Monday 20 January 2020

Learn, unlearn and relearn - those are the skills of our age

Apprenticeships are far from being the only alternative to a university degree

HERE TO SERVE: ‘They are the reality’, Mary Mitchell O’Connor meets a robot. But can it pull the perfect pint?
HERE TO SERVE: ‘They are the reality’, Mary Mitchell O’Connor meets a robot. But can it pull the perfect pint?

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

Sometimes, you read a newspaper column going, "Ah, here". And the further you get into the column, the higher the volume: "Ah, HERE." That's how I read Eoin O'Malley's article last Sunday. You can't have missed it. It was the one where he said people would soon need a PhD to pull a pint.

He's making a small but good point. Credentialism is the word for an escalation of qualification, which means that what a Leaving Cert qualified you for, 20 years ago, now requires a primary degree. That's a consequence of Ireland educating so many of its young people so well. This is a good thing. On the global stage, it's a very good thing. When it comes to attracting foreign direct investment, it's a great thing.

Of course, we need to constantly examine credentialism to see if using a primary degree as a qualifier or disqualifier for a job is functional or just plain lazy.

But we also need to go "Ah, here" when someone like Eoin O'Malley portrays apprenticeships as the only alternative to university degree-level education. They're not. We've a huge range of alternatives across the system. We've multiple options including Post-Leaving Certificate and Further Education courses, certificate and diploma courses and degrees in institutes of technology.

These qualifications are not open only to school leavers. They represent a marvellous set of opportunities for people who may not have had the opportunity to complete their education or who want to change careers and develop new skills. Lifelong learning is at the heart of our education policy.

In my opinion, the illiterate of the 21st Century will not just be those who cannot read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

We have apprenticeships and traineeships and they are growing. Our ambition is for 50,000 new registrations by 2020.

The old model of apprenticeship has a long overhang. I find, even today, that if you ask people about apprenticeships, they automatically think of the construction industry. They think of apprentice plumbers, apprentice bricklayers, apprentice painters.

The original apprenticeships are certainly going through a boom in registrations, with almost 3,000 in 2017. And no bad thing, we are going to need these apprentices to build the homes and offices we so desperately need. But these are not the only apprenticeships - in fact, apprenticeships now operate across many sectors, for example apprenticeships in accountancy and insurance.

Ireland is playing catch-up - some of the larger EU member states, like Germany, have a wider and deeper offering in the area of apprenticeships.

But, within a decade, the picture is going to be different here, as high-end career apprenticeships are seen by young people as another interesting option leading to a good career.

Apprenticeships and further education courses are important qualifications in their own right. In addition, they provide paths of progression to higher education - or, if the person involved prefers, a path to direct employment.

Eoin O'Malley's column is important, because it's part of what we need more of: constant re-examination of our higher education system, rather than self-congratulatory sitting on our laurels. That constant re-examination means we should watch out for patterns of behaviour which, while strongly rooted, aren't necessarily good for society.

I welcome debate around the role of our higher education sector. It is by thinking about how the sector can further contribute to overall society and to the individual, that we can have a national discussion about its future direction. However, we need to approach that discussion without prejudice, with all the facts and with a clear view about how important that contribution can be.

We are now at a crossroads. We need to decide what direction our education system is taking.

What are the future skills and how do we ensure education drives technology rather than technology usurping education.

Robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality are no longer notional. They are THE reality!

I would respectfully suggest that out students need the best holistic education, in mind, body and spirit - the best in-class experience we can offer.

Looking into the crystal ball, I foresee that in fact a friendly, chatty robot will be pulling the perfect pints of the future!

Ah, here!

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is Minister of State for Higher Education and a Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire. She served as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation from 2016 to 2017

Sunday Independent

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