Today’s students

I attended two events with several business leaders over the past couple of weeks, and in the course of the discussions on both occasions a number of them expressed the view that recent Irish graduates were not of the same quality and did not demonstrate the same standards as those of previous cohorts a decade or two ago. This view appeared to attract a lot of support, and so if it is held by stakeholders of the university system we may have a serious problem that we need to address.

Two factors appeared to be influencing opinions. One of these was the recent debate on grade inflation; it appears that the allegations made in this context have had some effect in undermining employer confidence in Irish graduates. When I pressed the issue, it seemed to me that the erosion of confidence was not related to any actual negative experience that might be connected with unjustifiably high grades, but was simply a reaction to the allegations made; they were assuming that if this message was being put about it must be true. This demonstrates, to my mind, not only that the debate distorted realities, but also that the university sector was really not good at dealing with it and responding to the points that were made.

The second factor appeared to be a widespread belief that students no longer worked hard at college. The businesspeople I met were largely of the view that students did not apply themselves to their courses as previous generations did, and that as a result they were less well prepared for working life, having got used to a life of idle leisure. I might add that some of those saying this specifically excluded DCU from their analysis, but of course this may have been influenced by my presence.

I was particularly struck by the widespread agreement that this assessment of the quality of our graduates was attracting. I am absolutely of the view that these views are wrong, but I am struck by the fact that we seem to have been unable to make a compelling case, or maybe even make any case at all, for standards in Irish universities. This may also be related to the fact that we are not good at publishing information that would present a more balanced picture, and in particular at getting data that would support our case.

Right now we are allowing it to be suggested to our students and our recent graduates that their achievements are not what they are claimed to be, which for them is a devastating allegation. We owe it to them to establish the real position, and if the criticisms are right we need to correct the problems; but if they are wrong we need to be in a position to establish convincingly that this is so.

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17 Comments on “Today’s students”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    Students are weaker and lazier than they were 10 years ago. There’s no doubt about it. Absenteeism and plagiarism are epidemic where I teach. It’d be interesting to see a poll of academics on this: I believe the results would be overwhelming. What’s changed? The deadly combination of the Internet and the leaving cert. The leaving cert leads students to believe that learning is a process of assimilation not unlike digestion (the results are also similar). The Internet leads them to believe that “the answers” that they must assimilate and then produce are all ready to hand. The absenteeism and plagiarism follow from this: there’s nothing you can learn in class that can’t be found on the Internet (they imagine). So why go? Just google everything the night before it’s due.

    I’m not the only one to be struck by the irony of companies like Google complaining about the quality of graduates that Google produces. . .

    Add to that universities that are themselves increasingly run like businesses (with students sometimes conceived as the “product”) and is anyone surprised that students engage in exactly the sort of “economic” thinking that entails always trying to get the maximum (grade) yield from the minimum effort when that’s the only ideology they are likely to have encountered (since they missed all the classes where alternative pictures were presented)?

    • Jilly Says:

      “students engage in exactly the sort of “economic” thinking that entails always trying to get the maximum (grade) yield from the minimum effort”

      Sadly this does chime with my own experience (with many honourable exceptions, of course. It’s important to remember that our undergraduates are NOT all the same). One of the major problems which I see is that fewer and fewer of our undergraduates are in college because they want to be: they’re there, I think, because it’s what they’ve always been told to aim for. When we interview for mature students and MA students, one of the questions I always ask them is what they like to read for pleasure. Given that I don’t teach in an English department, few if any of them see this question coming, and it really does sort the wheat from the chaff…but we don’t get to select by interview for standard undergraduates, and I see more and more students whose aim is to get through college reading as little as possible. It’s especially sad because I know that most of them will regret this in later life. Is there a case for only recruiting undergraduates over the age of 25?!

  2. cormac Says:

    As I recall, the main allegations of low standards in graduates last year came from industry- in disciplines like computer science, many employers reported that the students ability to write basic code was poor(we have been aware of this complaint in WIT for some time).
    The call from industry added support to a study of falling standards and grade inflation in 3rd level that has been ongoing at IT Tralee for some years. I have seen many of the results of this study and consider it very well researched. It’s interesting that it was only when industry complained of low standards last year that anyone took any notice – but I would certainly not dismiss this as ‘perception’


  3. As an employer I don’t think graduates are as good as they used to be. I run my own design and marketing company and have done for the last 15 years. The quality of CV’s we receive has declined year on year. Graduates, can’t spell, compose a letter properly and lack the basic understanding of what it is that employers are looking for – and often these are students who claim to have first Class Honours Degrees.

    I raised this issue at a seminar run by the SQA in March and my fellow business owners agreed. However, worringly, the director of Glasgow School of Art did not and said that it didn’t matter if you could spell or compose a letter properly and found our concerns to be laughable. If this is the message that is permeating education hubs what hope do the graduates have?

    All that said at my company we do work with students by offering placements and working with them on live briefs as part of their course work. We try to help them understand the commercial reality as I do think we can’t expect it to be all one sided.

    I would also like to add that I have never had a creative team where no one has had dyslexic tendencies or challenges – we call them allowable weakenesses because we all have them and that is what team work is all about. It doesn’t take much for someone, a parent, friend, lecturer to check over a letter/CV before it is sent out does it? This isn’t and shouldn’t be a “them and us” scenario.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    I am not heavily involved in teaching these days (being in what is cheerfully referred to as ‘management’) but this year I did teach one final year cohort of young (and older) students. I was struck by their strongly developed work ethic, willingness to take on new tasks, attendance and participation in class and readiness for the workplace. If I had half their attributes when I graduated about 25 years ago I would have been delighted.

    What did strike me was a general level of stress and anxiety that was perhaps less apparent when I was a student: today’s students are all too aware of the impact that their studies will have on their future career, and often they belittle their own achievements and capabilities: this is the fault of our social system, and not an inherent failing in the students themselves.

    One tendency that is apparent is an avoidance of more critical thought and analysis: but this is not something that Irish society in general encourages, so again students are perhaps only picking up on the signals that they receive.

  5. Stephen Says:

    Jilly and Ernie,
    Your comments ring true for me. But there is one thing I’d like to challenge and it is the employers assertion that students are lazy, referred to in Ferdinand’s original post.

    In my experience, since the introduction of fees, students work incredible hard, unfortunately not on their education. Many are forced into low paid, part-time work that interferes with their studies. I frequently have to be flexible with deadlines for the submission of coursework because it clashed with a student’s work commitments. Given the pressures of work and study, it’s perhaps not surprising that students take the Google short-cut when doing assignments.

  6. Al Says:

    It strikes me as insufficient to look at the students when there is a monolithic machine behind them.
    It is easy to point to students,.., harder to look at a system that will be much harder to tweak.

    Some random points on this. (Apologies)

    Leaving Cert system fails alot of invisible people, those that fall away from school attendance and exam participation.
    http://www.independent.ie/education/features/in-my-opinion-radical-rethink-needed-to-provide-some-equality-2203292.html

    There are too many subjects that are mandatory, and too many in the exams. Would it make sense to have subjects like engish non exam based?

    The main skill set practised by students after the whole thing is over is a ryanair type exam preparation technique, where exam technique and question format eclipses whatever the subject was.

    Despite our aspirations to send everyone to university, in my opinion it will be of little benefit to X % and also dilute academic potential.

    Why cant we talk about streaming?

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    Let me put my point another way, that just occurred to me. Irish society, through its elites, is insisting that our universities become “very efficient” (see Ferdinand’s post of a couple of days ago). We are doing this in myriad ways but among them: insisting that academics output as much as they possibly can as quickly as they can, that they “do more with less,” etc.

    Meanwhile, and in almost the same breath we are bemoaning the “efficiency” of our students at maximising the grade yield with minimum effort. In the terms of the ideology that is the water that not only the students but also the general populace, the government, many university administrators and even some academics swim in, the demand that students put in all kinds of effort (at critical thinking, etc.) that can only result in marginal improvements in their grades, strikes them as insane. Aren’t the grades what matter? And if I can get respectable grades by dossing and cribbing things off the internet, why on earth should I spend any time studying?

    Homo Œconomicus here reaps what he has sown. You can’t insist on the sorts of “efficiencies” currently demanded of our universities on the hone hand and then bewail the fact that students are engaging in much the same sort of “efficiency.” In short, either admit that the idea of “efficiency” is inimical to the academic enterprise or stop complaining about students for having learned all too well the lessons that every institution in the society–now that the university has been perverted–has taught them since birth.

  8. kevin denny Says:

    Like a lot of academics, in this thread and elsewhere, I sometimes think that the old days were better. But really one needs serious evidence – as researchers we should know that. A survey of academics wouldn’t count as there are all sorts of recall biases. I have seen research recently for the US, though I can’t find it now, that shows that study time has fallen over time. But this doesn’t mean they are lazier.
    Say, 20 years ago, you wanted to dig up a bunch of papers on a topic for an essay. You would need to go to the library and spend hours finding the papers, copying them and so on. Now you can do a much better job in minutes, courtesy of Google scholar. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Makes our lives as researchers easier too.
    Deeming students lazy is very judgmental. Students always react to the circumstances they find themselves in & which are not of their making. If we set the parameters that encourage idleness, whose fault is that?
    My general suspicion is that the points-machine, aka the Leaving Cert, does huge damage to students’ approach to learning. That said, the points race has been around for a long time now.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Fortunately, there is some serious evidence available.

      Calling today’s students “lazy” (in the main) is, indeed, a judgement. The question is whether it is warranted. I believe it is. But I agree with you that they are largely not to blame for this sorry state of affairs.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Yesterday I was in the fortunate position of meeting with a group of students and recent graduates of our institution. Most had taken time out from their paid work to attend. The purpose was to take part in a briefing, along with a visiting member of a South African community development organisation, on the contribution that Irish students have systematically made to the establishment and development of high quality child care and education facilities in some of the poorest areas of South Africa.

        I heard how at first hand, over the last 5 years, the Irish students, as part of their educational experience, had raised funds locally, had travelled to South Africa, had lived in the townships, had worked with local communities and had contributed their developing expertise to the enrichment of both their host communities and their own knowledge and experience.

        The visitor from South Africa could not have spoken more fulsomely of the ‘incredible’ difference that the students’ work had made. Furthermore their role as ambassadors for Ireland and our institution has allowed us to develop educational links with South Africa and other countries which will only help to enhance Ireland’s international reputation.

        Strangely enough the word ‘lazy’ did not occur to me once during the discussions, rather a pride in our current generation of globally-conscious yet expressively Irish young people. I think we could usefully turn our attention from the depredations of the evil internet or the moral failings of the current generation (now there’s a novel topic!) and focus on the numerous positive indicators of real education that are taking place under our noses: often despite our efforts but sometimes as a consequence of imaginative thinking by the ‘educators’ and the ‘educated’ alike.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Nice story. One wonders how many Irish students were involved. In any case, nobody is denying that Irish universities have some exceptional students who do extraordinary things.

          Nevertheless, attendance in courses in my department averages something like 35%. Somehow I don’t think that the 65% who aren’t attending are all busy establishing child care facilities in South Africa.

  9. cormac Says:

    Kevin: the eserach has been done, and very well too, by a group at It Tralee. It’s worth looking up their study, I don’t understand why so few academics do so. My favourite example in the report is a maths dept in a UK university(can’t remember which) that has set precisely the same entrance exam for 30 years – and has seen the standard of reponses decrease linearly year on year.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Do you mean the ITT guys who do stuff on grade inflation? Their work is very interesting and I have plugged it a bit but it doesn’t really speak to this issue – if we are talking about students being lazier. Grade inflation, if anything, is about academics being lazier. To know if students are working as hard we would need data on students’ time use over a long period. The EUROSTUDENT data might contain this but its only over a short time period, a few years.
      If we are talking about falling standards: grade inflation could be because you get higher grades for a given performance or higher grades for an even lower performance. Unless you have some objective measure of performance, how can you tell?
      Personally I probably work less hard, in terms of hours, than I use to. But I work a hell-of-a-lot smarter and so produce a lot more.
      The UK example is Cambridge I think and is probably as clean a test as you can get. One has to be careful about extrapolating from that to other subjects in other universities in other countries.

  10. cormac Says:

    Actually, I’m almost sure it’s Bristol, must check! But my point is the Tralee IT report is full of little gems like this that nobody refers too


  11. […] business leaders and graduates themselves still question abilities to cope with adapting.  Times Higher Education […]


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