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The dynamics of human capital and the world of work

Towards a common market in contemporary tertiary education

Author - Aidan Kenny


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8 The Irish context

Since the late 1990s the Irish Government has been introducing a reform framework in both legislative (statutory acts) and policy initiatives focused on the field of tertiary education. The principal acts that this paper will focus on are the 1997 University Act, 1992 DIT Act, the 2006 Institutes of Technology Act and the 1999 Qualifications (Education and Training) Act. Policy initiatives that will be reviewed include the White Paper on Lifelong Learning (2000), the National Development Plans (2007–2013) and the Social Partnership National Agreement Towards 2016. Underpinning this emerging policy agenda is the premise that strategic investment in the education and training system will lead to returns in terms of both economic and social benefits to the state in the long term. The Government position is clearly stated in the National Development Plan.

Investment in education, training and upskilling, broadly termed as investment in human capital, has played a very important role in Ireland’s successful economic performance. It has provided a well skilled and flexible labour force and thereby helped make Ireland a major attraction for domestic and foreign enterprises.

(Irish Government 2007: 190)

The reform context adopts a modernisation approach, seeking to stimulate reform and in some cases restructuring of systems in an effort to enhance efficiency and effectiveness of access and provision in tertiary education and training. Ireland operates a binary higher education system (see Appendix 1), consisting of seven universities and the Dublin Institute of Technology,[7] five third level colleges and 13 Institutes of Technology.[8] All of these Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) receive public funding through either the Department of Education or Science (DoES) or the Higher Education Authority (HEA). There are also an increasing number of private providers and ‘others’[9] offering specific courses at higher education level, the Higher Education Training Awards Council (HETAC) lists 43 providers who have gained HETAC Accreditation for such courses. Since the 1980s the ‘massification’ of publicly funded IHE can be graphically depicted in terms of full time student enrolments (see Figure 1).

Over the last quarter of a century the number of full-time student enrolments in the publicly funded IHE sector has increased by nearly 100,000. This is more than a 200 per cent increase compared to the 1980 figure. In 2007 the enrolments for the university and five colleges of higher education were 87,033 full-time and 16,518 part-time (source HEA). These figures include both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The figure for full-time students (undergraduate and postgraduate for the Institutes of Technology sector (including DIT) for 2007 was 52,322 (source HEA[10][). The total enrolment for both sectors combined for 2007 is 155,873 (not including part-time figures for the IoT sector [see [6] and [11][). The OECD’s review, Higher Education in Ireland, makes the following statement in relation to the expansion of tertiary education.

Over 90% of the expansion has been generated from the 18 to 20 year old cohort and has been drawn primarily, as in most European countries, from the professional and managerial classes. Lifelong learning, widening participation and the encouragement of mature students to enter tertiary education have not been given such emphasis and must be reinforced in the future if Ireland is to capitalise on its success over the last decade.

(2006: 8)

The 2004 OECD Examiners Report makes 52 recommendations for tertiary education and training which focus on development and structure, management and governance, widening participation, international dimensions, research and innovation, and increased investment. Some of these recommendations have materialised, others are in progress or under review and some are not yet acted on.

The next part of this paper deals with some of these topics, contained in both Acts and policy. Summaries of the key relevant components of this policy context are provided below followed by an analysis which utilises the research approach presented previously.

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