As some students are having to live in hotels, use food banks, and work during class time in order to pay for the classes which they then cannot attend, it is worth considering whether another concept of a student is possible. The aforementioned problems would not arise if the vocation of being a student was held in higher esteem. Such a dispensation would have many commensurate and complementary elements.
Firstly, the State would only fund high-grade academic subjects; it only funding such subjects would lead to much higher spending per head. Only academic persons would be permitted to attend tertiary institutions; this could be achieved by only admitting a maximum of the top quarter of Leaving Cert, Access, and mature student applicants every year.
Such students would be paid at least the minimum wage for both class attendance and assumed independent study; this would be predicated on the obligation for full attendance, whereby a few absences without extenuating circumstances would lead to the student being removed from their course – an expectation for any other occupation.
While paying the minimum wage to students would require an increase in resources, the fact that is never even considered that we ought to pay such adults the minimum wage for their occupation connotes what low regard attaches to this occupation. As far as the author is aware, this is not something the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has ever campaigned for. A means of requiring independent study would be achieved if all modules were designed in such a way whereby a student could not more or less copy-and-paste their way to passing some such.
Students would also be expected to be able to do their course, so that a student who failed their exams and their repeats would be removed from their course; such is a reasonable expectation as the student will have been provided with the time to study to a level whereby they should be able to pass their exams.
Currently, there pertains the opposite of such a dispensation whereby virtually anyone who so wishes may attend tertiary education; there is no requirement for full attendance, with a tertiary institution known to the author requiring only 60% attendance in order for the grant to be unaffected; persons who fail their subject being allowed repeat it the next year; and commensurate with such a lack of distinguishing of academic-ness, students are paid an abject sum, with the general grant sum being €336 per month – approximately one-fifth of the minimum wage.
The current arrangement is based on the reality that most students are non-academic and are living an adult dependency; a student who receives a nominal grant with presumed part-time income and/or parental payment, is similar to a schoolchild, with the grant replacing Child Benefit. The current paltry grant is complementary with the low attendance requirement, as study that is not worth attending is not worth paying for.
It is remarkable that students who may be engaged in 40 hours per week of class attendance and/or independent study are paid so much less than the minimum wage; though as nobody would want to pay an unacademic student who doesn’t attend classes the minimum wage, and the current regime has no way of differentiating between academic and unacademic students, low regard attaches to all students.
As to why more persons are sent to third level in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, the answer is that in addition to academic students studying academic subjects, it is in third level that there pertains the first instance of some specialised technical subjects, which should be taught at secondary level. Additionally, non-academic schoolchildren are encouraged to enrol on third-level subjects which have low entry requirements. Moreover, unemployed adults may be impelled to enter Access courses, which may lead to tertiary enrolment. Among these three categories there includes non-academic people, up to and including, the functionally illiterate.
Common among whom are persons who usually fail or discontinue their courses quite quickly, though during the Covid restrictions which entail final exams having been replaced with three-day ‘alternative assessments’, such persons have been able to continue in their courses for many years. As such, the inherently tertiary sector is supplemented with a glorified secondary sector, as well as entailing quasi-social welfare courses.
While it is claimed that sending so many people to third level is good for the economy, this the opposite of the case. For example, when comparing a subject in an Institute of Technology like ‘Culinary Arts’ with cookery school, not merely is the former’s pseudo-academic gloss worthless, but it actually lacks the full technical worth of the latter.
Rather than being good for the economy, the expanded third level sector is a consumer, rather than a producer of wealth, and the provision of pseudo-academic degrees rather than worthy technical qualifications has led to shortages of skilled workers in many trades. Such does not pertain in Germany, where they have a specialised, tri-partite secondary sector.
Obtaining this new high-esteem status for students will be difficult as the current situation, whereby the tertiary sector is overloaded with ever-increasing numbers of students, has become a widely received expectation; a higher esteem and a professional status are conditional on each other.
A means of achieving this new status would be if the worthy technical subjects which are taught in the Institutes of Technology were accessed immediately after the Junior Certificate – in Northern Ireland, some equivalent subjects are learned in Further Education colleges from after GCSEs- and for the small number of worthy academic places in the Institutes of Technology to be subsumed into the seven universities. However, the renaming of the Institutes of Technology as universities will make this impossible as ‘universities’ are not going to admit students on the basis of a Junior Certificate.
The continuation of the current regime will see the continued increase in places and student numbers and a commensurate reduction in per capita funding, as well as increasing the scarcity of accommodation. The tertiary sector can either be based on academic excellence for a few or it can be a ‘rite of passage’ for the many, but not both; in Ireland, the pertinence of the latter is preventing the existence of the former.