Colleges must do better to serve all of our society

Our economy needs technical and hands-on experience, not just university graduates, writes Paul Mills

Over the years, Ireland has been more than successful at attracting high-value-adding and well-paying companies to these shores.

During that time, a major educational focus has been on ‘pumping out’ third-level graduates of various disciplines in an effort to ensure our ability to be competitive and have ‘the necessary talent pool’.

However, questions have arisen that should make us reflect on the direction we give our young people as they make the major choices that are part and parcel of deciding on a beneficial career, never mind career advancement and lifestyle improvement.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of Leaving Certificate students received their results. These represent the end of one part of the students’ lives and the start of another. I, for one, would not like to be one of those students over the last year as they pondered on where they would like their future to be as they sat filling in the CAO application form. In many ways, they will have taken an enormous bet on the future.

They will have taken this bet and made their choices based on the advice of teachers, family, or career guidance counsellors, or even based on the sales pitches of the various educational institutions.

According to Philip Nolan, president of NUI Maynooth and head of the universities’ taskforce on reform, “third-level colleges have not done enough to take the heat out of the CAO points race”. He also said that “it is completely untrue to say that high points automatically mean a course is of a higher quality or that lower points are less worthwhile”.

It is a serious health warning.

It is clear that the universities have become businesses and the increase in places, together with the proliferation of courses that are only slightly different from one another, have as their main objective the ongoing success of the particular institution in question.

In effectively pumping up the imperative of having a third-level qualification to get a good job and to be financially successful it could be argued that the universities are not doing a service to themselves, parents, young adults, or to the country’s economy. Our economy desperately needs much more than just university graduates.

A report released by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in the UK in the last few days showcases interesting findings about the earnings of non-university graduates’ compared to those who do apprenticeships.

According to the report, “the amount apprentices earn over the course of their lives is outstripping that of graduates by up to 270%”. While that specifically refers to those in the arts, media, and publishing industries, those in agriculture, horticulture, and animal care do not do too badly either, at over 211% more than graduates.

Overall, the study has shown that the difference between apprentices and university graduates is only 1.8% in favour of apprentices.

Another issue highlighted is that of student loans — something we are beginning to eye up here as a way of paying the enormous cost of running universities.

“This year’s university graduates in the UK, who will begin to repay their loans next year, are facing debt levels over a third of the cost of the average mortgage,” states the study.

According to statistics from financial education group the Money Charity, the class of 2016 debt bill is well in excess of £41,000 (€47,000) — 35%of the average UK outstanding mortgage amount of £117,162.

Indeed, another UK report on the students who graduated last year found that these students owed an average of £44,500, substantially higher than those in the US, and also higher than Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

It would be easy to say these figures refer to the UK only and should be taken with a grain of salt. However, those with an interest and an influence in this area of our economy would be well advised to check out the situation here before they take any necessary steps to ensure that the message gets out to parents and students. They might then be able to make a more informed and possibly less costly decision.

Not having a degree does not mean you are stigmatised for life. What’s important is what’s in your pocket and how you feel about what you do.

Doing your bit for the economy can’t be bad either.


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