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Reflections on Ireland's education/training policy making-process leading to the National Framework of Qualifications: national and international influences

Author - Thomas Duff



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    This paper reflects on the various influences, especially from the 1980s, that shaped Ireland's policy direction leading to the National Framework of Qualifications which was launched in 2003. The paper also provides a broad overview on Ireland's economic development especially from the 1960s, citing the influence of higher education and training structures in this regard. Among the matters explored in the paper are: the policy-making process; the national, EU and international influences that shaped the policy direction: 'policy-borrowing' and policy networks; linkages between the political process, employer needs and education/training structures; and the Bologna process. The range of influences is highlighted in the flurry of policy initiatives during the 1990s.


From the mid-1980s, Ireland had evolved an extensive tertiary sector the term most preferred by the OECD for post-school education and training; there was a plethora of awards and awarding bodies. Within this broad scope of tertiary provision, both the EU and the OECD considered that most countries would benefit from a greater coherence within a framework that brings together discrete awards and structures. This would improve the linkages, co-ordination and international recognition of awards to facilitate the mobility of labour. But no country was working from a green field situation: there was an inherited infrastructure where the universities have a tradition of autonomy. International competition and the education and training approaches in other countries also influenced the policy direction in Ireland aimed at improving economic performance. Because of its size and location on the periphery of Europe, Ireland's social and economic policies are inevitably linked to trends in other countries, which now see education and training as the key to competitiveness, economic success and prosperity (NESC 1993a). The influence of other countries such as Australia, New Zealand (NZ) and the United Kingdom (UK) were significant in shaping Irish policy, even though certain statistics from the time illustrate the scale of differences: their populations 18m, 3.3m, and 50m; their HE provision 36 universities; 7 universities, 25 polytechnics and 3 wananga; and, some 140 universities and colleges respectively, compared with Ireland's 3.5m population and 7 universities and 14 Institutes of Technology (ITs).

Industrial expansion and educational change from the 1950s

The publication in 1958 of the Programme for Economic Expansion was a key influence in Ireland's development (Chubb 1992, p23). The shift from protectionist to more open policies based on industrial development and trade was a major change in political thinking. Although Ireland was not essentially a manufacturing economy, it went through a period of modernization from the 1950s marked by an increasing prominence of industry and urbanisation. At that time almost half of the Irish workforce was engaged in agriculture but by 1990 the figure was 15%. In the decade 1961-70, industrial production grew at an annual rate of 6.6%, matching the best of other industrialized countries and from 1971-80 the annual growth was 4.5%, almost twice the European Community (EC) average. In 1966, the population was half-urban and half-rural and by 1986, two-thirds of the population lived in towns (pp24-25). The government responded to the economic and social developments by establishing a HE Commission in 1960. In parallel with this, two OECD studies were conducted in conjunction with the DES Training of Technicians in Ireland (1964) and Investment in Education (1966). The findings resulted in major policy changes. During the late 1950s and 1960s, which saw Ireland on the threshold of considerable economic progress, there was recognition of the need for the provision of HE courses geared towards projected manpower requirements. The Training of Technicians in Ireland report found that:

    a serious obstacle to industrial expansion is the lack of personnel suitably educated and trained so that they can play their parts in the development, management and operation of different kinds of industry. (OECD 1964, p13)

In addressing these needs and having regard to the emerging findings of the Investment in Education report, government proposals were announced in 1964 in relation to new colleges. While Dublin and some other urban areas were reasonably well catered for, the shortage of appropriately qualified personnel in the regions was inhibiting the predicted economic expansion. It was evident that there was a need for apprentice and technician courses in regions of the country previously unserviced by HE institutions. A Government Steering Committee report recommended the establishment of nine regional technical colleges (RTCs) located in regions already identified to spearhead the industrial expansion (DES 1967, 11). The report was a force in changing the paradigm governing Irish education policy replacing personal development with the human capital paradigm as the institutional rationale for education (O'Sullivan, 1992). The setting up of the RTCs, combined with the existing Dublin technical colleges, reinforced the two educational traditions of liberal education for the elite and middle class and vocational education for the less well off. International competition and technological development had led to skills shortages in newer industries and a more interventionist approach by government in education and training provision(Heraty and Morley 1998, p90). Henceforth, education in the technological sector the term used for these colleges was geared toward manpower requirements. The decade from 1980 was a period of considerable growth in HE in Ireland, in terms of increasing student enrolments and expansion of research and development. Since the 1960s, competitiveness, economic policy, manpower planning and prosperity were linked in many developed countries to education and training provision through state investment in new institutions over which control was exercised. Ozga (2000, pp9-24) outlines tensions in UK education and training policy-making, contrasting governments seeking to use it for instrumental purposes associated with productivity improvement, and educationalists arguing in favour of its role in contributing to societal and cultural development with the individual at the centre. Education was similarly being re-organised in Australia according to Kenway (1993, p15) to suit "the skill and knowledge required in a post-Fordist society of a kind typified by Japan", and that "underlying these models is the belief that education should perform a utilitarian function [to meet] the requirements of the economy [and] flexible skills in the workplace the instrumental 'human capital' rhetoric" (pp22-9).



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