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Opinion: The best thing I got from my master’s was the chance to leave Ireland

I am one of the many thousands of students to pull up to an Irish university, deposit their money and walk away with what is – essentially – an empty qualification.

Clare Herbert

ONE OF THIS Government’s favourite sound bites is the creation of an innovation economy. As a recent graduate, this ideal bears little resemblance to my experience in the classroom.

I returned to university in September 2012 to study for an MSc in Human Rights. I had gotten consistent feedback from recruiters that a master’s qualification was fast becoming a job requirement, rather than an optional extra. After an undergraduate degree, four unpaid internships and five years of employment, I followed their advice and returned to college. My tuition cost €7,000, which I self-funded.

I was very disappointed by the quality of education I received.

Generally, lecturers are academics first, whose interest in teaching is secondary. Classes were primarily workshop-based, though the reliance on lecturing was strong. The focus was not on engaging with the subject, but completing the curriculum quickly and succeeding in the exam. While my knowledge of human rights grew, it would have been just as educational (and far less costly) to read a dozen good books on the topic. I was one of the many thousands of students to pull up to an Irish university, deposit their money and walk away with an empty qualification. My master’s education was, essentially, a box-ticking exercise.

The need for innovation

That’s not to say that I learned nothing. Juggling part-time work and a full-time course made me adept at managing my time. I learned to speed read vast quantities of information without missing the relevant facts. My written argument skills improved. Along the way, I met committed staff members and encountered pockets of innovation occurring within the system. Unfortunately, such initiatives were the exception, rather than the rule.

I engaged with my coursework and got good grades, but ultimately left feeling short-changed. It saddens me that the greatest benefit I got from my master’s was the opportunity to leave Ireland. Completing full-time education made my eligible for a year-long visa to the United States, where I now live and work.

The innovation the economy requires skills that cannot necessarily be taught in the classroom. Skills such as problem solving, relationship management and creative thinking are at a premium, and remain largely ignored by the formal education system. While I would not advocate that we throw out the books and focus entirely on internships or project based learning, I do believe that universities can do more to offer students a more holistic education suited to the knowledge economy.

Striving to build a knowledge economy

One could argue that universities provide a platform from which students can develop these skills on an extra-curricular basis through involvement in college societies, student politics or volunteering opportunities. But those opportunities are limited to those with the time and financial resources to pursue them. I, like many students, worked part-time to fund my studies which left little time for extra-curricular activities.

Ireland is striving to build a knowledge economy, in which education and ideas are the foundation upon which the next level of prosperity are built. Universities and employers must realise that old teaching and assessment methods are no longer an adequate barometer of a student’s ability to contribute to society. The taxpayer funds the university sector to the tune of €1 billion per year. Understandably, much of the debate has focused on how best we can fund our university sector. Equally though, it’s time that we questioned the purpose and quality of education on offer. As students, it’s time that we raised our expectations of what a college education can be.

Clare Herbert is an Irish writer, living in New York. Her work can be found at http://www.clareherbert.comFollow her on Twitter: @clareherbert

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