CAO figures a challenge to education system

Friday 09 March 2012 17.55
Choices based on employability, not passion?
Choices based on employability, not passion?

Data released by the Central Applications Office (CAO) showing an increase in applications for science courses will come as sweet music to educators, politicians and businesses looking to plug Ireland's technology skills gap.

According to the CAO, applications for science courses are up 18%, a landmark for subjects that form the core of Government's strategy of promoting STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) at second level through programmes like Project Maths.

It's not all about the sciences, though. The usual suspects of veterinary medicine, law, nursing and medicine also went up by 15%, 1%, 3% and 4% respectively.

Subjects with a more ephemeral bent like arts, social science and art and design fell by 3%, 1% and 10% respectively. Not a good time for would-be philosophers, social workers and artists. That business slipped 1% may be down to a post-Anglo, anti-corporate zeitgeist.

Unsurprisingly, construction, civil engineering and architecture are continuing their downward spiral. Only 148 students selected courses linked to construction and the built environment as their first choice, down 68% over the past three years. Architecture alone fell 19% in the past year.

These figures, of course, won't reflect actual uptake. The influx of students from the UK fleeing prohibitive university fees will have an impact, but that's an article for another day.

Organisations like the Irish Computer Society - organisers of the Scratch, ChooseIT and F1 in Schools programmes for secondary schools - welcomed the news with appropriate zeal. CEO Jim Friars said: “The IT profession has proven to be one of the most resilient in terms of employment. We have seen numerous job announcements in this sector over the past number of years.”

Academic funding body Science Foundation Ireland's director of policy and communications Dr Graham Love added: “Attitudes are changing in line with the enhancement of our scientific infrastructure, our talent pool and the increase in opportunities that now exist... This is the path to recovery and a sustainable future.”

From an industry perspective, ICT Ireland and Irish Software Association director Paul Sweetman said: “It's great to see that the job and career opportunities in the high tech sector are being recognised by students. Despite the high unemployment rate, there remains enormous demand for quality science, engineering and computer graduates. Companies in the sector are expanding and recruiting.”

So everybody's happy. But just one more thing...

Plugging the technical skills gap is not just a function of subject uptake at third level, or subject choice at second level. The methodologies used in teaching in the senior cycle, and the integration of problem solving skills, e-literacy and basic knowledge of business organisation, are also important factors.

Released last year, the Department of Education and Skills' Smart Schools = Smart Economy (http://www.education.ie/servlet/blobservlet/icu_smart_schools_smart_economy.pdf) report outlines the kind of skills student will need to ensure a smooth transition not just to third level but the world of work as well.

The concern this columnist has is that students are making a pragmatic choice in pursuing STEM courses based on employability not passion. Under the Smart Schools plan this concern can be allayed as pupils will have a greater exposure to critical thinking, how to treat IT as a tool rather than an obstacle and how to solve problems either on their own or in collaboration with others.

The economy needs more than the glorified entrance exam the Leaving Cert has become, yet austerity and budget cuts may rob it of exactly the kind of core skills students will need to compete globally.

Basing course choice on the promise of a job is not success, it's self-preservation. Let's not confuse that with a cultural shift.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie www.techcentral.ie