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Tag Archives: third level

I’m supposed to be lecturing on politics but in reality I’m teaching remedial English.” It would be comforting to report that this was heard recently but it was decades ago. A basic failure in Irish education is now long standing and anyone active in social media can see that it is extensive. It’s in the news again because an OECD report bears out what university teachers see daily and talk about constantly.* It is in stark contrast to the belief in Ireland that the education system is basically sound.

Decades of remedial teaching at university point to a fundamental failure and right now that failure is in particular need of clarification because it is becoming entangled in a more complex set of concerns over 3rd level student performance.**

Here’s a proposition: There is no point in admitting to secondary education someone who is not literate and numerate, and is without a good level of general knowledge.

Here’s a second proposition: There is no point in admitting to university someone who is not literate and numerate, lacks extensive general knowledge and a good grasp of science/technology, and who is incapable of independent study and thought.

The two propositions are based on the simple belief that it is futile to ask someone to do something which they are clearly incapable of doing. It is ludicrous at 2nd level to set out to teach, say, literature or maths to someone who cannot spell, punctuate or cope with numbers. It is equally ludicrous at 3rd level to attempt higher education with someone who is not already educated to quite a high standard.

Almost everyone teaching at 3rd level talks of illiteracy and they regale one another with fabulous examples of lack of general knowledge. Many realise too that their students cannot do basic maths and – while proficient domestic computer users – have little scientific or technical knowledge.

Of course the problems are not universal; there are many students well-prepared to thrive in higher learning. However, the difficulty is not that an occasional unprepared student slips in but that they are not at all uncommon. It is tempting to ask how someone lacking the skills mentioned above could possibly have been awarded a Leaving Certificate of any kind, never mind one carrying the points required to gain entry to the next level of education.

Part of the answer and an obvious partial remedy lies at the transition between primary and secondary school. Thanks to technology it is now relatively easy and inexpensive to ensure that no one can enter 2nd level education who is as yet incapable of benefiting from it. A basic test of literacy, numeracy and general knowledge is required. There is no question of grades; it’s a matter of ready or not ready and it’s certainly not the reintroduction of the Primary Certificate. The test could be on-line and inexpensive. It could be taken any time a teacher thinks a pupil is up to it and it could be re-taken as many times as required. ***

Having taken steps to ensure that primary education fulfils one of its functions the foundation exists for secondary education to perform. If doubts remain, however, that the holder of a Leaving Certificate may still be unable to profit from higher learning, it would be open to the HEA to require all applicants to pass an on-line test which too could be re-taken as required.****

By neglecting basic education Ireland is creating significant inefficiency in the entire education system. Remedial learning is being pushed higher and higher. Unless similar is happening in comparable countries, Irish education risks becoming a laughing stock. Our own education professionals are laughing already; that’s how they cope.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/oecd-finds-literacy-an-issue-among-university-students-1.2515918

** student retention rates, the mistaken belief that students of modest ability are not suitable degree candidates, the effect of reducing students to mere consumers, managerialism leading to reliance on on-line lecture notes and reaching “learning objectives”, lack of reading etc.

Carl O’Brien’s Irish Times piece on the OECD report is published with a companion piece which muddies the water: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/universities-offer-literacy-clinics-for-students-1.2515864

*** There is no point in pretending that this does not have profound ramifications for children with learning disabilities and for children who do not speak English. The point here, however, is that no one should be asked to do that which they cannot. Indeed it might be argued that sending a child to secondary school on the basis of age alone is abuse.

**** Clearly it could be argued that the pre-3rd level test obviates the need for the earlier test. This however would be to suggest that entry to 3rd level is the only purpose of education and fails to share the responsibility for good basic education between primary and secondary educators.

The 3rd level test also opens the possibility of a significant 3rd level access sector.

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I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0209/1224329821083.html

** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

**** The two are discussed here:https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/