Wednesday 20 November 2019

Education reform muststart from very beginning

John Hennessy

Our long-term economic success remains inextricably tied to the higher level of knowledge and skills of our people and to our ability to out-perform other countries in education and research.

The graduate is the key outcome of our investment in higher education and research. But she or he is formed by our entire education system and the graduate attributes that we seek to achieve must be nurtured and developed through all levels of that system. Put simply, the reform of the Junior Certificate is as central to our success as a country as are the reforms underway in higher education, in further education and in apprenticeship.

Crucially important decisions were taken in the late 1950s and 1960s to abandon the failed policy of national self-sufficiency and Ireland is now among the most globalised countries on the planet, and is all the better for that. As well as a long-established international reputation in literature and in the creative arts, we excel in a wide range of enterprises - agri-food, life sciences, digital media and others. We live in a very technological age. Never before have advances in science and technology impacted so immediately and broadly across society as they now do. Fifteen years into the 21st century, it is apparent that one of its defining features will be an intensification of the value and the impact of knowledge and advanced skills.

There is, in this, significant opportunity for Ireland. In contrast with most other advanced economies, we have very favourable demographics-with 22pc of our total population under the age of 15. The EU average is 15pc. Ireland is already the most youthful country in the EU and between now and 2028, we will have certain, steady and substantial increases in the numbers of young people seeking opportunities for further and higher education. Think of the yet-to-be-tapped potential, the energy, creativity and sheer fun this can bring to our country. But we owe them. Demand will soar for post second-level education to meet demand for the advanced skills and knowledge of graduates from further and higher education. Let us make sure we give our young people the best chance to make the best contribution they can make.

At present, many Leaving Cert students, and an increasing number of adults of all ages, are preparing to apply for higher education courses. They need to know that economic and societal development will continue to be driven by advances in science, engineering and computing, so these disciplines are areas of significant, immediate and sustained opportunity. Of course, people should pursue what they find interesting or have an aptitude for because people tend to excel in what interests them. And while advocating the significant advantages of a career in science and engineering, the fact is that human talent is multi-dimensional and knowledge and skills are needed across a broad range of areas.

The challenges we face require expertise across many disciplines and continuing innovation and inspiration through literature, music and the arts. These days, the field of study chosen by applicants to higher education is only part of the complex interaction of personal qualities that comprise a successful person. There are other competences, developed by graduates over the course of their studies, that are as important. As well as advanced levels of literacy and numeracy, critical thinking, communication skills, creativity, team-working and the use of information technology are all key to success.

Higher education institutions are implementing plans to accompany the traditional focus on disciplinary expertise with an increasing emphasis on these skills.

This requires innovation in course design, as well as change in curriculum and assessment. In the coming years, the institutions will change how undergraduate programmes are accessed by students through a broadening of the entry routes, allowing students to immerse themselves broadly in a discipline with opportunities for specialisation and for inter-disciplinary study within the same programme. Critical areas such as engineering (which are not widely available at second level) will benefit greatly. The alignment of these developments with the objectives of Junior Cycle reform should be obvious. It is no exaggeration to say that the curriculum and assessment change envisaged in the Junior Cycle is as critical for Ireland in meeting future skills needs as reform in higher education.

The importance of continuity in a student's learning and providing them with lifelong skills that will assist them beyond the classroom, is vital. It is folly to assume that we can wait until a young person enters higher education before we give them access to the attitudes and perspectives that will best equip them.

We must be alert to change in our environment and adapt, at all levels of the education system, to meet that change.

John Hennessy is Chairman of the Higher Education Authority and former MD, Ericsson Ireland

Irish Independent

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