When governments run unsustainable budget deficits they can raise taxes or cut spending or do a combination of both. Which approach is best at any given time is one of the problems that seems to constantly occupy and divide the minds of economists.
At the moment, the education system is like a government with a runaway budget deficit and it is using a mixed approach based on cutting staff numbers and furiously trying to generate new ‘funding streams’. The problem however is that it is trying to do this while student numbers are increasing and there is now the added expectation that universities should be hubs of innovation – innovation in the sense of transforming knowledge into products, patents and ultimately, jobs. The numbers don’t and won’t add up until something radical is done. In the meantime, quality suffers.
I think we need to ‘outsource’ parts of our third level system. Or perhaps a better word would be ‘divest’. Now, this is not the policy of a raging neoliberal but it is based on recognising the fact that the predominantly state-funded third level sector has assumed responsibility for almost all forms of advanced education. We need to unload some of that responsibility.
In a previous post, I mentioned how the sector – in search of opportunities – has taken on the education of many professionals, from actuaries to accountants to lawyers to nurses. There is no real reason why almost all advanced education should be channelled through the state-funded third level system. Many degree programmes, for example, are of benefit to the student only if they have external recognition from a professional body of some kind. Actuarial Maths is probably the best example of this. The purpose of a degree in actuarial maths is largely to provide students with exemptions from the professional actuarial exams. In that instance, the third level sector is essentially playing a subservient role, providing a service to a specific profession, a service that in the past was provided by the profession itself. The problem is that having a degree programme in actuarial maths is a sure thing for third level colleges – it will always attract plenty of high-quality students along with the increased funding that those students represent. So, although the university benefits, there is a net cost to the state, a cost that would in the past have been shouldered by the companies who trained actuaries within a model that was more akin to an apprenticeship.
Furthermore, there are subjects that have traditionally been taught in third level institutions when I believe they would be better provided by the private sector. In a previous post I gave software engineering as an example of this approach. Why could software engineers not be trained using an apprenticeship model, perhaps in partnership with the third level sector? Coding is a young person’s profession and why not get young school-leavers into the ‘action’, so to speak, when they are young, bright and enthusiastic. Our minds are often at their sharpest when we are in our late teens and early twenties – that was the old cliché about mathematicians – so why are students spending so much time at college when they could be trained on the job in high-end companies? This is an urgent question given the current move to create more than 1000 new third level places in ICT courses. Again, the state is doing all the heavy lifting, presuming that the universities and institutes are the best and only place to provide advanced education and training in computing. But are they really? More creative approaches are needed.
Albert Reynolds is said to have remarked to one of the Smurfits that there is ‘more to running a country than making boxes’. And indeed there is. Designing an education system that meets the needs of the individual, the society and economy is a huge and complex task. None of this is easy stuff but we do need to think seriously about how the state education system can work more closely with business and industry because the state sector clearly cannot do it all on its own. That is manifestly obvious. Companies and professions need to contribute a lot more and they need to take on more responsibility for the education and training of their future employees and members. They need a change in mindset. At the moment they have a curious sense of entitlement and the state is willing to oblige.