Reflections on Ireland's education/training policy making-process
leading to the National Framework of Qualifications:
national and international influences
Other influences informing the Irish policy direction
The EU (Maastricht) Treaty (1992) represented a process of European citizenship which began in 1985 with a European Commission White Paper that promised "the free movement of goods, services, people and capital" (EU, 1992). It brought the EC to a higher level of integration with the introduction of the Single Market from January 1993. The involvement of the Council of Ministers enabled the emerging Irish education and training intentions to be incorporated in the 1992 Green Paper (DES 1992, pp77-80). The objective of the Treaty was to promote economic and social progress through greater cohesion and the establishment of economic and monetary union. In Article 126 dealing with education, vocational training and youth, there is an emphasis on the development of quality education and encouraging mobility through the recognition of qualifications. Article 127 has the aim of facilitating adaptation to industrial changes, in particular through access to vocational training and retraining and stimulating co-operation between providers and employers.
The European Community (EC) was sensitive about intruding in education as it was zealously safeguarded by member states. However, since 1985 when the Treaty on European Union began to emerge, that changed considerably. The OECD, in addition to country reviews – again linking national and international influences – addressed a series of thematic studies focusing more on education than previously. Such studies formed a reference from which education ministers in OECD countries have drawn and ministers responded to commissioned position papers from the perspective of their own culture and tradition. The OECD acted as a policy reference for the DES since the 1960s and it was also consulted by Irish government officials during the 1990s. The OECD encouraged 'human capital' strategies for promoting economic prosperity, greater employment and social cohesion. However, OECD comparative data are generally statistical and fact-finding, and most of its comparative studies generate findings that are positivist in character through surveys and empirical and statistical data.
It was necessary for the DES to interpret the emerging Treaty articles for application locally and it is evident from the 1992 Green Paper's multiplicity of references to the OECD, EC and education and training practices in other countries that these provided a resource of different models to consider. International comparisons are often used by governments to legitimise radical changes in domestic policy, and Australia, NZ and the UK were important in this context. There was a flurry of education and training policy development in the countries under consideration and at EU and OECD levels from the late 1980s. Since then, governments in Australia, NZ and the UK identified a need to respond to global economic challenges and introduced a series of reforms to their education systems. The binary system of HE, which had existed in Australia since 1965, differentiated the 24 universities and the 47 colleges of advanced technology (CAEs) (Meek 1990, p283). However, in the late 1980s the government there decided, because of concerns about the relevance and effectiveness of the HE system, to abolish the binary system and establish a unified system that amalgamated universities and CAEs (Ministry of Education [Australia] 1989). For historic and geographic reasons, Irish education has close parallels with the UK. From the mid-1980s, though, conflicting policy signals were emerging from the latter. For example, the 1985 Green Paper, The Development of Higher Education in the 1990s, (DfE [UK], 1985) envisaged the continuation of the binary system, comprising polytechnics and universities, each with separate missions. However, within a few years this policy was reversed by the 1991 White Paper, Higher Education: A New Framework and the binary structure was abolished (DfE [UK], 1991).
In a coincidence of timing, the NZ government of the late 1980s undertook an 'across the portfolio' approach to the review of post compulsory education and training (Hawke, 1988). A working group which addressed the binary structure of education, defined the respective roles of the universities and the polytechnics, and recommended a national qualifications framework, led to new legislation within two years (Ministry of Education [NZ] 1990). Subsequent legislation reinforced NZ's binary system of HE and greater responsibility was placed on providers to facilitate flexible movement within a range of learning outcomes (OECD 1998, p131). A qualifications framework in which all qualifications have a relationship to each other was implemented in 1990. The education and training developments in Australia, NZ and the UK took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s at the same time as the policy was developing in Ireland and provided interesting overseas comparisons. The Irish policy-makers had several approaches to choose from in relation to binary or unitary structures of HE, for example. NZ seemed to relate well to Ireland's social and historical situation and ongoing networking encouraged this influence.