I arrived in Ireland not really knowing what to expect other than the stereotypical (although incredibly picturesque) rolling green hills, sheep, stone walls, and the friendly, if a bit wild, Irish. After arriving there and learning more about the culture from more of an insider’s perspective I found out something that really stood out to me: undergraduate education is free for all Irish who qualify (through the very demanding exit exams taken at the end of high school that make the SATs look like a cakewalk)
So free college education… must be nice right? Back here how to pay for college is a constant stress for many students and prevents many others from even perceiving college as an option. Education is a HUGE determining factor in socioeconomic status and aids in social reproduction because those of higher status are able to afford better educations ensuring the future of the next generation. When I first learned about it the social justice-seeker in me was in awe of a country so focused on educating their inhabitants that they would pay for higher education that as an American I see as a privilege, not a right, with their hard-earned tax Euro. As I slowly learned over the next several months it actually causes a whole different set of issues. American college students, I think we can all agree, have a certain reputation for partying hard. Perhaps its because I attend Willamette which is not exactly known for its party scene unlike my brothers alma mater, UC Boulder, but regardless I would bet that they pale in comparison to the Irish. It was completely normal for students to party till the wee hours of the morning (and I mean like 5 am) any night of the week. I know this because I was awakened by them regularly.
The result (at least I believe I can safely assume they have a causal relationship) is a much laxer standard for academics. Professors would, albeit grudgingly, lower their standards so they didn’t have to fail their students. Students who came to class prepared, even for discussion courses, were the minority. Many students did not attend at all. There were students at the exam that I had never seen before in class. In class discussions the students that participated regularly (at least in my classes) were either international or non-traditional students. This being said I only took courses from the Arts area (what we would term Liberal arts): English, psychology, and “soc n’pol” (Sociology and Politics), so it is entirely possible that other areas of the University are more demanding. My flatmate, Brian, was a third-year engineering student and worked reasonably hard, much more so than I perceived others in my classes to have worked.
This observance of lack of daily preparation was not something that I alone noted. It was even brought up in our visiting student orientation by NUIG staff who did not want us to be fooled or swayed by this and did point out that when it came to exams the students indeed got serious and buckled down. I would agree with that, but I feel that a lot of opportunity for learning is lost even if they learn the material in time for the exam. The fact that this was brought up as a cultural difference shows how normalized it is in their culture. While I detected a certain amount of resentment from professors, not a lot was done to change the behavior although the current economic crisis (which has hit the USA only minimally compared to the havoc it has wreaked on the Celtic Tiger) may make university free no longer.
These facts led me to re-examine my knee-jerk reaction of thinking that free undergrad was a great idea. While it removed a significant obstacle and made higher education much more accessible to the population regardless of socioeconomic status, it also cheapened people’s appreciation for it. I know that I would be ashamed to put as little effort into my courses as I saw such a large percentage do not only for myself but because I also know that not only is my family showing their support of me and my future by financially backing my education but am taking the place of someone who might be willing to work harder but who doesn’t have the chance because they can’t afford it. The fact that scholarships disappear if my GPA drops below a 3.0 is definitely a motivating factor as well.
This led me to ponder whether free undergrad was like communism: a great theory in terms of the emphasis on equality and fair distribution of resources, but failing in practice. how to relegate my feelings that everyone should have an equal opportunity to attend college, with my feelings that those who do inherently have a responsibility to prepare for and attend their classes in order to gain maximum benefit and respect the opportunity given to them. I see both systems as having significant merits and significant drawbacks. My thoughts are: what if the government did continue to back higher education, at least through college level (which these days is considered a basic requirement for many jobs and most that pay a living wage), but, similar to the scholarships I receive, have a minimum (but reasonable) GPA requirement?
Food for thought…