2007 GLOBALISATION - The Education Challenge
Professor Gerry McKenna
As economies become increasingly knowledge-based, relying on intellectual power, creativity and entrepreneurship, governments throughout the world including the developing world, particularly China and India, have recognised the crucial importance of promoting education at all levels in ensuring and maintaining competitiveness in a global marketplace, driven largely by Darwinian principles. Without wealth creation the other paramount values of a civilised society, including social cohesion and cultural development, cannot be sustained. Northern Ireland is not exempt from the impact of globalisation.
Northern Ireland has a strong primary school sector. This has been enhanced in recent years by improvements in teacher:pupil ratios, the introduction of nursery education, classroom assistants and the moves towards supporting schools of critical mass to ensure, not only single class teaching, but also specialist support to enhance the overall school curriculum and extra-curricular activities. Increased cooperation between maintained and voluntary primary schools and support for integrated education are to be applauded. After a variety of changes to the overall primary school curriculum, some more successful than others, a general consensus appears to have been achieved within the sector. Unfortunately primary school education is the only phase of the education process which is relatively free from controversy. There are considerable tensions within each of the other sectors.
Much debate and disagreement exists regarding the best way forward for post-primary education. A lot of this has focussed on the merits or otherwise of academic selection at the age of 11. Less attention has been paid to enhancing the quality of all our post-primary schools. It is widely recognised that our top grammar schools are among the best performing schools in the United Kingdom. They generally provide an excellent school education for pupils with a strong academic aptitude and prepare them well for university and a certain range of non graduate-entry professions requiring strong analytical, written and other communication skills. In academic terms the grammar school system in Northern Ireland is a success and, while there are obvious obligations and challenges to be faced in ensuring greater interschool cooperation, sharing of facilities, and, most importantly, merit-based widening access, it ought not to be weakened or diluted by policies based more on political ideology than educational outcomes.
The non grammar or ‘secondary’ school sector is more problematic in that it has to cater for a much greater range of abilities than the grammar schools and, except for exceptional cases, does not have the luxury of selecting pupils. The widespread view, however ill-informed, that secondary schools are host to pupils who could not gain entry to the grammar schools must be vigorously tackled if the pupils are not to feel somehow inferior at an early age. This can and has led in many cases, to a lack of motivation and significant discipline problems. The overall objective of any educational system must be to maximise the potential of all its participants. This is not only a moral imperative but a pragmatic requirement if any society is to optimise its economic, social and cultural values and performance. It is axiomatic that there should be equal opportunities for all including substantial additional support for the financially and socially disadvantaged in order to help level the playing field.
It should also be accepted that aptitudes and natural skills and talents are not equally distributed in any population including those related to potential prowess in fields requiring intellectual, sporting, professional, technical or craftsmanship abilities. Whilst there is a tiny minority in any society who appear to be multi-talented, the great majority are naturally more suited to one field of endeavour than to others. Our education system must recognise this and our overall economic efficiency and performance depends upon it. In the clamour, particularly since the early 90’s to enable more young people to attain higher education qualifications, there would appear to have been less attention devoted to the importance of vocational education and training. This trend was established much earlier with the former technical, now further education, colleges tending in some cases to shift their emphases in the direction of academic attainment at the expense of their hitherto invaluable role in supporting the development of practical and technical skills required in a variety of trades and other vocational occupations.
Ideally secondary schools should not simply act as feeders for further education colleges but should have, as part of their mission, an increased emphasis on vocational education and training including arts, crafts and tradesmanship from year one. Some of the required facilities and training could be accessed through cooperation with neighbouring further education colleges. This does not mean that secondary schools should neglect the academic development of pupils but that secondary education should represent a different but equally valued learning experience relative to the grammar schools. Vocational qualifications should also be valued equally to more academically orientated qualifications as part of the entry requirements to universities.
The trend in recent years towards an increase in academically-oriented programmes in further education is now being progressively reversed. This includes the introduction of Foundation Degree programmes geared towards regional and, indeed, local needs. Such programmes, validated by the universities involve significant elements of work-based learning and are planned in consultation with employers. They are pitched at broadly the same level as the traditional Higher National Certificate and Diploma programmes but with a stronger emphasis on practical competences. It is too early to evaluate the success of such programmes but it is to be hoped that they will produce individuals ready to play an immediate and critical role in meeting the technical, vocational and other practical needs, at just below university degree level, of the business and professional sectors while simultaneously providing the basis for fulfilling careers.
The recent move towards reducing the overall number of further education colleges through amalgamation into six major multi-campus institutions should facilitate the sector in its attempts to enhance its vocational and practical education and training mission. It is important to note that even high technology companies, dependent heavily upon holders of graduate and postgraduate qualifications, also require a supply of individuals with modern technical skills which the further education sector should provide. To ensure this will require a clear and unambiguous restatement of the mission of further education.
The pivotal role of universities in supporting competitiveness in the face of globalisation cannot be overstated. Northern Ireland is fortunate in having two large and successful universities which have maintained high academic standards. This has been achieved against a backdrop of civil disturbance which has undoubtedly had a negative effect in terms of recruitment of world class academics from elsewhere and attracting overseas students. Fortunately this situation has begun to improve markedly in recent years. The two universities have a huge responsibility in maintaining a broad spectrum of academic subjects covering the arts, sciences, and social sciences as well as meeting regional needs for a supply of high calibre graduates in vocational areas such as health and social care, agri-food, law, accountancy, education and engineering.
The real challenge is for each university to play to its strengths and attain and sustain excellence in its core activities of teaching, research and knowledge transfer. In today’s global knowledge-based environment there is no place for mediocrity. This is particularly true in Northern Ireland which has a mountain to climb if it is to be genuinely competitive and a significant player in the wealth creating high technologies. It is equally true in terms of driving forward knowledge-based social development and in promoting Northern Ireland as a base for innovation and creativity in the arts. Irrespective of the discomfort and irritation felt by some towards national quality assessment of research and teaching, it is here to stay, not least because governments worldwide recognise the importance of maintaining world class universities. This is based on the premise that university excellence is necessary to help drive forward each country’s performance in the knowledge-based world of the 21st Century and the need to have a respected evidence base on which to allocate the necessary funding to build and maintain excellence. Not surprisingly there is a concurrent expectation that such publicly funded investment will lead, wherever possible, to quality research outcomes being translated through knowledge transfer into quantifiable economic, social and cultural benefits.
High level knowledge transfer rarely occurs by accident. It is the result of universities having in place the necessary infrastructure and support mechanisms to proactively facilitate and encourage such activities. Examples from the US and elsewhere indicate that this is likely to florish only if there is close partnership and shared vision between universities, government and the private sector. The UK had for many years lagged behind the US in strongly promoting the above ‘three legged stool’ approach to knowledge transfer. This has changed in recent years with most UK regions, showing major increases in numbers of: high technology patents filed, license deals between universities and major companies, particularly in the biotechnology and information technology sectors, and new company ‘start-ups’ emerging from university innovation centres and science parks. Virtually all UK universities are now investing heavily, with government support, in knowledge transfer infrastructure, recognising that the financial returns are likely to take a number of years to come to fruition. The existence of strong regional commitment to research excellence and knowledge transfer is recognised to be a key factor in attracting high technology inward investment.
We, in Northern Ireland, should recognise that not only do we have to embrace tried and proven practices elsewhere in terms of education, research, knowledge transfer and close and focussed collaboration between universities, government and the private sector, but we should also be conscious of similar approaches being undertaken successfully in the developing world. A recent survey by The Times Higher Education Supplement of over 3500 leading academics worldwide asking them to rank the world’s leading universities showed that 6 of the top 100 in science and 8 of the top 100 in technology are Chinese or Indian. Northern Ireland does not feature in either list. The developments in India and China highlight the necessity for Northern Ireland to optimise its performance in education, training and high technology development. They also provide opportunities for us to share in the potential economic and other benefits of cooperation with these countries.
Northern Ireland’s greatest resource is the quality of its population, particularly the young. Future economic performance, and ultimately quality of life and social cohesion and stability, can only be achieved if we seek to ensure that all are encouraged and supported towards achieving their full potential and leading productive and fulfilling lives in fields and at levels appropriate to their intellectual aptitudes, skills and other talents. This requires the maintenance of a first class education and training system with seamless and synergistic interactions between each of its sectors. The artificial division of responsibilities for education between two government departments is not helpful in this regard. There are other challenges to be faced but education must represent a very high priority for any future devolved local administration.
Original version of article published in The Irish News, January 2007