Tuesday 12 December 2017

Education chiefs buck convention with numbers talk

THE DCU president's blog is always worth a read, even if his latest entry arrives late at night or very early in the morning, as it did yesterday.

In one of these musings, Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski asked the previously unthinkable -- are too many students going to college?

Even asking the question goes against conventional wisdom: Report after report state the need to upskill for the smart economy and government policies push more students into higher education at lower costs.

Thirty years ago, two out of 10 18-year-olds went to college. Now it's almost seven out of 10 and still the numbers grow. The total is to rocket from 155,000 at present to 270,000 in just 20 years.

The DCU boss suggests we already have enough students for our needs, if not too many. Change the social mix, yes, but keep numbers at their present level, he argues.

Not everybody would agree, although graduates who are now experiencing unemployment may well ask was it all worthwhile?

Officially 10pc are unemployed. We don't know how many are seriously under-employed, and anecdotal evidence suggests our brightest and best are, once again, leaving our shores in large numbers.

But the reality is that a qualification is the only game in town when it comes to getting a worthwhile job. And having a pool of well qualified people is still an attraction for overseas investors.

Whatever about the number of students in college, the two most pressing issues are, how to pay for them and how to educate them.

Both are prompting a lot of soul-searching as evidenced by the submissions to the group preparing a national strategy on higher education which will certainly recommend fees and/or a graduate contribution.

Last year's renegotiation of the Programme for Government merely held back what is now seen as inevitable.

We simply cannot cram in more and more students under the present model of funding.

Higher Education Authority chief executive Tom Boland re-entered the debate yesterday with some thought-provoking and, from a union point of view, provocative suggestions.

He is right in calling for greater use of new technologies, although places like NUI Maynooth and Galway are already up to speed in this area.

And he is right about unnecessary duplication of courses. In a rush to compete, some colleges began courses which differed relatively little from what's on offer elsewhere, even in institutions nearby.

Greater collaboration is called for, with students being allowed to switch easily across the system from one institution to another for second or subsequent years. But this has implications for staff contracts which have to be handled sensitively.

Whatever the outcome of the strategy exercise, one thing is very clear -- a business-as-usual approach will no longer work because of pressure of student numbers and because of the state of public finances.

Irish Independent

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