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Universities might stop slipping if they did what they are supposed to

October 5th, 2015


Oh dear Trinity, you have slipped. The august college in the centre of Dublin is now rated only 160 in the world, according to the latest league table compiled by the Times Higher Education organisation, publisher of the famous Supplement.

UCD is improving, but still lurks at no 176, while NUI Galway lies in the 251-300 group, and University College Cork, embarrassingly, is only in the 351-400 cohort.

These league rankings obsess the managers of Irish third-level institutions, but clearly to little effect. Even though the THE emphasises teaching and transfer knowledge, that doesn’t appear to have transferred to third-level management.

So what does this mean for the much-vaunted claim that Ireland has a young, energetic and well-educated population? The first two are true, largely. But the third …

What’s wrong with Irish universities? As someone’s who’s both taught and studied at third-level institutions here in the past few years, my answer is that nobody cares much about the students.

The “student experience”, as one long-time staffer said sadly to me this week, is the last thing on management’s mind.

Quality assurance, career progression, ticking the boxes, meeting the budgets, all take up the focus of administrators’ and senior academics’ efforts. Whether or not the students have been properly enrolled, have the facilities they need – and are not in huge classes – seem to have little impact on their thinking.

That issue of class size has become particularly important in recent years, as third-level institutions compete for students, often letting in people without the requisite skills to complete the course. Tutor or lecturer ratio to students go up, while quality of education heads the other way.

I also know from personal experience of instructors who do not turn up for classes, do not prepare, or use the class as an opportunity to rant about how badly life has treated them. Yet nobody in authority does anything: in my own teaching career, which was about journalism and media-related subjects, I often reflected that I could have used the class time to teach tap-dancing for all anybody would notice – outside the students, that is.

In the interests of balance, I also know of many lecturers who love their subjects, work hard, and do their level best to pass on their knowledge to their classes. But these people are almost inevitably outcasts from the power centres of the institution.

By the way, at the top of the table are the usual suspects, Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Stanford, with Caltech – California Institute of Technology – reigning supreme.

Imagine Dublin Institute of Technology being up there! Currently it is in the 601-800 group, so it’s a very hard imagine indeed, as academic sclerosis and careerism tends to put students and their needs on the back burners.

They are not alone – and it’s a common, global lament that the insecurity of academic work means practitioners will put more time and energy into writing papers, to be published in journals and enhance their individual profiles, than preparing or researching course material.

This is because a tenured job in an academic institution is now as rare as a hen’s tooth. Most people – I’ve had this experience, despite an extraordinarily strong professional CV – are hired as adjuncts, or part-time hours-only lecturers, with no sick pay, or indeed pay for anything except face time in class. So preparation, research, after-hours meetings with students, correction of progressive assignments as opposed to exams – none of this attracts any recompense.

Not everyone wants a full-time academic job, but most sentient beings wish to be paid for hard work.

I leave the last word to Phil Baty, THE’s rankings editor, as quoted in The Irish Times: “Ireland will have to put higher education further up its national agenda if it is to truly make its mark in this prestigious list.”

So, Higher Education Authority, what about focusing on the students? Budget cuts are easy to blame, but the mindset could be taught a lesson too.

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