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Higher Education, Highly Educated, But Under Skilled

Minister O'Sullivan

There was a time when higher education was quietly respected, and often for the privileged few, rather than viewed as an absolute necessity. For today’s Leaving Cert students the option of deciding if higher education is really for them just isn’t there. College is for everyone nowadays.

Chemistry Students

Putting off the real world?

How many students think about college as a way of putting off entering the real world for a little bit longer? You see, the course you chose to study is often irrelevant until graduation day and you soon realise that the working world isn’t your oyster after all. Your certificate isn’t the passport to the good life, contrary to what your parents and secondary school teachers told you. Meanwhile, you live in a tiny shared rented flat in the dodgy end of town, working in a job whose wages are so meagre it may as well be an internship.

The Higher Education System Performance report published earlier this year found that half of 30 to 34-year-olds now have third level qualifications, the highest level in Europe. This might make us smugly give ourselves a collective pat on the back but just think about how many of these individuals are now working in jobs that they could have easily done on leaving school.

You are officially allowed to leave school at 16, and yet too many of us are lingering on until at least 22. Over the period 1965-2003, there was a growth of a whopping 592% in the third level student population.

Trying to stand out from the herd

Over 73,000 extra places were taken up in 2003/04, as compared with 1990/91. This is a massive increase of 105%. Graduate with a primary degree nowadays and you might jump a few places up the line for a telesales job, a job you’d easily have gotten with just your Leaving Cert. Then you soon realise that if you’d skipped the whole college malarkey, you’d most likely be a team leader of your division by now and already be driving a decent car. And so as more and more people get primary degrees, others have to dawdle round campus as they try to get themselves a master’s or a doctorate to attempt to stand out from the herd.

According to the Eurostudent V survey carried out last year 43% of graduate respondents rated their job as not closely related to their course. The 2014 Irish Survey of Student engagement found students rarely applied learning to employment.

The report says:

When asked more specifically about work experience or work placements, some students are less certain that their learning prepares them for specific employment in a relevant sector of the economy and a notable number report that they have never combined their academic learning with workplace experience. That’s far too many kidults who are imprisoned by education rather than liberated by it.

It’s not working out as we imagined

We’re hurting the taxpayer, too, hitting her with the cost of the course as well as reducing the number of people in work, paying tax. The answer is fairly obvious. We need to admit that our education leap forward isn’t working out as well as we imagined. We need to look at what our economy actually needs, stop deluding thousands of students every year and start thinking sensibly.

Take Germany and its very sensible tripartite school system that divides children at the age of 10. Pupils usually go to either a secondary school, where they sit the Abitur, the equivalent of our Leaving Cert, or one of two more vocationally-orientated secondary schools. This system of vocational training was originally created to provide equality of opportunity to young people who were leaving school with very basic or zero qualifications. Employers provide apprentices with three years of training towards a nationally recognised vocational diploma and the apprentices spend three to four days a week in workplace-based training and the rest of the time at a further education college. They also get a small salary.

My own third level education was a blissful freebie: four years of reading Penguin classics and getting to grips with Old Norse semantics. But I could equally have done that in my free time and spent my time equipping myself with practical skills on the job instead. There should be ways that we can learn and earn at the same time.

Yours Etc,



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