I was infuriated recently to read an article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian about reforming British universities (I’m going to relate this back to Irish universities by the end, so bear with me as I rant about Britain first).

Some of what he says, I agree with wholeheartedly.

“The astronomical cost of a course – averaging some £60,000 – is no more defensible than the outrageous vice-chancellors’ salaries

Couldn’t agree more. English and Welsh students are leaving university with a small mortgage in debt. Fees are £9,250 per year; the maintenance loan maximum is just over £11,000. The majority of students aren’t paying the full amount back right now. But it’s still debt, and until written off, there’s repayments to be made, and it makes getting other loans, like mortgages, more difficult.

“Britain’s wiping out of polytechnics in the 1990s and the subsequent suppression of 16-plus technical education was a disaster”

Absolutely no argument here, and I’ll say more about that below.

He even gets close to the heart of the problem:

As the educationist Alison Wolf has said, we have more graduates than ever, yet “low growth, falling or flat productivity, stagnant wages” and around one-third of graduates “doing non-graduate jobs”.

So, he’s identified some of the main problems correctly.

Unfortunately, the solutions he advocates would make the problems worse.

Jo Johnson must surely do something, not just pontificate. He must cap numbers and pay universities for tuition and maintenance, in most cases for just two years. Most universities could then pay their lecturers properly, to teach full-time.

I have so, so many problems with this.

OK, let’s start with outlining exactly what this idea involves; and for the record, this isn’t just a newspaper columnist floating an idea – the British government is planning on doing it. Jenkins is just expressing support for the plan.

So the idea is that students would still take the same number of modules, the same credits, all the same work – but it would be compressed into two years, instead of three. Classes would run year-round; no summer holidays, which would be replaced with a third semester. Instead of two semesters each for three years, it would be three semesters each for two years. Fees per year would go up, because of the extra semester; but by less than the cost of the third year. This would save students money; and even more would be saved from avoiding the accommodation and living costs of the third year.

What is not discussed is whether it is a good idea to do a degree in two years, or whether it’s even plausible. Based on my experience of well over a decade working in universities in Ireland and the UK, it is absolutely not.

Why Two Year Degrees are a Bad Idea

A degree is about learning. To learn, you need time. Time to do the work, time to discuss concepts, time for ideas to sink in, time to practice skills, time to read around the subject. Doing a course at university used to be described as ‘reading’. “I’m going to Cambridge to read law”, “I’m going to Trinity to read Physics”. I think that’s a really good description. Doing a degree is not like going to school, it’s mostly independent learning (it’s really important to understand that, and I don’t think those in charge do). Students are introduced to concepts in lectures, and should then go and read around the subject of those lectures to properly learn the subject. You don’t do the learning in lectures. Nobody has the perfect recall to learn everything in a lecture during that lecture, and then repeat that in exams and use it for the rest of their life. There’s a reason exams are preceded by studying! Ideally, that studying should be ongoing throughout university. You only really do the learning through the reading, and applying knowledge gained. That’s where ideas sink in, and become second nature. That’s where you have those ‘Eureka!’ moments where things suddenly click, and you get it.

Compress a degree to two years, and there will not be enough time.

Degrees are also intense. The mind needs a break, it needs down time; it cannot keep up working at full intensity all the time. There’s a very real benefit to the long holidays, even aside from time to let ideas sink in. You cannot expect students to keep up the intense pace of university all year round. The stress would be intolerable. With that stress, the brain would simply not be working close to peak ability or efficiency. Everything would be harder and take longer. Ideas wouldn’t sink in so easily. Everyone knows the feeling when you’ve been working or studying hard for a while, and your mind just won’t co-operate anymore. That feeling where you can read the same page three times, and still not take in a single word.

Two year degrees would see students feeling like that a lot more.

Really importantly, and connected to that last point, mental health problems – depression and anxiety particularly – are already rife in universities. Every university I’ve worked at has mental health supports, and they’re all overworked and oversubscribed. I have so many students with mental health issues come to talk to me about them, I feel like I have a second job as a counsellor. I’m trained in mental health first aid, I care about this issue a lot, I go well out of my way to help those students, I’m so glad that I can help some of them, and I don’t want to see this problem get worse.

Two year degrees would see this explode, and I do not want to see the damage to the youth that this would cause.

That’s the students’ side. We also have to consider the lecturers. Degrees are supposed to be about independent learning, guided by lecturers who are active researchers and so experts in their field. To be blunt: university lecturers are not teachers. When I started lecturing, I had no teaching qualifications. What I had was expertise in a particular area.

If you want two year degrees with year-round teaching, lecturers would have to be teaching year-round, essentially turning them into full-time teachers. This would destroy the current nature of universities beyond repair, and change universities into just the next level of school. If lecturers are full-time teachers, then they will have no time for research; with that will go the up-to-date knowledge, the cutting-edge expertise in their subject which is the very foundation of university education.

The independent learning idea brings me to another point: university isn’t just about learning a subject, it’s also just as much about personal development. This isn’t only true for university, I hasten to add – it’s a central feature of the first post-school years no matter what you choose to do. It’s just as true if you go to work in retail, or do an apprenticeship, or any of the other post-school paths. So it’s really important that universities do allow for such personal development – and I think the support for clubs and societies at Irish universities in particular is absolutely brilliant in this regard, by the way, and much better than the UK equivalent.

Two year degrees with year-round teaching would leave virtually no time for this aspect. Concentrating on learning year-round, with essentially no time off, would have a pretty significant and detrimental effect on the personal development of students. Thus, we would have graduates coming out after two years, in pretty much the same mindset and point of development at which they left school.

Fixing the British system

So, two-year degrees: bad idea. However, I don’t want to just be negative. Jenkins did identify some major problems with UK universities, and it’s worth trying to think about how to address those.

I think the British university system is broken. I definitely oppose the fee system which has turned students into consumers, totally changing student attitudes to university for the worse (I was going to talk about that more here, but it’ll be a separate post, this is long enough already). But even that isn’t the real problem with the British universities.

The real problem is the government policy to encourage more and more students to go to university. This has been consistent over the past couple of decades. 49%, just under half, of English young people, are now going to university; almost meeting then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s call in 1999 for 50% university participation rates. Just for context, here’s a graph showing higher education participation in the UK 1960-2000.

This is almost universally praised as a good thing, but I don’t think it is.

What encouraging greater and greater participation in university has done is to turn it into the default post-school option, and so reinforcing universities as a superior or ‘elite’ option, and stigmatising those who do not go to university. Not ‘elite’ in the sense that only the top few percent go, but ‘elite’ in the sense that those who don’t go are somehow inferior.

And I cannot say this clearly enough: not everyone should be going to university. Not everyone needs to, either for learning or for personal development. University does not suit everyone. In fact, it doesn’t suit many people who are presently going, and that is hurting them. I see far too many students who have chosen to come to university simply because that’s what you do after school, and they’ve chosen my course because, well, you have to choose something, right? They have little to no real interest in the subject, or a career in it. They aren’t putting in the effort to do well, because they don’t care enough, they’re not really interested in being in university. I see too many students who have come to university because that’s what’s expected, or that’s what their parents wanted them to do, when really they would be far better off going a different route – employment, an apprenticeship. Academia does not suit everyone. Why make a young person struggle for years trying, not entirely successfully, to keep up with work, deal with the stress, have that stress and anxiety increased – sometimes to intolerable levels – because they’re struggling? It’s not right.

The current situation is wrong! University should not be seen as elite! They should not be seen as a superior option. They should not be the default option. University should just be seen as one potential option. The choice of what to do after school should be based on what’s best for you as an individual, not as a choice between superior or inferior options. There is nothing wrong with going into employment or apprenticeship or other training or any of the other post-school options. Nothing.

Academic smarts does not make you a better person than anyone else. Going to university does not make you a better person than anyone else. Not going to university does not mean you are a failure. Not succeeding at university should not mean you’re a failure either.

If Britain wants to fix the university system, I think it should look at there being fewer students at fewer universities, with fees funded out of general taxes, and – importantly – alternatives to university also funded out of general taxes. Bring back the polytechnics too – it’s a different style of education post-school, and it suits many people. Third-level education doesn’t have to be limited to universities. And most importantly, tackle the elitism. Because that’s the real problem, people thinking they are failures, or not as good people. They aren’t. Everyone is different. Everyone has different skills and abilities. None of that makes anyone any better than anyone else.

University and ITs in Ireland

So, how is this relevant to Ireland?

The lesson really is to not repeat the same mistakes as our British neighbours.


NUI Galway (source)

The good news is that so far, we haven’t. For a start, when Britain turned their polytechnics into universities in the 1990s, we kept our ITs. So our third level participation rate of over 60% isn’t a negative in the same way the 49% university participation figure is for Britain, because we’re not trying to impose a one-size-fits-all model that simply doesn’t work.

[Edit 29/1/18: Apparently there is a Technological Universities Bill before the Oireachtas which will merge 10 of the 14 ITs into four new universities. This is a really bad idea. We shouldn’t make the same mistakes as the UK. I really object to the premise of this which views ITs as inferior to universities. They’re not, they’re just different. Keep the ITs.]

We are also different in terms of the length of our degrees, with many being four years long, rather than the standard British three years – and in those which are three years, there’s many people taking the ERASMUS option to spend a fourth year abroad.

Our fees system is also different – while the registration fee is now up to €3,000, it’s a lot less than the £9,250 charged by British universities. Again, more on fees in a future post, so I’ll skip this point for now.

Now, there’s a couple of areas where I think we do need to make some changes. One is in the way research is done at universities in Ireland. Right now, there’s a focus on applied research, projects which will be economically beneficial; and research grants are increasingly being given out as huge pots of money for massive collaborative projects, meaning the funding is being concentrated on a few high profile top researchers. But one of the main benefits of research is that it keeps lecturers experts in their fields. So every lecturer should have enough time for research, and some money for it. Keep big grants competitive, but make sure that everyone is able to at least keep their research ticking over.

University in Ireland also suffers from the same superiority complex as in Britain, in that it is also regarded somewhat as the best option, with ITs second, and apprenticeships or training or employment as third best or a failure. There is pressure on people to go to university. In some ways, this is reduced by the CAO inclusion of ITs with universities, but the points system – while it does have advantages – tends to reinforce this somewhat, leading to a view that universities are for the smart people. The clearest consequence of this is the divide in university participation based on socioeconomic status – ranging from 99% in Dublin 6 to 15% in Dublin 17. Let’s be honest, we all know the reason more students are going to university from Rathgar than Coolock. It’s not fair, and is has to change.

We need to counter this narrative. There’s definitely issues about social deprivation and education in general, and I can’t offer any solutions to that right now, I’m not a second level teacher. But I can offer some ideas based on the university option. Do 99% of students from Rathgar really need to go to university? It needs to start in schools with career guidance – I doubt I was the only one who had a careers teacher tell my class we had to go to university or we’d be flipping burgers at McDonalds. Careers guidance in school needs to emphasise that not going to university is not a failure, that there are plenty of alternative options – that academic smarts are not everything. This goes to the structure of the Leaving and Junior Certs as well, in fact the whole second level system. We need to stop placing such focus on book smarts, and broaden the whole second level system so that people who are good in other areas can show that too. I firmly believe that everyone has talents, and just because those talents are not in History or Physics or Medicine doesn’t mean that they are failures.

So, let’s change the second level system. It’s not an entirely bad system – it’s definitely broader and better than the British A-levels model – but I think it can do more to not just educate people in a range of areas, but instead to let people find out what they are talented in, and let them develop those talents.

Then, once people are leaving school, we should be providing alternative paths with just as much support as we give to those going in to university or an IT. It’s really vital that young people can leave school and choose a path they want to follow without feeling like they’re stupid, or inferior, compared to anyone else. That’s the single biggest thing we can do to help school leavers. Apprenticeships and training programmes should be well funded. An example that’s been in the news recently is Ryanair’s pilots, and the cost to prospective pilots of flight training before they can get a job. Why is there no help available for that?

I think this can be achieved by changing the way we fund post-school options. Instead of giving the money directly to the suppliers. let’s ring-fence a pot of money for each school student, and when they leave, let them decide what to use it for – be that University, IT, apprenticeship, training, setting up their own business – whatever post-school option they want to follow. And make sure that careers guidance in schools properly prepares them to consider the range of options they have at that stage.

I feel like some people will object to this on the grounds that some of that money will be going to private companies, like Ryanair – a general sense of ‘why should we pay to train their pilots, shouldn’t the company be paying for that?’ But this somewhat misses the point that other companies are benefiting from the expertise of our graduates, and thus our state funded higher education. To put it another way, it’s the same as saying that Google and Facebook should be funding college courses in programming, because those companies are benefiting from the knowledge our education system has given our students. There’s also the point that it will encourage employment and business growth in Ireland, which would mean less welfare payments and more tax – so it’s not like that money is being thrown out of the Irish economy.

That’s just a thought, just one option – there may be others I haven’t considered, and I’d be interested in discussing ideas, if you have any thoughts on the matter. But my essential message is that we have to end the perception of university as the default or best option post-school. It’s not for everyone, and that’s not a bad thing.

Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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