Tuesday 27 September 2016

Patrick Prendergast: One university size does not fit all

Both students and the country are badly served by our obsession with the CAO points race, writes Patrick Prendergast

Patrick Prendergast

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

Trinity College Dublin
Trinity College Dublin

The deadline for CAO applications is tomorrow at 5.15pm. I have no doubt that record numbers will apply and that next autumn the universities, institutes of technology and other colleges will be bulging at the seams with eager young students.

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Unfortunately, one in six of them won't make it into second year. That's some 7,000 young people, the equivalent size of many small towns in Ireland. Dropping out of college is not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon as no country has 100pc college retention rates. However, our figures are a cause for concern.

There is an economic cost, about €65m per year, but the real cost is to the students themselves in terms of disappointment and missed opportunities. Our drop-out rates raise a host of questions which sprang to mind when I attended the launch of the Government's new National Skills Strategy on Wednesday.

BFEI's students do well in terms of satisfying jobs and careers but sadly too few parents, and therefore their children, ever consider further education colleges except as a temporary fail-safe option if the CAO application does not work. Too many see a hierarchy with the universities on top and further education, including apprenticeships, at the bottom.

I see it differently, as a continuum of opportunities for young people to realise their ambitions and develop their talents. Parents in other north European countries see it this way too. Germany is the obvious example and there are many leaders of business and industry who came to the top by starting their careers as craft apprentices.

The new skills strategy seeks, in part, to address this unhealthy imbalance by signalling a rapid expansion in high-quality apprenticeship and traineeships: an ambitious target of 50,000 has been set. At the same time, post-Leaving Certificate courses, which have developed organically in an unco-ordinated manner in the past few decades, are being reformed and restructured.

As the report says: "It is now timely for the State and employers to promote the essential skills attained from Further Education and Training (FET) as a route to skilled employment and not just as a stepping stone to higher education." This is all to the good and I welcome what is planned. Hopefully it will go some way towards addressing our obsession with higher education as the only or the most desirable way to acquire qualifications.

It's an obsession mirrored by the media's very significant attention to college entry and Leaving Certificate results; the extent of the coverage is unparalleled anywhere in the EU and throughout most OECD countries. The media is clearly meeting a demand from parents but will we ever see league tables of entry to further education colleges or apprenticeships?

Inadequate funding for guidance counselling in our schools means alternative options are not considered.

But the blindness is also driven in part by employers who, according to research quoted in the skills report, have limited awareness of their own skills needs and of the opportunities offered by FET. Too often, they simply look for an honours degree from new employees when some other qualification would be more suitable.

The obsession is further entrenched by the current funding model of higher education, which encourages some institutions to try to grab a bigger slice of the limited funding pie.

Universities are enrolling more students, even those with very low points who simply cannot make the grade, as the recent drop-out figures show. What is happening is that the university sector is getting bigger and pulling students from the institutes of technology, which in turn are pulling students away from the FET sector.

To compound the situation, the number of ordinary degree/higher certificate courses (levels 7/6) which the economy needs is shrinking and students are under pressure to sign up for the ever-growing number of level 8 honours degree courses on offer. This is not healthy for the system as a whole, nor is it good for the students.

A new funding model for higher education is promised but will the Expert Group drawing up the report also consider the effects of any proposed reforms on this drive by some higher education institutions for increased honours degree student intake, regardless of suitability or need? Yes, it is true that the economy will need more graduates with high-level qualifications for the new job opportunities in the future. But, as the EU agency CEDEFOP reminded us in its latest forecast, Ireland will also have significant numbers of job opportunities requiring medium-level qualifications.

The vision outlined in the skills strategy is for an Ireland where the talent of our people thrives through the quality and relevance of our education and training base, which is responsive to the changing and diverse needs of our people, society and the economy. That education and training base includes apprenticeships, traineeships, and further education, as well as universities, institutes of technology and other colleges. It's time to bring our higher education system back into balance.

Patrick Prendergast is the provost of Trinity College Dublin and an engineer.

Sunday Independent

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