What is the purpose of the education system? This is a question which ultimately decides the debate of whether the US or the Irish undergraduate system is better. If you believe that the main function of universities is to train students for jobs, then you probably support the Irish undergraduate system, which immediately divides students into special areas, such as law, medicine and engineering. But college is, and should be, far more than four years with a degree at the end.
The American system isn’t perfect, with its extraordinarily high fees and focus on research to the detriment of teaching, but there is a case to be made against courses with one singular focus.
The American undergraduate system requires a general degree before students can study medicine or law. Students have a chance to try a number of different subjects before declaring a major. They are also required to fulfil general core requirements, such as ethics, writing and courses on critical theory. Courses can be tailored to interests with students free to pursue any module they want.
What does this mean? Students who come out of the US system have a far broader knowledge base than Irish students. They spend more time interacting with people who are different to themselves. Importantly, there is an emphasis from colleges on ensuring their students develop a broad range of skills.
All of this is important because a student graduates a more well-rounded person as a result of this system. This is good for the personal development of students, and has a knock-on effect of making them more employable.
The Irish system asks 17 and 18-year-olds to choose immediately what career they want at the end of university, when most of us have no idea. What ends up happening ultimately is that graduates still have to spend more time in college in order to retrain, or they end up working in the area of their degree because it just seems like the easiest thing to do. It makes more sense for graduates to be able to choose later when they know more, and get to study a wide variety of subjects now.
Once you enter college you will probably only spend time with people studying the same subject as yourself, unless you branch out and join a society. UCD is better than most in that it has the option of an elective module, but it is the exception and one module is not enough.
As it stands, the extent to which Irish students get a broad education is limited to preparatory courses specific to their degree, such as a general writing course for Arts students and a legal research course for those studying Law. Our students fail to learn those general skills required by US colleges, such as the ability to write and communicate effectively and to think critically.
A single-subject degree limits the skills of our graduates. The skills needed to master English are not the same required by medicine, or law, or science. Each course requires a specific way of approaching problems and speaks its own language.
We produce graduates who are fit for purpose, but not much else. Employers don’t just want someone who is good in one particular area. There is a reason that, for example, law firms are increasingly hiring arts and science students instead of those who have only studied law. Having people who can approach a problem from a different point of view adds value.
A special report by the Chronicle of Higher Education in March of this year found “When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving.”
This sentiment was confirmed by the Expert Group for Future Skills Needs, which found that Irish graduates lack basic skills such as oral and written communication skills, project management and team working.
PayPal’s Louise Phelan argues “Irish students are, generally speaking, lacking in skills such as referencing and academic writing ability, certainly compared to their peers from the United States.”
A more general education with a focus on skills building is not a panacea. For example, core requirements in building computer and technology skills are vital as international companies are increasingly turned away from Ireland due to our lack of competency in this area. Our programs need more vocational elements, as learning by listening is simply not enough to provide our graduates with the experience they’ll need in order to get a job.
By forcing students to study just the one subject, they don’t become well-rounded, they don’t become adept at adapting or thinking differently. This is a fundamental flaw with our system.
Ireland does not have a ‘highly acclaimed higher education system’. Only one of our universities is in ranked top 100, and companies such as Accenture have argued that they are finding it impossible to fill jobs in Ireland, despite nearly 460,000 people on the live register, a high number of them graduates. Those companies that do fill jobs find that they are having to devote more time and money into training its employees because they lack even basic skills.
While 45% of students may have showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after one year in the US system, 55% did. That’s more than half; hardly a failure. Meanwhile, Ireland has no statistics which show any increase of critical thinking after the entire course of their degree.
The higher drop-out rate is less likely to do with a lack of structure and more to do with the fact that the average degree in the US in 2011 cost $28,500, not including living costs. Students may have to drop out because they can’t afford college.
Meanwhile, the majority of students who drop out of university in Ireland cite choosing wrong degree as the reason. These students would be more likely to finish out their degrees if they had the choice within their degree of which modules to study.
~ Elizabeth O’Malley
Imagine finally graduating, years spent earning your degree, with plenty of hours put in but you’re now 27-years-old compared to your European equivalents who are only 22 or 23. Are you too old? Can you compete?
That’s the age that American graduates come out at and that’s the age that we would graduate at should we change our higher education system. Most businesses, particularly multi-national companies, are looking for younger, more innovative workers who have learned their skills applicable to their course, and are then able to continue to apply these skills to real life situations.
One of the attempts at justifying the US system that has a more broad undergraduate degree is that it allows for the development of critical thinking skills, and that it gives the student the opportunity to gradually adapt and be smoothly transitioned into college life, but it’s not as simple as you would think.
The first year is supposedly there to improve these skills, making way for a wider education. But Forbes magazine showed 45% of students in the US showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication after their first year of college.
The aim of the broad education system in America is to develop these skills, so if it’s failing, why would Ireland consider changing from a system that is working well for us?
In Ireland, we are expected to make mistakes in our first year of college. Of course we won’t understand referencing for our first essay. We’ll be overwhelmed with time management and have palpitations about end of semester exams. But we should make these mistakes now, as we go along, rather than trying to apply the solutions a year later.
The American higher education system has continuously been called the “dropout factory”, because it is ranked as having the lowest graduating percentage of the eighteen countries monitored by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. It comes in below former Soviet country, Slovakia.
Just 46% of Americans complete college once they start. This is an alarming figure and it begs the question of whether those coming from the broad-based system are overwhelmed by too much choice and too little structure.
The Harvard study ‘Pathways to Prosperity’ showed that only 56% of those who start a bachelor’s degree programme finish within six years, struggling with the rigorous workload that they are unused to after developing a lackadaisical approach to learning in their first year.
Some argue that a broad-based entry year is just what Ireland needs in our higher education system, but why? Ireland has an incredibly broad and adaptable higher education system already that incorporates the skills taught in the US entry year.
If we take UCD as an example, we can note that every student taking Arts, single honours or joint honours, takes the Introduction to Arts module which teaches us the essential skills that it takes the US universities a year to teach. We don’t need to take a year to learn these skills, when it’s clear that fifty minutes a week for nine weeks suffices.
This doesn’t only apply to Arts courses, as the majority of courses in any college, institute or university, teach these skills. It’s just integrated in the learning, there’s no fuss about it. It’s subconsciously developed.
We should not even consider changing our higher education system. Ireland has one of the most highly acclaimed higher education systems with young, prepared graduates, keen to apply themselves and further their studies. They come out of the system with the essential skills in their field. It is not our country that is being hailed as a ‘dropout factory’, we have managed to find a balance between efficiency and specialisation and this should not be altered.
It is not true to say that only an American general degree can provide a taste of different subjects, when in Ireland un-denominated courses such as Arts and Science allow students to try a range of subjects from philosophy to maths to chemistry. An un-denominated course is ideal for those unsure as to what they want to do, and they still provides the skills necessary to continue on in postgraduate studies or into employment.
It would be unfair to add further years to college for those who know what they want to study and what they want to in life to. Remember, there are those who can barely afford college as it stands. Adding extra financial strain on families will inevitably see a decrease in enrolment and for the little improvement shown from these general courses, is it worth it?
In response to saying that you will probably only spend time with those who are on your course, the same applies in America, you still see the same people each week as your classes wouldn’t change. That’s the great thing about societies, it allows you to meet people with a common interest but not necessarily doing the same course, that’s why they’re at large in both Ireland and America.
Yes, a general course to develop key skills would be ideal, but when it has been in practice in another country with no return we should not consider amending our system which isn’t broken.
~ Megan Fanning