Happy birthday, Graham Attwell

Today the fellow-bloggers on Pontydysgu site can congratulate Graham Attwell on his birthday. I hope there is no home-made rule that would prevent us from celebrating this day via his own website.  Cheers, Graham!

Years and more …

Happy birthday, Graham Attwell

Today the fellow-bloggers on Pontydysgu site can congratulate Graham Attwell on his birthday. I hope there is no home-made rule that would prevent us from celebrating this day via his own website.  Cheers, Graham!

Years and more …

Developing a response to youth unemployment

Since I wrote my last article on ‘What is the answer to youth unemployment?‘, elections in Greece, France and Germany have seen a decisive rejection of European austerity politics. This is hardly surprising. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that ever deeper cuts and austerity, whilst ultimately cutting the real cost of labour and thus boosting corporate profits, are unlikely to boost growth, jobs or individual prosperity in any way.

The EU reaction has been to call for a new strategy for growth, although details of what that might entail are pretty hazy.

As I wrote in the previous article, one of the main results of the recession has been a massive increase in youth unemployment and, in particular, a substantial increase in graduate unemployment. At the same time companies are increasingly requiring work experience prior to employment resulting in increasing pressure for new graduates to undertake low paid of unpaid internships. Pretty clearly new policies are needed for education and training but there seems little public discussion of this, let alone of what such policies might be. The prevailing EU policy is more of the same and try harder.

To rethink policies for education and training requires looking back at how we got where we are now. And it requires looking at more than just education and training policy – we need to examine the relationship between education and training, labour market policy and economic policy. here I am going to look at just a few aspects of such policies and hope to develop this a little more in the next week or so.

For the last decade – or even longer – economic policy has been driven by a liberal free market approach. In turn labour market policy has similarly been based on deregulating labour markets and removing protection for workers (interestingly, Germany, the one country in Europe where the economy is growing, has probably one of the highest levels of labour market regulation). At a European level, education and training policy has been dominated by a drive to make qualifications more transparent and thus comparable in order to promote the mobility of labour. Employers have been given a greater role in determining the content and form of qualifications. Employability has become a key theme, with individuals being made responsible for keeping their knowledge and skills up to date, often as considerable personal expense. A number of countries have tried to liberalise education and training systems by reducing subsidies for public education and introducing individual voucher schemes.

At them same time the rather ridiculous EU Lisbon declaration, declared the aim to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion”, by 2010. Obviously this failed. But in line with such thinking most countries in Europe saw the way forward as moving from old fashioned vocational training to mass university education to cater for the demand for the thousands of new knowledge jobs. These jobs never materialised (except in countries such as the UK in the deregulated financial services sector which ultimately triggered the economic meltdown). As Wikipedia notes:

Much of the initial theorizing about the advent of a fundamentally new era in which economic activity is increasingly ‘abstract’, i.e., disconnected from land, labour, and physical capital (machines and industrial infrastructure) was associated with the ‘business management’ literature of the ‘new economy’ NASDAQ bubble, which collapsed in 2001 (but slowly recovered, albeit, in a leaner format, throughout the 2000s). This literature was initially known more for its hyperbole and faddishness than for its academic/empirical integrity.

In reality, many of the new degree courses were vocational in orientation – such as in the new Universities in the UK or in the Fachshule in Germany. These courses were either for new occupations – for instance in computing or simply replaced traditional vocational qualifications. It is arguable whether such a policy was financially sustainable or even desirable. It is certainly arguable whether an academic programme of learning is more effective for such subjects than traditional forms of work related learning.

To further policies associated with the obsession with the knowledge economy were the raising of the school leaving age and the so called lifelong learning policy. Longer schooling was needed, it was argued, to cope with the needs for higher levels of knowledge and skills for the knowledge rich jobs of the future. And lifelong learning was needed for the learning economies in which knowledge is the crucial resource and learning is the most important process.

At them same time the EU and national governments identified a number of key sectors which were felt to be crucial and which were then promoted through he education systems. In the late 1990s, there were dire predications of a massive shortage of computer programmers which never came to pass. And in the last five years or so EU and national governments have promoted the importance of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths as key to the future of employment and economies. Such priorities were based on a business driven policy of skills-matching promoting the “involvement of businesses in forecasting skills needs, through an employers’ survey tool and qualitative studies on the skills needs of business” (EU New Skills, New Jobs policy).

It is clear such policies have failed  and exhorting governments and agencies to try harder will go nowhere. What is needed is a fundamental rethink. As Professor Phillip Brown points out, the Lisbon Strategy was based on the idea that the technological lead then enjoyed by advanced industrial economies would be maintained with an increasing polarisation between highly skilled and well paid jobs in those countries and low paid low skilled manufacturing jobs being undertaken in developing countries. For a variety of reasons, including rapid technology transfer and a massive expansion of public education systems in countries like China and India, this hasn’t happened.

Indeed it may be the very manufacturing sector which was downgraded by EU policy which is the future for jobs in Europe especially in Small and Medium enterprises. For all the talk of high tech, knowledge based jobs. The construction industry is the biggest industrial employer in Europe with 13,9 million operatives making up 6,6% of the total employment in EU27. In addition it has a substantial influence on other industries represented by a multiplier effect. According to a study by the European Commission, 1 person working in the construction industry is responsible for 2 further persons working in other sectors. Therefore, it is estimated that 41,7 million workers in the EU depend, directly or indirectly, on the construction sector. Out of the 3,1 million enterprises 95% are SMEs with fewer than 20 and 93% with fewer than 10 operatives (pdf file). And manufacturing makes up almost 25 percent of the German economy, as opposed to only 11 percent in the United States. German mittelstands – small, family-owned and mid-size manufacturing companies – are key to the manufacturing sector. Rather than relying on university graduates for skills and knowledge, the mittelsands tend to employ graduates from the Dual apprenticeship system.

Indeed, many countries are promoting apprenticeships as one way out of the present mess. The present English coalition government boasts of the increase in the number of apprenticeship places. But in truth most of these places are apprenticeships only in name. The supermarket chain, Morrisons is the largest apprenticeship provider in the UK with many apprenticeship consisting of short induction training courses. To deliver the skills and knowledge for workers in a manufacturing economy through apprenticeship requires high quality training and the active involvement of employers and train unions alike. Moreover it requires social (and financial) recognition fo the value of apprenticeships. that seems a long way away.

To overcome the present crisis of youth unemployment requires a series of radical and interlinked policy initiative involving economic and labour market policies rather than just tinkering with education and training curricula. At a macro econ0omic level it means developing manufacturing industry rather than merely relying on financial services and the high tech knowledge industry sector. It means making sure companies provide high quality training, rather than forcing individuals to be responsible for their own employability. It means making sure that those who have gained vocational qualifications have opportunities to use those skills and knowledge and are properly rewarded for their learning. It means freeing up capital for starting small companies. It means proper financing for vocational schools and providing alternatives to young people rather than just more school and expensive university courses. It means abandoning skills matching and planning for future societal skills needs.

In other words we have to abandon liberalisation and free market ideologies and to recognise that economies and employment are a social function. As such society has to plan for the future of employment and the provision of jobs for young people. Is this too much to ask?



Training and learning

This time of the year things are supposed to be quiet. Christmas parties and that kind of stuff. However at Pontydysgu its not like that this year – though a dare say we may stop for the odd mince pie and glass of mulled wine in the next few days.

We have been completing project reports and writing new proposals. And I have been traveling for the last five weeks. So there is plenty to update on this blog.

The week before last I was in Bucharest for the final conference of the PREZENT! project – aiming to increase participation in continuing training for those at risk in the labour market. The project has taken a series of actions over providing access information, and awareness about opportunities for continuing and lifelong learning in Romania.

And it turned out to be a very inter sting event. The conference organisers had produced a draft strategy on training in Romania and used the event for consultation prior to submitting the strategy to the education ministry. Although I was struggling to follow the debate (my Romanian being non existent) the strategy certainly seemed to have sparked off a considerable discussion.

Yet many of the issues were hardly new, or indeed unique to Romania. Delegates were concerned about business models and how training should be financed. Indeed, there seemed to be much support for the idea of a training levy on enterprises. Delegates were concerned about the quality and regulation of training. And delegates were concerned about professional development for training and particularly over the use of technology for training.

Personally I felt they were over optimistic about the potential impact of legislative change or even at getting legislation right. However this might reflect different cultures and certainly in the past there has been some evidence that Romanian governments have taken more interest in training than the UK (although that is not difficult!).

My contribution to the conference was mostly based on the use of technology to support informal learning. And although everyone was very polite and said how much they had enjoyed the presentation I am not sure they got it. Learning remains inextricably bound to formal training programmes usually linked to classroom or workshop delivery. Whilst there might be acknowledgement of the importance of informal learning it goes no further than that.

Possibly it is because trainers see no role for themselves in informal learning. however I have long held that informal learning does not happen by accident. Informal learning depends on rich learning environments be they in school or in the workplace. And informal learning depends on the ability to use that learning in work or in everyday life. For many their job does not provide either that richness in activities or in learning environment. For many the workplace is just a source of drudgery. And this could be the vital role trainers could take – in designing and developing rich learning environments. But I think for that we would require new ways of recognising learning based on learning processes rather than merely accrediting outcomes. And whilst education and training remains dominated by a discourse around competences that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Personal Learning Environments have happened

There has been some discussion lately questioning why Personal Learning Environments have been so slow to take off. I think this misses the point. PLEs are here. they are being used every day by thousands of users all over the world. True, there is no branding saying PLE. And the PLEs differ greatly, technologically and in how they are being used.

PLEs were never about developing a new generation of educational software. PLEs were about a change in the way learners used technology to support their learning. PLEs were about reflection on different sources and contexts of learning. PLes were about learners taking control of their own learning. PLEs were about collaborative and social learning

Web 2.0 and social software has facilitated that happening. Be it Facebook or Ning, blogs or Wikis, Webquests or social bookmarking, it has taken place. Not every learner is progressing at the same pace and has the same confidence in developing, configuring and using their PLE. Why should they? Learners move at different speeds in different contexts and at different stages of their lives and learning journeys. Learners have different personal preferences for the tools they use for learning and the mode of learning they prefer. Learning takes place in different contexts – institutional and workplace. But the changes we talked about when we first discussed the idea of the PLE is happening all around us.

Of course it is true to say that institutions have not supported that change – if they have recognised it at all. Institutions remain wedded to control and management models and the LMS or VLE suits that purpose. However, the slow move to web services, the slow adoption of standards and increasing interoperability are making it easier for learners to utilise institutional course provision within their PLE.

But the big change will not be through the univeristy and schooling systems. The big change will be as work based leaners and learners not enrolled on any institutional course use technology to support their learning. Of course that will not be educational technology as such. It will be tools like Diigo or PBwiki, Twitter and WordPress. This does pose a question as to the future role of educational technology. Essentially the adoption of the PLE has passed educational technology by. The cutting edge of the so called educational technology community is no longer with the developers or systems administrators. It is the pedagogists, the teachers, the facilitators and the learners who are leading development. And that is as it should be.