Sunday 17 November 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Irish education: it's somewhere between gold and 'sure it'll do'

Is a surge in Firsts because students are smarter today – or is grading too easy? It all depends who you ask

There has been a surge in the numbers of students with firsts. Picture posed. Thinkstock
There has been a surge in the numbers of students with firsts. Picture posed. Thinkstock

DEBATING if Irish education has been dumbed down is like asking whether the Pope still bothers going to Mass or whether bears are still using arboreal latrines. The answer is a resounding: Yeah. Doh.

The figures speak for themselves. As the Network for Irish Educational Standards continually points out, in the mid-Nineties seven per cent of university students attained a First Class honours degree. Now it's nearer to 17 per cent. Either students have got much smarter in the last couple of decades, or else the marking has got easier. Experience suggests the latter; international tables and standards show that our students remain no better than average in most subjects. In Institutes of Technology over the same period, meanwhile, there has been a 52 per cent increase in Firsts, despite a sharp decline in the CAO points of entrants.

In other words: "Weaker and weaker students have been entering the sector, only to receive ever improving grades." It's strange that merely highlighting such facts still feels oddly contentious.

This is the arena into which UCD economist Morgan Kelly stepped last week when, speaking to a meeting of the university's economics society, he declared that, not only was Irish education being dumbed down, but that leaving things as they are would "screw up" the economy in the long term. (The speech can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.)

As the man who called the property crash when practically every other economist was still yelling "buy, buy, buy", Morgan Kelly at least deserves a hearing on this one. Not least because he's not a woolly nostalgic arguing for the return of some 'golden age' which has passed. "Irish universities," he said bluntly, "were always pretty mediocre."

Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, was having none of it. He insisted on Today FM earlier in the week that there's "no evidence at all" of a dumbing down of Irish education, and said he's been waiting the 10 years he's been in the job for anyone to provide it.

He also had stats of his own. Student satisfaction with their education remained high; employers were broadly content with the quality of graduates; there was record investment. Which is all very nice. But has education been dumbed down? That's still the question.

I suppose it depends what you mean by "evidence". Morgan Kelly's experience is that the problems in higher education are organically linked to changes in the Leaving Cert which emphasise robotic rote learning, all of which means that students are less capable of independent learning and thinking when they arrive at university. Surely this "learned helplessness", as he memorably called it, is compelling evidence in itself?

Of course it's hard to agree on objective criteria in a field where so much is a matter of subjective opinion. It could be, for example, that the marking system was simply too tough in past years and that it's now found its right level. There's no reason to automatically assume the past got it right and the present is getting it wrong. Maybe 17 per cent of students always deserved a First but didn't get it because a flawed model denied them. You could argue about this all day.

The real question, as technology lecturer Martin O'Grady of expressed it on the same show, is how to determine what we mean by quality: "High quality is by definition limited in supply . . . you cannot have an infinite number of Rolls Royces."

That's the nub of it. If top grades, both at Leaving Cert and later at university, are meant to be the gold standard against which all else is judged, does the fact that more students than ever are getting them mean that we now have more gold than ever? Or that the value of gold has fallen?

Trying to answer that question takes us way beyond merely education. Just look around. Ireland in recent years thought there was gold enough for everyone and it would keep on flooding in. We were wrong. Suddenly we woke up and realised that our jobs, wages, services, politicians, in fact our entire banjaxed economy, were nowhere near as great or as valuable as we complacently thought.

It's naive at best to pretend that education was the one sector which escaped being infected by the inflation of expectation and the 'it'll do' attitude which ran through Irish society at every level in the same period.

We now accept that we can't keep building houses that fail the highest quality standards. Why do we think it's acceptable to not demand that Irish education lives up the highest standards too?

Not doing so is suicidal in a global economy, which was Morgan Kelly's concern. It may be difficult to quantify how much better South East Asian graduates are at what they do compared to Irish ones, but their maths and computer skills are second to none. Ours . . . aren't. Our one advantage was the English language. But everyone speaks English now, often better than we do. If we're falling behind, leaving education untouched would be the classic definition of madness: continually doing the same thing, but expecting a different result.

Morgan Kelly's clarion call is that we need to start failing students again. Not because he wants them to feel bad about themselves, but because all the evidence suggests that, when you ask students to give more, they rise to the

challenge. Instead, Irish education, from primary school, through Junior and Leaving Certs and into college, has been targeted at helping average students bump up their grades, rather than pushing really bright students to excel in their chosen disciplines.

Will anyone listen? Sadly, Morgan Kelly has the unhappy experience of being ignored when it came to housing, and it will surely be the same this time. The property market had to hit the floor before anyone with the power to stop it realised there was a problem.

If falling education standards are going to "screw up" the Irish economy, chances are it will have to be well and truly screwed before something is done.

Till then, the education system, like every other arm of Irish public life, will continue to trundle along self-servingly, rather than for the benefit of society as a whole. Dumbed down people do dumb things.

Sunday Independent

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