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There were two alarming pieces about decline in university standards in the The Irish Times recently.* The paper did not facilitate readers’ comments but here are some brief points that the articles ignored.

Student literacy
The decline in literacy among students is not new. I attended UCD as an adult night student in the eighties and I recall a lecturer saying to me that while he should be teaching a demanding final year elective, he was often – because he cared – working on remedial English. Now, it can seem unfair to fail a student at this level over inadequate literacy. They tend therefore to be awarded degrees. The passage of time makes it likely that today’s students have had teachers with inadequate literacy skills.

A university has no business teaching such a basic skill. In the medium term the responsibility for this teaching should be fixed firmly where it belongs. The transition from primary to secondary school involves a step into educational objectives and material that presuppose literacy. A secondary teacher of course should correct errors in written work – as many at third level have been doing for decades now. Unfortunately students progress into secondary school without it being established that they have the literacy skills for the type and level of education on offer; there is no entry requirement for secondary education.

In the short term universities should act. They must try to shed the “remedial English” workload by making high literacy a requirement for admission and testing for it.. This can be done relatively cheaply by way of a secure computer application, yielding yes/no results.

Incidentally, while these comments refer to literacy, the problem extends into numeracy, basic science and general knowledge. Indeed it can be argued that these failures make it impossible to function meaningfully as a citizen.

These thoughts are developed a little here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/pushing-remedial-teaching-higher-and-higher-risks-making-a-laughing-stock-of-irish-education/

The function of a university

There is an old and continuing debate about the proper function of a university. It centres on the question of the degree to which education should serve industrial/employment policies. These days, however, it is a debate which obscures the reality that is crippling higher education. You see, the objective of universities was changed in relatively recent years when management in the conventional sense was dislodged. Management, whose role it is to ensure that an institution achieves its objectives, has been usurped and replaced by a different leadership which has imposed their self-serving objectives on the university. That those objectives are expressed in a seemingly business focused way makes it seem as if the objective is support for employment policies and this ensures its damaging survival. This is developed here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/cui-bono-the-commercialisation-of-universities-is-more-complex-and-durable-than-many-critics-imagine/

The truth about poor degrees

There was a time in UCD when there were two distinct courses, one leading to a pass degree and the other to an honours degree. They had different examination papers. This ensured that among graduates with a pass degree were highly educated people who had achieved very high marks in their examinations. The abolition of the two courses meant that pass and honours were determined wholly by results percentages and later by grades. A forty percent score delivered a pass degree, while fifty was the threshold of third class honours. The meaning of a pass degree had changed. All of the holders were now performers in the 40 – 49% range; there were no longer highly educated people emerging with pass degrees.

This continued after the move from percentages to grades. Guidelines for grading reveal the standards and they go very, very roughly like this: a basic knowledge will get a degree; evidence of reading will get third class honours; evidence of more extensive reading will get a lower second class honours (a 2.2); creative use of the material – constructing an argument – brings the elusive and highly sought upper second honours (the 2.1); and a very fine creative performance merits a first.

Failure is down at so low a level that there are graduates emerging whom the university doesn’t want. A 2.1 degree is the entry requirement for most post graduate study. Even to get a second chance of further study by way of taking a qualifying examination requires an honours degree of some sort. While the higher education system places little or no value on a low level degree, the public at large may accept that because they are graduates these poor performers are highly educated. Moreover, degrees once awarded to weak students almost ad misericordiam now seem to be incentivised.

Bluntly, a person with basic knowledge, lacking extensive reading and without proven ability to research, formulate and argue is not highly educated and should not have a degree. Add illiteracy, poor numeracy, little or no basic science and very little general knowledge and they cannot be said to have had an education that warrants the term.

– – – – – – – –

* https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/higher-education-is-being-turned-into-an-extended-form-of-secondary-school-1.3803854
and

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/student-literacy-levels-it-is-almost-as-if-they-are-word-blind-1.3803913

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One Comment

  1. Yes, self-serving management does seem to have started quite a fight with self-serving academics.


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