Education and skills

Blog post by Alan Carr, Lecturer at the Limerick Institute of Technology

The recent changes of title of the Irish Department of ‘Education’ to ‘Education and Science’, to the present ‘Education and Skills’ has prompted questions, here and elsewhere, on the meaning of this change and what change of values or emphasis can be construed from it. While no official explanation of the change has been offered (to the best of my knowledge), it may be worthwhile reflecting on the importance of skill within the whole educational enterprise.

A great asset in this reflection is the Nation Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) document ‘Grid level of indicators’, which outlines the learning outcomes associated with knowledge, skill and competency. Skills outcomes within the NFQ are defined through outcomes associated with ‘Know-how and Skill-Range’ and ‘Know-how and Skill-Selectivity’. It is a worthwhile exercise to follow the development of skill outcomes from the lower levels of what are considered further education (Level 1: ‘Demonstrate basic practical skills, and carry out directed activity using basic tools’, and ‘Perform processes that are repetitive and predictable’) through to the higher levels of what are considered higher education (Level 8: ‘Demonstrate mastery of a complex and specialised area of skills and tools; use and modify advanced skills and tools to conduct closely guided research, professional or advanced technical activity’, and ‘Exercise appropriate judgement in a number of complex planning, design, technical and/or management functions related to products, services, operations or processes, including resourcing’).

The framework in its entirety is an important asset in the understanding of skill and its development within education and training. It presents the basic elements of skills and their development towards expertise. This provides a navigation aid for both the learner and provider. It is important also to recognise that skills are developed through the commitment and effort of the learner. Skill development occurs through the practice, and the refinement of that practice, into expertise capable of delivering quality. Considering the investment required in developing skill expertise it is of critical importance that the provision of skill related education and training maintain a perpetual effort at identifying present day and future demand for skills and abilities. The efforts required towards mastery by the learners demand that the skills they seek to master be of relevance to the present and future society and be tradable in the present and future workplace.

A constant attention and vigilance is required to ensure that the skills that are offered, learnt and developed are of relevance to current and future needs. It should be a priority for the Department that the skills we seek to distinguish ourselves by, both individually and nationally, are acknowledged internationally as being of the highest quality. The framework is there, but perhaps further effort is required in challenging present and future learners to recognise and invest in higher levels of skill expertise?

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11 Comments on “Education and skills”

  1. Vincent Says:

    In fairness now, I don’t think anyone is saying that the Universities on these islands aren’t producing trained people adequate to the level. Nor is it being said that the educators aren’t striving at all times to be at the leading edge of a wave.
    My beef is that we’re in very real danger of becoming strictly de-marked, for people find themselves driving into an skills cul-de-sac.

    • Vincent Says:

      Hmm, wordpress is doing a bit of slice and dice on the comments, a la blogger.

      -de-marked, as universities and course providers narrow and specialize an area of study in an attempt to differentiate and thereby sell a product. This needn’t entirely be the fault of the provider. But if the marketing is so good for a product/course that an employer believes it then it is easy for people to find themselves driving into a skills cul-de-sac.-

    • Alan Carr Says:

      Accepting your criticism, one must also acknowledge that skills can have generic or specific focus. There is a danger in seeking to trade generic skills when the market is for specific skills, and vice versa?

  2. jfryar Says:

    There is a major multinational company operating here in Ireland that shall remain nameless. Representatives of this company have been particularly vocal regarding the Irish education system in relation to mathematics and science. They have repeatedly stated that what they require are intelligent, hard-working employees that have good maths skills, good analytical ability, creativity, good presentation skills, etc.

    Looking across the educational landscape of Ireland, we find hundreds of post-doc researchers have left our shores. Many of these young people operated within an academic field directly relevent to the company in question. I’ll openly admit, I was one of them. Very few were successful at obtaining a job at this company despite at least three major recruitment drives in the last two years. In fact, with the recent downturn in the economy and hiring freezes at third-level, we’ve had the almost comical situation arising where recent graduates are employed ahead of the then-postgrads who taught them!

    The point is we had people with academic experience and skillsets that almost certainly matched those considered ‘desirable’ by companies, but these people did not obtain jobs. In the above case, it is well-known within the community that the company in question prefers to hire new graduates and recent PhDs and has, effectively, implimented a hiring ban on anyone with academic experience beyond their PhD.

    My problem with this focus on ‘skills’ is this: the people companies tell us they want to employ are not the people actually being employed. The multinational I’ve referred to indirectly does not want ‘creative’ people. It does not want people with ‘good analytical skills’. What it wants is cheap, recent graduates who will follow its SOPs and run its standardised software until such time as they get bored, have enough of the shift work, and leave. By which time a new set of recent graduates will be on their way.

    I would ask, if Ireland wants a ‘knowledge based economy’ then why is it our post-docs are fleeing the nation for jobs? They have the right skills according to industry but industry isn’t employing them! I would suggest a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality.

    • Alan Carr Says:

      This is a difficult reality for many people who have invested years in their abilities with legitimate expectation and affirmation that what they were investing had value.
      Your final question highlights the importance of connecting with the reality, and at this time isnt the reality at the moment that any employment is to be valued, even if there is a bit of a mismatch between the person and the job?

      • jfryar Says:

        I agree Alan.

        But what I’m suggesting in the long-term is that in attempting to define the ‘skills’ we require in graduates, there will be a tendency to look at what is being said by employers.

        And to be blunt, there is substantial evidence at the moment that employers have been lying to us. They have ‘bigged up’ their requirements for their own agenda. They have thrown us some standardised human resources line about ‘problem solving’ and ‘analytic ability’. Very little of this seems true. So there is a mismatch between what companies are telling governments and who they are employing.

        So, when we come, in the next ten years to deciding what skillsets to develop, how on earth can anyone trust what the multinationals, IBEC and other organisations say?

        • Alan Carr Says:

          Interesting points…
          I don’t think an adversarial approach to skill definition is the way to go, but it is also important to point out that a consensus approach can often overlook aspects too!
          Competency should be maintained in house in terms of analysis of skills, abilities, etc. The aim of this post was to highlight this point.

          I remember seeing a sign at a business a few years ago that went something like this:
          “What we provide for you is a quality service, a fast service and a cheap service! But you can only have two at the same time!”

          Prudent judgement is required to determine what balance of the three is needed!

  3. kevin denny Says:

    When people talk about skills, they inevitably have in mind cognitive skills (implicitly or otherwise). While not dismissing this, I should point out there has been a very large body of research in the last 10 years emphasizing the importance of non-cognitive skills. This work is mostly associated with James Heckman of the University of Chicago ( & also affiliated with UCD, as it happens) and there are many others working on this now.

    http://www.heckmanequation.org/

  4. Will Says:

    First of all the change in name from Education & Science to Education &Skills I think reflects the European Union’s or should I say the failing EU’S agenda to standardise education. The problem with the specification of learning outcomes or so called skills acquired is that students have lost the real purpose of eduction. I had 15 out of a class of 21 email me to complain that I had set an exercise which was not contained in the objectives and in their class notes. I simply asked them for their own views before we commenced an in-depth study. The levels are the detriment to education, it is killing creativity. How is one suppose to develop a thesis of originality at level 9 when one has only been trained to present within stated objectives. It makes me want to cry when young, highly motivated students in Ireland lack the only ingredient required for success in our society- an inquiring mind which moves beyond boundaries. Students have become boxed into this NFQ, which incidentally only functions for the admissions office of universities as they do not have to consider anything beyond the Level on paper. We do not need a skilled population we need a population capable of being skilled throughout their lives. In the 80’s &90’s the Department of Education spread the rumour that Ireland had the most educated people in the world.While this was fiction there was a grain of truth in it. We have a society that values education above all else. We have one of the highest numbers graduating with third level degrees. But while quantity has some advantages to society if we see fees introduced at levels over 2000 euros we are going to see a mark fall in the amount of people able to afford to go to university. If universities do not fight for their independence and provide “real education” on their terms and not “skill training” we are doomed in relation to global competition. Consider the definition of skills; A skill is the learned capacity to carry out pre-determined results often with the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both. I do not want to teach a course with pre-set objectives that become master over the process of learning.
    Isn’t there anyone out there that agrees with this?

    • Alan Carr Says:

      I think I agree with this, but it would require further definition for me to understand what you mean. I would challenge something here, and I apologise if it isnt implicit in what you write.
      There seems to be a view that true learning provides some form of manumission from labour and effort, and that such labour and effort corrodes the learning?
      Is this the case?


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