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Dealing with the skills mismatch

The race to improve educational standards is ongoing in most EU countries. Ireland is keen to improve its competitiveness by investing in more technology in schools. In the UK there is growing awareness of the need to go back to basics by raising standards of achievement and by giving more importance to vocational education.

In Malta we are still debating whether we should have coeducational schools decades after this practice has become fully acceptable in most countries. We are also painfully confused as to whether we should stream students or find some half-way system that does not offend professorial academics that treat mixed-ability teaching as an educational gold standard, almost equivalent to a dogma of faith.

No wonder parents – and teachers who work at the coal face of education –are frustrated and confused. For decades we have promoted a university education as the ultimate objective of any family that had high ambitions for their children. Successive political administrations boasted about their success managing our educational system by quoting the number of students in our university and gloating about the thousands of young people who graduate each year.

Few stakeholders of our educational system ask the troubling question as to whether certain university degrees are in fact opening the doors of decent employment to the majority of our graduates. To challenge how successful our educational system really is we often have to follow the debate going on in other countries like the UK, whose educational system is in many ways similar to ours.

The Edge Foundation of the UK is an independent education foundation, dedicated to raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning. Its president is Lord Baker, a former Conservative education secretary. Commenting on a recent report issued by the foundation, Lord Baker said: “The UK government is letting down a generation of children by failing to equip them with the skills needed to secure a good job.” He added that “every level of the education system was dysfunctional and struggled to meet the needs of modern business”.

Do not expect such comments to be expressed so openly in Malta where teachers and employers probably share the concerns of Lord Baker but dare not speak openly about this malady that threatens our future economic prosperity.

Teachers and employers probably share the concerns of Lord Baker but dare not speak openly about this malady that threatens our future economic prosperity

The Edge Foundation report entitled The Skills Mismatch brought up some worrying facts. For instance, in the UK 29 per cent of fine art students and 27 per cent of those studying media studies are in retail, catering, or bar work six months after leaving university. Lord Baker criticises the rapid expansion of universities over the past 20 years, saying too many teenagers had been pushed into taking degrees in arts, humanities, media studies and social sciences – leaving them struggling to find a job when they graduate.

These comments should be an eye opener for both parents and students who are mature enough to plan their careers from an early stage in life. There was a time when any degree was evidence of academic achievement of a high level that almost guaranteed you a well paid job in any organisation. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.

A cultural change is needed so that we can start to appreciate the importance of high quality technical education. The Edge report makes a very poignant remark: “People believe any degree is a passport to success, while technical and vocational education is for the other 50 per cent. It is high time we turned this on its head. A degree no longer guarantees success, while skills shortages mean there are great prospects for people with technical and vocational skills.”

It would be equally wrong to believe that any vocational course offered locally is of high value. Some vocational courses are still too academic with little or no practical content. Low quality vocational qualifications should be stripped out and new gold-standard courses introduced – courses that ideally should include periods of apprenticeships with local businesses willing to do their part in improving the employability of our students.

One beneficial change from current practices in the vocational education sector could be the requirement for vocational educators to spend time actually working in industry to bridge the gap bet­ween the academic world and the world of business. Similarly, more business people should be involved in sharing their experiences with students as well as educators by giving regular input in the learning process in vocational colleges.

johncasarwhite@yahoo.com

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