Role of education in Ireland

I wound up in a twitter discussion with Marc Coleman today because he is running for election to the Seanad and he got into some sort of a tiff with Brian Lucey, an academic in Trinity, this week. As I follow both of them, the argument caught my attention and I ended up contributing. I believe the roots of the debate were in an article which Marc wrote for the Sunday Independent, link here, and which left me somewhat cold as far as writing style was concerned.

With respect to the debate on twitter, however, it reminded me that a key issue in Ireland is that the debate on education seems to be very fragmented. No one ever seems to clearly answer the question “What do we want of our education system?” Ultimately, our commentators and politicians spend time arguing on micro issues without first of all even assessing the purpose of our education system. As such, we wind up with letter writing campaigns to the newspapers about such esoteric matters as:

  • the place of Irish in the curriculum
  • teachers’ holidays being too long
  • the dumbing down of the maths syllabus
  • how few people are doing higher level course which would lead them on to research and development
  • how badly we do at languages (and how we should kill off Irish language teaching to deal with this)
  • classroom buildings/facilities
  • class sizes.

Marc Coleman appears to be unhappy at how we measure academic productivity. He latched onto academic lecture contact hours and used personal anecdote as a stick to beat Irish academics with. I’m not going to argue against the simple fact that compared to other countries, many of our academics are relatively well paid; only that if you want to bring about a way of measuring their worth to us, a little more detail is called for.

I don’t work in academia. I came close, about 10 years ago, to applying for a lectureship but the position in question was part time and held not enough promise in terms of research options. Marc Coleman wants us to only hire the good people, but has not yet answered me the simple question of How do we identify them. Nor can he tell me how we develop them. You don’t really buy good academic off academic trees; they need to be nurtured and their research funded.

I’m not happy with certain aspects of education in Ireland. I think our primary and secondary school cycles could do with being modernised. Having spoken to a number of teachers, I’m aware that where we have failing schools, we have ploughed lots of money and have failed to get parental engagement. I’m not enough of an expert on the social sciences front to figure out how we address that. I did volunteer to give grinds to kids in a disadvantaged comprehensive when I was a student myself – I’m not sure if the program is still running – but this anecdote is nowhere near adequate to make me an expert in dealing with some of the problems our education system faces at the coalface.

I’m not in the mood for picking over the carcass of whether researcher/lecturer A should be earning more or less than random person B doing a similar job somewhere because it’s a meaningless debate if you don’t actually first of all decide what you want the education system to achieve. For example, I’m not sure it is to our benefit collectively that it brought about a situation whereby the points race causes most of our brightest to direct themselves towards law, for example. Or that perceived economic benefit dictates trends in demand for third level courses. This does not exploit our collective ability to the best.

If I were a Seanad election candidate, I wouldn’t be focussing initially on what we pay our academics in terms of whether they represent value for money. I would be asking people what they want from education. It’s a very, very important question that would enable us to better identify value for money from the system. What is the required outcome? Arguing over contact hours is not going to answer that question.

While we currently do not charge tuition fees for undergraduate students, it’s worth noting that the UK is moving to a fee based system (and the implementation of that in England is causing ructions with respect to access being dictated by access to money), and the US has had a fee based system for years. The merit of that system is being questioned, given the debts that are imposed on young people going to college and the disconnect between those debts and the likelihood that their jobs will ever enable them to pay of those fees. Put simply, if you cause every job to require a college degree but then do not produce salaries that will enable people to pay off the cost of getting said degrees, you have a problem.

Because we have had a policy of trying to enable as many people to get into third level colleges as possible, we have diluted the value of basic university degrees such that postgraduate qualifications are near mandatory if you want to get a job. I’m not sure that this is to the benefit of the wider economy, particularly in a country which currently has abotu 15% unemployment.

I’d prefer it if our Seanad candidates considered wider questions like this rather than running into the cost of bits of the whole system.