Posted tagged ‘skills’

The technology problem

August 28, 2017

As has been noted previously in this blog, there are differing opinions on the extent to which universities should develop education strategies to provide skills needed in the economy. Some of those who might be sceptical about such strategies argue that universities should not be vocational training institutions; some point out that we don’t really know what skills will be needed a few years from now, so that universities should not try to meet every passing request for specific skills training. Then again others will point out that shortages of people with particular degree qualifications will influence key corporate investment decisions; and this might suggest that universities should recognise the need for graduates in specific disciplines.

Ever since the dot.com bubble burst some 16 years ago, schools and parents have become cautious about advising your people to take degrees in subjects such as computing and software engineering. Over the past 10 years or so this has led to a growing number of vacancies in the IT industry in the United Kingdom and Ireland, seen as a key industry with the ability to secure economic growth. So it is being described as a matter of concern that the number of students applying to take relevant subjects continues to be lower than desired. This has recently been again reported as a serious problem in Ireland, and in England the same problem is thought to be growing due to the inadequate number of GCSE pupils taking computing classes in schools.

It is of course right that universities must play a longer game and that they cannot just redirect their resources to meet changing demands of industry or government. General and transferable soft skills will always remain important. But ever since universities initiated what are essentially vocational disciplines – such as engineering, accounting, law, and so forth – they cannot easily suggest that equipping students with profession-specific skills is not part of their mission. But then again, universities cannot meet these demands if pupils leave schools not well prepared for courses that address society’s specific needs. Solving this problem will need intervention much earlier in the education system.

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What kind of graduates do we need?

December 2, 2014

I was at a discussion forum a while ago, and one of the topics was whether our universities were 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 ‘national needs’ of this kind can be successfully identified, 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 courses they wanted to study, regardless of whether these are priority subjects 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 graduates who have acquired skills for which a need has been identified. 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 higher education funding mixed with the vagaries of university recruitment and selection mechanisms.

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 economic and social development is a ‘right’ graduate, even if the course 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. In Scotland’s case, and in particular in the circumstances of North-East Scotland, there is a constant debate about the extent to which the education system is producing enough graduates with skills in areas such as petroleum engineering or subsea geology, in order to plug the skills gap in the oil and gas industry. Should this determine the availability of student places? Or if not, should funding agencies and universities just ignore labour market requirements?

So ultimately the big question here is to what extent it is possible to persuade or convince students to consider courses for which a national need has been identified. Or should we should just let them go for whatever they want to do? Or else, should we perhaps contemplate a system where undergraduate programmes and modules follow a 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? Or maybe it is appropriate for different institutions, or perhaps even different parts of the same institution, to view this question differently. Indeed the real lesson for us may be that this kind of question does not have a right answer.

Education and skills

November 11, 2011

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?

Understanding the labour market of the future

September 6, 2010

A significant amount of higher education policy globally is derived from certain assumptions about how the labour market will develop, and how people can be educated and trained to maximise their opportunities and improve economic prospects. In that context, an analysis published in the American newspaper The Seattle Times makes for interesting reading. The broad thrust of this is that the segment of the labour market that supplied a large proportion of jobs until recently – middle range employment in industry, services and public administration – will decline dramatically. Future job opportunities will lie mainly in highly skilled employment, or in lower wage jobs in industry and services.

There is of course a view that the education itself can influence what employment will look like, because investors will go to countries where educational attainment most nearly matches their labour needs. Ireland may want to position itself as a country with high value skills and significant educational quality, though bearing in mind that it may be risky to plan a market around supply rather than demand.

Of course the Seattle Times picture may be wrong, or may be wrong for this part of the world. But it seems appropriate that before we set new higher education participation targets we have a clear idea of what kind of jobs will be there for our graduates, and to what extent our education system addresses likely labour market trends. I’m not sure we have done that kind of analysis.

Education, skills and training

April 20, 2010

When the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) reshuffled his cabinet recently, he re-named two government departments; one of these was the (former) Department of Education and Science (which has become the Department of Education and Skills). The ‘and Science’ part of the organisation migrated, at least by implication, to what was the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and is now Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.

Do these name changes matter? Here is how they were explained by the Taoiseach in his speech to Dail Éireann (parliament) announcing the reshuffle on March 23:

‘The changes I am making are intended to ensure that political leadership and administrative capacity are aligned with the core objectives of economic recovery, job creation and support for those who have lost their jobs. In particular, I am strengthening our approach to supporting innovation and overcoming barriers to structural change; responding better to the needs of unemployed people; supporting productivity and growth through skills development; maintaining progress in a coherent and strategic way towards important social policy goals, and accelerating the pace of modernisation of the public service.’

In the reshuffle itself, the two Ministers who ran the now re-named departments swapped jobs. And here is how the new Minister for Education and Skills, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, explained the significance of the change as it affects her department to the annual conference of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI):

‘There has been a somewhat artificial divide between education and training in Ireland for many years and I know that the TUI has been vocal for some time now that a more joined up approach was needed. I am glad we have delivered that change. Your conference and the work many of your members are engaged in relates directly to my new task of bringing cohesion to this move of policy responsibility and service delivery. Together, we need to ensure the up-skilling and re-skilling of people across the country, a task that is central to how the State assists and supports those who have, unfortunately, lost their jobs during this recession.’

Taken together, it seems the name changes were designed to reflect the government’s priority concern with economic recovery and job creation. And in the case of the Department of Education specifically, the change is, as the Tánaiste explained, designed to blur the lines between ‘education’ and ‘training’.

But what does all this mean? Does it mean that all education is vocational? Is it all exclusively to do with preparing people for jobs? What, if any, are the pedagogical implications in all this?

It has been my contention for a while that education in Ireland has lost its way. There are a few reasons for this, but one of them is that nobody quite seems to know these days what education is actually for. This becomes more complex still when the agenda for what has become known as ‘lifelong learning’ is added to the mix – some of it has genuine pedagogical objectives, while some of it again seems to be primarily about removing people from the dole queue.

There is, I believe, quite a strong argument for placing both education and training in the same government department; but that argument is not that they are both the same. There should of course be a coherent view of learning that takes in both what goes on in schools, and what people do to develop themselves later in life. Furthermore, the education system should take account of national needs, so that students learn those things that are of benefit to society and to themselves. But that is not the whole story, and if we over-emphasise the vocational angle we will find young people balking at learning, say, Shakespeare or Yeats, or even Pythagoras, because they  will feel that these will not be of direct functional relevance to them in their lives as accountants or software programmers.

Education has to deliver some practical benefits to the country, but that is not the whole story. It is to be hoped that the new government structures will not suggest to anyone that all education is principally vocational training. It is time that, as a country, we rediscover the merits of pedagogy.

Making an impact – or not …

January 15, 2010

One of the defining questions being asked about universities around the world is what impact they should have on society. Should the benefit of a university education, or of university research, be that it will have created capacity for independent thinking and evaluation, or facilitated discovery and innovation that will ultimately produce technological, business, social or cultural improvements? Or should there be something much more direct, whereby students learn skills that are needed under current economic conditions, or whereby research is focused on problems to which society wants urgent solutions?

The problem for universities has been that as public investment in higher education has risen exponentially over the past century (regardless of whether that investment has been sufficient to meet the desired ends), expectations have risen that the investment, or at least a good part of it, will be directed towards supporting public policy as identified either by politicians, or by the media, or by various interest groups and stakeholders. This in turn has chipped away at the traditional expectations of academic autonomy and freedom.

Some of this has come to a head in the United Kingdom as the planned new Research Excellence Framework (REF) is being debated. Under this framework (which is intended to replace the former Research Assessment Exercise) research performance will be evaluated in line with a number of criteria, one of which will be its ‘impact’. This will be assessed by asking whether the research in question has been able to ‘deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life.’

Ever since the inclusion of impact as a yardstick has been revealed, it has produced a significant backlash. Most recently Ralph Wedgwood, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, has written an article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper in which he calls the use of impact ‘clumsy’ and ‘ill-judged’. He takes this view in part at least because he feels that his own discipline would not be judged to have the kind of ‘impact’ that policy-makers want to measure. Other academics are taking a similar view, and it is possible that attempts will be made to boycott the REF.

Leaving that specific UK context aside, other university systems will have to address this issue also. And once again, this requires us to look more closely at what the principles of higher education ought to be. Universities are still often presented as institutions that have stood the test of time and that have perfected their ethos and working methods over the centuries, and that should therefore be left to get on with what they have always done. Others express impatience with this attitude and say that a big public investment entitles the taxpayer to expect specific actions and solutions. Right now various working groups and committees are assessing these matters, but the universities themselves are rather silent. It is time that a more open and audible debate should be taking place within higher education, and I am hoping to organise a conference around these themes in DCU before I end my term of office. When this happens, I hope some readers of this blog will want to participate.

Skills shortages in Ireland

July 29, 2008

This morning I was interviewed by Newstalk, an Irish radio station. I was asked why (apparently) companies who need to recruit skilled employees are increasingly turning to nationals of other countries rather than Irish people.

There are two key reasons for this phenomenon. It has been suggested that one reason is that skilled Irish people are pricing themselves out of the job market by making excessive salary demands – so employers turn to applicants from other countries whose expectations are more modest, particularly in times of economic uncertainty. There is probably some basis for this view at the current time.

More significant, however, is that the career aspirations of Irish young people – often informed by their parents’ ambitions for them – are not necessarily in sync with current national needs. So for example, we have known for a few years now that the growing number of job vacancies in the ICT sector cannot be filled with skilled Irish people because too few graduates with the necessary qualifications are coming through the education system. Ever since the dot.com problems earlier in this decade, students have been moving away from university programmes in computing end electronic engineering, despite repeated public statements from a number of sources that vacancies in this sector are growing.

For now, major companies in the sector can satisfy their recruitment needs by targeting skilled people from other countries. But if we continue to be unable to meet labour demands in this area, companies may conclude that Ireland is no longer the place to invest. It is therefore high time that the government, together with the secondary and third level sectors and with industry advice, address this growing risk for the country.