All schools should structure transition year effectively
In an exchange with Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, Deputy Wallace outlines his stance on transition year in secondary schools. You can watch the discussion from October 9th here where the Deputy makes the point that schools need to be more active in making sure transition year is a productive year for those who decide to take it. The Deputy also asked the Minister about university assessment and how it is conducted; that discussion is available here. Deputy Mick Wallace: My two youngest children completed transition year in recent times and their experiences of it were massively different. My daughter's transition year programme was extremely well structured. She had a brilliant time and gained a great deal from it. However, the same emphasis was not placed on transition year in the school my son attended. I remain of the view that it was better that he completed the year because he will be one year older when he sits his leaving certificate examination. I agree with the Minister that being more mature when sitting the leaving certificate examination is a real bonus. It would be good if firmer structures were in place in the context of how schools operate the transition year programme. They should all be obliged to give transition year the emphasis it deserves. Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I had a similar experience with my son who is now in sixth year. A great deal depends on the motivation of the young people involved, the individual co-ordinators of transition year programmes and the level of general engagement. On the one hand, the dilemma for me, as Minister for Education and Skills, is that people are stating we are being too prescriptive with the curriculum, that we are overloading it and that schools are being instructed on what they should be doing almost every minute of every day. On the other hand, we are trying to inform schools that they should do their own thing during transition year. A balance must be struck. I am going to examine the responses I receive from the ISSU and others on this matter and then consider the guidelines and assistance we can offer to secondary schools in order that they will have a menu of choices and activities to offer students. I accept that some of the latter are already in place, but I am concerned to discover whether improvements are necessary and whether new options might be offered. In that respect, we could consider whether it might be possible to tap into young people's enthusiasm for information technology and all the activities associated with it. We must harness that which is already in place in a way which will make transition year a more worthwhile experience for most of those who participate in it. Deputy Mick Wallace: At a time of scarce and reducing resources, I also have reservations about the manner in which universities are being assessed. I note the assessment is based on a number of factors, namely, research, teaching, employability and internationalisation. Only last week, I met two lecturers from different departments at University College Dublin who were at pains to point out that the university assessment in heavily biased towards research. They argue that the scarcity of resources means teaching and students must be given top priority if we are to achieve the best outcomes for university students. Achieving the best possible results will require us to focus on teaching and students. In the past four years, the purchase of new books for the UCD library has been virtually frozen in the case of some departments. While I accept that money is not plentiful, this is a serious problem. It is all very well to spend a fortune on research to impress those who carry out such assessments but our priority must be to look after our universities and students. Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I will reply first to Deputy Wallace before addressing the questions asked by Deputy McConalogue. The Deputy confirms my comment on the distortion that certain types of indices can give to the overall outcome of a ranking. Investment in research, the level of peer review of papers and reputation are all used as indices. However, the assessment may be carried out by people who have never been to Ireland. They may, therefore, base their reputational assessment on an image they have of the country and its universities. There is evidence to suggest that when the onset of the economic crisis in 2009-10 had a significant adverse effect on the reputation and perception of Irish universities, notwithstanding that there had been little or no significant shift in resource allocation or the student-teacher ratio. In the first instance, the ratings should indicate what is the quality of education for our pupils and students, while also conveying a message to the rest of the world about the quality of our education system. They are, however, designed to serve slightly different functions and address slightly different audiences. As regards the configuration of the third level sector, we have seven universities, including the Dublin Institute of Technology, 14 institutes of technology and an array of other third level institutions, including some private institutions which avail of the CAO form for allocation and admission purposes. The more modern landscape of these 33 institutions is almost 40 years old when one considers the establishment of the regional technical colleges in the 1970s and early 1980s and, more recently, the establishment of the University of Limerick and Dublin City University. Information, transportation, communications and mobility have been transformed in the past ten or 20 years. We found, for example, that 19 institutions were delivering more than 40 courses for initial teacher training for primary and secondary school teachers. A recommendation has been made to reduce this number to a much more manageable and efficient group of six institutions. This arrangement will involve collaboration and co-operation between different institutions. We could do something similar with third level institutions. That is why the HEA invited the institutions to indicate by the end of June in which direction they were going, where they saw themselves and the level of collaboration with other third level institutions in their regions. I am awaiting a report on this. The HEA set out four clear steps that any institution that aspires to become a technological university must take. I outlined these steps in reply to an earlier question. The final decision on whether an institute becomes a new technological university will be made by an international panel of experts using objective criteria on the standard of academic competence the institute has achieved. It will not be a political decision made by myself or any future education Minister.