Ten Education Questions for 2019

Here are some questions I’d like to have answers to in 2019. Guest posts welcome as long as your argument is backed up with evidence.

  1. Are graduates really better ‘critical thinkers’ than school-leavers?
  2. Does industry really need more PhD graduates or is the PhD yet another example of ‘signalling’?
  3. In a small country with an open economy, does basic research conducted in Irish institutions make any meaningful contribution to the economy?
  4. Does the world of work really want creative problem solvers or does it want conscientious team players who’ll do things the company way?
  5. Does higher education really make you wiser and more ‘cultured’?
  6. While state funding per student has halved in the last decade, how has the total funding per student fared in that period?
  7. Is there uniformity of academic standards across the institutions?
  8. Just how much are students working part-time and how much are they studying?
  9. Does spending time ‘learning’ with toys like Lego really have any benefit other than keeping students engaged for a class period?
  10. Are so-called STEM activities (see #stem on Twitter) really an exercise in pulling the wool over youngsters’ eyes?

10a What is the distribution of teaching hours for permanent academic staff across the university sector?

7 thoughts on “Ten Education Questions for 2019

  1. 1. Probably not, but difficult to make a comparison. I’ve seen suggestions internationally that critical thinking facility isn’t improved by third level. Will try and find a link
    2. No. 100% not. Signalling a big part of it, but also industry in some cases outsourcing an element of training to PhD programmes
    3. What could you measure to disprove the hypothesis?
    4. Both surely? Not mutually exclusive
    5. Not necessarily, but in general yes. All education does
    6. Define what you want to include. How do you separate university spending into ‘per student’ and ‘other’. If you mean allowing for student contribution/fee, fairly easy to answer
    7. Not in my view, but hard to prove. Anecdotal evidence from external examining plus staff who move will give an indication. Very strong incentives to keep people in the system
    8. Don’t student surveys (can’t recall which one) suggest a figure for both? Definitely bias with self-reporting here though
    9. Your italics and use of the word ‘toy’ suggest you believe not. It depends on whether it is the most appropriate tool available. Definitely cases where it does bring benefit – e.g. learning about gearing, learning simple coding, data acquisition/measurement can all be done very effectively with Lego (or Lego Mindstorms).
    10. In some cases probably. I’m increasingly of the view that STEM (and definitely its derivatives like STEAM, ESTEAM, STEMM etc) are too broad to be meaningful.
    11. What is included in teaching hours – project supervision? Graduate tuition? Feedback on grading? Online/asynchronous interaction? Varies hugely within, not just across institutions and significantly depends, in my view, on the personal motivation of individual staff members


    1. Tks for reply Kevin. As you can imagine, there is a subtext to most of my questions.For example, in Q9 I’m really thinking about the use of Lego and the like for teaching generic skills like problem-solving. All the evidence suggests that the ability to solve problems is hugely dependent on having knowledge relevant to the problem at hand. Being able to solve Lego problems, therefore, will have little transferability in my view but I’d like to see some studies.

      I think Q3 is a key one for academics. For years we’ve seen letters to the Irish Times etc. claiming that if we don’t fund basic research the sky will fall in. But efforts to link funding for basic research with metrics like economic growth rates or GNI per capita are fraught – there’s real confusion about cause and effect.

      I agree with you on Q4 but the rhetoric of organisations like the World Economic Forum and endless futurologists always emphasizes the creative graduate.

      Q5 is a really interesting one and if you look across the water (both Irish sea and the Atlantic) you’d have to wonder about the connection between education and wisdom and maturity. Would love to see some research on this.

      Q6 What I’m getting at here is this: sure state funding has decline significantly in t
      he last ten years bu have institutions made up for this with private funding?

      Q7 I’ve an agenda here. Shouldn’t we be a little more forensic about this. For example, it would be interesting if, for example, all first year engineering students in even the university sector too the same exam. It’s very doable and in fact I htink DCU are doing something on this with UCC.

      Q8 The thing that drives me mad about the ISSE is that it doesn’t ask these questions – see my series of blogs on that survey which I think is deliberately design to yield no useful information because that information would be too controversial.

      Q10 My view is that STEM is a handy acronym at times but to consider it a ‘thing’ is crazy.

      Q11 Aagin I have an agenda here. Looking at my own institution, the disparity in teaching loads is huge and isn’t always explained by research commitments.


      1. Q6. This is going to vary by institution of course. In mine, I can say it has fallen by about as much, maybe more. Several reasons for this – while commercial and philanthropic revenue has grown, there are other costs which have substantially increased – capital spending (including maintenance, repair, upgrading equipment) has been largely absent, meaning that unavoidable spending has had to come out of the pot. There is more externally imposed regulation (procurement, data, equality, FOI etc) plus lots of other HEA (and other) imposed data gathering etc requiring more admin to service. New focus areas around non-EU students require revenue to be spent etc. And, not least, all these other foci resulting from the reduced funding reduce the attention/time that students get

        Q7. I have some serious reservations about this. If ground-up/emergent for the purpose of self-improvement and better understanding, then great. If it becomes about standardisation, comparison, funding etc, then there are many pitfalls. Already, student progression/retention rates are part of the funding compacts, which risks (some might even say guarantees!) retention over quality.

        Q8. Yes, I read the series of posts. I have many issues with the ISSE too. There is the Eurostudent survey (http://hea.ie/assets/uploads/2018/01/HEA-Eurostudent-Survey.pdf) which tells us some of these things. Specifically that 85% of university students work during the semester, and that the average study (i.e. academic related matters of all kinds – lectures, study, self directed etc) time for those is 35.3 hrs/week. Bear in mind that this is self-reported, so is likely to have an element of virtue signalling. As an aside, I have regularly surveyed my own students engaged in group work activities on the time they spend, and the time they perceive their team-mates, on average, spend. If accurate, of course the aggregate averages should be the same. In practice the self-reported activity levels are about 60% higher. If this were more generally true it would suggest that the true student activity level is closer to 20-25 hours on average. Even if you take the 35 hours, from what I can see all the Irish unis operate ~30 weeks of student active time (excluding repeats) between official term time, study time, examination periods etc. The maths will show that falls well short of the 1200-1500 hours that it should be – and even further short of what many of our european colleagues expect (often using 1ECTS=28 or even 30 hours)

        Q9. I agree totally about needing foundational knowledge. I can imagine some potential benefits in terms of goal setting, perseverence etc that MIGHT be achieved in more abstract generic exercises (e.g. using Lego), but I can appreciate that there is a faddishness/fetishing of in-vogue exercises without really solid matching of the objectives to the means

        Q10. Yes

        Q11. Yes, I concur. Basic workplace psychology tells us that people will focus on a combination (varying by person) of what fulfils them and what rewards (financially or in terms of status etc) them. If we skew our rewards process towards one thing (and by implication away from another), then we shouldn’t really be surprised if people react


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