University isn’t a finishing school, you know

There has been some discussion lately about Jackie Lavin’s contribution to Prime Time on Tuesday 3 June when the subject under discussion was third level education. Amongst her assertions were that some graduates didn’t have a clue and you could cut a year at least off most university degrees.

I have trouble with those two assertions for various reasons. But I have a much bigger problem with all this and that is, other than seeing her complaints about how her banks have treated her, I really have no idea why Jackie Lavin has the media profile she has in terms of business. I mean, I’m aware there was a hotel in Kerry that may not have been completely successful as it were, but otherwise, apart from being Bill Cullen’s partner, I’m not actually sure what her achievements are, and certainly, cannot see what qualifies her to come on national television and claim that some of the graduates she worked with on The Apprentice didn’t have a clue.

Of course they don’t. Common sense is something you get from experience, from trying and failing. Lavin’s comments on this subject are not common sense, in that respect. They are detached from reality. Not only that, the cohort of graduates which might apply to go on The Apprentice cannot be held to be representative of graduates as a whole. It is a self selecting cohort, and if I had a business idea, I cannot say that I’d necessarily consider The Apprentice the best place to be pitching it. In fact, bearing in mind that television is in the business of entertainment and not in the business of business support (except if you are paying for advertising) arguably, there’s a good reason for staying away from the whole exercise altogether. It probably is even, dare I say it, common sense to focus on the needs of your business which may not, almost certainly won’t, align with the needs of an entertainment medium.

With respect to the idea of chopping the length of undergraduate degrees, again, I’m not sure that you can a) generalise and b) comment if you’re not sure what the purpose of an undergraduate degree is. Brian Lucey has provided some commentary here and it is more detailed than I can provide at this point in time. I recommend reading it. That being said, the breadth of options on the undergraduate degree supply side is such that it would be highly unwise to suggest a generalised change to all of them.

There are other issues of course – Paddy Cosgrave already made rather unpopular comments about the standards of degrees between different awarding institutions, and then there is the ongoing suggestion that universities should act as supplier belts to the employers. In truth, it’s not that simple and never has been. It seems to me that what employers value has changed over time; 20-25 years ago there was less of a specialised focus on particular skillsets such as programming a specific language, and more of a focus on understanding how things worked in general.

There are massive, massive cost issues on the academic and government side to tailoring university courses exactly to what any particular employer wants. A key example of this has floated straight to the top in programming languages; Apple have announced a new one, Swift, which, over time, is near guaranteed to replace Objective-C. So the question is, do you want someone who is an Objective-C expert, or someone who can take the handbook for Swift and hit the ground running? The truth is, you’re more likely to get the latter if you haven’t rammed all your efforts into training Objective-C programmers because that’s what the iOS application market was demanding.

Good employers understand this. Good employers understand that there are generalised skill sets they need, and specialised skill sets they may have to arrange for new hires to get themselves. This is true of most employers and this is why continuing professional development matters. It is a recognition that learning is an ongoing activity and you don’t pop out of university aged 22, finished. University is less a finishing school for employment and more a starting school.

There is a wider debate to be had on identifying what we need to focus our educational efforts on but, as anyone who has ever actually discussed this with me in the real world will know, this is not something that we can discuss in terms of any part of the education system in isolation. When we have issues with language learning and mathematics at leaving certificate level, the problems did not start when those students reached the age of 16, but probably when they were 7 or 8.

So I am in favour of a general reframing of our discussion of education in a coherent manner covering the whole, rather than some little details. When you have someone who is famous for – I’m not exactly sure what – in the business world popping up suggesting that we should shorten undergraduate degrees, I don’t think we get that discussion.

When RTE run these discussions, I would like them to consider their speakers a little more carefully. I am not sure what sector Jackie Lavin was supposed to be representing but if she was representing the employers side, then I don’t think she was the best choice. I would like it if, for example, RTE took a serious look at our middle industry and got senior people in from the likes of Kerry Foods, any of our home grown agri-industrials, any of our home grown pharmaceuticals. They tend to need a broader skillset, in certain cases they tend to need to get people to come to less popular locations with the indirect costs that can bring, but above all, they are dealing with different challenges, different realities.

And they are the sector we need to hear much much more from. I would love to see what, for example, Colm Lyons of Realex or Eoghan McCabe of Intercom, or Edmond Harty of DairyMaster or someone from Perrigo might have had to say about the constraints they work under given the current focuses in the third level education sector. I think it might be a lot more nuanced.