Colleges in crisis

How can Ireland’s third-level sector overcome the pressures it faces: an online revolution, a drop in academic standards and a chronic funding shortage?

Anyone who believes that higher education has lost its soul can find evidence at Belfield on a Friday evening. There was a time when debates and plays, and bands and films, vied for students’ attention on University College Dublin campus, but “now the place starts emptying out in the afternoon. After 5pm it all shuts down,” says Mary Gallagher, an associate professor of French, who started lecturing here more than 20 years ago.

Sitting in a near-deserted Newman Building, she says with a sigh: “There was a sense of energy here. People used to queue up to get into the debates; there was great heckling . . . I was asked before Christmas to take part in an L&H [Literary and Historical Society] debate; I was amazed because I thought the L&H was gone.”

What’s gone, sure enough, are some of the traditional signposts of community. The library tunnel, which was once plastered with posters advertising events, is now home to a dull but worthy billboard history of the college. The UCD Bar and the once-bustling Trap pool hall have both closed down. The latter was turned into extra administration space “without any consultation”, some passing undergraduates explained indignantly.

As for the campus’s centrepiece building, the arts block named after Cardinal John Henry Newman – formerly the hub of college life, as Gallagher notes – looks tired and worn. Especially next to its gleaming new neighbours: the Sutherland School of Law, named after the chairman of Goldman Sachs International, Peter Sutherland, who has donated an estimated €5 million to the development; and the O’Brien Centre for Science, the second phase of which was opened last October by its partfunder Denis O’Brien, the telecom and media businessman.


For the doomsayers in academia all this is symptomatic of a greater malaise: the commodification of education; the atomisation of the student experience; and the sidelining of arts and humanities in order to serve the greater needs of industry.

Gallagher, who has published a book about the subject, Academic Armageddon: An Irish Requiem for Higher Education , bemoans the "very utilitarian" vibe among people going to college today.

“You go in order to get your grades and then go on to the next stage, rather than going to college to explore different ways of thinking, and the meaning of life. There was a sense of openness, which I think has been lost. Everything has an exchange value now, or is a line on your CV, and that starts very early.”

Gallagher admits her experience is not shared by everyone at third level, and although her book was greeted by messages of support from various institutions, “including secondary-school teachers”, there was “deafening silence” from the college authorities.

Statistical backbone
Not everyone is as pessimistic as she is about the changes taking place, nor as nostalgic for past times, and this highlights one of the problems with examining higher education: so much of our understanding is based on anecdote.

Academics say standards are slipping, students say pressures have never been as great, and administrators say they have delivered all the efficiencies they can. An absence of data or qualitative research across the sector means there has been no way of testing these claims. But this is changing.

At the end of last year, in a move aimed at bringing some statistical backbone to its policy deliberations, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) completed a series of college profiles. Now policymakers, students, their parents and anybody else who is interested can make use of comparative data across the State's seven universities, 15 institutes of technology and six other third-level colleges.

Staff-student ratios, failure rates and employment prospects are among the factors recorded. (Some of these appear on page 2.) Allied to this is a new HEA-funded survey of student engagement, which starts this month; students can take part at It aims to provide a rich body of data on the evolving nature of college life, as the poll is repeated annually.

While the statistics are being gathered, the Department of Education is continuing its bid to bring "coherence" to a fragmented third-level sector. Some of the more radical proposals floated in recent years, such as the merger of Trinity College Dublin and UCD, with the aim of creating an Ivy League-type university, have been shelved. Instead a more modest programme of amalgamations and collaboration between institutions is under way.

More significantly, each institution is being asked to set targets and a work programme to be agreed in “compacts” with the HEA. These are due to be published before the summer, and the authority will have powers to withhold a portion of funding if the deals are not honoured.

“There has to be a sufficient sting to catch their attention and put an emphasis on performance, but we will not set it at a level that makes institutions financially unviable,” says Muiris O’Connor, head of policy at the HEA. A former statistician with the Department of Education, he discusses data with enthusiasm, but it comes from real belief in its value.

“We are lucky to be behind the curve on education policy, because we can [learn by looking at] the roads other countries have gone down,” he says. There is always a trade-off between institutional independence and accountability, but “looking at other countries, especially Australia, New Zealand and the UK, it occurred to us that the optimal balance is through maximising transparency. Transparency ups everyone’s game.”

One aspect of transparency that is already informing debate is the high failure rate evident at institutes of technology. The college profiles show, for example, that as many as 21 per cent of first-year students taking honours-degree (level 8) courses at Waterford IT fail to progress to second year, and this rises to 26 per cent for diploma courses.

Such data strengthens the argument for halting a bid by institutes of technology to move into high-end research, according to Mary Canning, a former World Bank employee who is on the board of the HEA.

Instead of trying to turn themselves into universities, “IoTs should be delivering level-6 and level-7 courses”, or higher certificate and ordinary degree courses, involving “more vocational, more professional, more community-oriented experiences”.

Students “are dropping out in droves because they are getting in on very low points and then they can’t cope, and that’s unfair on them. It’s unfair on the kids and it’s unfair on their families, and we are also using incredibly important resources that we could use better in another way.”

Stressing that the labour market is seeking not only level-8, -9 and -10 graduates, which include PhDs and postdoctoral students, Canning says, “this insane desire to be a university is totally perverting our system.”

Another phenomenon showing up in the data is the failure of many university students to find jobs after graduating, something that points to a mismatch in course offerings.

Over the past 20 years universities have been rolling out more courses of a more specialised nature for Leaving Certificate applicants. This has not only fuelled the points race further but also led students to specialise too early, making them less adaptable to the needs of the job market.

“Universities often complain about a lack of critical thinking in students who come into third-level without taking note of their own role in ratcheting up the pressure by generating really high points for entry,” says O’Connor. “Higher education is allowing the CAO to do its sorting out for them, and that has undermined the objectives of the Leaving Cert curriculum.” He adds that employers are increasingly looking beyond grades to graduate “attributes”, and these need to be nurtured across the transition from second-level education to third level, and beyond.

While the HEA believes it is building the statistical capacity to make more informed policy decisions, there are big holes in the data, and they get bigger the further you move away from universities. Canning says there is a critical information gap. “There is real waste of money and we don’t have any numbers at all” in further education “This is the real elephant in the room.”

'Flip lectures'
A multitude of challenges are facing higher education. The most immediate one is finance, which relates to a second: demography. "We know that every single year from next year to 2032 we will be upping by a few hundred the number of candidates sitting the Leaving Cert," says O'Connor. Along with the 400,000 people on the live register who need reskilling, this creates a "certainty of increasing demand".

An altogether different challenge comes from technology. Its disruptive effect is already seen in institutions where more and more classwork is moving online. Although access to information has never been as great, some educationalists fear elearning is being used for mere economising, and wonder what role the traditional academic will have in future. If students can access the world’s top lecturers in “virtual” universities, why would they bother to fork out ever-increasing fees to go to an Irish college?

Prof Sarah Moore, the chairwoman of the recently established National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, suggests the era of set-piece lectures may be ending. Instead, the likes of “flip lectures” are coming into vogue; here, students view a lecture electronically at home and then do their “homework” in class.

This way the lecturer becomes more of a facilitator of “live projects”, group work and problem-based learning. “It does turn on its head the traditional model of teaching” – but then, she says, that model badly needed updating. “In teaching you always have to think, What is adding the best value?”

Global marketplace
A related challenge is international competition. Third-level institutions are trading in a global marketplace. All are chasing the best and brightest students – or at least those who are willing to stump up several thousand euro a term. Working against them has been Ireland's slippage in commercial rankings, with Trinity – Ireland's top-rated college – falling 19 places, to 129th, in the latest Times Higher Education survey, last October.

“The gradual decline of Irish universities in the global rankings is a symptom of the now significant underfunding,” says Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski, former president of Dublin City University and now principal and vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen.

A long-time advocate of tuition fees for those who can afford to pay them, he says: “It will probably have to be recognised sooner or later that the taxpayer simply cannot afford to provide sufficient investment to keep the universities globally competitive.”

But many believe that concentrating on rankings has a distorting effect on higher education, as academics are forced to concentrate on “measurable” outcomes, such as published research and successful funding applications.

Cat O’Driscoll, vice-president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), says that when she was a first-year student at University College Cork all her classes were taught by postgraduates. “We never saw our lecturer, because he was out trying to bring money into the sector. Over time that kind of thing is definitely going to bring down the quality of teaching.”

Underlying all these debates is an ideological question: what is higher education for? “It used to be that the school was a space beyond economics, but it’s all part of the cash nexus now,” says Mary Gallagher. “There is no breathing space any more for education for its own sake.”

Enlightenment is passe
Citing the work of the French social theorist Jean-François Lyotard, she says: "The old narrative of emancipation and enlightenment are passe. Instead we have a rationale of efficiency and excellence. That is the ideology, and that is the centre of it all.

“We have given up on the idea that knowledge makes you free. Instead, education is branded as excellence; we talk about ‘world-class’ academics, and use a discourse of efficiency, and inputs and outputs.”

Sarah Moore agrees that education has to be about more than getting a piece of paper on graduation day. “I think students need space and time to develop their capacity for reflection. If we treat higher education too much like a conveyor belt we lose out on that.”

Cat O’Driscoll of the USI agrees. “Students are more concerned than ever about their grades: it’s less about your experience [at college] and more about what your degree looks like.”

For Mary Gallagher the issue goes beyond the department, the HEA or college administrators. “The whole discourse of blame is very unhelpful in this context. By and large, people [in third level] are doing their best. But we are in a world where education is being bought and sold like a commodity, and that brings its own pressures and lies. The best way I find of dealing with it is to hold on to the intrinsic value of education. I have not given up at all on education.”