Monday 21 January 2019

You'll need a PhD to pull pints unless we end college snobbery

University education is not the only game in town. It's time to promote the apprenticeship system, writes Eoin O'Malley

University education is not the only game in town. It’s time to promote the apprenticeship system. Stock image
University education is not the only game in town. It’s time to promote the apprenticeship system. Stock image

Eoin O'Malley

Each Monday morning at 9am I stand up in front of about 200 students and tell them stuff about political science. It's a bizarre ritual, which I try to make more interesting with attempts at humour and by getting them to do and think about how political science can explain what happens in the real world. But I'm still not sure why we do it. There are really excellent textbooks that tell them much of what I say in a more systematic way. Yet we do it.

Lecture comes from the Latin 'to read', and the lecturer is the reader. This made sense when books were prohibitively expensive, but now they could just read them themselves. We probably do it, because that's how we've always done it. That's why we do most things. Few people have really sought to question whether it makes sense. It's a bit like why we continue to teach Shakespeare to all our kids, or force them to learn off mathematic theorems that few people will ever use.

But governments the world over are clear that we want more and more education. Our ministers love to say that Ireland has the most educated workforce in Europe. Although we might quibble with their definition of 'educated', we certainly have among the highest proportion going to third-level institutions: over half of 25-34 year olds have third-level qualifications.

And who could blame them? Graduates typically earn more than those who just complete secondary education. This is particularly the case in Ireland, where the graduate pay gap is huge. Graduates in Ireland earn on average 63pc more than non-graduates. More university education, more high pay jobs. Simple.

The Government is putting our money where its mouth is. The recent National Development Plan envisages a big spending programme for third-level education. Every Institute of Technology is getting shiny new buildings. We're spending half-a-billion moving DIT out to Grangegorman. Because countries with lots of good universities tend to be wealthy, and regions with universities tend to do better than ones without universities, every region has got to have one.

The Technological University Bill has just passed through the Houses of the Oireachtas. The minister, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, said: "The move towards Technological Universities is a game changer for the sector. It's a significant, welcome structural change and is an example of the kind of vision and big thinking we need to progress our society."

Of course it isn't. It's a name-changer rather than a game-changer. Redesignating them as universities will not suddenly make them better-functioning institutions that have an impact on their students and society, just as Massachusetts Institute of Technology is not a worse third-level institution for not having the word university in its title.

It reminds me of the story of a minister for education who, on reading a report that showed that children raised in homes with at least five books in them performed much better on educational tests, suggested that the department would send five books to every child's home in the country. She didn't get that the presence of the books were just an indicator of parental education and interest in education. The books wouldn't make a difference on their own, just as the name university won't make a difference. Except to votes.

Partly because of local politics, we're spending huge amounts of money on Institutes of Technology without knowing if they even work. And I'm not just getting at ITs. We don't even know if the world's top universities do a good job. A recent book by economist Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, asks whether we are wasting a lot of public money and a lot of people's time by sending them to college. He asks whether we learn anything in college that we then go on to use. The answer is that we do in some areas, engineering, law and computer science. But in many others the answer is no.

And worse we know that they won't. One class of mine told me that they were learning something where the lecturer told them they'd never do it in the real world, because it has all been automated. Yet, because we've always taught this, we continue to.

Caplan argues that going to Harvard or Oxford won't really add much value for most people. Anyone who gets there will (usually) be intelligent, hardworking, self-confident, and well connected. They will succeed wherever they went to college, or even if they drop out. Having gone to Harvard or Oxford just signals to potential employers that they are intelligent, hardworking etc.

But while they'll (hopefully) have had fun in college and found their studies interesting, we suspect that they'll only learn what they need to know for work when they start work. Caplan then wonders whether this arms race of education is doing the taxpayer or the student any good.

Why couldn't the employer just look at the Leaving Cert results as they did in the past? Instead we have people serving us coffee with degrees (or worse people getting degrees in making coffee). If we keep on this track you'll soon need a PhD to pull a pint. So it's not surprising that Ireland also has the highest rate of overqualified workers.

Are we really doing people a favour by suggesting to them that academic education is the only way to go? When I asked my class whether they had considered taking an apprenticeship, none even knew that they existed. Career guidance teachers appear to push college on all students, perhaps because that's how we measure school quality.

The number of people in apprenticeships is, at about 8,000, just a small fraction of the number in third-level colleges in Ireland. The apprenticeship system has been improved and expanded in recent years, but it is still regarded as a failing by parents, schools and ultimately society, which values university education as the only game in town.

When the Institutes of Technology become universities a certain snobbery will inevitably come with it. They'll no longer want to have to deal with apprenticeships, and claim that they should spend more time doing research. I wonder if we really want to make a difference, instead of renaming every IT a university, if we'd be better off empowering ITs to promote, support and expand the apprenticeship system.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at the School of Law and Government in DCU

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