Posted tagged ‘university’

The highs and lows of examinations

September 3, 2008

My own English-language education experience was remarkably consistent for its entire duration. Both at school and at university, I received instruction through face-to-face contact with teachers, and at the end of the course I was tested in a written examination on my retained knowledge, with the exam typically determining how I was deemed to have performed in the subject. At school the exam result was balanced by what we would now call continuous assessment, but mostly the overall result depended on the examination. At university there was, at the time, no continuous assessment at all: the exam result was absolutely everything.

My German language experience was somewhat different. At my secondary school in Germany, I was tested at various intervals during the year through so-called ‘Arbeiten’, which were written assignments, some (but not all) performed under exam conditions. These were staggered through the year, so that I gradually built up my performance profile. The final grade on leaving school was determined by the exam called the Abitur, which had a written and an oral element.

Fast forward to 2000, the last year during which I undertook regular teaching duties at my then university, the University of Hull. My main module – the one I taught by myself – did not have an examination element at all, but was assessed entirely through project work carried out during the year. Other modules to which I contributed had mixed elements of examination and continuous assessment.

In fact, it has for a while been a topic of pedagogical debate as to whether exams are a good way of testing ability and achievement, or a bad way. Opinions are divided. Some believe that as they are conducted in conditions where things such as plagiarism and cheating can be controlled they are a more accurate reflection of a student’s performance; others believe that they encourage memory exercises only and discourage intellectual ingenuity or independent thinking. Others simply don’t know and hedge their bets (and support a mixed mode).

It is perhaps time that this issue was handled more systematically. It is of course likely that not all learning can be tested in the same way. First years students need to be assessed differently from final year students, and those doing a PhD need to be tested in a wholly different way. But we do need to have a clear understanding, on pedagogical grounds, of what is right in each case, and there should be more consistency, even in a system that allows for variety. And we need to come to an understanding of the potential and risks involved in online testing, with multiple choice or other formats.

There has been some research on this – see this book, for example – but in practice there is little sign that an integrated approach based on evidence and analysis is being applied. It is probably time for that now.


The end of effective support for access?

June 13, 2008

On Wednesday of this week I had the genuine pleasure of participating in the opening of DCU in the Community. This is part of DCU’s Civic Engagement Strategy, and in this particular instance consists of premises which we have opened in the heart of Ballymun in North Dublin. For years this area has been one of the most deprived in all of Ireland, with high unemployment and almost every conceivable social problem. Participation in higher education was almost non-existent. And yet, amidst the tower blocks and their decaying infrastructure and lack of basic services, there was always a great spirit, and as I discovered when chairing the educational panel of the Living Dublin Awards, Ballymun had a greater number of community initiatives in the arts and education than almost anywhere else in Ireland.

Since the 1980s DCU (or NIHE as it was then) has pioneered an access programme, designed to facilitate the entry of persons from deprived backgrounds into university degree courses. Initially this focused on Ballymun, but more recently it has been extended to all of Ireland, North and South. Students are given encouragement while still at school to consider third level education, and are then helped through the applications process – and indeed are given some allowance for slightly lower points. They are given a bursary, but more importantly an office in DCU looks after their interests and gives them advice and encouragement when this is needed. Over the years we have developed this to the point where 10 per cent of DCU students enter the university by this route.

During this period also other institutions initiated similar programmes, and all Irish universities have them now (though DCU’s is still the largest). But most of the resources that make these programmes possible are coming not from the state, but from private donors. DCU for example is obliged to raise millions of Euros to fund access for the disadvantaged. As the economy moves into harder times, it will become increasingly difficult to raise such large sums, and there are few signs that the state is taking the challenge seriously enough to fund this national priority. Such funding becomes even more important in a difficult economic environment, as many of the young people concerned will be under pressure to seek employment rather than go to college.

On top of that, the ‘free fees’ framework that gives taxpayer support to kids from Dublin 4 (and everyone else coming in via the CAO system) does not support – at all – part-time students, who are disproportionately from deprived or relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. This, I believe, is a scandal, and should be rectified at once; but probably won’t be.

Unless as a country we take our obligation seriously to provide a quality education to all people, regardless of background, we are failing in our national duty. The time has come to take access seriously; otherwise it will now decline, and before too long higher education may once more be the preserve of the social elite.

Universities and culture

June 8, 2008

My university – Dublin City University (DCU) – is often considered to be a science and technology-focused institution. We are well known in Ireland for major courses is computing, engineering and the sciences – though we do actually have a large business school and also some very impressive humanities programmes. However, it is true that the largest research centres in my university (and these are amongst the most prominent in Ireland) are in science and technology.

However, we also have a significant presence in the performing arts. Ireland’s National Chamber Choir is the ‘choir in residence’ in DCU, and we have a larger performing arts centre – The Helix – with three venues that include Ireland largest concert hall. In short, DCU has tried to play its part in contributing to the cultural life of its neighbourhood and of the country.

It has become widely accepted that universities are not just teaching institutions, but have a major role to play in economic development, social inclusion, public debate, and arts and culture. Universities need to see themselves not just as providing a ‘service’ (however important that service may be), but also as providing leadership in society, to ensure that society is tolerant, harmonious and inquiring. The cultural dimension is particularly important, and I am glad that we are able to play at least a small part in that for our community.

Experiencing disability

June 6, 2008

Five days ago I had an attack of lower back pain, or ‘lumbago’. I get this about once a year, and on the whole it doesn’t hold me back too much. It comes very suddenly – sometimes apparently caused by something I have done, like lifting an excessive weight, but sometimes for no apparent reason at all; such was the case this time. The main effect of these episodes is that I have some pain when standing up from a sitting position, but after a few intakes of breath and a short wait the pain tends to go and I can go on normally. The whole thing goes on for maybe five days, and the gradually goes away. I have in the past sought treatment, but on the whole the message appears to be that there is nothing that can be done, and I should just accept that from time to time I’ll experience this relatively minor unpleasant condition.

But this time it was more extreme. At first everything was as I normally experience it, and I just got on with things. But on the following day I had to drive to various places over some distance, and in the evening (and some 200 miles later) my lower back didn’t feel good at all, and unlike other times the pain didn’t go away when I had been standing for a while, and I was only able to walk (or rather hobble) with some difficulty and in significant discomfort. The next morning I was unable to get out of bed unaided, and the pain had become severe. Later that day I received some physiotherapy, and this improved things, and at the time of writing  there are good signs of steady improvement, though not yet full recovery.

However unpleasant this has been, the signs are that it will soon be gone, and when this happens again I shall be more careful. But it has also made me think again about how we handle disability. I know that there are hundreds of thousands who suffer this sort of pain, but unlike me not intermittently: they experience it constantly. And pain has a very effective way of focusing you away from what you need to be doing – you cannot help focusing instead on the pain. And where it also disables you physically, you become dependent on others, so that the pain is accompanied by issues of independence and self-esteem. For two days I could not do simple tasks (such as putting on my socks) without help, and it infuriated me; how must it feel for those who cannot ever do this for themselves, and many other things.

Also, as I hobbled along my campus, all sorts of obstacles and hurdles and sheer impossibilities became clear to me – not because DCU is bad at accommodating the disabled (it’s actually rather good), but because the most benign environment can still be challenging when you don’t have the physical capacity of those without any disabilities.

It is worth asking whether higher education as a whole does enough for the disabled, and whether we really accept this as a priority, and whether we try enough to look at the world of higher education through the eyes of those with physical or other impairments. By next week, I shall probably be able to walk through my campus again with no pain and no disability. But I shall make a mental note to join with my colleagues to look again at what we can do better for those who will not be so lucky.

The unpredictable world of a university President

June 5, 2008

Next month I will have been a university President for eight years. In July 2000 I took up the post of President of Dublin City University (DCU). Rather than being a development or extension of my previous career, it was in fact a whole new life, unrelated pretty much to anything I had done before except that it was also in a university. Previously I had been Dean of Social Sciences (and Professor of Law) at the University of Hull in Northern England, and before that again I had been a Lecturer in the Business School of Trinity College Dublin. I had seen my career as being focused on research and scholarship, and on teaching talented people of all ages. But suddenly all that was over, and I had become a ‘chief officer’ – the administrative and academic and business head of a large organisation.

It is sometimes asked what value university Presidents add to the life and success of their institutions. I may not be the best person to suggest an answer, but in these notes I shall try to set out a little what in fact I do, from day to day, and how this may affect my own institution. But I should also add that while DCU has achieved extraordinary successes in recent years, I do not claim much of the credit: this is due to the talented and hard-working people who make up the university – faculty, staff and students – and without whose dedication nothing would be possible.

As I develop these notes, I shall welcome comments and questions. I can also be contacted at

Ferdinand von Prondzynski