The right graduates?

I was at a discussion forum today, and one of the topics was whether as a country we are producing ‘the right graduates’, by which was meant graduates with qualifications for which there is a national need. Of course this is a loaded question, because it starts with the assumption that it is possible to provide an answer, and that therefore there is such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ graduate.

I would suggest that there are three possible perspectives on this. The first is that the ‘right’ graduates are those who have graduated from the programmes they wanted to study, regardless of whether these are priority areas in anyone else’s perspective, including that of the government. The second is the opposite, that there is a legitimate public interest in ensuring that we have a viable flow of skilled graduates who have taken programmes that meet a national priority need. The third might lie somewhere in between, with a mix of free choice qualified by availability, where the latter is driven by national priorities.

The problem right now is that, for the most part, we have none of these. It would be hard to say that there is free choice for students, because in exercising their choices they may often have been influenced or put under pressure by others (including parents). On the other hand we don’t have state control either. You might think that we actually have the third ‘middle way’ model, but we don’t. What restricts free choice is not national priorities, but rather the artificial distortions of the CAO points system, where students are pushed into subjects not because they want to study them, but because they have the necessary points. The inmpact of this system is assessed here.

It seems to me that there are some general things to be said about the ‘right’ graduates. Some might argue that those who have secured very good university examination results can become the ‘right’ graduate in almost any field. In addition, any graduate who has acquired transferable skills that will support Ireland’s efforts is a ‘right’ graduate, even if the programme they took is considered irrelevant to the business sector the graduate is now pursuing.

On the other hand, it could be argued that higher education has a crucial role in securing a better distribution of specific skills and qualifications in the interests of the country. This has been one of the key principles underpinning the establishment in Ireland of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, which over the past decade or so has monitored the labour marker and identified problems caused by skills shortages. In its most recent bulletin it has pointed out that, despite rising unemployment, we still have inadequate numbers of skilled people in key industries such as IT and medical devices; in these areas almost all demand for labour is for those with degree level qualifications, and our failure to attract enough people into relevant degree programmes has become a significant problem for the Irish economy and can delay or impede our economic recovery.

So ultimately the big question here is to what extent it is possible to persuade or convince students to consider programmes for which a national need has been identified, or whether we should just let them go for whatever they want to do. Or else, should we perhaps contemplate a model where undergraduate programmes and modules a follow liberal arts model, and that specialisation (whether at the discretion of the student or with some other guidance) is reserved for postgraduate programmes and research.

I fear that we are groping around in this territory because we do not at this point have a consensus view of the purpose of higher education. Do we want higher education programmes to satisfy national skills needs in a more directed way, or do we want them simply to offer whatever it is the students’ want? This lack of consensus is inhibiting the development of a viable higher education policy in Ireland. It’s time for a proper debate on the underlying philosophy of our education system.

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7 Comments on “The right graduates?”

  1. seamus Says:

    “There is very little free choice for students, because their preferences have often been pushed aside by ambitious parents”

    – I imagine that is unusual. At least among myself and my acquaintances it is. And I think you do your freshers a disservice to suggest their choices are not their own.

    It also seems odd to set out 3 possible perspectives, and then reject them all.

    i’d agree that there is no consensus view of the purpose of higher education, but do you know of anywhere where there is such a consensus?

    interesting ideas all the same…

    • Thanks, Seamus – I have amended the text a little. Nevertheless, all the empirical evidence suggests that many students are influenced (or more) by parents, and often these pressures come from a desire that children should follow in the parents’ professional footsteps. The children of people in certain professions disproportionately choose the same professions when making third level choices.

  2. Vincent Says:

    IS not the error, that you are expected to provide that which should be provided by the employer. Surely your business -prime directive- is in the training of how to think not how to do.

  3. Bill Says:

    I believe that we need to install a mandatory careers advice course at 2nd level to ensure that school leavers are well informed on the paths open to them and where their choices will lead. The current state of career advice at 2nd level involves a brief informal chat, followed by an offloading of every prospectus in the state. For advice on one of the most important choices you will ever make, its not exactly a model system.

    While at DCU we had a best practice module which involved a professional from different area’s of the industry speaking each week. To me personally, this was the best careers advice I have ever received. It answered all my questions on each career/postgrad I was considering.

    I was recently at a coffee morning where I bumped into my old principle and we got into a discussion about where the people from my year are now. I went through each person one by one and began to realise that their careers are spaced widely across a broad spectrum of industries. I suggested to him that he should attempt to contact some of these people and ask them to make an hour long presentation, similar to that of the best practice module.

    Schools have a massive opportunity to use their alumni in this manner and I believe it would be extremely beneficial to school leavers to avail of such a service. I have discussed this with my friends who all agreed that they would love the opportunity to present their careers and provide advice to the students of their 2nd level schools.

  4. Padraig McKeon Says:

    Are students being asked too make those choices too early… are the points of entry to third level too narrow or specific…

  5. […] The right graduates? « University Blog The right graduates? […]

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