Monthly Archives: July 2018

Higher education, equality and hiring practices

I’m going to look at education in purely social and economic terms in this post – nothing about whether higher education makes you a better, wiser or more fulfilled person. That’s for another day.


The lifetime financial benefit of higher education in Ireland is higher than the OECD average. Many people see this as a good thing and evidence of our transition to a knowledge economy. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, including the fact that averages can often be misleading. Earnings are very much affected by field of study and degree classification.  And we know, for example, that many of the professions in Ireland earn sums that are completely at odds with the value those professions bring to society – think barristers and our numerous, ridiculously expensive tribunals.

Interestingly, OECD data suggest that the Irish population is one of the most over-educated in Europe, i.e. many graduates are doing jobs that really don’t require them to have spent a full three/four years in college. It’s also interesting to discover that the most commonly-held jobs in Ireland are in retail, farming and administration, which suggests that the knowledge economy is only a small subset of our total economy. (There are twice as many people working in residential and social care than in IT, despite all the hype around the latter.)

It’s interesting to see the financial benefit of higher education from an international perspective (see below).


It’s hard not to get the feeling that the more progressive and equal societies (e.g. the Scandinavian countries) are precisely those where the financial benefits of higher education are actually relatively low. And if you think about, it makes sense because it means that those who cannot afford to go on to higher education (or who don’t want to) still have the chance to make a good living. And it’s hard not to think that Ireland, having put so many of its eggs in the higher education basket – perhaps because for some time we have tried to convince ourselves that ours would be a knowledge economy – we have only succeeded in perpetuating inequality, and perhaps even made our inequality problem worse.

We really need to stand back from all of this and in doing so not just fall back into the same old clichés about apprenticeships, even if a return to the white-collar apprenticeship systems of the 1970s and 1980s would be welcome. (Think nurses, actuaries, accountants, solicitors.)

Not being an economist, I’m not sure how to interpret this data but it does seem to me that our constant emphasis on higher education is at odds with the real needs of our economy. In his book “The case against education”, Bryan Caplan suggests that the main role of higher education is to signal to employers that prospective employees have attributes like work-ethic, conscientiousness and conformity. If his argument holds water then our higher education system is a very expense subsidy for the HR departments of private companies.

We need to ask if our emphasis on higher education appropriate given the structure of our economy and we also need to ask if we need to do more for those who cannot, or who don’t want to attend higher education.

Here’s a radical suggestion: I think we need to think about the hiring practices of employers and think about whether demanding certain educational qualifications of applicants might be discriminatory. If an employer cannot demand that a candidate has a certain gender or a certain age or a certain skin colour, then why should they be able to demand, without justification, a level of education that will effectively discriminate against school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds? This might sound a little idealistic or even unworkable, but better regulation of recruitment practices could have profound benefits not just for our education system but for our society as a whole. It would open up lots of high-quality white-collar jobs to the disadvantaged; it would take the heat out of the points race; it would reduce the pressure on graduates to gain expensive post-graduate qualifications; and most importantly it would start a necessarily evidence-informed conversation about what the real benefits of formal, full-time higher education are. But it would need the HE sector to seriously consider the idea of downsizing. So, I’m not sure this idea will gain traction.


The other millennium bug

A few weeks ago I was watching a YouTube clip of a fairly well-known Irish educationalist. When asked what they wished for the future of education, the education expert in question said they wished for the education system to be agile, resilient and to have a growth mindset. I was genuinely shocked because what was being said was utterly meaningless – and it was coming from a senior academic. Then when I read this mish-mash of clichés and factoids, it dawned on me that this kind of nonsense has been going on for the best part of twenty years.

Something happened on January 1st, 2000 and not many people noticed it. An epidemic began. It was caused by a different sort of millennium bug, let’s call it Millenium 2, and it infected the minds of teachers, lecturers, ‘educationalists’, employer organisations and basically anyone who has ever been to school. A little bit of research showed that this bug was not new – in fact it was more than 200 years old – but had a tendency to lie dormant for decades only to resurface again.

Infected educationalists, in particular, are thriving, mostly in the private sector but also in the education departments of our universities. They can also be found among our curriculum designers, and increasingly in the corporate halls of software manufacturers and even toy makers. Many spend their days telling teachers and lecturers what they are doing wrong and bizarrely, many teachers and lecturers agree with them, even when they are being accused of beating the love of learning out of their students. That seems to be one of the characteristics of Millenium 2 infection – an ability to make teachers and lecturers feel a sense of self-loathing.

A particularly noticeable symptom of infection with Millenium 2 is amnesia, especially an inability to remember anything about the 20th century. Infected educators become obsessed with the “19th century model” of education and worry that it might not be fit for purpose in the 21st century – because of technology or something. Other symptoms included an obsession with words beginning with ‘c’, having phobia-like thoughts about the pace of technological change, and being curiously obsessed about jobs that don’t exist yet. The also seem to fixate on the fact that graduates might have a more than a few jobs in their careers and talk an awful lot about “skills”.

Many of those infected have a very strong tendency to speak in such vague and meaningless terms as to be downright incoherent (see above) and often start sentences with the phrase “We need to teach…”. In some, but not all cases of Millenium 2, the infected person becomes unable to control his or her tendency to virtue-signal how much they care about the wellbeing of children.

Despite being around for nearly twenty years now, this latest epidemic of Millenium 2 is thriving and it is clear that organisations like the OECD, the World Economic Forum and even our own NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) are riddled with it. These organisations seem to have picked up a strain that makes them obsess about “problem-solving”.

Ultimately a diagnosis of Millenium 2 rests on one simple test and it’s the robot test. If the suspected Millenium 2 sufferer mentions robots or artificial intelligence more than once in a conversation, then there is a 99% certainty that they are infected.

The curious case of the higher education crisis

I’m down in Cork to visit two of my Biotech students who are on their nine-month work placement in Eli Lilly. This will be my last of our so-called INTRA visits. I’ve also been to Medtronic in Galway, Abbott in Longford, Abbott in Sligo and Leo Pharma in Crumlin. So far, our students have been getting glowing reports.

So when somebody, or some organisation, makes a statement to the effect that our higher education system is “in crisis”, I’m a bit confused. The only evidence presented is that funding per student is declining and, more importantly for the crisis mongerers, our universities are dropping in the international rankings. The argument seems to be that we are close to a tipping point whereby the quality of our graduates is about to plunge to unacceptably low levels. However, one thing we know for sure is that no academic or president of any institution is ever going to admit that the tipping point has actually been passed because that would be career and institutional suicide. So the narrative will continue to be that we’re “in crisis” but we’re coping and our graduates are still wonderful.

For sure, the higher education system does face challenges but to see them as mainly funding-related is to miss a number of points. In fact, the key problem facing higher education is that it has been allowed to develop in a market-like way without any clear vision as to what exactly it is for. (The HEA may have played a significant role here.) In the not so distant past, the purpose of higher education was largely to educate a relatively small percentage of school-leavers to degree level – more on that in another blog. But now, higher education institutions are places not just of undergraduate education but places of mass undergraduate and postgraduate education, including a lot of education and training that was previously delivered by professional bodies. They are also places where research and development – with the emphasis on development – is often prioritised, and where innovation and job creation is expected and valued just as much as teaching or knowledge creation. Universities (and IoTs obviously) are even seen as places which should have immediate or at least short term impact on society through that mysterious process known as “engagement”.

The widening of the mission of higher education seems to have occurred not just because of the expectations and demands of our politicians, but also because the higher education system is now a highly competitive market and institutions will do anything to raise their profile. And just like corporations, growth is seen as an end in itself and rankings have become our stock market. So, whether it’s the introduction of gender neutral toilets, bans on disposable cups and plastic straws, the launching of the latest centre of excellence, or the latest very public embracing of a minority, institutions are in a rush to launch initiatives that will raise their brand profile. And these initiatives must inevitably reduce the core funding available for our key role, namely to educate undergraduates, both for their own good and for the good of the economy. So, if there’s a crisis in higher education, it’s one of identity.

There is a similar crisis of identity in the school system where the list of things that  should be taught grows daily. Apparently schools should teach everything from wellbeing and mental health to empathy to consent to nutrition and diet. It’s not for nothing that the term “therapeutic education” has been coined.

What we need is a real conversation around what we want our higher education institutions to be? Are they to be places of mass education but only for those who can afford it and to hell with those left behind (more on that in another blog post)? Are they to be hotspots of innovation and job creation? Are to be quango-like organisations charged with providing short-term fixes for society’s problems? Are they to be flag-bearers for Ireland Inc.? Or do we seriously need to start thinking about downsizing our higher education system or at least to think about what we need to prioritise.

I suggest a test. Give every university a no-strings-attached lump sum of say, €10m , and see what they spend it on. That would tell us a lot about priorities.

On optimism

I used to write a blog called educationandstuff and it had accumulated about 80K hits when I deleted it earlier this year. At the time I felt tired of my own voice and I had a sense that no matter what I said, or what others like me said, I was never going to make a difference. People would still waffle about 21st century skills, about jobs that don’t exist, about learning styles, and about schools killing creativity, no matter what said. The bullshit would continue.

But now that I’m less busy (I’m no longer associate dean for teaching and learning) and now that I’ve regained that sense of optimism – the belief that individual voices can make a difference – I’ve decided to start blogging again. Not being involved in the conversation has actually made me more frustrated than being part of it.

So, in a few days I’ll write my first serious blog post for quite a while and it’ll be about the so-called crisis in the higher education sector.