Education: the key to opportunity but…

As we are currently re-thinking our education system, it is instructive to look around and learn lessons from the experience of other countries which have similar systems, the most obvious one being the UK on which our public model has been based since its very beginning. Across Europe and North America, in the US in particular, the issue of ‘jobless graduates’ has become of major concern. It is a fact that the median income of graduates is higher than those with only high school education, and all is well when… all is well, that is, when times are good. But when times are bad, like during a recession and when there are financial crises, things turn pretty rough for thousands of bright degree-holders who do not find jobs in their fields of study, or who have to settle for much lower pay than what they would normally expect.

At one time, in the UK, some years after New Maths had been introduced in the school curriculum, an industry survey showed that primary school-leavers were very poor in numerical literacy. They could not do simple arithmetic calculations (addition/subtraction, multiplication/division amongst others) without a calculator. It must be even worse now! The traditional three R’s: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic were thrown out in favour of supposedly better methods, and besides numerical literacy the student also had poor spelling skills. Probably we have fared not too badly here, but of late it does seem that we are going off course, despite some good developments taking place.

We are conflating tertiary education with university education, and this is a major confusion that is likely to have a significant negative impact on those who come out of the system, with a spillover socially. In a free democratic country, it is legitimate to have aspirations, and no one can deny the young citizens their right to dream of a better future through the opportunity that higher education provides. But that is where the public authorities and responsible social thinkers come in, to guide these aspirants and give them the right orientation as regards career and the right message for their future lives. And the right message is that higher education can take many forms, among which one is a passage at university.

In other words, ‘we don’t all need to go to university’ to be successful in life, as a columnist has indicated in an article on the subject in The Independent, UK. In fact, some extracts from that article echo perfectly our local situation, and they are well worth our attention and consideration at a time when we are witnessing a proliferation of universities. Dubious degrees are being awarded. It is bad enough to be a graduate without a job; but worse than that is being a graduate with a degree that is not recognized: parents who have spent their hard-earned money, especially those who have taken hefty loans to fund their wards, feel cheated, and the desperate and frustrated ‘graduates’ do not know which door to knock at to obtain justice let along hope for a decent job.

Here are the extracts:

‘Some people are born to study, others are not. To compel those who are not to attend a university was unfair.

Once, there would have been apprenticeships available… with possibly some formal vocational classes at a nearby technical college. Pupils could earn money as trainees while they learned the ropes and qualified. Now they were being steered to a university, which might be alien to them and they may not be able to afford.

As apprentice and trainee schemes had disappeared, universities jumped in to take their place.

A huge hole was created in our careers training, one that saw thousands that would otherwise have learned practical crafts destined for the dole.

Finally, thank goodness, someone with the ear of the Government has decided to do something about it. Lord Baker, the former Conservative Education Secretary, is proposing the creation of “career colleges” aimed at 14- to 19-year-olds, to provide vocational training in all manner of subjects from web design to construction and healthcare.

It builds upon Baker’s successful University Technical Colleges or UTCs, which focus on the so-called Stem subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

But the Baker scheme… is only part of the solution. We need to change mindsets, to convince parents, their children and schools, that university is not the only answer.

Somehow we’ve become obsessed with the notion that university is everything. We’ve got too many universities offering too many courses to too many students. That has to change.

…a halfway is preferable, in which if someone wants to get on in work without becoming a graduate, society does not think less of them for doing so.

… too much snobbishness is attached to the securing of a Bachelor or Masters in this or that. At the UTCs, the syllabus mix is 40 per cent vocation, 60 per cent academic.

At last, we’re moving in the right direction. It’s just a pity it’s taken so long and so many incomplete or valueless degrees, and so much wasted money, in order to get there.’ (italics added)

We need to change both mindsets and direction too. And not forget to include education in civics and universal human values which help character formation, which is the other fundamental objective of any education.

* Published in print edition on 18 October 2013

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