That’s another fine corner you’ve backed yourself in to

I was reading about XtraVision the other day. Remember them? Remember when you had to get in the car to go to your local video shop to collect a couple of movies on VHS only to have to bring them back the next day. I don’t know about you, but I was regularly fined for late returns. At the time, though, it was wonderful – you didn’t have to wait years for films to appear on regular TV.

Such a system seems clumsy and inconvenient in the age of Netflix but, at the time, the trip to the local video store became part of our culture.

XtraVision expanded at a rapid rate – too rapid – and they seriously over-valued their stock. Their demise was inevitable.

The reason I was reading about XtraVision the other night is that the higher education system in Ireland reminds me of the Xtravision fiasco.

Let’s think about what has happened in the last 30 years or so. Some time in the 1980s, a policy emerged that put education at the core of our economic development plans. There’s nothing wrong with that; education is a “good thing” as I’ve written in previous posts.

Typical of this policy of using HE as a key component of our economic development was the creation of the NIHEs, now DCU and UL. These were to be a new type of institution, designed to be unashamedly vocational while offering courses that were targeted at specific areas of the economy. Many of these new courses were also unusual in that they tended to be multidisciplinary in nature.

But soon the numbers of school-leavers attending third level began to rise and the HE system developed into a market with all institutions competing for the best and the brightest students. So institutions began to think hard about the type of programmes they offered and many began to mimic DCU and UL and offer programmes that were prestigious while also offering outstanding career prospects. The whole purpose was to attract the very best students, the ones with 500+ points and to enhance the prestige of the institution in the process.

While this was happening, unfortunate students began to be bombarded with unsolicited advice: STEM is the future! Go into coding! Do honours maths! It was all based on a rather fuzzy idea that because we lived in a technological society, the future of work would require highly-skilled STEM graduates. Of course, the reality is that if you walk into many high-tech companies, especially in the biopharma sector, most staff work are in offices doing paperwork.

As all of this was happening, costs were rising and government funding began to decline. Rather than circle the wagons, the HE institutions experienced a severe bout of mission creep. Some of this was driven by the need to attract funding from the private sector but a lot of it was ideological in nature. “Impact” became the new buzzword and universities began to be over-run with “initiatives” of all kinds. Many academic staff began to feel that while there was always money for the next pet project, undergraduate facilities were allowed to go into decline. Whether they were right or wrong is open to debate but the lack of resources earmarked for teaching became a big factor in the decline of staff morale.

All of this commercialisation and an increasingly instrumental approach to education was exacerbated by globalisation. We were now “competing in a global marketplace”. Our need for more funding to boost our rankings meant that we now had to wander the world looking to attract international students who would pay huge fees. We were backing ourselves into a corner and making ourselves vulnerable to shocks like a global pandemic, a war or simply a recession. The fact that many universities were now borrowing hundreds of millions of euros (often to improve the campus “experience” rather than improve the quality of the programmes being offered) only added to the vulnerability. Take a stroll through Belfield campus and, if like me, you studied there in the 1980s, you’ll be flabbergasted by the level of investment in bricks and mortar. And a lot more is planned.

Throughout all this time, there was constant clamour from institutions and unions that more state funding was required. The word “crisis” began to be bandied around, with some people referring to “catastrophic” staffing levels. Nonetheless we continued to claim that quality was not being affected. Naturally enough the government wasn’t forthcoming with more funding: why would they be given that they were receiving such mixed messages?

Now, as we continue to emerge from lockdown, we find ourselves in a genuine crisis. Recent experience has shown that universities can respond quickly when they have to but we are in the dark as to how effective our efforts to teach online have been. We urgently need feedback from students.

As Einstein said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” and if we do not embrace a new model of higher education, we’re going to remain in a constant cycle of borrowing, chasing students, staff freezes and budget cuts only for it to start all over again a few years later. A bit like the Irish state really. We will not be rescued by the state – other areas of our society and economy will be prioritised – so we have to sort this out for ourselves.

No doubt, online teaching will be a significant part of any new model that we develop, but more than anything, we need to rationalise the system, renew our focus on education and stop trying to be all things to all men.

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