Irish universities impossible to assess

Have you ever wondered whether you’ve chosen the right University? The reality is you have no reliable way of determining at which Irish university and in which course you will learn the most. In a hyper-competitive world where brainpower is now, more than ever, the most valued commodity, you can no longer afford to graduate without the best possible education.

However, because undergraduate teaching is neither easy to measure within Irish universities, nor readily comparable between those universities, prospective students cannot hope to make anything resembling an enlightened decision in this regard. Hearsay rules the day.

In fact, it’s plausible to conclude that as universities publicly compete using global rankings as a measures of success, many students mistake these as a barometer for quality in teaching. While a high level of research output may elevate a university on any globally compiled ranking table, it does not follow that undergraduate teaching will naturally benefit. Indeed, because quality in undergraduate teaching is not measured meaningfully by tables, rankings tell us little, if anything, about the likely learning outcomes for undergraduates.

Taking a step back from individual teaching outcomes to the overall teaching methods, Harvard’s former President, Derek Bok, explains: “there are hundreds of studies on what effects different methods of teaching have on improving critical thinking, moral reasoning, quantitative literacy and other skills vital to undergraduate education.”

These findings have been reshaping teaching at leading universities around the world over recent decades. Yet if you ask an Irish university graduate from the 1950’s about teaching methods in Irish universities, in some cases, the only discernible difference today is the use of a visual presentation.
Most disappointing is the fact that innumerable practices have been conclusively demonstrated to impede effective learning. Too many courses, particularly in science, are found to be lacking in an adequate method of testing student understanding, rather than short-term memory.

Fortunately, changes are taking place. Those behind these changes in each of our seven universities should be commended. However, where old practices remain, some might ask: are students and parents being duped with regards to teaching standards and learning outcomes? Well, for example, when a university or course’s reputation fails to reflect reality at the time when graduates enter the workforce, employers are forced to pay to remedy deficiencies in the graduates they hire. If those deficiencies persist with each new intake of graduates then employers will eventually learn to look beyond those erstwhile supposedly reputable sources for new hires. Recent reports in both The Irish Times and Irish Independent paint a worrying picture in certain cases. Leading employers have begun to question the level and depth of talent of recent graduates across certain areas.

So, does this mean that high scoring leaving certificate students are unknowingly choosing courses and universities that may disadvantage them as they enter the workforce, compared to students who choose courses elsewhere? You would certainly hope not.

It’s our universities, with their intellectual and human output, which will play a disproportionate role in determining whether or not we lose our position as a leading Western economy and society.

If we do lose that position, then Ireland’s future will neither be as prosperous nor as secure as our recent past.