With the future of work upon us, is Ireland’s education sector prepared for the challenges that will come with providing lifelong learning? Jenny Darmody investigates.
Yesterday (10 January) The Sloan School at MIT partnered with Ireland’s Higher Education Authority (HEA) on a major future of work conference at Dublin Castle.
The event focused in particular on the impact of technological advances including blockchain and AI, but also how changes in management practice and in the global political and financial worlds will effect change.
In the context of education, the future of work means lifelong learning. That’s what we’ve been told by the experts and, with people living longer and the single career no longer the norm, this does indeed seem like a fair assessment.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that lifelong learning played a crucial role in many of the panel discussions at the HEA’s conference.
Having watched how the future of work has unfolded in society so far, I was a little concerned that, while lifelong learning is an incredibly important part of the future, it is in danger of becoming a bit of a buzzword-type phrase.
For the last few years, the conversation about the future of work revolved almost exclusively around the narrative of ‘robots taking jobs’.
Thankfully, we’ve moved on from that and have started to look at the future of work in a bit more of a positive light. The technological advances that were discussed a few years ago have already entered the world of work and we have also begun to transform what a lifelong career looks like. I believe both of these changes have been positive ones.
However, when we talk about the, at times, woolly concept of lifelong learning, the question of ‘how’ really needs to be addressed.
The question of funding
Stephen Kinsella is an economist and associate professor of economics at the University of Limerick’s Kemmy Business School. He was in attendance at the HEA conference and very surprised to see that the topic of funding didn’t come up once.
“It’s not all down to funding,” he said. “[But] let’s say you decide to inaugurate a brand new computer science and economics programme. You can do that, but you need to hire experts in AI and these people are in incredibly high demand.”
Indeed, Ireland’s universities have spent years dealing with cuts to funding while being expected to do more with less.
It’s no surprise that the Government would want to be able to reduce the amount of funding they’re sending to educational bodies. “That’s fine. That’s a policy choice that many countries around the world have made down the years,” said Kinsella. “It will result in big changes, though.”
Kinsella said it’s not outside the realms of possibility that Irish universities could receive less than 30pc of their funding from the state in the future. If that happens, he said a situation will arise where the Government could turn around and say it needs more doctors or teachers or computer scientists. With the majority of funding no longer coming from the Government, this would mean that the universities can turn around and say ‘no’ or, more likely, ‘maybe, but only for a significant amount of money’.
“That scenario,” Kinsella said, “is exactly what is happening in places like Australia and America.” He added that the lack of discussion around funding the system at the HEA conference only further shows that it should be almost taken as a given that the Government will not increase the funding for universities.
A tax incentive for lifelong learning
Alan Barrett is the director of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). While speaking on a panel at the HEA conference, he proposed the idea of offering tax relief for those who want to put money into lifelong learning in the way we get tax relief on our pensions.
Kinsella said this idea is really smart because it would be very directed in that it tells people, ‘if you want to do this, we will support you, but you have to choose to do it’. “It’s much more targeted and therefore would be less costly,” he said.
‘Would it be a good idea to have a similar outlook in terms of people when they’re investing, not in their pension fund but in their own human capital?’
– ALAN BARRETT, ESRI
Barrett told me that when he is asked to speak at conferences such as the HEA one, the ageing population is always at the back of his mind. He said there is a general understanding that the age of retirement will go up and there is also a general agreement that individuals who have a single career for their whole lives are becoming less common.
If you put money into your pension plan, you get a very generous tax break on it. “The philosophy of that is you want to encourage people to make investments in their wellbeing post-retirement,” he said. “If it is the case that another way of funding yourself later on is to allow you to continue working beyond a certain age, the question arises: would it be a good idea to have a similar outlook in terms of people when they’re investing, not in their pension fund but in their own human capital?”
Barrett suggested that someone in their 40s who is currently paying into their pension, could take a year off from that to instead fund their lifelong learning through education or training. Ideally, this person would get the same tax breaks as they were getting from funding their pension.
This proposal would then be cost-neutral, Barrett explained. “I wasn’t suggesting that it would be an additional benefit, but rather that you could move between the two.”
He said the aim would be to get people thinking about investing in their future in such a way that allows them to either do it through their pension pot or through investing in their own lifelong learning, and that they would be able to swap between them.
Not just the education sector
While the Government is talking about how the future of work will affect Ireland and we naturally look to our education sector for the future of learning, it’s important not to exclude the corporate side of things.
It’s not just the employees that have to prepare for the future of work. The employers also have a certain responsibility to ensure they are managerially ready for the challenges of lifelong learning too.
MIT professor John Van Reenen spoke at the HEA conference and made the point that organisations need to look at what they can do to ensure they’re successful. Ireland’s organisations and public bodies will need to ensure they have the right management capabilities to absorb the advances that come with the future of work.
Barrett said that while Ireland is viewed as having good, able managers at the upper end of its businesses, Van Reenen had statistics which “showed there’s a long tail in terms of management quality in Ireland”.
It seems the future of work and the concept of lifelong learning is not as simple as upskilling yourself. There are many other factors at play, from education funding to management capabilities. However, the fact that we have moved on from talking about robots taking jobs to a more serious discussion around how Ireland can deliver lifelong learning can only be seen as a good thing.