Higher Education in Ireland
Although one should never generalize about another culture or try, in a few words, to describe such idiosyncratic institutions as another country's universities, this essay does both. It is an attempt to prepare you for immersion in the Irish educational system by describing some of its important characteristics and identifying a few things we think it will be helpful for you to know.
When you compare statistics on higher education in Ireland or Northern Ireland (which is officially part of the UK) with those on postsecondary education in the United States, you are immediately struck by the great differences in scale. America has lots of universities, and many very large ones. We have some 2,100 four-year, postsecondary institutions, more than 50 of which have enrollments in excess of 25,000 students. In all of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) there are only about 115 universities and another 140 "colleges" of such specialties as fine arts, music and drama, technology or education. The Republic of Ireland has only about a dozen university-level institutions and twenty or so "colleges." A typical British or Irish university enrolls 6,000 to 12,000 students, with only the very largest one or two accommodating no more than 15,000. (The exception is Britain's Open University, a non-residential institution, which serves more than 200,000 students.)
A far smaller proportion of students attend colleges and universities in Ireland than do so in the United States. Nearly two of every three high school graduates in the United States every year go on to a postsecondary educational program of some kind. In Ireland, 56% of high school graduates go on to postsecondary education.
Thus, a higher proportion of secondary school graduates in Ireland have finished their formal education at the age of 17 or 18. They will spend the rest of their productive lives working (and receiving on-the-job training) or looking for work. In both countries, the students who go on to college are very well prepared to do so. During the last two years of high school, they specialize in college preparatory courses (many of which are similar to the advanced placement courses available in US high schools) and then they take special national examinations (Irish Leaving Certificate) in order to be eligible to qualify for acceptance to a university program. It is during this process of studying for their end-of-high-school examinations that most Irish students acquire that breadth of academic knowledge and understanding which we in North America would recognize as the fundamental components of a liberal education.
By the time they get to university level, most Irish students are ready to concentrate on a particular subject, and they are expected to do so. In Ireland, students are admitted not to a university as a whole but to a specific course of study within it. You would be admitted, for example, to study chemistry at Queen's University or to study English at University College Cork. The idea that a student might usefully pursue courses in three or four different academic departments during a given semester is a North American one. It is not a practice followed on the other side of the Atlantic.
A political science major at the University College Galway, for example, will take at least half of his/her academic load each semester in the political science department. That student might be allowed to "minor" in another subject closely related to the "major" (for example, history or international relations or law) or may be in a "joint honors" (double major) program, but this individual would never encounter a requirement to pass a course in mathematics or English or music appreciation in order to complete his/her undergraduate degree requirements. The point here is that the home country students with whom you will be studying are much more restricted in their choices of courses than you are or will be.
Most bachelor's degree programs in Ireland and the UK are three years (6 semesters or 9 terms) long. This abbreviated time period recognizes that students engage in focused work in a narrow range of disciplines as undergraduates. The exceptions to this generalization are at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Limerick, which have four-year undergraduate degree programs.
Arcadia program students frequently find themselves enrolled in second year courses. This does not mean that an American junior is being demoted to sophomore level; it means, rather, that the course which is appropriate for you is the one which is taught the year before graduation. (In a three-year degree program, this would be a second year course!) Arcadia program students are often successful in some third year courses, and many take first year courses in disciplines in which they've had no previous background.
Probably the key difference between higher education in both the United Kingdom and Ireland and that with which you are familiar in the United States is the approach which the host institution will have to you as a student. They will assume that you are a serious learner. You should understand from the outset that nobody at the host institution feels an obligation to teach you. You should expect to find instructors who are glad to lecture, happy to discuss, pleased to read and to criticize what you have written and who are interested in responding to what you have to say. You will find those same instructors equally willing to leave you alone, to let you attend class or not, to permit you to choose to turn in assignments or not, to allow you to set your own pace. It would be highly unusual for Irish or British instructors to go out of their way to ensure that you are doing your work.
Chances are that you will not be closely monitored, you will not have your hand held, you will not be told (without asking) how or when to do everything that you should be doing. There are, however, expectations. You will be expected to turn in assigned papers and to perform successfully on examinations. In order to do these things, you will need to have done a fair amount of reading on, thinking about and perhaps even discussing of the topics covered in the course.
You will find academic subjects presented in a variety of ways: large lectures (you are probably familiar with these in the United States), smaller classes (these are usually conducted by the lecturer or by an assistant to the lecturer and frequently focus on topics that are dealt with in the lectures), and seminars (here an instructor and up to twenty students gather to discuss readings that might have been done or papers which might have been written by members of the seminar group).
Most courses rely heavily on your doing a good deal of reading (and thinking) during your non-scheduled time. The list of readings which is distributed by the instructor on (or near) the first day of class can be quite intimidating. As many as 50 or more books and articles will appear on the reading list. The instructor responsible for the course will expect you to "look into" several of these works. He or she may not tell you which ones. As an intelligent student who is responsible for his/her own intellectual development, you will be expected to decide which materials to read. You will be encouraged to find themes among them that are of interest to you and then to do further reading on those themes. You may then be asked to write a paper setting forth your analysis of one or more of these themes. When this happens, be sure to find out what's meant by the term "paper" and, if you can, ascertain the instructor's expectations concerning length, form, citation of sources, etc.
Almost invariably you will be expected to sit an examination at the end of each of your courses. In some courses, this final examination may be the only evaluation of your work. It is thus possible, in a full year course, to come to a three-hour time slot at the end of the year during which you must demonstrate, by answering a few questions, that you have read widely, thought deeply and have learned something of significance during the preceding nine months. Generally there will be fewer assessed papers and tests in Irish classes than you are used to. The emphasis is on producing comprehensive work that shows both the breadth of your reading and the originality of your approach to a subject. American students find it particularly challenging to be expected to summarize the work of an entire semester or year in one or two papers and/or a single three-hour examination period. Nearly every university provides special tutorial sessions on paper-writing and/or exam-taking for their own students, which you should plan to participate in if you are not familiar with these expectations.
Clearly, your academic life will be different overseas. You wouldn't want it to be exactly like home, would you? It's a challenge. It can even be fun. It's an opportunity to show what you can do pretty much on your own. You have already demonstrated an ability to handle the academic work -- if you couldn't you wouldn't have been accepted. Now what you will need to discover is how to continue being a successful student in quite different surroundings.
As a general rule, you will be expected to take charge of your education in Ireland. You must be certain you know how you are being assessed in each class you attend since the patterns vary quite widely, even within the same university. You will be required to take any examination and/or special assessment for which you qualify during the period you are in attendance at the university.
Arcadia University's Role
The role of the Arcadia University College of Global Studies will be to help and support you throughout the academic process. At the beginning of your overseas experience our staff will help to orient and advise you. We will put you in touch with individuals on the host campus who help you to register in the classes you elect to take. We will provide you with guidance concerning the academic calendar and credits, requiring that you register for a full academic load and that you do not overload or underload without special permission. (Such permission must come not only from the host institution but also from your home institution and from the Arcadia University College of Global Studies.)
We will facilitate communication between you and your home school in an attempt to resolve any course or credit conflicts that may arise during the registration process. Members of our staff will visit you on campus from time to time not only to check on your academic enrollment but to ask how you're doing in general. If there are difficulties, we encourage you to reach out to us, bring them to our attention and let us help you resolve them.
We acknowledge responsibility to several parties in the study abroad process. We have a responsibility to you, our student, to be certain that you are given the educational opportunity which you expect to find overseas and to provide you with the opportunity to succeed academically. We have an obligation to your family to do everything within reason to assure your safety and well being.
We have an obligation to your home school to receive your credits and grades from the host institution and to "translate" and report them honestly. We must also notify your home school of situations of which we become aware which may affect the credit that you will be likely to transfer back from a study abroad experience. That way, we try to avoid having anyone surprise anyone else at the end of a program. Finally, we have an obligation to get out of your way and give you an opportunity to gain everything possible from your study abroad experience.
At orientation, you will be required to sign a Arcadia University academic contract stating your responsibilities as a Arcadia program student. If you have any questions about it, please discuss them with your program manager before leaving this country.
Arcadia University and its overseas staff serve as a safety net, a point of contact. We will provide a good deal of advice and guidance. We are there for you to call on when you need us. It is you, however, who is undergoing the study abroad experience. We hope it will be all you expect.