Third level education is not for everyone

The wisdom of pushing up student participation rates must be questioned, says Education Correspondent Niall Murray

Many sides to the university funding debate rightly point to the fact that the international rankings do not give anything like the full picture of activities in our third-level institutions.

But what they do illustrate very well are just some of the effects of cuts to funding in Irish higher education; and the need, not just to restore it to pre-recession levels but to increase it beyond what it has ever been in the past.

Nobody would argue that the slides in international university rankings are the reason this should happen. But as we know from recent political debate on tax policy, it sometimes takes risk to our international reputation to prompt our elected representatives to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

With one significant measure in the rankings being the ratio of students to academics, the impact of employment controls is particularly significant to Irish universities’ performance.

Restrictions on replacing retiring staff or making promotions to fill vacancies have hit the third-level sector hard. An employment control framework (ECF) is only now being slightly eased after several years.

Official figures comparing academic staff directly funded by the State in universities show numbers fell by nearly 300, from 4,576 to 4,291, between December 2008 and the end of 2015.

With these whole-time equivalent figures incorporating full-time and combined part-time posts, the fall in actual numbers of teaching staff is probably significantly higher in a sector blighted by limited lecturing hours and unsecure employment for hundreds.

Third level education is not for everyone

A slight increase in academic numbers at Maynooth University from 262 to 273 reflects the fact that Froebel College of Education was incorporated into the Co Kildare institution in 2013.

University of Limerick’s academic numbers have increased, but not without having also dropped below their 2008 level in the interim.

At the same time as the universities’ total staff numbers have fallen by over 6%, their full-time students have shot up, with most of the rises in undergraduates .

The level of student increases varies widely, from just 5% at Trinity College Dublin to a 46% rise from 6,100 to nearly 8,900 full-time students at Maynooth. The figures show just how much squeeze has been placed on the third-level sector.

The staffing restrictions coincide with the fall by over one-third in core funding by the State, from nearly €1.4bn to just over €900m, with administrative and other staff in many cases harder hit than the academic side.

While nobody questions the need for an injection of cash in third-level education, other policies may need further consideration.

One possibility was dismissed as an illusion by the expert group, chaired by Peter Cassells, whose report on the future of higher education was finally published by Education Minister Richard Bruton in July.

It dismissed outright the idea that the funding problem can be resolved by placing a cap on the numbers entering higher education.

There is no suggestion that this would be a panacea to the problems facing the sector. But some of the efficiencies sought by the minister could be resolved by taking a closer look at the idea.

Rather than looking at the raw figures on third-level student numbers, which reflect population growth as education policy changes, let’s take a look at them proportionately.

Instead of considering the growth in numbers entering higher education from 15,000 to 42,500 between 1980 and 2014, look at the figures in the context of school leavers. From just 20% in 1980, nearly 60% of those aged 18 to 20 now attend third level.

Third level education is not for everyone

At the same time that academic numbers fell in the seven universities by 6% on average, the number of new entrants to degree programmes rose by 6% — from 19,760 to just below 21,000 — between 2008 and 2015.

This has had an obvious impact on the number of students colleges are catering for versus their academic strength. This student:faculty ratio influences international rankings and it has increased to varying levels at the universities, although the troubling rises are not necessarily co-related to changes in comparative performance.

The emphasis of rankings on research measurements like citations in academic journals and research income offers no insight into quality of teaching.

Nor do they show any measure of the quality and availability of student services like health and counselling, libraries and academic supports, or services for those with disabilities or affected by disadvantage.

At 58%, our third-level participation rate is one of the highest in Europe, and there are political hopes to see the figures maintained and increased. With no immediate end in sight to the numbers completing second level, a repeated reference throughout the Cassells report to have widening participation in higher education as a national ambition should be examined more closely.

While there is rightly an emphasis on widening access to ensure nobody is excluded by virtue of disability, learning difficulty, or where they grew up, the wisdom of pushing up participation rates is more unclear.

Figures compiled on a regular basis by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) tell us that one-in-six students do not progress to the second year of their courses at universities, institutes of technology or teacher-training colleges.

These and other studies consistently show a significant relationship between the minimum CAO points required for admission to courses (based on Leaving Certificate results) and course completion at undergraduate level.

While other issues like social backgroundalso appear to play a role, those can be partially addressed by improving the reach and level of support offered to those affected by financial constraints.

But even the best teaching in the world can not bring all students who do not have the aptitude for higher education, or for study in a particular discipline, over the line. Prior educational attainment was found to be the greatest influence on successful progression through third-level courses in the HEA’s report on retention and dropout rates in 2010.

If students in the lower range of CAO points from their Leaving Certificate results are the most likely to drop out, then perhaps it is time to give much more serious consideration to limiting access to those in that sphere of academic performance.

Of course, there are also particular problems with high dropout rates in certain disciplines, most notably areas like engineering and computer science. These may require more targeted action around entry requirements in maths and better supports and guidance counselling in schools.

BUT with anything between one-third and half of those students who got into college with between 150 and 300 CAO points — out of the current 625 maximum — not making it to second year, questions need to be asked.

For each of these students who leaves behind a third-level course, there has been a huge investment by taxpayers. More than half of those attending third level now receive financial support from the State, the very lowest level being half the €3,000 annual undergraduate fee and the highest an almost-€9,000 combination of student fee and maintenance for living costs.

Third level education is not for everyone

Adding probably the same amount for the average amount the Government pays to cover each of those students’ tuition brings the cost of each of those students’ unsuccessful stint in higher education to somewhere between €15,000 and €20,000. Almost 7,000 students who do not progress to second year could be costing the State something between €50m-€60m a year.

If it were any other sector, the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee would surely be hauling in the people paying out the money to find out what was going on. In this instance, they should be calling before them the policy-makers who have decided that close to two-thirds of those who finish school attend third-level education.

With Richard Bruton kicking to touch on making any bold decisions on who should pay the extra money needed to fund the sector, he is awaiting political consensus instead from the Oireachtas education committee — something that is unlikely to come with any great speed.

But if they are looking for options beyond those laid out by Peter Cassells and his fellow experts, maybe they would look at this issue.

Should there be any concern about how to facilitate the thousands who might be left out by a cap on third-level places, they need look no further than a sector which has had an unjustified cap all the years that universities and ITs have been packing in the students.

The further education sector has seen numbers of students on its post-Leaving Certificate courses fall from 38,680 to below 32,500 in five years. While successive education ministers have given lip service to the sector each year when citing its value as an alternative to third-level, the department has had a strict limit on places at the very same time.

This is largely down to the fact there is a direct formula linking student and staff numbers, so money on teachers’ salaries is being saved.

But the courses offered by PLC colleges are, in most cases, pitched at exactly the kind of level suitable for those who can not progress in universities or institutes of technology.

Diverting tens of millions of euro wasted unnecessarily each year supporting students directed into a third-level system that is not right for them could generate a small chunk of the money needed to reverse the slump in that same sector.

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