Everyone has a degree but nobody can fix a carburettor
Two out of three school leavers now go on to third level, but are there too many students?
Published 10/02/2010 | 05:00
It is almost an article of faith in education. In order to succeed in life, every school pupil must go on to university. A well qualified workforce is regarded as the foundation stone of a successful economy, but some academics are beginning to question the received wisdom that all young people should aspire to a degree.
Dr Peter Childs, lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the University of Limerick, says: "We are in danger of becoming a society where everybody has a general degree, but nobody can fix cars or work as electricians.''
Dr Childs and a number of other academics warn that standards have dropped in universities in recent years as they continue to admit more students. He believes it is time to restrict entry in order to improve standards.
"It is inevitable and common sense that if you let more people in every year, standards will drop and degrees become devalued. The market is flooded with graduates, many of whom are frustrated on the dole. We have almost reached a situation where you need a degree to work in Burger King.''
Thirty years ago, only two out of 10 Irish pupils went on to higher education. According to the Higher Education Authority, the figure is now 2 out of 3.
The official government target is for 72pc of school leavers to go to college.
In the recession, demand for college places has soared as school leavers hoping to become third-level students are joined by thousands of jobless adults who hope to improve their qualifications.
In recent years, colleges have had plenty of incentives to continue to expand. Quite simply, the more students they can push through the system, the more money they receive.
In Britain, where fewer than half of all pupils go on to third-level, universities are now reducing the number of places they offer to undergraduates in the recession.
Among those cutting back admissions are Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh.
This is the approach now advocated by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), the body that aims to promote excellence in Irish scholarship and research.
In a submission to a review group that is currently devising a national strategy for higher education, the academy says, "Undergraduate education has been compromised by accommodating students inadequately prepared for Higher Level courses.''
The academy argues that in order to improve the quality of undergraduate science education, the number of places should be reduced.
One of the authors of the report, Professor Rory More O'Ferrall of the Department of Chemistry at UCD says: "Everyone is shovelled into university. The funding model is based on the idea that they take in as many students as possible.
"In first year in Chemistry [in UCD] there are 488 students this year when really there should be 300 or 350.
"When you have a lot of people who are not that interested, it undermines standards,'' says Professor More O'Ferrall. "If the course is not suitable for them, they do not work as hard. It lowers the work ethic.''
Professor More O'Ferrall does not advocate shutting the door of third-level to these students. Instead they should do a higher level course appropriate to their attainment and needs, he argues.
Some academics believe that third level is being affected by a phenomenon known as "mission creep'', where institutions providing technical education try to go upmarket and offer degrees.
Dr Peter Childs says: "If you offer everyone a degree, they will stop training to become plumbers and electricians, but they may not be suited to academic work, and you are not necessarily equipping them for the jobs market.
"In Germany the attitude to education is different,'' says Dr Childs. "Technical education is highly valued.''
A recent report in the Irish Independent showed a dramatic decline in the number of apprentices signing up to work in trades. There are now fears that the collapse in apprentice numbers will lead to a shortage of plumbers, carpenters and electricians in a few years' time when the economy picks ups.
The American education commentator Matthew Crawford argued in a recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft that educators have recently concentrated on preparing students to be "knowledge workers''.
The imperative of the last 20 years has been to round up every warm body and send it to college. There, students become qualified to glide around a pure information economy, where they work on a computer.
But Crawford argues that some of the most lucrative and most satisfying jobs will be those that have to be carried out on site, rather than nebulous internet-related jobs that can be outsourced to a cubicle in Mumbai at the drop of a mouse.
As the economist Alan Blinder of Princeton University puts it: "You can't hammer a nail over the internet.''
Nor can an Indian mechanic fix your carburettor or rewire your living room, for the simple reason that he or she is in India.