Full-time undergraduate education: an unnecessary extravagance?

This post is written by Brian Mulligan, a lecturer and programme manager in the Centre for Online Learning in Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland.  His blog can be read at elearngrump.blogspot.com. This post was presented at the EdTech2014 conference in University College Dublin, on May 30, 2014 (www.ilta.ie). A recording is available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/zX8WeeVbJQY

It is now thirty years since I started teaching at Institute of Technology, Sligo, and 12 years since I started working with distance learners online. During those 12 years I made two significant observations that have led me to the conclusion that the way we approach higher education needs to be changed. However, the change I am proposing here is not a small one: we should get rid of full-time undergraduate education.

In the early days of our online teaching, worried that some people might be sceptical of this form of education, we always ensured that our online students sat the same examinations as our full-time students. We very quickly noticed how much better these working adults performed in examinations than the full-time students. We would have liked to attribute this performance to our online teaching methods, but we knew it was more likely to be due to the fact that they were situated in workplaces where they could see the relevance of what they were learning. Although the first observation came as early as 2003 when we ran our first examinations, the second observation came much more slowly: it was that online learning has the potential to be much more cost-effective than campus-based education and, in certain situations, to be of even higher quality. I was led to conclude that undergraduate education, in most countries, is more expensive than it needs to be, and less effective than it should be.

So, if this were true, how might you design an alternative approach to undergraduate education? Well, as it happens, such an approach already exists in the apprenticeship model. We have long recognised that the best way for people to learn a trade was to combine work with learning. In fact it is only relatively recently that many higher professions such as architects, lawyers and accountants have moved away from this work-based approach to learning.

However, there were good reasons why universities emerged in the middle ages as repositories of knowledge and places where rich young men were sent to become familiar with all of the advanced knowledge of the time. As we moved towards the massification of education during the the last century, it was expedient that other forms of education copied this model and even tried to gain some of the status of these institutions by taking the title of ‘University’. But this is the 21st century, and we are now well into the information age, where we do not need to travel to access the knowledge of our greatest minds or enter into rich discussions with fellow learners. We are not working under the constraints of the past that required physical access to these centres of learning.

To add to this, the cost of higher education has been steadily increasing to the point where states, if not people, can barely afford it. As manufacturing and services companies constantly strive successfully to reduce their costs and improve their quality, do we, as educators not owe the same to our funders and learners: a better education at a lower cost?

So I would like to propose that we get rid of full-time undergraduate education and replace it with work-based learning, where learners take positions, even menial ones, in workplaces closely associated with the profession they wish to pursue and take most of their courses online, attending their colleges occasionally to help build relationships with their classmates and carry out activities that are best done in that setting. It may be necessary to stretch out the courses over a longer time, but it will result in significant savings, including the opportunity to earn while studying, and result in better learning outcomes.

Will our young people be mature enough to survive in this new model of learning? Well many believe that they were in the past, and that perhaps we don’t challenge them enough these days. What about the the social and personal development aspect of a college education?  Well, I made the point to my brother, who entered the civil service as an 18 year-old in 1972, that, as I had been to university, I was more developed socially and personally than he was. I will leave it to you to imagine what his response was. And what about our guilt at denying our young people the pleasure of a college education? Spending the state’s money on pleasures we cannot afford might just fit the definition of extravagance.

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36 Comments on “Full-time undergraduate education: an unnecessary extravagance?”

  1. no-name Says:

    “It is now thirty years since I started teaching at Institute of Technology, Sligo …. So I would like to propose that we get rid of full-time undergraduate education”

    It is curious that the 30 years of experience noted is all based within the Sligo Institute of Technology, while the conclusions based on that experience are expressed with apparent quantification over all forms of higher education. This is not an example of sound inductive reasoning.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Do you know what “hubris” means, Brian? I’m sure you’ll wear it like a badge of honour but, trust me, it’s not a good thing. Neither is philistinism, by the way.


      • Hi Ernie. I know that I have certain faults and one of them is being contrarian just for the fun of it. However, I am interested in improving higher education and don’t want to waste my time on initiatives that are unlikely to work. That’s why I am more interested in arguments and evidence against my hypothesis rather than comments on my motivations.


  2. Hi no-name! I have to admit that this is based on observation, but I have been around. I’m quite sociable and have talked to people in other institutions in Ireland, the UK, the US and Europe (sorry my connections is Asia are not so good). I also read a lot, which helps. I have not really come across much data on this so if know of any that would support or refute my hypothesis, I’d appreciate it if you would point me to it. If such data does not exist, it might also be helpful if you might suggest experiments that we could run to refute or support the idea. Personally, I think a Darwinian approach is most efficient. We can set up courses along this line and see how they go. (Like the UK Higher Apprenticeship approach http://goo.gl/eSv5aj ). Based on inductive reasoning, what would your position on this be?

  3. Eugene Gath Says:

    Perhaps Sligo IT should lead by example, so we can all see the merits or otherwise of the suggestion. More seriously, I think the key missing ingredient is maturity. Work brings it in abundance. Sadly the transition from secondary level to college much less so. My Dad was always in favour of a year or two of military service/community service (German style) for all 18-year olds as a way of giving them a better outlook on life and education.


    • Thanks, Eugene. Yes, I hope we can do some work along these lines. In regards to maturity, I am hoping that being situated in the workplace will immediately generate a more mature attitude. That remains to be seen. Another potential problem is, even if it turns out to be a better approach, will school leavers choose this option?

  4. V.H Says:

    These last few years I’ve been taking an average 2.5 internet courses a year. I keep encountering the same problem.
    There is an assumption on the part of the provider that the student/learner has ready access to the ancillary services provided by the average 3rd level institution.
    When a lecturer comes up with a course they also come up with reading lists. These lists are either handed to the Library buying committee or/and to the union bookshop. Where those taking the course can access.
    All of the courses I’ve taken, from economics to EU laws, not one provided a pre-course reading list allowing the person to have them in place prior to the start date. They did provide segments of works, but without context. But since the segment was deployed without prep there was no way to seat it in a context.
    A few years ago I’d have fought very hard for the provision of education over the internet. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that the crappy insensitive and downright insulting offerings are doing more damage than not providing the courses at all. And to have institutions blame those taking the dross for failures. Well, who the hell is testing the stuff. Who will test your stuff for adequacy. There are consequences to those outside the industry. Innocent people, who believe the 3rd level industry has their interests at heart !.


    • Thanks for your comments. i agree that such a development should not be based on poor online courses. In regards to reading lists I am of the opinion that we should be moving to open (free) textbooks and other content that should be easily and cheaply available. I also agree that these should be available before a course begins (if required from the start of a course). We generally get good feedback from our online distance learners and most join our courses based on recommendations from previous students, but it may be true that as we work under similar quality assurance procedures to full-time courses, like full-time higher education, quality can vary significantly.

      • V.H Says:

        When a student has to internet scrape to gain a notion about the quality of a course something is very wrong. It’s one thing to bitch about not having the 4* touches in you weekend away hotel on http://www.tripadvisor.ie/Tourism-g186487-Aberdeen_Aberdeenshire_Scotland-Vacations.html tripadviser. You in general know the bracket 4* sits.
        You on your blog laud Coursera, and the course you viewed/audited may very well have been good. But that isn’t my experience. One course, I’ve taken three times to see if they changed their methodology, and while they tweaked the edges they haven’t addressed the core difficulty that a student reading for this course can follow halfway only for it expands exponentially and expects concept leaps that are neither intuitive nor detectable from what was learnt.
        I’ve read for an Arts degree at UCG that was. I know how to solve the concept leap if I have difficulty. I mine the university library. I pester the lecturer. I ask fellow students. On the internet with the MOOCs you have the latter, or to rephrase, the blind leading the blind.
        At the moment for the funzies I’m doing Sal Khan’s Maths of the World. It has left me utterly convinced Maths education in Ireland was half-arsed in the 80s if not downright non existent.


        • I suspect the conclusion here, VH, is that online courses (even free) can be good, but are not necessarily always so. The same could be said for campus based courses, I suppose. In any case, in both online and campus courses, we need to identify weaknesses in courses and continuously improve them. If some topics prove impossible to teach online, we should recognise that and do it in another way.

  5. Al Says:

    “So I would like to propose that we get rid of full-time undergraduate education and replace it with work-based learning, where learners take positions, even menial ones, in workplaces closely associated with the profession they wish to pursue and take most of their courses online, attending their colleges occasionally to help build relationships with their classmates and carry out activities that are best done in that setting.”

    Would the capacity of any industry or vocation to create menial tasks be infinite here?
    Underlining your assumption here is that there is a job or place for every entrant to higher education?

    The recent review of the apprenticeship system recommended that the apprenticeship model be pursuable into higher education, which makes inherent sense. Implicit in the full time model is the assumption that higher level can make an Officer class capable of injection straight into the management class of the employment spectrum.

    While there probably is a large component of middle class Ireland that wants this to be true and that “My Johnny has that potential”; there is serious merit in starting at the bottom and working up.


  6. Thanks for your comments, Al.

    “Would the capacity of any industry or vocation to create menial tasks be infinite here?
    Underlining your assumption here is that there is a job or place for every entrant to higher education?”

    To be honest, I’m not sure about this, but it is worth trying. It will require a certain commitment from industry who say they cannot get the graduates they need. They may need to “put up or shut up”. However, if the learners can add value in some way in the workplace, my guess is that there will be places.

    “Implicit in the full time model is the assumption that higher level can make an Officer class capable of injection straight into the management class of the employment spectrum.”. I’m not sure if I agree that this assumption is there. It is interesting that at the EdTech conference last week someone commented that in a certain country when recruited for training as an officer in the army, the recruit has to spend time as a private. I’m not sure if that is done here. I also made the point that if one is planning on becoming a doctor, why not be required to start as a nurse (or as a nurse’s aide).

    To add to my previous question about whether school leavers would choose this route, you also raise the question of whether parents would consider this route for their children as acceptable. This may indeed be a serious inhibitor. Not only can it be difficult to change the mindset of educators, but parents and students as well.

    • Al Says:

      Hi
      We use “Industry” as a term having generic meaning here in Ireland expecting that is has the same meaning elsewhere in the world and that our “industry” can be compared to other nations effort. Perhaps they are not the same.

      You are covering some interesting points here…

      Are you assuming an economic model based on 100% employment?

      Our widening of the entrance to higher education is perhaps hiding/ masking some employment/ unemployment data that would have been more visible in the 1980’s late 1990’s?


      • Hi Al. I can’t say that I have more than a rudimentary knowledge of economics but I do tend to agree with many economists who claim that 0% unemployment is impossible. I do agree that not only is education to some extent hiding unemployment this is often a deliberate ploy by government.

        While I do believe that there will be plenty for these students to do in the workplace the value of their contribution, especially when weighted against the supervision required by the employer, may mean that many employers cannot afford to pay them very much. Actually this is quite like apprenticeships originally were as many had to pay to become an apprentice in their early years (although this might have been a product of a rigged market).

        Because, I genuinely suspect that this will result in better learning outcomes, I think that there should be scope for a certain level of subsidy (possibly less than the existing subsidy level) to make it attractive to both the employer and learner. This may generate more “places” for such students.

        • Al Says:

          Hi Brian

          Have you served an apprenticeship yourself?


          • Hi Al. An interesting question. I trained as a Civil Engineer in University College Dublin between 74 and 78. The experience influenced me a lot, mostly because of the inefficiencies I could see in the learning and how ill-prepared I was for the world of work after I left (I was lost on a construction site). I quickly moved out of engineering into computing and then into teaching and then into learning technologies – having to learn everything I needed on the job. A few courses would have helped, but they were not really available.

          • Al Says:

            Well answered!

  7. Anna Notaro Says:

    What an exquisitely embroidered load of bollocks. Please do not ask me to elaborate 🙂

  8. Niall Says:

    Interesting idea, Brian. Part of the problem is that many school leavers do not have a notion of what career they wish to pursue. Also, there is no clear match between many universities courses e.g, history and employment opportunities


    • Hi Niall. I agree that many do not yet have a fixed career in mind, but this model does not preclude studying more general courses. Working in McDonalds is not in tension with doing an arts degree – it might even help. (You might argue that this is already happening) To be honest, I think that such courses should be spread out over a longer period of time, giving people more time to figure out their interests, but I’m not sure if that would be attractive to school leavers.

  9. cormac Says:

    Interesting post.
    In my college, a number of workers who had recently lost their jobs were enrolled onto a particular computer course – they performed really well, far above expectations. However, that could be a result of general maturity rather than workplace experience per se.

    A second issue might be jobs, as Al points out. It’s hard to see where the thousands of menial jobs you envision would come from.

    Overall, I agree we need to hit on a way of getting students to make more of their educational experience at college, but I’m not sure that abolishing altogether is the way to go!


    • You’ve hit on a good point here, Cormac. It may be hard to distinguish between the effects of age/maturity and that of being situated in the workplace where you see the relevance of your learning. As I said in a previous comment, I think this would work better if the course was stretched out over a longer time period, allowing a certain maturity to emerge.

      It is very unlikely that full-time higher education will be abolished. Even if it were more cost effective for the majority of people, richer people will be likely to keep many prestigious colleges going as it will be seen as a mark of distinction, will allow them to make good contacts, and parents always enjoy indulging their children where they can. This, if viable, will be a slow burner.


  10. A challenging idea Brian. I am not sure though that the evidence supports the proposal and also we have to wonder what the purpose of the education is. I find that (on average) mature students do better (higher median and lower dispersion of grades) than typical students. This may explain the better performance of online learners who tend to be older. You suggest it is their ‘real-world’ experience but it would be hard to disentangle the causes. This would make the proposal quite a high-risk one. Also, we need to recognise that students learn a lot more at college than what is taught in classrooms. I reckon I learned a lot more about myself and life and work outside the classroom during my college years than I did inside. Many online learners already have that college experience and are less interested in the extra-curricular activities.

    I think in any event some of your insights have already been taken on board at third level where many degrees now offer work placement. I would tend to agree with you that I notice a greater engagement from students that have spent some time on work placement – though this may be explained by the fact that they are entering degree year when grades really ‘count’.


    • Hi Deckie. To be honest I don’t think there is evidence either way and it is up to us to experiment with different forms and see what happens. I agree that it may be maturity as opposed to being in the workplace that may make the biggest difference, but you might argue that the college environment is not one that encourages such maturity and 18 year olds are well able to deliver if they were challenged and in a “real” environment.

      In regards to “high risk”, I think the biggest risk is that school leavers would not be interested in this. Even if it proved to be pedagogically less effective, it is likely to be marginal. We may even have a situation where they would lose their grants and end up financially worse off because of the bureaucratic nature of our funding. For this reason, and the one you mentioned, it might be best to start with a blend – possibly about 15 hours work per week during the academic year (and more during the Summer), so that it can be classed as a full-time course and eligible for all grants. However, this might undermine the real experiment here which your contribution may have helped me clarify in my mind. The hypothesis may be that entering the workforce as a school leaver may BOTH encourage maturity to develop faster AND facilitate more efficient “situated” learning. Work placements indeed change the attitude of students but I think they tend to come too late in courses to impact significantly on overall efficiency of learning.

  11. Greg Foley Says:

    The core point here is a very good one – up to a point. I wouldn’t go the full hog as you’re suggesting – the model you suggest won’t work in many disciplines and it presumes a link between education and a specific job, which is often not the case. Education has a value in itself!

    But I do think it is interesting that so many professions (nursing, accountancy, actuarial maths, law etc) used to be taught largely within an apprenticeship model but the third level system took over; and it did this because these professions represented an opportunity for the third level system, not because we could necessarily do it any better. We need to think again about the apprenticeship approach especially for IT and IT-related careers where much of the cutting edge work is actually done in industry. In Biopharma as well, it is often the case that academia is years behind the big companies.

    The reality is that in the future, we will need an education network, not the educational ladder that we have now and the apprenticeship model should form part of that network.


    • Thanks, Greg. To be honest I think work-based learning will be effective to a greater or lesser degree in all disciplines. I find it difficult to think of any discipline it would not work in, at least to some extent. I agree that education has a value in itself but as someone who considers his university experience as a training, I feel I got my education elsewhere, by reading and barstool and coffee conversations (and later on the Internet). There are many ways to get a general education and I suspect that the artificial nature of a college environment does not add that much.

      Your comment on the need for an education network is interesting and I think that this has been my own main form of learning over the last 15 years. I think it can be very effective but we also have to figure out how to give some formal recognition of this learning to those who feel they need this for career purposes.


  12. For anyone in Ireland who is interested the UK is moving in this direction with the concept of the “higher apprenticeship frameworks”: http://www.apprenticeships.org.uk/employers/higher-apprenticeships/higher-apprenticeships-frameworks.aspx

    A project of particular interest is this one between Nestle and Sheffield Hallam. http://www.nestle.co.uk/media/pressreleases/nestle-sheffield-hallam-university-launch – readers in the UK might be able to comment on this.


  13. I want to thank Ferdinand for publishing this piece on his blog and for the mostly helpful, if sometimes sceptical responses. I think the general view is that this is a valid hypothesis but I need to get out and test it. I better get going.

    Just to let you know that the Sunday Times in Ireland picked up on this blog and interviewed me on the phone. Their mostly accurate and somewhat dramatic article is available at: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1420061.ece (but most of it behind a paywall). I just wanted to assure you that I don’t want universities closed just yet. There is plenty of research and post-graduate courses to be done and of course the undergraduate courses could be re-designed in a work-based format. The most interesting development in the last few years has been the Georgia Tech online masters in computer science – http://goo.gl/KGI4aR (and possibly competency based learning).

  14. James Fryar Says:

    I work as an engineer designing photoacoustic data acquisition systems. A friend of mine works for Google. Another friend works for Permanent TSB analysing mortgages. Another friend works for Paddy Power, and yet another works for Vodafone.

    I have one friend designing systems for delivery of ion beams for killing tumors. I have friends doing research in climate science. And one doing choreography.

    We all did the same undergraduate degree. We all ended up doing very different jobs.

    When people start to dictate to our students what jobs they should and should not do, what vocation their degree will lead to, well, I think that is the absolute antithesis of everything a third-level degree should be.


    • Hi James. I’m not clear what your point is here. Many people who do a degree and start work in a particular job (as myself) end up doing very different things later on in life. The position you start in does not dictate what you end up in no more than the course you start in.

      • James Fryar Says:

        My point is pretty self-explanatory. We used our degree to convince employers we were suitable for the roles they advertised. It was only on the basis of the skills we learnt during our degrees that made us suitable for those roles.

        The danger with your proposal, in my view, is that by ensuring students start the process with a job, you then limit their scope. They look at their job as enabling their degree rather than their degree as enabling their job.

        The question that needs a bit of consideration is what, exactly, was the motivation for all those working adult students? And I ask that because if these students were already working, then were they studying a new subject because they wanted to change their career? That would suggest that had they done the degree before they started their career, they wouldn’t have chosen the same career. Which would sort of suggest your proposal isn’t a good idea.


        • I think the core of the disagreement here is whether a job limits you more than a degree. As you suggest that a degree prepares you for a specific role (many employers disagree with this) then starting with a degree is just as constraining. I would agree that both tend to constrain you, but I could argue that by starting in a workplace you can change direction sooner as you see earlier the nature of the work you may be doing when you graduate. Your point about adult learners studying online because they wish to change career direction is valid, but that is also typical of many who started as full-time students as well. My conclusion is that there is very little difference in either path in terms of how it constrains a person’s choices and so it does not significantly impact on my argument that work-based learning is more effective and much less expensive.

  15. Eugene Gath Says:

    I think employers take a degree as a benchmark of ability and potential rather than having acquired a specific body of acquired knowledge. They know, for example a student with first class honours in mathematics, will be quick at absorbing difficult or complex instructions involving numbers etc.


    • Eugene, I agree to some extent as employers are quick enough to tell us that we are not preparing students adequately for work. however, i am not arguing against college degrees. I am suggesting that if they were work based, students would learn more efficiently and be more prepared for working.


  16. Does anybody expect irish employers to recruit and pay for training staff ? it is much easier to recruit fully qualified workers from abvroad ? During the 5 yrs i spent in a large Dublin 2ry school, not 1 business person came to the school 2 offer career advice/work experience. Living with your parents/siblings indefinitely and working for pocket money is the new normal. Interns don’t even get the minimum wage and earn as little as € 90 for working a 50 hr week.
    Even summer jobs are filled by schoolkids, all of us had to go to Germany to find paid employment. Trying to compete financially with teens/retirees is impossible. € 23 k per annum is a tiny salary for a person living in Dublin, a poor reward after y years in college. 100 people apply for each entry level job, crazy.


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