In my opinion: Real competition and flexibility are urgently needed
In recent weeks there have been calls to expand the number of third-level, further education and training places to provide additional opportunities for people who have lost their jobs during the current recession. I concur. Even though third-level places are at an all-time high, there is a need to ensure that our workforce is upskilled to take advantage of any upturn.
However, these additional places need to be strategically targeted and focused on creating the skills that will enable us to benefit from the opportunities created by an economic recovery as well as meet the national challenges of peak oil and climate change.
Simply expanding courses without a targeted approach will invariably lead to a dumbing down of our education system.
There is evidence to suggest that this 'grade inflation' has already happened. Research carried out by Dr Brendan Guilfoyle and Martin O'Grady of the Network for Educational standards suggests that our educational standards have already slipped.
The number of Leaving Cert students gaining A and B grades have almost doubled since 1991, for example, yet OECD/PISA results for Irish 15-year-olds show no discernible improvement in the standards of subjects such as maths, English or science.
Another study highlights significant grade inflation in both the university and institute of technology sectors in Ireland. In 1994, the percentage of first- class honours awarded across the universities was 7pc. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 17pc.
In the late 1980s, it was the quality of our young, educated workforce that helped foster the Celtic Tiger. During this period there was substantial competition for jobs and college places.
I believe that we need to reintroduce real competition into the system. Basic literacy and numeracy skills need to take primacy. The way science and maths are taught and how IT and engineering jobs are promoted need to be revisited.
Those with the capacity to develop skills in areas where jobs are most likely to be available should be able to do so quickly and flexibly. We must also look beyond direct inward investment to developing homegrown talent, with a greater emphasis on developing innovation skills and assisting Irish entrepreneurs to create the next Google, Nokia or Apple.
However, introducing competition and raising standards does not mean we should forget about those who do not meet the mark the first time around. We also need to ensure that everyone gets a chance to improve their own qualifications, however long it takes.
People who would excel in any walk of life, if given the chance, are all too often left on the academic scrap-heap because of the time-based qualifications system we operate under.
If the NCCA, FETAC, HETAC and the universities worked together to develop more achievable 'stepping-stone' modules, it would allow students to develop their skills at a pace that reflects both their ability and their life circumstances.
Once the standards set are high and exceed international OECD norms, then it shouldn't matter how long -- or indeed how short -- it takes a student to obtain the required qualification. That to me would be real life-long learning.
Paul Gogarty TD is Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science