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News / February 1, 2010

Changes needed to maintain Ireland’s dental education standards

by Guy Hiscott

A study published recently in the Journal of the Irish Dental Association (O’Sullivan EM, 2009) provides benchmark data on the professional and demographic profile of the Irish dental faculty.

This research was undertaken as part of a wider study exploring the experience of Irish dental faculty members in relation to faculty development and their perceived support needs, with further results published in the European Journal of Dental Education (O’Sullivan EM, 2010).

All 130 faculty members at Cork University Dental School & Hospital (CDH), UCC, and Dublin Dental School (DDH), TCD, were invited to complete a custom-designed ‘mixed-methods’ questionnaire study (33 fields of enquiry).

The study found that the age profile of Irish dental faculty is in line with international trends,  with 75% of respondents being over 40 years of age while a third are over fifty, including 89% professorial staff.

Since international research suggests the aging dental faculty profile internationally and impending retirement of many senior academics may precipitate a crisis in dental education (O’Neill PN, Taylor D, 2001; Hand JS, 2006; Livingston HM et al, 2004; Kennedy JE, Hunt RY, 1998), strenuous efforts should be made to recruit and retain faculty, thus safeguarding the future of dental education. This is somewhat at odds with the current policy of fiscal constraints, the recruitment/promotion embargo and public sector levies.

Interestingly, despite the large number of female graduates, Irish dental faculty remains male dominated (64%), with males occupying a disproportionate number of senior academic positions, accounting for 57% lecturer and/or consultant positions and 89% professorial appointments. While this may be related to longer teaching clinical service reportedly attained by males, similar findings are also reported internationally (Waldman BH, 1995; Nesbitt PE et al, 2003).

While the Irish dental faculty is largely comprised of highly qualified individuals with a wealth of clinical experience behind them, few have completed any formal teacher training (13%). This situation is not unique to Irish dental faculty. Indeed, dental and medical faculty members have traditionally received little educational instruction, relying pedagogically on clinical practice and undergraduate educational experience. However, expert subject knowledge is no guarantee that one can present information in an effective student-friendly format.

Staff satisfaction with various faculty duties was also explored. Most (99%) prefer small group teaching, considering formal lectures sterile and daunting, with little opportunity for feedback. However, many also find the conflict between student/patient best interest stressful and even ‘potentially dangerous’. The inherent stress of this situation was reportedly exacerbated, on occasions, by inappropriate student numbers, time constraints and inadequate working conditions.

Contrary to reports suggesting that medical and dental educators are resistant to educational concepts considering educational concepts and theories as ‘edu-babble’ and ‘gobbledegook’ (Masella RS, Thompson TJ, 2004; Abrahamson S, 1996), this study found Irish dental faculty more than willing to embrace new ideas, and keen to improve their proficiency in specific areas,and to pursue formal educational qualifications.

Exploration of  preferred formats and perceived barriers revealed considerable frustration over the lack of recognition given to those who work hard at teaching while staff who do little or no teaching are promoted. Research was considered ‘the only currency’. 

If one accepts that teachers are the most valuable asset of a university, every effort should be made to ensure they are well-prepared for the profession and able to sustain their enthusiasm and effectiveness throughout their career. Investment in appropriate faculty development must therefore be viewed not at an optional extra but as a critical component of ensuring the ongoing success of Irish dental education.

Dr Eleanor M. O’Sullivan BDS, PhD, MA (H.Ed) can be contacted at Cork University Dental School and Hospital, Wilton, Cork; email:

1. O’Sullivan EM. (2009) The demographic and academic profile of Irish dental school faculty members. JIDA 55(6): 296-301
2. O’Sullivan EM (2010) A national study on the attitudes of Irish dental faculty members to faculty development. Eur J Dent Educ 14: 43-49
3. O’Neill PN, Taylor D (2001) Responding to the need for dental faculty development: a survey of US and Canadian Dental Schools. J Dent Ed 65(8): 768-776
4. Hand JS (2006) Identification of competencies for effective dental faculty. J Dent Ed 70: 937-947
5. Livingston HM, Dellinger TM, Hyde HC, Holder R (2004) Critical issues in dental education: the aging and diminishing dental faculty. J Dent Ed 68(3): 345-354
6. Kennedy JE, Hunt RJ (1998) Meeting the demands for future dental faculty. Leadership for the future: the dental school in the university. Washington, DC: Am Ass Dent Schools
7. Waldman BH (1995) Faculties of dental schools: changes and perceptions. J Alabama Dent Assoc 79: 26-31. In: Livingston, HM, Dellinger, TM, Hyde, HC
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9. Masella RS, Thompson TJ (2004) Dental education and evidence-based educational best practices: bridging the great divide. J Dent Ed 68(12): 1266-71
10. Abrahamson S (1996) Essays on medical education. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, p.112. In: Masella RS, Thompson TJ. (2004). Dental education and evidence-based educational best practices: bridging the great divide. J Dent Ed 68: 12: 1266-71