Government, employers and the Leaving


Sir, – The latest Irish Times missive against the Leaving Cert continues the current trend of dismissing the State exam as not fit for purpose or no more than a college admissions exam (Jim Gleeson, “Leaving Cert grades have no meaning beyond CAO”, Education Opinion, February 9th). If the latter accusation is true, which it probably is, then we need to ask how we have found ourselves in this position.

Simon Harris suggests that it is all down to snobbery, and many people, including senior academics in universities not noted for their student diversity, nod in agreement.

But it is worth asking how both politicians and academics may have contributed to our current emphasis on the Leaving Cert as an entrance exam for college. For many years, politicians have boasted that our (intermittent) economic success is down to the fact that we have a highly educated workforce and a knowledge-based, 21st-century economy. And year after year, universities, who are caught in a growth trap, bow to government pressures and increase their student numbers as part of a desperate bid to survive in a continuously deteriorating funding environment.

Meanwhile, both politicians and academics quote organisations like the World Economic Forum and the OECD which suggest that traditional jobs are becoming obsolete, that the jobs of the future don’t even exist yet, that the skills of the future will be creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking, and that the most desirable attributes of future graduates will include traits like adaptability, leadership, emotional intelligence and whatever you’re having yourself.

There is never anything about conscientiousness or dependability or simply being skilled in one’s craft. But there is always some mention of artificial intelligence – that’s guaranteed. And robots. The whole tone of the conversation is that to “thrive” in the 21st century, a young person is going to have to be highly educated and prepared to undergo lifelong learning in order to have the versatility required to survive in a rapidly changing world.

So, what’s a young school-leaver to think? I know that if I were 18 again I’d be pretty convinced that I needed to go to university to have any hope of making a success of my life.

Of course, this suits employers just fine. These days, you can get a 22-year-old graduate when in the past you had to make do with a school-leaver. And now you can hire graduates with a bunch of exemptions from professional exams, saving you large chunks of their training costs. It’s a win-win situation for many. But maybe not the school-leaver, especially the one from a disadvantaged background.

Every now and then there is a token effort to disrupt this narrative and apprenticeships are brought up, and often by academics who a matter of days previously were stressing the importance of 21st-century skills. And the youngster who might have been drawn to the traditional apprenticeships is left wondering, “but what will I do if my chosen trade becomes obsolete?” – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor,


of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.