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The Economy: Impressive university figures don't add up

By John Simpson

Two different aspects of one topic: what advice should be offered to a young person with adequate qualifications for university entrance on whether to go to university and what proportion of school leavers with A-Levels should be expected to go on to university?

Northern Ireland has a skills and knowledge deficit.

The deficit is seen in the evidence from employers but, even more seriously, in the longer term points to a constraint on the creation of a modern economy.

Northern Ireland is now as near to full employment as at any time for over 50 years. Yet living standards are lagging. Average earnings in like-for-like jobs are comparable with other regions but overall average earnings are lower because more people are in lower paid occupations.

For a potential university entrant, we need more people with the ability to benefit from university education (and other routes for talented, skilled people). If he/she can do that, the benefit will be theirs - and ours.

The proportion of 18 to 19- year-olds going to university is now over 40% of the age group. Superficially, this looks like progress.

However, the caveat must be added that the university courses must be appropriate and, no less importantly, that the students are given, and take, the opportunities to develop their talents to high standards.

There is a contentious debate about the intellectual content of some of the university courses and an equally fraught debate about the extent to which some students fail to benefit adequately from the discipline of self-motivated learning and from the wider opportunities of a university environment.

When a newspaper [Belfast Telegraph 23.8.07] quotes students on completing a university course as being awarded degrees that they assess as worthless in helping them to achieve their true potential, and with expectations 'ending in disillusionment', then something has gone wrong.

There may be several faults but, above all other explanations, these complaints reflect attitudes and understanding that say more about the former student than the world of opportunity.

Going through a university course should be, primarily, a test of self-discipline and motivation. A lesser element comes from the formal syllabus.

A university degree is often a minimum qualification.

Often it is a poor guide to the ability to communicate (oral or written), no guide to motivation and offers little guidance on competence to lead and/or manage.

A student who complains of a 'worthless degree' is making a critical statement about themselves that is more telling than the relevance of the degree.

Sensible planning should divert some students from a number of poorly structured degree courses that do exist but both parties (student and faculty) have a responsibility.

Some university courses are directly vocational (eg doctors, engineers). Others are more generic (eg law, teaching). The distinction can be overstated. Many a technically good engineer would be a poor employee if other generic skills are absent.

A decision to go to university simply because A-Levels were good enough can be a mistake (even if the costs can be met). The test lies not only in gaining a place but, just as important, whether the necessary self-disciplined academic lifestyle is more attractive than other options.

For Northern Ireland as a whole, there are education, learning and training policy questions that need to be debated, resolved and followed by decisive implementation.

There is little convincing evidence that more university places are needed; some reallocation might be sensible. There is an inadequate understanding of the vocational choices that are available or should be developed in the further education colleges.

A coherent, comprehensive and integrated third (and fourth) level education and skills strategy needs to be initiated and delivered.

Belfast Telegraph

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