‘Graduates need skills that last a lifetime’

A university president has warned education policy needs to focus on producing well-rounded and flexible graduates rather than those that specifically meet the short-term needs of a troubled economy.

NUI Maynooth president Professor Philip Nolan said the focus must be on giving graduates the capacity to analyse and reason; to adapt to challenge and change; and the confidence and capacity to make their world a better place.

“The last thing we need in Irish higher education is a misdirected and ill-conceived shift in education and research policy to meet the immediate needs of the economy,” he said at the launch of a strategy for education and research at NUIM until 2017.

The Government recently approved landmark plans to restructure third-level education, which should see amalgamations between universities and colleges, and some institutes of technology applying to become technological universities.

But the targets for the sector include meeting labour market needs and focusing on research areas prioritised by Government.

“The students entering our universities now will work until 2060 and live until 2080. Our role is to ensure our graduates have intellectual skills and attributes that last a lifetime, and allow them to approach any challenge with clarity and confidence,” he said.

“Equally, it is essential that we maintain a broad base of research of international quality, as we simply don’t know from where the next great intellectual and technological advances are going to arise, nor do we know what advanced skills and capacities will be essential to our economy and society in 20 or 30 years’ time.”

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn launched the strategy and welcomed its long-term view and focus on creating critical-thinking graduates.

“While there is much that needs to and is being reformed within the system, I am always conscious that the purpose of any reform is to improve outcomes for students,” he said.

Prof Nolan also heads a universities’ group examining how colleges can ease pressure on students to score top marks in the Leaving Certificate for college entry points. His comments come as an industry body said exam results should not be the only way into college.

Irish Software Association chair Edel Creely said college access could also be based on interviews, continuous assessment, personal statements, and skills. Some of these are already under consideration by the Irish Universities Association, and Trinity College Dublin will pilot a system next year in which 25 places on three courses are allocated based on essays and a written explanation of why students picked the degree.

“Both academics andemployers agree that school- leavers lack problem-solving, analytical and creative abilities — a by-product of the increasing predictability of the state exams. As well as that, the points race has become a function of memory with students, in some cases, cracking the exam code without necessarily having a complete appreciation of the subject matter,” she said.

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