Friday 19 December 2014

The race for third level manipulates and destroys young people

State snobbery puts young adults out on a miserable limb of perceived failure

Emer O'Kelly

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

Those who take higher level papers in the Leaving Cert exam represent the intellectual cream of our second level education system, right? Well, no actually. The Irish Universities Association task force on reform of university selection and entry has suggested that students who score below 40pc (in other words, a fail mark by any currently known standard) should be given "compensatory" points for having taken the higher level paper in the first place. In other words, reward failure.

Meanwhile, an Economic and Social Research Institute report has come up with the earth-shattering finding that young people who suffer from stress during their final school year have the most difficulty in making the transition from school to third level. So if you're struggling to make the grade in the heavily-structured school system, you're likely to be totally overwhelmed when you hit college or university. Who'd a' thunk it, as the Americans say? (The report also found that middle-class youngsters are more likely to go to third level than those from disadvantaged backgrounds: gosh!)

And yet we're relentlessly pursuing the aim of third level education for all, using it as a marker for our "developed economy".

To achieve it, we've "re-graded" perfectly good technical colleges as "universities" while some of our universities are offering degree courses for people with what used to be called a mental handicap - instead of acknowledging the truth that university education is supposed to be geared for the intellectual elite. And during the second week of August each year, we shine a relentless media spotlight on school leavers, behaving as though completing the school programme is an event of extraordinary rarity, rather than a normal step unworthy of hullabaloo.

The points are perused, the places are offered, and the 18-year-olds are off to college, engineered to fit in with what "the economy" requires: tables which will create a decent rating internationally for the population percentage educated to third level.

Next step: the real figures, not the socially engineered figures. In the academic year of 2010 to 2011 - the last year for which the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has issued figures - 16pc of all students at Institutes of Technology dropped out after first year. At university level, the dropout rate was rather less disastrous, but 9pc of students dropped out after first year. (At Dublin City University, the drop-out rate was 11pc.)

There are two ways of interpreting those figures. Either you believe that it was a tremendous achievement that all those young adults "at least" had the experience of a year of third level formal education. Or you can say that the taxpayer funded thousands of people uselessly, who neither enjoyed the experience, nor coped with it successfully.

The university drop-out rate has remained the same since 2007 (the last time the HEA carried out a major survey, published in a report in 2010.) But in that year a total of 22pc of students dropped out of IoTs after first year, with a massive percentage of between 21pc and 34pc dropping out of the demanding engineering courses.

And in that year, fewer than four in five students got beyond first year in 11 of the Institutes of Technology. At six of the Institutes, one-third of first year students dropped out of computer science courses.

Those figures represent an educational horror: the cost to the taxpayer which delivers no return; and the loss in self-esteem 
and purpose for the students driven into making choices for which they're entirely unsuited and unqualified.

In 2010, Tom Boland, the Chief Executive of the HEA, told a conference that the IoTs were "doing very well with the cohort they cater for".

Excuses, excuses. But at the same conference Dr Vincent Tinto, an expert in third level retention at Syracuse University in New York, told his audience that students are more likely to stick with their course in situations where they are expected to succeed. In other words, stop dumbing down for working class students.

We need to look at brain power, not class or social background. Academically gifted young people should find no obstacles to getting into university: they will thrive there.

Technically or sociologically gifted 
young people should find no obstacles to getting into IoTs: they will thrive
there. Their social class should be irrelevant. 
But we will do nothing 
but cause damage and
make young people see themselves as failures if we drive them to believe that third level education is the be all and end all of adulthood.

It has become snobbishly unacceptable to learn your trade through an apprenticeship which serves society and the apprentice well. Statistical snobbery will do nobody a favour; it will merely reduce academic standards and condemn hundreds of young adults to the misery of feeling they have failed.

Sunday Independent

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