Sunday 23 October 2016

In my opinion: Our higher education system is underfunded and overstretched

Mike Jennings

Published 24/06/2015 | 02:30

Mike Jennings
Mike Jennings

When the Irish economy collapsed, many calls were made for citizens to rally round and display practical patriotism by 'doing more for less' on behalf of our country and especially our young people.

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Irish academics responded with unrivalled commitment and dedication, as evidenced in a report jointly published this week by the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), "Creating a Supportive Working Environment for Academics in Higher Education," on the views and experiences of almost 1,200 academics.

We now educate 16pc more students (31,000) than in 2007. That we do so with 29pc less funding is remarkable. To do so with 4,500 fewer staff is jaw-dropping.

Irish academics are among the hardest working public servants, not only nationally but internationally. Previous reports illustrate average working time of up to 50 hours per week. This week's report highlights a further unsatisfactory situation added to underfunding, understaffing and soaring student numbers. An unfortunate, if unintended, side-effect of our points-based selection system for entry to higher education is that academics find that students come in to third-level with a mindset that renders them very poorly equipped to thrive within it.

In their final years at school students realise that secondary education cannot be 'wasted' on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake - that an ability to memorise and regurgitate is more valued, measurement-wise, than a display of creative or, perish the thought, unorthodox thinking.

The student adopts the wise and pragmatic approach, validated by teachers, and delivers what the system demands. Thus the points are racked up and the CAO delivers the college place.

Then students make the shocking discovery that higher education is no grind school, at least, thankfully, not yet. Here you are expected not just to be taught, but to learn, to take responsibility for your own pursuit of knowledge. A lecture is not intended to be the first indication of an exam question. Yes, there will be tutorials and yes, you are free to seek greater elucidation from the academic staff, but ultimately the responsibility is on you to exploit the potential laid before you.

If we are to reverse the trend whereby so many new students waste months being re-orientated simply to cope, we need to urgently open a dialogue between the professionals in our second-level and third-level institutions. This should, of course, be undertaken in the recognition that by no means all second-level students go on to higher education and be careful not to craft solutions based on one cohort exclusively.

There are some significant positives in the report. The recent statement by higher education ministers across Europe that a thriving higher education system must, as an essential and indispensable element, provide a 'supportive environment for its academic staff' is one.

A further positive is that we are emerging from economic crisis and there is more money available to Government.

So, we have a policy, we have (some) extra money and we have staff who have shown beyond all contradiction that they are dedicated and committed. All we need is the political wisdom not to take our underfunded and overstretched higher education system for granted.

Mike Jennings is general secretary of IFUT

Irish Independent

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