Apprenticeships and snobbery

In their opinion piece (Irish Times, 19th Feb), sparked it would seem by recent reports of “high” dropout rates from Irish third level institutions, Ellen Hazelkorn and Tom Boland make the inevitable plea for a “systems approach” to higher education and the creation of a new agency. This analysis is all too depressingly familiar and likely to achieve nothing. The last thing we need is more bureaucracy. But their key point, completely unproven, is that the emphasis on third level education is down to snobbery. They are so wrong.

Let’s first look at how third level education has developed in the last twenty years. Around 1990, Dublin City University and University of Limerick attained full university status and both had a decidedly vocational ethos. At the same time, politicians started to talk about Ireland becoming a “knowledge economy” and the higher education system began to develop into a market. As institutions scrambled for students, they began to follow DCU and UL’s lead and focus on disciplines that would provide students with a guaranteed career path. And so, courses in subjects like accounting, law, actuarial mathematics, computing, nursing and business proliferated. Soon many careers that could  have been accessed previously without the huge cost of going on to third level moved beyond the reach of many. The universities’ thirst for students, encouraged by politicians, actually promoted inequality.

Now we have a situation where it seems that students have three choices: study at third level, do an apprenticeship, or work in a low level job, most likely in retail according to the 2016 census.

But what are students hearing from the “system”? Listen to what the OECD, the World Economic Forum, IBEC, CEOs and many senior academics are saying: their mantra is that the world is changing so rapidly that the jobs of tomorrow have not been invented yet, that the skills of the future are creativity, leadership, collaboration, innovation, problem solving and even empathy. It’s all so middle class. Education academics, in particular, churn this stuff out all the time. Their careers are built on the presumption that the current education system is unfit for purpose.

And hardly a day goes by without someone in industry complaining about the need for more “STEM” graduates. And I haven’t mentioned our obsession with AI and the robots who will make many jobs obsolete, at least if you’re to believe the futurists.

What’s a youngster to think?

The solution to all of this is not to pretend that the jobs that stem from the traditional apprenticeships are not tough and gruelling, especially in the winter months, but to do something far more radical.

I’m sure my colleagues and especially my superiors won’t agree, but we need to take the radical step of beginning a process of downsizing our higher education sector. For too long we have allowed the state to do the heavy lifting for the private sector by taking on the training costs of the professions and the likes of the insurance and financial sectors. But I guess turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

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