Thursday 27 July 2017

We think our education is world class. Well, it's not

The main problem we face with teaching isn't lack of money, says Roslyn Fuller – it's our lousy attitude

Roslyn Fuller

As education cuts are once more bandied about in the looming Budget, let me assure you that teaching and learning in Ireland are in dire straits.

There are the alarming figures of course – the nation can no longer claim even one top-100 university, with Trinity College now slotted at 129 in the global rankings and UCD at a miserable 161 – but the problem goes much deeper than that.

After all, one can maintain a relatively highly ranked university on the basis of staff research alone, without the accompanying quality of education – one need only look to George W Bush's credentials from Harvard and Yale to witness a bone-chilling example of this process at work.

Let me be the last to deny that Ireland's education could be dramatically improved through fiscal investment. Reducing primary school class size comes immediately to mind, as I imagine that anyone with 30+ small children on their hands is doing well just to keep them from lighting the room on fire, much less teach them anything.

But the main problem facing us isn't money – it's attitude.

Irish people have a lousy attitude towards education. Point blank. And the worst part is that many of us seem to be labouring under the misimpression that the Irish education system is world class.

I cannot begin to recount the tales I have heard of scholarly investment in the early days of the Republic, coupled with the conviction that speaking English is an iron-cast economic advantage.

Newsflash: that be a hundred years ago and everybody speakee the English now, my friend – often with considerably more finesse.

Don't get me wrong, the investments that were made in the early years of nationhood were far-sighted and impressive, but they were also appropriate to a time when labouring on a farm for £4 a month sounded like a decent prospect.

We now enjoy some of the highest wages in the world, but are saddled with an education system that fails to deliver workers with skill levels justifying those payments (leaving us to peddle the low corporate tax rate as our only saving grace).

So what would I change about education in Ireland? Nearly everything. To start with, here are some initial budget-proof ideas:

Criticism

Far be it for me to foist the joyless years I spent at a university in Germany labouring behind a desk with well-meant but strongly-worded Teutonic criticism heaped upon my sensitive, little head upon others, but we could do with just a little of that here. Just a dash. Just a smidgen.

Because the truth is that many students come to university today in what I can only describe as a state of barely functional literacy – and I have the immeasurable joy of being the first person to tell them so.

How did this happen? I know the answer all too well, because many an educationally involved person has confided in me: "I try never to say to them that they have done something wrong".

Unfortunately, having swallowed my tongue at this point, I am usually unable to ask the obvious: "How do they know when they've made a mistake, then?"

Sparing people knowledge of their own mistakes is not kindness – it is laziness, an inability to deal with conflict, and, in the long-run, cruelty, because someday those kids are going to have to compete with children from Germany, the United States, Canada, India and China, and, believe me, no one is failing to point out their mistakes to them. All it takes is some time and effort, which brings me to my next point.

Time and effort

While I am the first to admit that kids these days could do with a stronger work ethic

(and possibly some awareness of the fact that cruising Facebook is not commensurate with actual studying, even if you do it while sitting in the library), the 'time and effort' mantra applies first and foremost to educators.

Contrary to popular belief, we're not in desperate need of more costly professors – we just need to enable the ones we have to spend their time actually performing their job.

You will never be in a position to produce top-quality research or help your students achieve to the best of their abilities when you spend your days keeping track of attendance records.

Sure, someone has to do it, but does it require a PhD?

Apply the Henry Ford Principle and we'll all get more bang for our buck.

Chuck the hi-tech crap

Now where do you get the moolah for the time and effort investment?

Easy: screw all those gadgety learning aids. There is only one good thing that ever came out of this, and that is the ability to access books and articles digitally.

I will admit that that represents a massive saving, but until you discover a way to download knowledge directly into my mind – like Keanu Reeves learning kung fu in The Matrix – spare me the digital whiteboard, the online learning environment and all of the other expensive gewgaws.

Of course, all this comes in addition to the patronage, the insularity, the ridiculous luring of innocent students into a plethora of postgrad courses that lead to El Big Fat Nowhere in terms of real-life job prospects, coupled with the short-sighted strategy of trying to enforce the complete corporatisation of what is, in reality, a public service, but alas, one has to start somewhere.

As a German lawyer I once worked for advised me on charging for services: "You want a Volkswagen, you pay for a Volkswagen; you want a Mercedes, you pay for a Mercedes." But if you want to charge Mercedes rates for labour, you'd better deliver the goods in terms of skills acquired.

Word gets around, and it's high time we realise that we are behind the curve and that we can't just blame it on the recession.

Dr Roslyn Fuller is the author of 'Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective' and has lectured at Trinity College and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth

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