Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Knowledge Econonmy is for you and you but not you.

The knowledge economy is one of the great tropes of modern political discourse. It righfully takes its place as one of the key strategic considerations for all policy makers in how to manage the transiton of the economy. However the knowledge economy does not in and of itself promise a bright future for all. The knowledge economy will only help those who are given the opportunity to skill up to take advantage of it. The new minister for Education might think the govt. is providing equal opportunity to raise all boats but the evidence says otherwise.

There is a continued social inequality in access and entry to higher education among particular socio-economic groups according to the Higher Education Authority/ ESRI’s recent report –“ Hidden Disadvantage, a study of the low particpation in Higher Education by the Non-Manual Group”. While the trend has been for increased particpation in Higher education one social group, the non-manual, is participating less and less in higher education.

So who are the non-manual group? Well they are 1 in 5 of the adult population of the southern state but they are split between intermediate non-manual (i.e Garda Seargeants, Govt. Executivbe officials) and “other non-manual”workers. Its the latter of course who are facing the obstacles. Typically their occupational positions are bus drivers, service sector workers etc. They are a demographic in south Irish society that is experiencing many barriers to participation in Hgher education and rather than seeing their equality of opportunity extended it is instead being restricted.

The knowledge economy or Smart economy has been defined as a strategy of using high value add roles to generate further economic activity. But to whose benefit. Its been well noted that the completion a higher education course contributes to higher earnings over a person's lifespan. While not the be all and end all greater access to Higher Education for all demographic groups will contribute to the process of solving class inequalities "not by making the working class more middle class, but in working at dismantling and sharing out the economic, social and cultural capital which goes with middle-class status".

The average rate of participation in Higher Education in the south is 55%. The Govt. has a stated target of 54% for all socio-economic groups by 2020. Yet the Non Manual group is sliding the other direction - from 29 per cent in 1998 to between 25 and 27 per cent in 2004. And rather than be alarmed at these figures the Govt. instead decided to wield the axe on educational equality of opportunity by cutting funding for school infrastructure, cutting the student maintenance grant by 5%, scrapping the Millennium Partnership Fund, which provides financial assistance for further and higher education students who are experiencing financial difficulties while attending college.

The Higher Education Authority report demonstrates that such an approach will only exacerbate the situation. For students in the non-manual demographic the consideration of cost of education plays a role either due to the direct cost of education or the prospect of lost income by going straight into education. However as the report notes the recent collapse of the labour market will remove the lure to bypass Higher education yet failure to tackle the other factors cotributing to the low participation rate by this social group will result in even greater marginalisation.

The other factors contributing to low particpation rates by the non-manual group are varied but one is key - Socio-economic background :your background determines the forms of cultural, social and economic capital and resources you have which differentially frames the choices you can make.

This means that "Young people from non-manual backgrounds do not possess the cultural capital necessary to succeed within an educational system geared towards the dominant class." i.e if neither your siblings, your parents, your neighbours or many in your learning environment have experienced Higher Education or see it as a viable educational option then you are at a severe disadvantage.

But even having made it to a Higher Education faciltiy as an other-non-manual worker background student the odds are still stacked against you. The other-non-manual group has a drop out rate of 17 per cent compared to the average of about 10%.

And considering for a moment other demographic groups as marginalised we see that the dropout rates are particularly high among those from non-employed backgrounds (three-in-ten), raising questions over the adequacy of supports (financial and otherwise) at HE to assist those from disadvantaged backgrounds in meeting the costs of fully participating in college life and integrating into the full range of student (academic and non-academic) activities. As noted above this will not improve with the cutting of the maintenace grant or the dropping of the millenium partnership fund.

The Govt. will plead lack of funds but its not solely an issue of funds as repeatedly students noted the secondary school phenomenon of the "honours class" being streamed for extra attention with the remaining students getting infrequent or unenthousiastic attention. Career guidance was frequently absent and there was a demonstrable lack of understanding regarding financial considerations among students. The resolution of these issues or at the least a serious contribution to resolvlng them does not require significant sums of money.

Instead of spending money the govt. could consider ways of ensuring that the negative associations created around learning need to tackled from the very start. The cycle of exclusion needs to be broken and once broken that process of change can become self sustaining.

What is Sinn Fein’s policy for increasing particpation by certain demographic groups in further education. In the 6 counties what have we done to push this issue? Well the tackling of the 11plus is a big effort. The fairly twisted practice of sorting kids at 11 years old is surely one of the most restrictive obstacles facing equality of opportunity in the north of this country. Its not proving an easy road to travel but its a worthwhile one. And down here in the other state the party's push for universal childcare, calls for the provision of adult education free to all up to third level qualifications, the abolition of part-time fees and grant part-time students eligibility for maintenance grants; and third level access programmes for schools with a low take-up of places are all solid ideas to change the socio-economic dynamic that is forcing one section of society further and further into the margins.

The danger is that the non-manual workers and indeed other workers will become trapped in a type of structural unemployment - a whole segment of society left behind in the so called knowledge economy and all because nobody was willing to break the cycle of exclusion.

As was noted before here Working class kids aint thick. They just have more obstacles to overcome than most. Its about time some one gave them some support and I cant see Brian Hayes or Mary Coughlan doing anything to help.


  1. This is a very good article and if you are in politics, it would seem to me that you should be very concerned about our education system, which is flawed in many aspects. Education should be Free from Cradle to when one leaves it. I don't accept the argument about lack of money. If the state was really concerend about education then they would act,one doesn't need a lot of money to improve the system, but what is needed a change in the way education is taught in our schools. Our education system is geared towards academia, so take a young child in school who is not academically inclined, but is gifted is Art, Sport,etc they are left behind they are given no encourgement. The Teachers are not given the time anymore to teach , they have report to fill in after report. A lot of Prinicpals don't teach anymore, they manage, the raise funds, they fill in more reports. Recently in our local School in Clondalkin we raised money to buy school books and in an audit, we could not believe some of the books that were in each childs class, baby books for young kids at 10, no proper books for children who were behind in their reading, for example a child of 11 if they are slow at reading they don't want to read a book for a 8 year old, they feel babish reading that book, they needs a book that will suit their situation.

    The present Education system is suited to the well off in our society ,and of course there will be some from poor backgrounds who will suceed and they will be shown as an example of how one can achieve.But if you are poor it is very very difficult

    I can only go on what I see based on having 4 young children and I cannot say I am happy in how my kids are taught. It is not the teachers fault but the system.I recently read the "The Education Revolution" Cuba's alternative to neoliberalism by Theodore H Mac Donald it is worth reading.

    Education should be about letting the mind think for itsef, asking why.Do we want an education system based around what these so called Presidents of our Universities want which is centered around money and greed or a education system that empowers our kids to questions things.

  2. I would not be as idealistic as paul in terms of saying what the education system should achieve. For me it is vital not only to the individual but also the economic well being of the state.

    On that basis the manner in which the current system acepts/promotes the failure of certain groups is economic madness.

    What i feel the system needs is more opportunites for alternative approaches in disadvantaged areas. Why not try out various approaches. For ewxample in many European countries children are not taught to read and write at school till they are 7. Prior to this they attend kindergaten etc and learn how to function as socail beings, beofre beginning the formal schooling process. Yet we getthem at 4 and 5 and say right you've been here three weeks, let's get on with it.

    Also kids that are failing should be offered smaller class sizes, maintain focus on english and maths , but perhaps add in other areas that the kids may be interested in and make going to school more exciting.

    There are many possible solutions, but the current approach of everybody must fit into the one option may well work for the majority, but a significant few fail miserably.

  3. The problem is as well is that upskilling people in to the "Knowledge economy" has a lot of forces against it. The main one is that large scale immigration provide a reserve army of labour. So is there a logic in training some in to a new job, when the next cv will be from an immigrant that has practical exp. and the same qualification. Are we to discriminate against the immigrant who has better exp. course not. This is a broad sweep and of course there will be exceptions, but as a worker in a knowledge economy company, and as an ex-recruitment consultant that is reality. It also applies to other manual workers as well. If you are to hire a labourer are you going to go for a fresh polish 24 yr old or a 35 yr old local. In time the Polish 24 yr old will be thrown on the scrap heap as well, as the new reserve of labour arrives at the airport. No doubt I'll be called a fash for pointing out this.

  4. Paul, that situation in your children's school in Clondalkin is not good. infant level books for 10 year olds is scandalous and as is all too often ordinary people have to step into fill the gaps and provide where the Irish govt. is failing.

    Anon of 5:50, I think you are right in saying that innovation in educatinal approach is not something to fear but something to be embraced.

    Aistrihgh, I am not so sure that its Polish workers spiking the educational aspirations of working class kids. At least it wasnt in the report.

    One of the great legacies of Pearse was his innovative educational policy. Thats a great legacy to live up to.