September 24, 2022

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Is is time to cap the number of places in higher education?

Ireland needs a comprehensive, well co-ordinated and resourced tertiary education system if we are to provide for the wide range of skills that our society and economy needs. The key to achieving this lies in creating a better balance between further education and training (FET) and higher education (HE) – an outcome that may require radical action.

FET has made an enormous contribution to Ireland. It has been the basis of rewarding careers for thousands of graduates and there continues to be good careers to be had from a further education qualification and we need these skills.

Yet in our rush to increase the number of people in higher education, FET is often overlooked. Poor career guidance in schools and poor communication by providers and government fail to demonstrate the opportunities of FET, while the FET institutions have less resources compared with universities.

But there are also strong cultural reasons which need to be acknowledged and dealt with if FET is to achieve parity with higher education as a destination of choice for students.

Irish people have a strong, even insatiable, appetite for higher education, making us a leader in the EU in participation levels among younger age groups. This is a strength for Ireland. FET, on the other hand, occupies a much lower status in our society. So too do most of the careers from it.

That this needs not be so is well demonstrated by the experience in other European countries, with Germany an oft quoted example. The situation reflects prejudice in Irish society, and in the media, based on a widely held perception that FET is for lower socio-economic groups. This translates in the minds of students and their parents as an ambition to “go to uni” once the Leaving Cert is done. Too often, less attention is given to the skills, competences and natural interests of the student and more to the status conferred by being a student in a university.

FET must become a central player in our education and training system, on equal terms with HE and we need to give more attention to the role FET can play providing ongoing learning opportunities for people seeking to re-enter the workforce and for those seeking training and retraining over their active lives.

The creation of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is a positive step. So too is the policy focus on creating pathways from FET to HE to avoid cul-de-sacs in the system. However, in this there is a risk to be avoided that FET is presented as a route to HE, rather than an education and training destination in itself, further strengthening prejudices that the real action lies in HE.

Radical approaches may be necessary if we are to redirect the education and training system into a more balanced FE/HE system

The Solas strategy, Future FET, sets out a number of actions to bring FET centre stage with the laudable objective of making FET “loud and proud”. They include addressing the lack of exposure of second-level students to FET with tasters of vocational courses; transition year apprenticeship tasters and, given the centrality of the CAO as the major focal point for school leavers, ensuring that FET is given an equal standing with HE.

These are worthwhile strategies and, if implemented, given time, hold out the prospect of success. However, given the deep-seated cultural resistance to FET, the timeline could be years, even decades. And so radical approaches may be necessary if we are to redirect the education and training system into a more balanced FE/HE system.

Placing a cap on the number of places in higher education is probably the most radical and controversial approach, but deserves consideration nonetheless. Introduced without supporting measures it would be a crude instrument. But introduced as an element in a comprehensive strategy, as follows, to rebalance provision and access it could be a game changer.

More effective career guidance in schools, with teachers and guidance counsellors well informed of the potential of FET, and how to communicate that to students, would ensure better informed choices and overcome biases.

Process of assessment at second level should be reformed to reduce the singular focus on the high stakes, high pressure Leaving Certificate

A national credit accumulation and transfer system would create opportunities for learners of all ages and ability to progress through tertiary education by building credits over time and carrying them from one programme, institution, or form of education and training, to another. Complementary to this, guided and navigable learning pathways would facilitate learner progression through tertiary programmes into work and back again.

In addition to these measures to support greater equity of access and participation, the process of assessment at second level should be reformed to reduce the singular focus on the high stakes, high pressure Leaving Certificate, which in many respects perpetuates social and economic privilege. It could be replaced with innovative approaches to assessment that capture the wide range of student learning, competences and achievement.

Finally, because the funding system begets the education system, all costs for students attending FET should be removed.

No course of action is free of cost, risk or controversy. However, present policies will bring about the re-balancing needed only after a prolonged period, if at all.

Ellen Hazelkorn and Tom Boland are joint managing partners in BH Associates. This article is based on the policy paper Strengthening the Sustainability, Quality and Competitiveness of Irish Higher Education: Trends and Propositions to Provoke Debate

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/is-is-time-to-cap-the-number-of-places-in-higher-education-1.4860652