Is the ISSE a wasted opportunity? Part III

The answer to the question is yes. First I should stress that a lot of people have put a lot of hard work into this survey and I don’t want to disparage anyone’s efforts. But I think the fundamental problem is that there is a  ‘political’ undercurrent at work here whereby the ISSE is designed to conceal as much as it reveals; or at least to be “economical with the truth”. I think there is also an ideological undercurrent whereby a lot of educators with a progressive outlook view learning as ‘natural’ and blame a lack of engagement on poor or (in their view) outdated teaching methods.

But we really need to look at the background to this survey. The background is one where our higher education participation rates are increasing every year and are likely to increase in the years ahead. At the same time, government funding per student has halved while the missions of higher education institutions have broadened. While these things have happened, higher education  has become a market, not just a domestic one, but an international one. The words “rankings” and “quality” are on everyone’s lips.

As Irish institutions have fallen in the international rankings they have pleaded increasingly loudly for more government funding. At the same time, however, they have claimed that real quality – as opposed to the arbitrary markers of quality used in the rankings – has remain unaffected. The claim however is that, just like Achilles will never quite catch the tortoise in Zeno’s paradox, the  tipping point when quality starts to decline is never quite reached. It’s always a few years ahead.

So, in that environment, there is a strong incentive for the ISSE not to contain any questions about what’s really happening at third level. Because some of it might turn out to be embarrassing.

It would raise serious questions, for example, if students were revealed to be getting high grades through last minute cramming. It would raise serious questions if students were getting high grades while working so many part-time hours that they were effectively part-time students. It would raise serious questions if students were getting through exams by doing no more than rote learning?

You’ll notice that despite the STEM hype, there are no questions in the survey that pertain to the experiences of STEM students. You could ask: to what extent do permanent academic staff engage with laboratory modules? You could ask whether lab manuals are provided to students in a timely manner? You could ask about students’ experience of the  equipment itself; are students given the opportunity to actually use up-to-date equipment or is much of the equipment run down and obsolete?  Do undergraduates every see the inside of research centres? Is the health and safety of students taken seriously? And what about the availability of computers; do students feel they have sufficient access to high-spec computers?

And what about student’s opportunities to take part in research projects  at a time when many academics claim that being a research intensive university provides for a better undergraduate experience? And what is the quality of those research projects; do they involve working with post grads and postdocs? Is the supervision of sufficient quality?

And what about the way students go about completing continuous assessment assignments? Do they use a last minute approach? Do students feel they have the necessary IT skills to produce professional-looking documents. Is their ability to make deadlines affected by their part-time work or their socializing? Do what extent does alcohol consumption affect students’ ability to concentrate in class?

There are so many interesting questions we could ask but don’t. So yes, the ISSE is a wasted opportunity. Ask Bertie Ahern once said, it’s all “smokes and daggers”.

And that concludes the series…

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