Hijacking Education

Recently the third level teachers’ union, IFUT, has been highlighting the high rates of emigration among graduates. At the same time it is calling for increased investment in education and a strategy to deal with the emigration problem. Maybe I’m being simplistic but isn’t there some sort of contradiction here? Doesn’t the high level of emigration imply that there is an over-supply of graduates in many areas? And surely those of us who work in education have to do more than simply call for more resources and more strategies. The idea that we should appeal to the ‘Government’ to fix everything is a cop out really. Who is the Government? It is career politicians with very little knowledge and experience of third level, and the permanent Civil Service who, to be fair, are there to implement and manage the policy of the politicians.

Philosopher, Nicholas Maxwell has repeatedly written about how, in its obsession with its role as a knowledge creator, the higher education system has neglected its role as a wisdom generator. In effect he is saying that academia has to engage more with the grand challenges confronting society and not just sit on the fence seeking ‘knowledge’.

You see, it is very easy to intone the “education, education, education” chant of Tony Blair. Calling for more education seems like the right thing to do. Education is good for us all and personally I owe nearly everything I have to my education but that does not mean that more and more education is necessary for the economy. A healthy economy is important to us all and one of the problems in this whole area is that many commentators seem to see education itself as a generator of economic activity and wealth. This is nowhere better seen than in the recent obsession with the German apprenticeship model where there seems to be an assumption that by training many more apprentices, we will somehow create demand for them! Further up the education ladder, the huge increase in PhD-level education is seen as a driver of economic growth in the ‘knowledge economy’. But the relationship between academic research and economic growth is tenuous and is more than likely a two-way process. Indeed, the entire relationship between the economy and the education system is a synergistic one and cannot be understood in cause-and-effect terms, something we need to bear in mind when the latest OECD analysis is released next week.

So how do you design an education system that meets the needs of the individual and the needs of the society and the economy? It’s difficult because even the economic aspects of education are complex; much of what happens in the economy seems to do so for intangible, poorly understood reasons, essentially because economics is subject to the vagaries of human nature.

And so, what will happen in Ireland is that as the economy improves, demand will be created for all sorts of untrained and trained individuals – from sales assistants to apprentices to graduates, many in areas that will not be cutting edge and many of which will surprise us. The improving economy will result in some heat being taken out of the education system because there will be greater opportunity for school leavers and less pressure to stay at college for years on end – often just for the sake of it. And as the budgetary situation improves once again, we will have an opportunity to do things rationally rather than lurching from crisis to crisis.

One of the problems with this country, however, is that we have no clear vision of what a sustainable Irish economy should look like and this is one of the reasons for our periodic dives into recession. Back in the 1980s when I was a student, there was a big emphasis on chemical processing, then electronic hardware (from VCRs to microchips to hard drives to PCs), then biopharma. Now politicians, not understanding that cutting edge science is often the most ephemeral, are talking (rather unconvincingly) about the new messiahs of cloud computing, big data and the like. And the “education, education, education” cry is part of that latest ‘lurch’ and all of these lurches seem to be hugely dependent on FDI by multinationals.

It is hard to say these things because education is such a wonderful thing. But one of the reasons I write what I do about education is that it has been hijacked by politicians and the uninformed: website commenters, texters and tweeters, Sindo columnists and basically everyone who has an axe to grind or a chip on their shoulder.

So what are we to do? If we are to come up with a functioning, relevant and responsive education system, one that meets the needs of the country and the individual, then we the academics need to actually contribute to finding solutions. But few academics, despite all their expertise, are engaging with these problems. I do it in my own small way and financial economist, Brian Lucey in Trinity, writes a lot on HE matters. David McWilliams occasionally dips his toe into education but, no disrespect to David, his experience of undergraduate education in particular is limited. But where is everyone else? The closest thing to a real campaign of ‘action’ was the Defend the University movement that originated in DCU but that has gone nowhere because it had nowhere to go.

Academics of all kinds need to get together on this. This is a classic multidisciplinary problem. All the ‘heavy-hitting’ academics out there need to prioritise this problem. We need to solve the grand challenge of designing an education system that offers equal access to all, meets the needs of the individual and works hand-in-hand with a sustainable economy.

That should keep us all busy for a while but we need to make sure that when the economy is functioning normally again we take the opportunity that will be afforded to us.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to Hijacking Education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Hijacking Education

  2. Gary McGuire says:

    An excellent post. Are you running for office? 🙂
    I suppose I should complain about something, so I will say that the role of a university as knowledge creator should not be forgotten. I think there is a place for the pursuit/creation of knowledge in our society, and that place is in a university. It’s not the only function of a university, but I don’t think it should be eliminated.
    -Gary McGuire

    • Greg Foley says:

      Now, there’s an idea. the Senate perhaps? An extra 70K a year plus expenses and no real responsibility! I agree about the knowledge thing – universities are great places for creating knowledge but they do need to do more. And why wouldn’t we even for ‘selfish’ reasons? There are so many challenging, real world problems out there. Designing a function and affordable health service is another big one.

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