Sunday 17 November 2019

Richard Curran: It's time parents got over themselves about university being only route to prosperity

Research found that those on top apprenticeships can expect to earn more than all but those graduating from the most prestigious universities. Photo: Stock Image
Research found that those on top apprenticeships can expect to earn more than all but those graduating from the most prestigious universities. Photo: Stock Image
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

There is an old joke told in Cork about the posh woman whose son gets into difficulty while swimming at the beach. "Please help, my son - the doctor - is drowning," she shouts.

There are few things as powerful as the driving force and pride of the Irish mammy in the achievements of her children.

But, with more young Irish people than ever going to university and so many of our graduates 'over-qualified' for the jobs they end up doing, perhaps it is time for a serious rethink about who we are educating and also to do what jobs.

Ireland has already exceeded an EU target to have 40pc of people between the ages of 30 and 34 educated to a degree level. Last year we breached 50pc, but the country remains behind its own target of reaching 60pc by 2020.

The arguments in favour of education are compelling. It is the greatest single driving force behind social mobility. It can open doors in ways that will enhance a person's life experience and standard of living.

But what do we mean by 'education'? Somewhat blindly, churning out as many graduates as possible may not the best solution for our economy or the people who should benefit most from it.

State funding to third-level education has fallen by one-third in the last decade while student numbers have risen by one-fifth. This not only calls into the question the quality of the university degree people are receiving but also its usefulness in a world where more and more people have those pieces of paper.

Earlier this year, Eoin O'Malley, from the School of Law and Government at DCU, remarked that people here "will soon need a PhD to pull a pint". Research has shown that Irish workers are among the most overqualified in Europe. This isn't necessarily something to brag about, because it reflects a mismatch between the education levels attained and the financial rewards and job satisfaction people can derive afterwards in their working years.

It also raises questions about where the economy should be going when it comes to the kind of jobs we are not attracting in big enough numbers.

A few weeks ago, Michael Moriarty, general secretary of Education and Training Boards Ireland, said there was a "misplaced snobbery" among many parents, who were "obsessed" with sending their children to higher education regardless of their talents.

He believes Irish parents need to "get real" and "lose their fixation in insisting that their child has to go to college as a badge of honour".

On the other hand, Graham Love, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, has said it was a great achievement that so many Irish school-leavers were going to third level.

He too has a point, but perhaps we need to look at the alternatives available and ask whether there should be some rebalancing in favour of high-end apprenticeships.

The Government is already moving in this direction with more courses and apprenticeship places available. The last budget allocated €122m in state funding for apprenticeships.

The target is to place 31,000 people on apprenticeship programmes between 2016 and 2020, which would be a near doubling on starting-point levels.

Among the aims of that programme is to expand the number and nature of apprenticeships that are available. Last year there was a 25pc increase in the number of young people opting to pursue apprenticeships. Traditional roles such as electricians, plumbers and carpentry were the most popular.

New apprenticeships emerged last year in areas like accounting and financial services and there have been new initiatives from animation to healthcare.

This is all good news, but we are coming from a low base - especially after the apprenticeship model was decimated at the time of the economic crash.

Just 2pc to 3pc of school leavers are pursuing apprenticeships as a route into work compared with countries like Switzerland or Germany, where the figures are around 60pc.

Similarly, figures given to Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan in a parliamentary question showed that last year only 335 people took part in newly established apprenticeship programmes, which missed the government target of 800.

Peter Lampl is a British businessman and philanthropist who set up the Sutton Trust in the UK. It is dedicated to enhancing social mobility. While Mr Lampl is an ardent believer in the power of education to drive social mobility, he is questioning the value of the traditional university route as the primary vehicle to achieve that now.

He believes apprenticeships can provide an extremely valuable alternative to better living standards and social mobility for people. Sutton Foundation research in 2015 found that young people who enrol on the highest-level apprenticeships in the UK can expect to earn more over the course of their careers than graduates of all but the most prestigious universities. This excludes those with post-graduate degrees.

When total lifetime earnings are considered, level 5 apprentices' income is estimated at £1.44m, which was higher than for graduates of all but the top British universities.

Some of Britain's most famous and successful entrepreneurs were formerly apprentices, including celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, billionaire jeweller Lawrence Graff and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

University graduates in the UK are hampered by the enormous cost of university fees, which very often are borrowed and have to be paid back. Graduates can find themselves saddled with £50,000 in debt before they even earn their first pay packet.

That is not the case in Ireland - yet. With registration fees running at €3,000 per year, big costs include rental accommodation in Dublin which could be over €9,000 per year. We are heading in that direction.

This isn't just about government policy though. Businesses themselves have a big part to play. If you grew up in the Limerick area you might have faced tough competition to get on the aircraft maintenance apprenticeship. Given the significant presence of so many global multinationals now located in Ireland in key sectors from aviation leasing and pharma to IT, why are there not more high-end apprenticeships available, conducted in conjunction with third-level colleges?

Martin McVicar, co-founder of Combilift in Co Monaghan, instigated an apprenticeship and training programme through the local Monaghan Institute of Technology.

A recent study on the hiring challenges of Irish manufacturing SMEs threw up some interesting findings. In the Connacht/Ulster region 54pc of these companies pointed to hiring new staff as a real challenge for the future. This was the highest in the country.

In Dublin, the figure was just 29pc. Yet in Connacht/Ulster they reported the highest levels of staff retention in the country.

When young people from a rural area head to the big city, they very often don't come back. For example 25 of the Monaghan county senior GAA football squad, who beat Tyrone at the weekend, are based in Dublin.

This isn't an either-or debate. It is about having both. Part of the problem is that so many of today's parents of young children or teenagers in Ireland changed social class themselves through their own social mobility. They now want certainty for their children.

They see certainty as coming from higher level university education. Scarred by the pain of the financial crash, they will seek out old-fashioned certainty more than ever.

But surely one of the lessons of the crash should be that certainty today is very hard to find and even those with great professional qualifications and careers were often forced to emigrate when things went wrong.

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