Tuesday, July 2, 2013

2/7/2013: Sunday Times, June 30, 2013: Irish education system reforms

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times article from June 30, 2013.

Note: an interesting related article on human capital and values of innovation and creativity linked to education in humanities is here: http://qz.com/98892/the-humanities-are-not-in-crisis-in-fact-theyre-doing-great/ and on the need to link various fields of inquiry in education systems: http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2013/06/how-great-ideas-emerge/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+68131+%28Farnam+Street%29

Since times immemorial Irish political and business elites have been fascinated by technocratic ideals. From the 1990s on, the state bodies like Fas and Forfas have pushed forward the worldview in which Ireland required an ever-increasing investment in advanced specialist and technical education and training in ICT, chemical, software, and general engineering.

The ICT manufacturing is now largely the story of the past, as is the dot.com bubble. The pharma story is fizzling out on foot of expiring super-drugs patents, with last week’s patent expiration for Viagra being case in point. Biopharma is too small to replace lost exports revenues and shrinking FDI from pharma.

As the latest quarterly national accounts for Q1 2013 released this week illustrate, traditional specialist areas of exports are no longer sustaining growth in Ireland. Stripping out the contributions by the tax-optimising ICT services multinationals, our economy is in a structural decline. Seasonally-adjusted industry activity is down year on year, and goods exports have fallen 9.2%. Investment is down both year on year and quarter on quarter. All areas of activity that are linked to the real exports production in the country are down. This decline is driven by the fact that we are falling behind the innovation curve in creation of new enterprises, products, services and investment opportunities.

In line with Irish experience, this month Finnish authorities were forced to revise down their own forecasts for 2013-2014 economic growth from an average of 1.0% per annum to 0.4%. The downgrade was linked, in part, to Finland's struggle to maintain competitive edge in traditional manufacturing, which is falling behind on products and services design and innovation, despite, or may be even because Finland concentrated too much of its resources on technical ICT investments and skills.

Still, policies of fetishising technocracy roll on. From science advisory bodies and MNCs HQs, to the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, our decision makers are promoting an economy based on software codes, data analytics and cloud computing. No one seems to think that the resulting education and skills strategies alignment with the technical needs of these sectors can risk being reactive to the immediate global markets demands, instead of moving ahead of the curve.

Recent research and news flow from around the world shows that innovation is becoming more focused on increased customization, design and creativity of products and services. These require the exact opposites of the purely technocratic approach to education and training. This is a bigger and longer trend, and we are nowhere near capturing it in our education and training systems.

Ireland's policy leaders pay vast amounts of lip service to the Silicon Valley - world's largest cluster of technological innovation and investment. The development agencies, like IDA and Enterprise Ireland commonly cite it as an inspirational example in the context of Ireland’s need to promote education in maths, hard sciences and tech. Their logic is that concentrations of locally-based technological skills and research translate into Silicon Valley-styled success. Many in Ireland, contrary to the evidence from the US research, still link academic institutions clustering in the Northern California to the Silicon Valley formation and achievements.

This logic is over-simplifying the reality. Recent studies from Harvard and Duke University show that less than half of all CEOs and chief technology officers working in the Silicon Valley firms hold advanced degrees. Only 37 percent of all degrees held by the Silicon Valley executives are in the areas of engineering or ICT. Only two percent held a degree in mathematics. Vast majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees held by business leaders in the Silicon Valley are in the so-called ‘soft fields’ such as business, finance, and arts and humanities. Put simply, there are more liberal arts graduates steering Silicon Valley companies than physical sciences graduates.

What about the skills demands of the cutting edge innovation firms and start-ups? In 2011 Bill Gates and Steve Jobs publicly clashed in their views on the future needs for skills and education. In his speech to the US National Governors Association, Gates stated that education should focus limited resources on areas and disciplines that are positively correlated with jobs creation. This implies technical ICT skills. Days later, Steve Jobs identified Apple's success with "technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities".

Jobs was not alone in this recognition. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities says that liberal arts-linked skills and knowledge are critical to the long-term employability of the workforce. Schneider called Gates’ ideas on technically-focused demand-driven education as "much too narrow and unsettlingly dated”. “The question to ask is not: which [degrees] do the best in initial job placement, but rather, which institutions are sending their graduates forth with big picture knowledge, strong intellectual skills and the demonstrated ability to integrate and apply diverse kinds of learning to new settings and challenges,” she said. Per Jobs and Schneider, and many other analysts and business leaders, arts and tech deserve shared credit in driving world's most successful and most important innovative companies since the late 1990s.

The link between humanities, arts, design and value added in business and across economies is now widely regarded as the source for future growth. The global investment community is starting to treat design-focused technologies and innovation as a new Klondike.

This month, the Pictet Report, a quarterly publication aimed at professional and institutional investors produced by one of the largest and oldest private banks in the world, is devoted in its entirety to creativity-driven disruptive innovation. The main focus, of course, is on investment opportunities linked to such innovation.

Last week, Brimingham hosted a major design expo aimed at "showcasing authentic, regionally-based brands and upcoming graduate and entrepreneurial talent". Birmingham-Made-Me Expo is an extension of the UK-wide movement and policy nexus that attempts to re-position design-driven innovation and entrepreneurship at the heart of the future economy. The UK Government is pumping significant resources behind these efforts.

In the mean time, shortages of ICT professionals, while still evident in Ireland, are becoming less acute across the broader world. Reports from India show that the country is producing an oversupply of ICT engineers and technicians, with estimated 50,000 graduates facing a prospect of underemployment in the near future. The problem is acute enough for India's Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma, to plead with London this week to relax visa caps for Indian ICT workers seeking jobs in the UK.

Even in the fields of big data and cloud computing, technical skills are a dime-a-dozen, as I noted in a recent speech at a cloud computing conference hosted by DCU. What is truly lacking in these areas is the ability to creatively enrich data insights via user-centric visualization of data, and development of applications that drive deeper into customisation of business. Being able to capture, store and process data is a mass-produced commodity. High value-added future opportunities will be found in delivering communicable and actionable insights out of this data that can enable products and services innovation and individualisation.

The world of innovative and high value-added economies is moving in the direction of embracing more broadly-based creativity, intelligent design, consumer-focused disruptive innovation. In this light, Irish education system must be reformed to bring it into the future, not to chase the immediate skills shortages. While we do need to maintain strong efforts in areas of education linked to software programming, design and engineering, as well as maths and sciences, we also need to develop complex aesthetic, social and design-intensive capabilities. And the former is probably less important in the longer run than the latter, especially if we can succeed in aligning ‘softer’ skills with entrepreneurial and business capabilities on the ground.

At the pre-tertiary education level, we need to focus our education on developing basic literacy skills in arts, humanities, as well as in sciences and ICT. Early exposure to web-based applications, even some coding, is a good anchor for such literacy. Alongside, we need to revise our curricula for history, literature and arts. Religious education and mandatory Irish must be absorbed into electives. Time and teaching resources freed from these should be used to give students good anchoring in world history, philosophy, logic, and art.

It is time for investing in specialization-focused schools to reflect not geographic distribution of students, but students’ talents and interests. Specialist curriculum schools focusing, differentially, on arts and humanities, as well as those focusing on sciences and ICT should be prioritized for future development in larger urban areas. Every IT school and University in the country should be required to run significant Young Scholars Academies offering regular engagement opportunities for children with talent and aptitude. These Academies can act as formal facilitators for their entry into higher education.
We also need to remove our reliance on standardized examinations for progression of students through the entire system of education.

Third level education must support the objectives of making our workforce skills and knowledge base broader. We need restore a four-year degree system. Third level degrees curriculum must explicitly require, not just encourage, students’ exposure to studies beyond their immediate major. Students in technical fields must be exposed to basics of humanities and arts. Students in arts and humanities must be literate in ICT and sciences.

Fourth level education too should be used to further enhance the above processes. We need to develop cross-collaborative MSc and PhD degrees and provide for supplementary degree programmes (joint MSc and diploma packages) for students interested in working on the boundaries of diverse disciplines, such as, for example, creative arts and technology, quantitative analytics and marketing, behavioural economics, and product and servcies design. Industry experience and achievement should form the foundation of enlarged and better-structured adjunct faculty. Subject to peer review, industry research should count as an integral part of academic and adjunct faculty evaluations.

In life-long learning, we need flexible programmes allowing for research-focused studies that can stretch over a number of years. Linked directly to work-related projects and topics, these should lead to degrees being awarded in the end, subject, again, to mature students engaging with minimum of a broader curriculum outside their field of competency.


This week, CSO published the latest data on new planning permissions granted in Ireland, covering Q1 2013. The publication was greeted with a chorus of 'good news' reports, as data showed increases in the Number of Dwelling Units approved. Per official statistics, these rose 31% for houses, and 3.9% for apartments. All increases reported reference quarterly rises. There are several problems with the upbeat reports, however. Number of permissions for houses actually fell year-on-year by a significant 9.31% reaching the second lowest level in history of the data series. Number of permissions for apartments also fell, by 18.4% on Q1 2012. More ominously, aggregate activity in the construction sector, as measured by the new permissions granted, shrunk across the board. Total number of planning permissions granted in the state was down 1.35% quarter-on-quarter and down 2.76% year on year, hitting absolute lowest point for any quarter since Q1 1975. Across the board, it is pretty safe to say that the Q1 2013 data does not warrant much enthusiasm, despite the aggressive spin put on it by some media reports.

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