Medics, paralysis and the class of 2020

I’m in lockdown for what seems like forever and although there is a feeling of being in the movie, Groundhog Day, I’m actually quite happy. I think I needed a break from ploughing into DCU every day for too many years to mention.

It has been interesting to observe how the country is coping with the Covid crisis. I’m pretty proud of how my colleagues and I responded and moved to online learning within a matter of days. The sheer positivity was great to see. The traditional academic “caution” disappeared overnight.

But now, as we turn the corner, it seems like the country is in a state of paralysis. The problem, I think, is that the medics seem to be in charge. Let me explain.

Having interacted with dozens of doctors over the years, one thing has become clear to me and that is that many medics lack empathy when doing their job. That is not a criticism. On balance I’d much rather my doctor had the quality of rational compassion than an excess of empathy. If she or he gets too wrapped up in identifying with me, there is a danger that she will make poor decisions.

None of this is to suggest that medics are not “nice” or have poor bedside manners. In my experience, our young doctors are fantastic: polite, intelligent, compassionate and very mature considering how young some of them are.

But here is the issue: medics prioritise health over everything else (naturally enough) to the extent that they sometimes forget that the patient is a person who has a life and a career and that the patient’s identity and, indeed, their mental health, depends crucially on living life with an acceptable level of risk. One of my least favourite quotes in life is “your health is your wealth”. It’s an utterly simplistic view of life and it complete ignores the fact that people need a purpose in life and if you take no (well thought-out) risks, you’ll never be fulfilled. If I had taken fewer risks as a young man, I probably wouldn’t have needed two transplants but I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had a great life.

So what to do now? We in the universities need to take the lead rather than waiting for our “government” to make to take the initiative. And the first thing we need to do is decide what to do about next year’s first year students – the LC class of 2020.

It’s a big problem but paradoxically we have a few things in our favour. First, barring a vaccine, the next academic year is going to be characterised by an emphasis on online learning. Second, the need for social distancing means that laboratory and similar modules will not run in the normal way and will have to be massively scaled down. This means that the normal bottlenecks in the system (with respect to increasing student numbers) will be widened and thus our capacity to increase student numbers will be enhanced.

But we also need to look at how we admit students because no matter what decision is made on the Leaving Cert this year, the normal inequities in the system, will have been amplified. In those circumstances, operating the CAO system as normal would be unconscionable. So we have to explore if it might be possible to accept students into faculties (or some variation on that theme) rather than programmes, and stream students into programmes at the end of first year. The system will still have its inequities but I suspect they’ll be fewer than if we were to allocate students to programmes based on whatever the DOE come up with. Many people have been calling for a generic system like this for years and indeed it has been government policy for some time now to reduce the number of CAO-listed courses in order to reduce the stress on leaving cert students, and to help them make better-informed decisions about their careers.

Of course the logistics of all of this are likely to be challenging and indeed, IT limitations might make it impossible to implement. But it’s something we should explore and to give us time, I’d suggest we plan for first years to start in January of 2021 and do two 8-10 week semesters. I’ll return to that suggestion another time.

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