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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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Human capital and competences

The 'human capital' concept as a policy approach is arguably the most distinctive feature of the economic system of the mid-twentieth century (Little 2000, pp286-7). In a NZ context,Fitzsimmons and Peters (1994) express the view that human capital theory is the most influential economic theory of education as a twin pillar with industrial training strategy. 'Human capital' is central to the OECD's view of economic development as is illustrated in the following extract from one of its publications:

    Knowledge, skills and competencies constitute a vital asset in supporting economic growth and reducing social inequality This asset often referred to as human capital, [is] one key factor in combating high and persistent unemployment and the problems of low pay and poverty. As we move into 'knowledge-based' economies the importance of human capital becomes even more significant than ever. (OECD 1999, p3)
In a consideration of the human capital theory of education, which they see as having its origin in slavery, Wilson and Woock (1995, pp8-11) discuss the theory of economic rationalism that views education as a branch of social policy. In an Australian context, Taylor and Henry (1994, p105), refer to the creation of "an effective skilled and adaptive workforce as necessary for economic growth and recovery [but] this explicitly 'human capital' approach to education has been joined by ongoing assertions of the necessity to address the educational needs of specified disadvantaged groups". It is contended by Lynch (1992, p14) that Irish education has also been guided for the past twenty-five years by the principles of human capital theory informed by technological functionalism, and argues that human capital assumptions are now part of the rhetoric of governments and the OECD. Educational institutions receive varied signals from the DES and employers, some of which are diffuse and ambiguous. On the one hand, they argue for education to be geared more toward employable skills and competences that will be of immediate value to employers while, on the other, they argue for a broad education that facilitates problem solving ability (de Weert 1996, p30). Workers are required to learn employer-specific systems and skills rather than generic capabilities. The argument against this is the desirability for ability in the principles of problem solving and decision-making, broad intellectualism and associated theoretical capability. It is contended by Richardson (1993, p240) that employer interest groups and politicians have constructed a climate where there is a national concern about the need for education/training to respond to workplace skills requirements. McLean (1995, p2) refers to this as the politicians' "parable of imminent doom"; they can construct a 'truth' or 'spin' about their policies.

National influences

Because of Irish government changes and a lack of political continuity in the DES from the early 1980s, policy development was rather dormant. Within the DES there was a sense that the legislation was not current enough. In the period from 1980 to 1993, there were ten different Ministers for Education; some were in office for very short periods and are unlikely to have made an impact on policy development. In the early 1980s some antipathy towards liberal arts degrees had surfaced on the basis that in a period of economic decline there was a need for more emphasis on science and technology disciplines (White 2001, p188-92). In the meantime, the economic effects of Reagan-Thatcherite policies had impacted on Ireland. The unemployment figure in 1987 stood at some 260,000, a peak of almost 17% of the labour force. It stood at 15.6% in 1991, and by 1999, it had fallen to 7.4% (Nolan et al, 2000). The 1992 report from theIndustrial Policy Review Group (IPRG) was a watershed in the context that it influenced proposals in an education Green Paper later that year, with its utilitarian emphasis in education and in reinforcing the binary structure of HE. The IPRG was critical of the education system and considered that the perceived skills' deficiency should be addressed both by industry and the education system. The report claimed that the most successful education and training systems are those where companies are involved in the development of programmes and where the curricula include on-the-job training. The IPRG report recommended the setting up of an agency to establish industry/HE linkages as a means of ensuring that industry needs were met (pp52-7).

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