Changing higher education by stealth

Irish higher education has until now been based on a number of assumptions, some of which are quite old and venerable, while others are of more recent origin. The key assumptions are that there should be tuition that allows the student to develop independent thinking and that monitors his or her progress through individual encounters with tutors and through small group teaching; that consequently the student-staff ratio needs to be such that these methods can be effectively employed; that academic staff should have a balanced workload that usually involves both teaching and research, and that the latter should wherever possible inform the teaching; that the assessment of students should evaluate their success in engaging in a n intelligent critique of the subject; and that consequently this should involve continuous assessment as well as examinations.

If this is a fair characterisation of our higher education system, then it might be added that it is viable only if either student numbers are not too large, or with greater mass education resources are available to apply the above approaches to the larger population; and these resources allow for an increase in staffing that is, at least marginally, greater than the proportional rise of student numbers, as teaching gets more complex with greater participation. This is the case both because handling larger numbers and breaking them down into smaller groups is difficult logistically, and because with greater participation the levels of academic ability will be more mixed, requiring considerably more staff input.

In fact the opposite has happened, and with greater student numbers the unit of resource – i.e. the sum paid to universities per student – has fallen quite dramatically. This already serious issue has now been aggravated considerably with the recent more dramatic funding cuts, together with the reductions in staffing forced on the system by government decisions regarding the public service more generally.

The net effect of all of this is that we will have no option but to reconsider and progressively abandon the previous assumptions and methods. We can no longer hope to use small group teaching or individual tutor support. I do not believe that current resourcing models will allow continuous assessment methods to be used in future. And we are increasingly helpless in dealing with mixed ability issues in our classes. The result of this is that higher education is changing, but not through strategic decision-making but by stealth. The new methods, whatever they may be, are already likely to be questionable on pedagogical grounds; but in any case no such methods are being deliberately planned and evaluated. What we are witnessing is a random and chaotic movement leading to a decline in standards. We need to recognise this now, and address it before it is too late. Recovering lost quality is very hard to do. We must not get to that point.

All the decisions which have led us here have been driven by government, but have prompted no real response on a strategic scale. It is time for us to tackle these issues properly.

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2 Comments on “Changing higher education by stealth”

  1. Ros Says:

    Until recently I was employed in another sector of education and I can assure you that your fears are not unfounded. So many changes are introduced in a stealthy fashion, usually under the guise of ‘quality assurance’, that they tend to become policy before one has even had time to question them.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    F – this is your second recent post that suggests that the days of continuous assessment and small-group teaching are doomed. Are you in favour of these aspects of teaching – which I would see as both necessary and unremarkable – or are you happy to see their demise and a return to a lecture/exam regime?

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