The last week has seen two different assaults on academics and the education system. Eoghan Harris wrote a venom–laden column in which he, somewhat bizarrely, seemed to blame the academic ‘class’ for the current trend towards mass third level education in this country. I’m always a bit suspicious of people who continually use the word ‘class’ – surely we’re past such simplistic labels. It all seems so 1960s.
But the one substantive point raised in Harris’ tirade was that he, like many who have recently hopped on this particularly bandwagon, suddenly decided to extol the virtues of the German system of apprenticeships. Well-known careers guidance teacher and journalist, Brian Mooney, had been talking about the German system on the George Hook show during the week and I suspect Harris was listening! Harris makes all the usual arguments about vocational training and university education – the same old parity-of-esteem arguments that have been made countless times over the decades as Alison Wolf explains in her excellent book “Does Education Matter: Myths about Education and Economic Growth” (Penguin Global, 2003). Indeed in describing how Britain tried (unsuccessfully) to copy the Germans (and long before David Cameron was on the scene despite what Harris might think), she writes, with no little common sense:
“The fixation on German training was nonetheless a great pity. Borrowing policies from other counties is always problematic. Trying to do so with a country whose industrial structure, main industries, political organization, school system and employer-union relations are so hugely different from one’s own pretty much guarantees disappointment.”
This whole German ‘thing’ has gone viral and everyone is talking as if they have been studying the history of vocational education in Europe for years. Who was talking about German apprenticeships last year?
What Harris and others, in their rush to ‘have a go’ at academics, seem not to understand is that the drive towards participation at third level is not coming from the ‘system’, especially the academics or any kind of ‘class’; it’s coming from society as a whole and has now become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. As the economy boomed, the general aspiration of society became to send their children to Third Level. (I would admit that this was partly driven by senior academics and politicians waffling about some hypothetical ‘knowledge economy’ where only ‘21st century skills’ would be needed.) As Third Level participation rates increased and the nature of our economy became less labour-intensive, with the exception of construction, the job market became more competitive and young people had no choice but to go to Third Level. In effect, our economic development policy was failing but this was masked by the boom in construction – funded in part by German money! The result now is that many of our graduates – or apprentices if we have them – have nowhere to go and the sad reality that nobody dares to speak is that the education system cannot be ‘fixed’ until the economy improves. Ironically, the high third level participation rates are now playing the useful role of providing ‘hide away’ time for school-leavers for whom there are no opportunities.
It is very difficult to know how to proceed from here. While retaining some core values, an excellent education system must be designed so that it is nimble enough to respond quickly to changing demand – that is the only moral thing to do. It cannot create demand. At the moment there is no demand for a whole range of trades and professions so it is not clear what action to take in education. We simply do not know in what direction the economy will go and in what areas work opportunities will arise. (Forget all of the knowledge economy baloney.) No doubt there is an unsatisfied demand in the IT sector but contrary to the implication in Harris’ diatribe, the consistent failure to satisfy that demand is not the fault of the university sector. Irish people just don’t seem to want to study IT – the 2013 figures for CAO first preferences show that.
The whole mess is a terrible indictment of our inability to manage our economy. I suspect that the solution will end up being an intangible sort of thing. Confidence will pick up again, economic activity will increase and the economy will start to grow. If politicians can do anything, they need to focus their efforts on stimulating businesses and industries that employ lots of people. But something in the Irish psyche makes us constantly chase ‘prestige’ companies as if our worth was measured by some perceived notion of the ‘quality’ of these companies.
Meanwhile, industry is whining about graduates as usual. Apparently our graduates are not “industry ready” and it’s down to our “poor teaching methods”, “dry academic content” and “few applications to real business life” – so said that renowned ‘expert’ on education, Mark Fielding, CEO of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association. While I fully accept that our graduates might well be lacking in basic skills related to written and oral communication – and lacking in initiative – I would reject many of Fielding’s arguments. (I think though that the universities have failed to stress the importance of basic attributes that any graduate should have, being too concerned with woolly concepts like 21st century skills and critical thinking. We need to get back to some core values.)
In 1999, Judith Harris (another Harris!) wrote a highly controversial, and influential, book with the provocative title: “The Nurture Assumption: Why children turn out the way they do”. Her central thesis was that parents cannot mold their children into whatever ‘shape’ they like and, in fact, their influence on their children is much less than that exerted by peer groups. I read this book many years ago and I thought of it when I heard Mark Fielding’s comments. Like Judith Harris, I’d like to suggest that the influence and power of the education system is vastly overstated. Business and industry leaders have expectations of the system that are completely unrealistic. We do not ‘produce’ graduates. Young people do not come to us as blank slates, ready to be molded into some sort of super-efficient, enterprising and innovative self-starters – “industry ready”. They come to us with attitudes, aptitudes and expectations that they have acquired in their formative years. Where their attributes and expectations are problematic, we have limited power to change them – just like the parents of Judith Harris’ book – and there is only so much we can do. Many of the attributes for which young graduates are criticised – a lack of initiative for example – are not just a ‘product’ of the education system; they are multi-factorial in their causes. Yes, we can insert a few modules of business and enterprise here and there into our courses but we have very limited ability to transform our students despite the hype. Transformation is to a large extent the product of a mind-set – not just an education system. And, changing mind-sets should be the goal of society and not just the education system.
If you read a lot around the subject of education and its role in society and the economy, you get the strong sense of a nation floundering. I have to say I feel pretty pessimistic about our ability to manage our way out of this mess. I think we will ultimately depend on others.