What course? The dilemma of education provider and learner alike

This article by Jasmina Behan is taken from the Further Education and Training section of Education Matters Yearbook 2015 -2016.
Click to download Education Matters Yearbook 2015-2016

Jasmina Behan, Senior Research Officer and Labour Market Economist at the SOLAS Skills and Labour Market Research Unit, and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs

Jasmina Behan, Senior Research Officer and Labour Market Economist at the SOLAS Skills and Labour Market Research Unit, and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs

The two key agents in the education process are learners and education/training providers. Both are making choices about courses: learners about what course to take and providers about what course to provide. To ensure that the choice of course is the right one, learners and providers need to be well informed. In fact, both sides need the same type of information to solve the dilemma of what course to choose.

Why does the right course choice matter?
When choosing a course, learners and providers are hoping to achieve certain objectives. The objectives can vary given that the benefits from engaging in education and training are manifold. They span professional (‘learning to do’), personal (‘learning to be’) and social (‘learning to live together’) domains. The contribution that learning makes to professional development is primarily measured by improvements in the labour market situation, although professional development also includes wider benefits such as team working, problem solving and entrepreneurial skills. Personal benefits can be defined in numerous ways and those most commonly used to measure the impact of education and training  include improved self-confidence, attitude to learning, self-motivation and communication skills. Social benefits are even harder to measure and include concepts such as increased social engagement, reduced anti-social behaviour, increased trust and intergenerational gains (e.g. positive impact on children).

From the societal point of view, funding education and training is essential for upholding civil society, supporting economic progress and increasing wealth. Both learners and education and training providers need courses which are designed to achieve these objectives. In choosing a course, they need to know if it is aligned to their objective and if there is evidence that the objective was reached by the learners who completed that course in the past.

Information requirements
For the majority of learners, engaging in education and training is a path that ultimately leads to employment and, through it, socio-economic advancement. Therefore, the most important information for making decisions around what courses to participate in (from the learner’s perspective) or run (from the provider’s perspective) can be broadly grouped into two categories:

Labour market information – given that for many participants in the education process, the ultimate goal is gaining employment, understanding developments in the labour market is essential in deciding what field and level of education and training to participate in. Being well informed means understanding the demand for labour (e.g. what occupations are associated with the most frequent vacancies), supply of labour (e.g. how many students are graduating in a specific field of study) and how they interact (e.g. what occupations are in short supply). It also concerns understanding components of the demand: are vacancies arising due to replacement (replacing those who vacate jobs due to retirement or other exits to economic inactivity), turnover (job changes due to change of employer or an occupation) or expansion (growth in activity of a certain sector of the economy). Having this information allows one to align investment in education and training with the needs of the labour market, resulting in better outcomes for learners and the economy.

Course outcome information – understanding what happens to learners on completion of a course is important in verifying that the course is aligned to the needs of the economy and that those who successfully complete the course have a good chance of finding employment in a related field. This information is important for providers (it provides evidence on how well the curriculum is aligned to the labour market needs) and learners (it signals what courses are more likely to lead to employment in a related field).

What information is there already?
In relation to the labour market intelligence, there is a significant amount of information available, most notably through the work of both the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs and the SOLAS Skills and Labour Market Research Unit (SLMRU). The EGFSN has been informing Government, education and training providers, career guidance bodies and learners about the developments in the Irish labour market at occupational and sectoral levels for almost 20 years. The SLMRU has developed a National Skills Database (NSD) which collates information from a variety of sources to assess the balance between the demand and supply at occupational level and report on any identified shortages. The data held in the NSD (e.g. employment trends and composition, vacancy data, immigration data, job announcements, data on student enrolments and graduation, etc.) is used to assess the situation in the labour market and forecast future demand for skills.

Information gathered and analysed by the EGFSN is published regularly through its annual publications (e.g. National Skills Bulletin, Monitoring Ireland’s Skills Supply, Vacancy Overview and Regional Labour Market Bulletin) and periodical sectoral studies (e.g. A Study of the Current and Future Skills Requirements of the Marine/Maritime Economy to 2020 (April 2015), Addressing the Demand for Skills in the Freight Transport, Distribution and Logistics Sector in Ireland 2015 – 2020 (February 2015)). The use of this information in aligning education and training provision is illustrated in recent Government initiatives, such as Momentum  and Springboard .

The most recent research by the EGFSN indicates that despite over 200,000 unemployed persons, there were shortages in a number of fields such as IT, engineering, healthcare and sales/customer care.  It also indicates that there are job opportunities in the Irish labour market which are associated with transitory employment, particularly in the area of care, sales, clerical work, hospitality and construction. The research also shows that the field of study determines the likelihood of gaining employment in the related field (e.g. in quarter 4 2014, 50% of young third level engineering graduates ended up in employment in a related field, compared to 13% of arts and humanities graduates).

What are the information gaps?
There are many data gaps and the information available is far from perfect. For instance, the labour market intelligence lacks systematic input from employers, as well the granularity needed for decision making at local level. Nonetheless, labour market intelligence has improved significantly over the last decade and even in its existing state can provide sound evidence for decision making. Recent initiatives, such the establishment of Regional Skills Fora by the Department of Education and Skills, will improve labour market intelligence at regional and local level.

The information deficit in relation to the measurement of learner outcomes is, however, more challenging, although initiatives have been taken that will address these data gaps. For instance, in the area of higher education, the HEA is in the process of developing a Graduate Outcome Survey to replace the old First Destination Survey. In the area of further education and training (FET), SOLAS is developing a Programme and Learner Support System (PLSS), which is aimed at systematically capturing data on FET learners and providing a platform for the measurement of course outcomes. SOLAS has outlined its commitment to evaluation in the FET Strategy 2014-2019  and the development of annual FET Services Plans. Furthermore, thorough links with other public services databases, the system will allow for improved evaluation of existing courses, including the measurement of the contribution the course had in achieving the observed outcome (e.g. would the person have got the job even without completing the course).

Having symmetrically informed learners and course providers with the up to date relevant information is essential in achieving the education and training goals of learners, the economy and society. For learners, better information leads to a better understanding of their role in society, the economy and the labour market. It equips them with the information needed to choose courses that enable them to navigate the labour market, as well as to benefit from technological and social changes over their lifetime. For providers, better information leads to course offerings that meet the needs of learners, the economy and society, by providing skilled, flexible and enlightened citizens, while ensuring prudent investment of public funds. Finally, society as a whole benefits as the funding spent on education and training produces the human capital needed for prosperity and growth.

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