Postcards from Abroad: Canberra

In her third instalment, Elizabeth O’Malley questions why Australian National University is performing so much better than UCD in the international rankingsRecently there was a suggestion that UCD and Trinity should merge in order to re-secure a place in the Top 100 universities. Having spent time in the Australian National University, which is currently ranked 24th in the world and is widely considered the best university in Australia, it’s become obvious that the reason we’re not in the Top 100. It isn’t because our lecturers are any less talented or because our students are any less capable, or even because we don’t have as much money. It’s the system.Straight off, there are two things which automatically strike me as better procedure. The first is the recording of lectures. All lectures in ANU are recorded. This could easily be done at home; all that is required is the software and the microphones which we already have. Some lecturers might be against this idea because they believe it’s important for students to go to class, but this idea fails to take into account the fact that a lot of students work and have other commitments that might mean they can’t or don’t go to class. Besides, the point of college isn’t to reward those who go to lectures; it’s to allow students to take up self-directed learning. In one of my modules the entire course is done in recordings and the only time we physically sit in a lecture room is when we have guest lectures. This system works because it allows students to learn at their own pace and if someone didn’t understand something the first time they can listen to the recording again.Secondly, one of the factors used to rank universities in Australia is the quality of feedback given. It’s patently obvious that only giving results to essays and exams does nothing to help students learn how to improve. An essay I got back recently not only had comments written in the margins, but also a rubric which told me how I had fared in each specific area as well as a recording where the lecturer gave spoken feedback. Knowing where I lost marks will help me write better essays in the future rather than repeating the same mistakes.There’s an underlying issue with the system we have, however. The Leaving Cert. is often criticised for placing more emphasis on being able to cram information, learn off essays and parrot this all back in an exam rather than trying to create students who can think critically and creatively. Yet when we get to college, we learn that we are again expected to just learn off notes and then write as much as we can in the exams in order to succeed, with a few essays thrown in for good measure.This semester I only have one exam, worth 50% of one module. The other seven eighths of my course have come from a range of different exercises. I’ve done group projects, cross-disciplinary research essays, case notes, mooting, given a presentation in front of my tutorial group coupled with a paper on the topic, had a take home exam and written reflective journal passages.In the beginning I was overwhelmed by the amount of work as well as the requirement to use different skills in each exercise. I missed the cosy days of UCD where I could do a little work for most of the semester then spend the last few weeks catching up and cramming and still get reasonable marks.Then I noticed something. I began to work hard consistently. I didn’t leave everything until the last moment. Moreover, I knew that when I got back to Ireland I’d be able to say I’d learned a number of skills including how to properly research, how to work in a group, how to speak in front of people, how to read psychological papers, how to critically assess the law, how to prepare for a case and to give thorough legal advice. All that, and I’ve only been here for one semester.The thing is, nothing I’ve described above requires money. There’s also nothing in theory that is only applicable to Law. The question is how do we produce graduates with the best skills possible? It’s clear that students are willing and able to do this sort of work. Just look at the uptake in new practical courses on mooting and the legal internship. We want skills that will make us stand out. We want to say we have experience which will be useful in the workplace. We want an education that adequately prepares us for our life after university.Surely it’s no wonder we’re ranked lower than universities like ANU. If you’re an employer who are you going to choose: the person who can do really well in exams or the person who has learned a range of different skills? We’re so focussed on the fact that we don’t have money that we’re not asking the right questions. Having a Top 100 university is in our reach, we just need to try something new.Read: Elizabeth O'Malley's second Postcard from Abroad