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FORTHCOMING EVENT: Optimising the structure and governance of the Irish post-secondary education and training system to meet skills needs


Optimising the structure and governance of the Irish post-secondary education and training system to meet skills needs

Wednesday, 20 February 2019, 8.30-11.30am (Coffee from 8.00am)
Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin


TIM FOWLER, CEO of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission. The TEC has responsibility for both further and higher education, and so his experiences and insights around a combined “system” of post-secondary education/training, as well as his experience of a single agency with funding, accountability and governance roles, will be interesting to an Irish audience.  

DIRK VAN DAMME, Head of Division in the Directorate for Education and Skills at the OECD. Dirk is responsible for the Skills Beyond School (SBS) division, covering work on skills, adult learning, vocational education and higher education, and the Inclusive Growth Initiative.

NIALL O’DONNELLAN, Head of ICT and International Services, Enterprise Ireland.

MARY-LIZ TRANT, Executive Director Skills Development, SOLAS.


The world is changing rapidly as what some call the fourth industrial revolution gathers pace, driven by forces such as demographic change and technological advancement, and all the while anxiety rises concerning climate change and its impact on the world and its population.  

Universities and other higher education institutions are crucial to addressing the grand challenges posed by such developments and higher education is now front and centre in national development and is key to national and international innovation systems. Combined, further education, apprenticeships and higher education are central to the development of Ireland’s human capital, driving economic and social success, as well as the personal fulfilment of individuals. Today this system of education and training is challenged by the demands of mass higher education, by international mobility of academics and students, by the demands of, and for, lifelong learning and virtual, distance education, by the need to balance the various elements of the post-secondary  education system and by the demand from governments and students for better alignment between education and training and the skills needs of the economy.  

A paper presented by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the 2nd Meeting of the G20 Employment Working Group (15-17 February 2017), identified that three ongoing mega-trends have the potential of significantly altering the nature of work in all G20 countries: globalisation, technological progress and demographic change. Together, these trends are likely to bring many positive effects for workers and societies but, in the absence of adequate systems of education and training, the trends could also make it harder to provide employment opportunities for the large number of people entering the labor market, or requiring reskilling to find good jobs. 

The implications of automation and technological progress are especially challenging for the world of work with enormous disruptive potential, causing serious challenges for employers, workers, government and societies around the world in the short and medium term while, at the same time, the associated labour productivity increases can be an engine for massive economic growth and new job creation. But workers need to be equipped with the right skills which necessitates more, and timelier, investments into the skills that complement new automation technology.

Futurist Thomas Frey’s ’20 Common Jobs in 2040’ argues that the advance of Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation, and robotics will have a profound effect on jobs, not necessarily in eliminating them, but rather in redefining them. He further argues that future jobs will have professions that bridge technology, but it will be the technology that is the primary job generator, not the profession.  Frey advises that we should “keep in mind we’re automating tasks out of existence, not entire jobs. As our tasks disappear, new tasks will get created, and jobs, work, and entire industries will be redefined”[1].  

These developments are clearly evident in Ireland with a significant shift in the relative share of middle skill jobs of total employment in the period 1995-2015 with, on the one hand, a decline of 15% in the volume of middle level jobs while on the other, a 15% rise in the volume of high skill jobs. There has been a slight increase (0.7%) in the level of low skill jobs[2]over the same period.  At the same time there are between 170,000 to 200,000+ low skilled workers in the Republic of Ireland or around 10% of the workforce[3]

The following are just some of the questions thrown up by these issues – questions which we hope will prompt discussion at the seminar –

·      How do we balance skills for now with more-broad based, generic skills?

·      In higher education, has the pendulum swung too far from “education for education’s sake” to “education for a job”?

·      Acting on the premise that the post-secondary education and training system has insufficient pathways through the system and is currently not optimally configured to meet economic, social and personal needs, what models of organisation internationally might Ireland consider?  In particular should Ireland implement the New Zealand model of a combined system of further education and training and higher education under a single agency?

·      Is our post-secondary education and training system overly focussed on higher education, and universities in particular, and if so, how do we “wean” people off their biases? A supplementary question here is whether and how we should broaden entry routes to FET and HE still further?

·      How can Ireland engage employers to best advantage in addressing skills needs?


[2]OECD (2017) ‘Employment Outlook’. Definition of high-skill jobs as involving “complex cognitive tasks” that are not frequently repeated.  Middle Skills consist of “repetitive cognitive task” e.g. clerical.

[3]NERI (2017), ‘A time-series analysis of precarious work in the elementary professions in Ireland’.

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