to the Morning Ireland interview with Tom Boland yesterday, this would have been the one where he assured the nation that the university sector was ‘committed to doing less with more’, I presume?!

  3. Perry and Jilly are both right – in Ireland we have been discussing higher education reform almost exclusively in terms of *structure*: how many universities, how structured, how managed, how coordinated? But we are an education sector, and the core part of our business is pedagogy. And we hardly discuss that at all. There is an urgent need to address that.

    • Jilly Says:

      And the irony is, the more time we spend discussing structure – and being ‘innovative’ with it – the less time we have for discussing pedagogy.

      Any academic will tell you that the last thing they have time to discuss with their colleagues is scholarship and education. We’re far too busy filling in forms, and most of our conversations are about how to fill in the forms, where to gather the data required, etc etc. Books? Reading? Ideas? Not during term-time!

  4. iainmacl Says:

    That’s what so many of the participants in our PgCert/Dip/MA programme seem to value – the carving out of some time to just discuss issues of teaching and learning, and across traditional subject boundaries. Fortunately some who’ve ‘graduated’ from the programme have kept up the conversations and started discussion groups in their schools and colleges. Only 120 staff so far have taken such modules, but that’s not bad for a few years. The fact that demand for places is high is a good sign and demonstrates how much academic staff do value the opportunity to discuss these issues, so it’s a pity that at the policy level such topics are so often left aside.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Iain – I’d be interested to know how many senior administrative or management staff have taken such modules. It is a pity that (across HE as a whole) that the further ‘up’ the system that people are located, the less time they seem to spend talking about issues of pedagogy and learning. I wonder if there is any way to stimulate such a debate?

      • Iainmacl Says:

        I know what you mean Perry. Interestingly though, and perhaps its just part of the atmosphere/scale in Galway, we’ve had about 6 heads of department/school and a Dean as ‘students’ .

        Other senior managers have contributed to sessions on strategic plans, buildings and accommodation, research supervision, student services, not totally negative in that regard..but not all discussing pedagogy as you comment!

        our conference though often attracts such folk and the other approach is the teaching awards committee which means that at least for a while each year they read through and discuss teaching portfolios….

        but more to be done before we can have rich discussions about pedagogical strategies, debate issues in the research literature, etc…i guess…

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