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Implications of mass education on chemistry higher education

Author - Christine O'Connor


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The following paper discusses the implications of government policy for widening access and participation in third level institutes. The increase in ‘non-traditional’ students has been widely recognised on an international scale; however, some issues of inequality still exist. The ‘struggles’ associated with widening participation and the creation of a ‘new’ student type are discussed, with particular reference to chemistry education. A change is needed with regard to the pedagogical approach taken by staff in order to cater for a diverse student body comprising a broad range of learner types, and this must be supported both at departmental and institutional levels. Also included is a review of the literature as to what best practice is in supporting the ‘new’ third level student. To conclude I look at what the future may hold for third level institutes catering for this ‘new’ student type.


In recent years there has been a distinct change in the student type entering general science courses at third level. This change in student type can be attributed to a variety of factors, in particular the 1996 government policy of widening participation in third level education, and which allows for more places on higher education courses and a free fees initiative for third level students. This reflects a move towards Ireland becoming a ‘knowledge based economy’.

OECD economies are placing an increasing emphasis on the production, distribution and use of knowledge. The knowledge economy is dependent on people’s ability to adapt to situations, update their knowledge and know where to find knowledge. These so called knowledge-workers are being paid for knowledge skills rather than manual work.
(Maier and Warren 2000)

Employers are now looking for lifelong learners with a set of transferable skills that include flexibility, initiative, creativity, problem solving and openness to change.

Another factor for change in student type is the marked decrease in entry requirements required for those entering third level general science degrees in Ireland. This is due to the lack of interest of students entering chemistry at second level (Childs 2002). Despite this, there are more students entering third level education than ever before (O’Brien 2005). The result of this increase in participation is a change in student type, creating what is currently referred to as the ‘non-traditional’ or ‘new’ student. Stella Cottrell summarised the issues that arise from such widening participation when she stated that higher education institutions ‘are slowly realising that it is not simply enough to open the doors: what goes on behind the doors has to change to accommodate new types of student intake’ (Cottrell 2001).

Following I shall discuss the difficulties arising in general science courses as a result of this ‘new’ student type and how these problems may be resolved, before considering what the future may hold for such students.