The value of full time education

Brian Mulligan has a piece in today’s Irish Times, or at least, it has appeared online overnight anyway, questioning whether we can afford to send all our young people into full time education. It is worth noting that he is pushing online and distance options as a replacement for same, and that he is a lecturer and program manager in the Centre for Online Learning at the Institute of Technology in Sligo.

I wish to address a number of points he raises, but, in the interests of transparency, I will outline my own experience in this matter before proceeding: 1) I have studied full time in DCU for four years. 2) I have studied full time and worked part time at the University of Westminster for one year; 3) I have studied part time at DCU and worked full time for 2 years 4) I have worked full time and studied via distance learning with the Open University for 2 years and I studied full time at UCD, including 2 modules which were delivered online. I may not be a program manager for an organisation which is selling distance services but I have been a user of education services in most forms at this stage.

There is a trope in existence that when a story regarding some form of science opens with a question, the answer is usually No.

Brian Mulligan opens with a question.

Could it be that sending our children to college is an extravagance?

I think it is fair to say the answer to this question is actually No. No it is not an extravagance. In fact, if I had to say anything, the ongoing debate about the cost of education and what it brings is evidence, perhaps of knowing the price of things but not the value. Sending people to college is only an extravagance if you have an extremely narrow view of what education should be about.

The vision which Brian Mulligan sets out of young people going into menial jobs – as he calls them – and obtaining an education via some distance form enabling them to stay at home – is evidence of someone focusing on price rather than value.

As learners are mostly working and do not need to live away from home, they can more easily afford the fees, often with assistance from employers and with less subsidy from the State.


There is no doubt that changes in technology may bring about changes in how education can be delivered, but this is no argument in favour of making full time education the privilege of the wealthy only, not if you want a healthy and reasonably equal society. One of the core values in enabling youngsters to leave home and go to college is that they learn to stand on their own two feet more quickly, and they meet a greater social mix; something which is a good thing, and highly important for an integrated society. It is no harm that people get to mix outside their own social circle; for society as a whole it is massively important. This is not a method of qualifying people as socially confident or not; what matters is ensuring that people are not constantly reinforced in narrow views in a homogenous conversation.

Should individuals and the State be spending or borrowing so much for what now could be seen as a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people? An extravagance?

Brian Mulligan is at liberty to consider his own education a pleasant rite of passage. He would make it a pleasant rite of passage for privileged people purely by removing from unprivileged people the right to and support for time to dedicate themselves to education. He wants to use modern technology to set society and education back 50-60 years again purely by allowing privilege to define your right to study full time. And he does this to support his organisation’s business case.

The trouble for me is this: I do think that it is not a rite of passage to go through some specialised education. I think it is highly suitable for some people, and less suitable for others. I honestly believe that we should have a decent and recognisably standardised apprentice system. I also believe that for young people who choose not to travel the academic route, we should have methods of enabling them to access what training they require. But I do also believe that money should not be the defining method by which we choose who gets a full time education in UCD and who does not. In a decent society, the marker should be ability and will.

That being said, I honestly believe that distance and on-demand education is something which is poorly provided and basically lopsided in this country. I mentioned above that I had done distance education via the Open University. I did this because at the time, there was no obvious way of studying for a mathematics degree part time from any university in this country. If you are looking for arts based degrees part time via distance, the provision is very poor. Most of what Brian Mulligan’s organisation offers is skills specific based rather falling under the broader term of education. Training rather than learning, if you like

I am not in favour of seeing distance and online education being sold as a replacement for letting our young people go to college. However, that is not to argue against it having a value for enabling all of society to have a continued access to education for the sake of education

Ireland has a serious need for a wider debate on education and training and the value we attribute to both. I have seen the opportunity cost to the country of economics dictating who gets to college and who does not. We also need to understand that sometimes, there is an argument in favour of education for education’s sake; for enabling people to access knowledge on an ongoing basis. Education does not end at the age of 21, 23 or 25 depending on how far you get through third levels into academia. Its value is not solely linked to your salary out of university because it also has a monumental impact on how you look at the world.

5 thoughts on “The value of full time education”

  1. hear, hear. His article could be read as tongue-in-cheek provocation, but knowing Brian, he really believes that stuff! For him, anything other than technical, skills training is ‘an extravagance’.

    As to whether we can afford education as a country, ignorance is of course a lot cheaper. 😉

  2. Hi Iain,
    Thanks for the comment. I don’t know Brian but this is not the piece of this nature I have read from him, hence I am less than willing to take it as a piece that is tongue in cheek.

    Of course, ignorance is always cheaper in the short term…for the long term though, it’s not such a great investment I would say 🙂

  3. Hi Guys.

    you guessed right – it was not tongue in cheek. However, I suspect you did not read the article correctly. I’m in favour of higher education for everyone and that includes the humanities as well as technical training. (Not sure how you deduced that from the article). I am suggesting that the way we currently do it in full time education is very inefficient (and often of poor quality). If there is another way to achieve the same outcomes with less resources (or better outcomes with the same resources), then it would be sensible to do that. Firstly we need to agree on that, then we can debate what methods are most effective.


  4. You haven’t really supported that argument in the piece though, Brian, and ultimately, it’s worth considering that before suggesting people have read you incorrectly, whether in fact you have expressed your point clearly. Ultimately, you seem to conflate simultaneously young people studying part time while doing some form of menial work, and older people studying part time in some form of CPD. Nor have you responded to the comment that full time education should not become a privilege available only to the wealthy. Asserting that lectures might not be the most efficient way of delivering education based on your experience in engineering lectures in the 1970s is a poor support for that argument. For me, one of the key issues with things like the MOOC set up being pushed by Udacity and Coursera amongst others is that they both deliver a monumentally low completion rate. AFAIK, for example, Udacity is slowly starting to push itself towards CPD and company training rather than education in general terms.

    I recognise that you work in the area of distance education but I think you would have to argue that Sligo’s delivery in this respect is very limited in scope and does not come close to touching the humanities.
    There is a far wider debate to be had on the value of education as a whole as it will feed into how we handle education at every level, and not just third level.

    I am interested in what you have to say but when you write these pieces, both on the IT and on Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s site, I just don’t see you providing the supporting argument. If you wanted to do that, you need data highlighting that a) there is a better educational outcome, like for like – you don’t have that because your distance cohort tends to be a different demographic to your attending cohort b) the total cost of delivery is has a significant economic reduction. Assessing that has to include the cost of non-completion and c) that as a route it is chosen not because the core attraction is economic, but that the educational outcome benefits the country as a whole.

    Does that data actually exist?

  5. I took some time to write that piece and thought the idea of combining work with online learning was quite clear. Apologies if it was not. (You can learn a lot while doing menial work too. Perhaps I should have used the term “unskilled”).

    I’m more concerned with the provision of higher education for all than whether or not the wealthy decide to spend their money on skiing holidays or campus based education for their kids. If the state can provide good higher education online for everyone rather than what they can afford now – mediocre higher education at a steep price (I have a daughter in college and it does not seem to have changed that much, and I have worked in the sector for 30 years).

    I’m not a big fan of relying on research data for making decisions as the process is too slow (and not that reliable when it comes to educational research). We moved into online distance learning before the data was available and made good progress. Having said that, we seem to have bucked the trend in being active in Engineering and Science. Most courses elsewhere, particularly those developed in the nineties were in the humanities. Sorry, I haven’t time to chase down research papers backing that up.

    My own view of the weakness of my hypothesis is the willingness of industry/employers to take on school leavers into unskilled positions and take an active part in their development. They are quite willing to draw attention to the weaknesses of higher education but it often seems that it is simpler to leave education to others rather than get heavily involved and make it better. Still, I think we might be able to get around that.


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