Colum Kenny: We must prepare graduates for 'knowledge society'
But our colleges are facing a crisis due to falling staff numbers and lack of funding, says Colum Kenny
SO WHERE are the jobs? And why send young people to college if there is no work for them when they graduate?
Last week's go-ahead for the first phase of the new Grangegorman Campus for the Dublin Institute of Technology is a boost for builders. But it comes at a time when the future shape of education and the real needs of students are uncertain.
In almost every walk of life, growing numbers of young Irish men and women are finding it hard to earn a living. At home or abroad, "proper jobs" are scarce. Unpaid work is common. The spectre of despair lurks in the shadows. Radical thinking is needed.
Might a State investment of €17bn in innovative start-up companies not yield a better return for young people facing unemployment than the same sum now being pumped into the pockets of contractors for buildings and yet more roads?
With the direct and hidden cost of third-level courses rising, it has become harder for parents to afford to send their children to college. Yet for many employers a college degree has replaced the Leaving Certificate as a basic requirement for job applicants.
Colleges must be seen to be equipping young people with the range of skills to create new enterprises and find jobs. The skills required are not merely "practical" in a narrow sense. Initiative and imagination are also required. So, too, is an understanding of social and cultural complexities.
Parents who can afford to do so are paying for their sons or daughters to go back to college for a second degree, rather than remain idle. And school-leavers too continue to enter overcrowded undergraduate classes that teach them too few practical survival skills.
Educationalists need to reassess what is on offer at both second and third level.
Earlier this month, Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies announced that it is to wind down its massive investment in education and other areas of Irish life. This is a good time to ask what kind of education young adults now need in a global crisis.
The number of experienced staff at Irish universities is falling due to ageing and to early retirement packages, and to the recruitment ban on replacing public servants. This has a real impact on the quality of courses.
It is also making it harder to plan for the future, and to reform existing structures in ways that will deliver valuable results for young graduates, and for Irish society.
There is little incentive to drop redundant courses as this can mean an instant loss of cash. There is no guarantee that academics who make savings get in return an equivalent amount to spend elsewhere on unproven initiatives. This blunts enterprise.
What do young people need now to face into the global market and to make a life for themselves? They need relevant skills and an enterprising frame of mind.
They also need the critical and moral capacity to cope.
Speaking at the Science Forum in Dublin earlier this month, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Maire Geoghegan-Quinn proclaimed that "intellectual inquiry is a worthwhile pursuit in itself".
If the only purpose of university education were to fit people for particular jobs then it should be funded directly by industry. But industry in Britain and Ireland invests relatively little in research and education, while demanding that the State provide graduates to suit its needs.
And if the only point of university education is to fit people for particular jobs then we might as well close down many of our courses, not just in the humanities but also in what are sometimes called the "hard" sciences. Because there are too few real jobs out there right now.
Most people go to college hoping to increase their chances of a job of their choice, even in the case of those who take abstract courses. During this deep recession, young people are being parked in third-level courses as a kind of long-term investment for the future. If and when things pick up they will have an extra degree in their back pocket.
Universities are caught in a bind. They cannot maintain existing standards with decreasing resources and staff, especially if class sizes rise. They are under pressure to measure up in international league tables, even when competing colleges abroad already have lower staff-student ratios and higher incomes.
Colleges are now looking to make savings by working more closely together. Many academics would like to see fees reintroduced "for those who can afford them". Just how many middle-class families could now afford fees in the face of growing taxes and soaring charges for insurance and other services is unknown. The prospect of means-testing again is unattractive, given past dishonesty and injustice.
This month at DCU, the CEO of Ireland's Higher Education Authority reaffirmed a broad view of the function of universities. Tom Boland said, "Engagement with wider society is central to the mission of higher education institutions."
Speaking at the launch of Higher Education and Civic Engagement, an international study by Irish authors, he added that while the core roles of teaching and research are the principal functions of a university, the breadth of their activities include broader cultural and social remits as key players in what he terms the "knowledge society".
The Irish "brand" in education has long been identified with literature and humane learning. Such learning is not opposed to science. Society in general, and young people in particular, need both.
Irish universities must be places to which Irish young people of any class can aspire, places that serve a "knowledge society" as well as the "knowledge economy".
The methods used to fund and judge them should serve Irish people's needs and not just copy what suits others better.
Academics must train students to be enterprising and to fill current employment needs. But, at the same time, if colleges have not the space and time to help students to cope critically and morally with a world in crisis then our graduates will be poorly equipped to cope with the harsh realities that they face.
Dr Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU