Futures for post-school education to STEM or not to STEM

This is based on a presentation I made to the Future of Work conference, November 29th, in  Santry..

The problem

Ireland has a problem in education, which restricts our economy, and imposes heavy costs on us all. There is a large group of people who are disengaged from work, and who will need help, including educational help, to reconnect. Many of these are in two groups, unemployed young people with limited skills, and older people in long-term unemployment.

  • Ireland has had, for many years, a high proportion of our young people who are Neither in Education, Employment, nor Training – so-called NEET’s. Of our 15 to 29 year old’s 17% now fall into this group. There is considerable inequity, with much higher risks for those living in poor areas, and among those from poorer families. During of the recession the size of this group rose steeply, and thankfully it has now fallen, but it is still much higher than the EU average.


  • There are roughly 90,000 people aged 25 to 54, in long-term unemployment, 2 in every 3 of whom are men. The number of young people (20 to 24) affected has fallen steadily, due both to emigration, and to job creation, but there are stubbornly high rates of long-term unemployment in those older than 25.

This costs all of us. There are the obvious costs, easy to calculate, such as loss of income, and economic output, and social welfare costs. The less obvious costs are higher, with high risks of ill-health, poor mental health, and death, the loss of a sense of value, and heavy costs to the families of those affected, especially as unemployment drags on.

The response

One response to this is education. We have a complicated further education (FE), and higher education (HE) system. Much of it is full time courses for school leavers. These have a role, both as an opportunity for development, and in providing socialisation, foundation knowledge, and relevant skills, for their future careers.

There are also many more flexible courses, often part-time, designed for those who choose it, or who have commitments which make full-time study impossible. These courses are more flexible, and can adapt to the student, or to the local economy. Life-long learning is part of the system, although Irish data show that most of this is done by younger people, with third level qualifications.

Another response is helping people get back to work. There are many ‘labour market activation programs’. Some of these work, and some likely don’t, but there have been benefits. The education sector has also contributed, with an expansion of apprenticeships, and better access to many courses. Overall Ireland has a well educated workforce, and this is a key part of our international competitiveness.

Future skills

No-one knows what skills and education people will need in the future. To quote an employer interviewed for the National Skills Strategy ‘The skill of learning to learn; employers across the globe cannot predict the skills they will need for jobs that do not yet exist, but those who have proven to be adaptable, curious and know their own learning style have succeeded in rapidly changing industries’. There is much written about changes in employment, education, and training, often as if these were new, and unheard of, happenings.

The truth, of course, is that Ireland has had continual changes in work, lived with global competition, and often had high levels of political uncertainty, since at least 1800. One difference now, and a very welcome difference, is that whose who lose out, have votes. There were huge job losses, and minimal investment, in very specific parts of the US and the UK, over the last forty years. All of these areas have recently voted for Mr. Trump and Brexit, respectively. The Irish equivalent, both rural, and urban, seems to have led to a less dramatic political change. There is a political, an economic, and a moral mandate to address the needs of those who lose out.


A key part of the official and media rhetoric in response to these problems has been to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, as the solution. Almost all the examples, although not all the actions, given in the recent National Skills Strategy have to do with STEM. There is extensive media coverage of STEM deficiencies, and proposals for improving STEM teaching at every level of Irish education. Most of the new money expected in education in 2017 is related to STEM.

I acknowledge that the post-school education sector has changed, and is notably more flexible, more accessible, and more responsive than a decade ago. Looking at some of the key problems which remain, I don’t believe that a focus on STEM alone is enough. FE and HE are still designed for school leavers and full-time students. Students with limited academic skills are still not well catered for. Our system remains too restrictive.

I believe that we need to move further, to a more flexible student centred system, more closely tied to its local economy. I fear that we don’t produce graduates with the flexibility and imagination to cope with the ‘wicked problems’ that face us all. These are things like global warming, mass migration, cultural inclusiveness, or controlling corporations, which don’t possess a simple, manageable answer. They are the true grand challenges of our times. These aren’t STEM problems, but political, social, or philosophical problems.

STEM plus

Of course we still need STEM skills, but I argue for ‘STEM plus’. Everyone won’t do, nor wish to do a STEM subject. We need a balance of skills, training, and education, covering STEM topics, but also topics like critical thinking, philosophy, social science, languages, art and more. We must support flexibility and creativity, from pre-school to retirement and beyond.

How can this be done? There’s certainly no quick fix. I believe that if we put students at the centre our post-school education system; if we choose to provide opportunities for education by many routes, to support both better access, and different learning styles; if we provide accessible eduction to a very high standard; if we work more closely to serve, and develop local communities, and local businesses; if we decide to ‘think globally and act locally’; then I think Ireland could make very useful progress over the next five years.

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