An open letter to Orna Mulcahy and Leaving Cert Class of 2010

Today’s Irish Times has an article by Orna Mulcahy where she bemoans the fact that the points for college courses will be higher this autumn due to the increase in applications from mature students who have recently found themselves unemployed/between jobs/time advantaged (pick your own term).

After more than a decade of falling points and expanding career options, all signs were that getting into a reasonably fulfilling college course would be just a matter of filling in the forms. But the great recession has put paid to that. Certain courses are no longer attractive at all, such as those leading towards a career in property or construction. The inevitable swing towards the sciences or any course that might feed into Brian Cowen’s beloved “smart economy” will increase competition for places. This year more people will sit the Leaving Cert than ever before. And now there’s talk of a wave of the newly unemployed going back to college.

Oh. To put that another way:

Over reliance on the benign nature of an economic model in which effectively turning up and having a pulse assured you of a foot on the entry level (at least) rungs of an asset acquisition ladder has resulted in a shock adjustment when the dynamics of that economic model change due to external factors and internal market forces.

To me, this sounds a lot like what happened in the property bubble and crash in Ireland, when lots of people chased moderate amounts of property with apparently bottomless pots of mortgage money available from banks, resulting in prices rocketing. A lot of people over stretched themselves financially to buy a property and then found themselves in a state of shock when the arse dropped out of prices and they were left paying a gallon sized mortgage on a half-pint asset value. Which is interesting, given that she is the Property Editor of the Irish Times.

The points system is a very crude mechanism for managing supply and demand in the Irish 3rd level education system. The purpose it serves is simply to set a price on a particular path of learning based on complex factors such as:

  • Supply
  • Demand

Other factors which historically influenced the price included the actual price of going to University. When I started in UCD back in 1994, I had to pay a few thousand pounds in fees as well as administration charges. In the late 199os the then Labour government removed fees in an effort to open up access to education. It was a flawed idea as financial ability is not the driver or motivator to going to college in areas historically affected by high unemployment. Not actually having any role models or examples of success in education and a variety of other factors are as powerful (if not more powerful) inhibitors towards someone from a poorer socio-economic area going to college (particularly where grants and scholarships might otherwise be available for the financial aspects).

So, in the absence of fees we are left with just supply and demand.

In the absence of fees, universities are struggling to provide services and have had to cut back on course numbers and on numbers of courses to manage costs. Many University heads have argued for the reintroduction of some form of fee so that they can maintain their ability to keep the lights on and the blackboards primed for action. Ultimately, this has affected the available supply of places on courses.

Ms. Mulcahy is correct to point out that the arrival of 12000 or so mature students (23 years or over, not an army of the middle aged ) into the equation has increased demand for places. But she starts to diverge from reality a little when she begins to argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to go back to college, particularly when she implies explicitly states that they are “leaving the job search” to spend time “ogling young ones”.

This phrases are pejorative and prejudiced in the extreme. It is equally as likely that, having spent a number of years working and paying taxes and developing practical skills and experience, these mature students have identified that to achieve career progression in their field they need to have some additional qualifications on their resume.  Perhaps they had finished college with an Arts degree back in the 1990s but have found that after spending 10 years working in a particular industry they want to study in that field instead? In that case they won’t qualify for free fees or maintenance grants and will be paying their way to “learn something new”.  Or perhaps (like some relatives of mine) simply decided that while they had the points to get into a good course in college back in the early 2000’s, they were much happier making money in real estate or telecommunications or any other ‘boom’ industry.

My personal experience of having mature students in my class at undergrad level in the 199os and when I was teaching at postgrad level is that they tend to be more motivated, less inclined to focus on how they will be graded and more inclined to focus on whether they actually know their stuff, and more willing to engage in discussion about topics for the benefit of the entire class.  Perhaps the fact that they have actually had to either give up work or take on a big financial commitment to come to college means that they actually don’t mind working hard. And this was not a “grey workforce”. Remember that a mature student is anyone over 23.

Ultimately, what it meant for me as an undergrad was that I had to pull my socks up as these motivated people were my competition for grades. For the Leaving Cert class of 2010 it means that that competition for grades has started a few months earlier than it would have, because Supply and Demand and market forces has meant that the price of going to college is going up.

Because 3rd level education is not a right or an entitlement. It is an opportunity, an investment, a prize for hard work and ability. Free fees has masked this because there is no pain point before you get to college. Other than the points race.

If the offspring who inspired Ms Mulcahy’s rant  cannot motivate themselves to work for their Leaving Cert and not have to be given grinds and cramming classes, then perhaps they are not yet ready for the self-directed grown up world of 3rd level learning. My personal experience of  ‘hot-housed’ students in 3rd level who lack intrinsic motivation to learn and work has been that they often wind up struggling once the stabilizers and training wheels of grinds are no longer available to them.

But I’m sure that most of the 12000 mature students who are coming in from the cold are going to be motivated and ready for self-directed learning. I’m also sure they are more than willing to take responsibility for their own learning.

Other than that, perhaps Ms Mulcahy will start arguing in favour of the development of new funding mechanisms for 3rd level institutions that will enable them to scale their available supply of places to meet demand in future, but will also allow them to avoid carrying inefficient overhangs of resources which have no work to do (e.g lecturers with no courses to teach).  Of course, that might mean her and her friend having to actually pay a bit more for junior’s University education. But then… that’s economics for you.

Dear Leaving Cert Class of 2010: 3rd level education is not a right. It is a privilege. You need to work for it. If you don’t, someone else will and it will not be Mammy’s fault, or the Government’s fault, or the CAO’s fault. 2010 is when you need to learn that you are responsible for your future. Just like all the mature students applying for the CAO are taking responsibility for theirs.

6 thoughts on “An open letter to Orna Mulcahy and Leaving Cert Class of 2010”

  1. Excellent response to a silly piece. I’m now halfway through my 3rd year as a mature student at UCD, and I’m glad I did it. I can’t claim that I saw the recession coming, but when I was thinking of enrolling back in early 2007, I felt the economy “couldn’t keep this up” and I thought I had to do something. I attended an open evening, to find that UCD were actively encouraging mature students for the reasons you gave – what I would call a more “professional” attitude – so I went for it. You can see the difference in lectures: the mature students are there at the front, listening, while some teenage students are at the back, talking or reading Bebo on their laptops.

    One misconception I sometimes hear from younger students, and hinted at in this piece, is that mature students get a “free pass” in to university, without any reference to academic standards. This is not correct, though the process varies by degree. All mature students need to support their applications with documentation regarding the qualifications and experience they have. Most I have spoken to (via the Mature Student Society) do Arts and related programmes, so they need to pass an admissions test (MSAP). In other cases such as mine (Engineering), I was given a grilling by the Dean and the course head, to see if I was the “right stuff” before I was offered the one (1) mature student place in my year.

    If most mature students do Arts-type degrees, the impact of the “grey” on points requirements will be felt the most there. I fail to see why this is a problem, especially if this encourages students (mature or not) to look beyond Arts when considering a degree to pursue. After 2-1/2 years at UCD, I find myself wondering just how many Arts graduates Ireland needs, if its future is in Science and Technology? Not everyone needs to go to university, not if it means lower academic standards.

  2. @simon – thank you for your kind words.

    @stereoroid I do hope I didn’t imply mature students get a free pass into study. I do think that that was an implied theme of the Irish Times piece though and that is just plain wrong. It is heartwarming to know that my alma mater tempted you back in to education.

    Best of luck with the rest of your study and don’t let the beboists at the back distract you too much. I also bet you €10 that at the end of the year they’ll be tugging out of the lecturer to find out how their assignments will be graded and get hints on the exam papers.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention An open letter to Orna Mulcahy and Leaving Cert Class of 2010 | The DOBlog --

  4. Yep – I was referring to the IT piece re the “free pass” whinge, not your response. I’m in 3rd year now, so I have fewer large lectures and even the people at the back are taking it more seriously …

  5. Brilliant. Mulcahy’s ignorance of the third level classroom is staggering. There is more motivated hardworking group in a class the mature students, and when they are around, the standard of the class rises considerably.
    Teaching maths myself – I love teaching mature students.

Comments are closed.