The Challenges of Introducing Environmental Issues into the Skills Agenda

I know it is stating an obvious fact that education and training must play a significant part in addressing the critical issues currently confronting this planet including those associated with the environment. These include energy, food and water shortages and the consequences of global warming, pollution control, land reclamation and over population. Clearly in spite of a number of sceptics and some who are still in denial of these facts many recognise the dangers.  There is a growing consensus that science and technology can provide some of the solutions as well as creating many new jobs and occupations. In spite of the current austerity, recession and high unemployment especially amongst young people this is surely the time to accelerate investment to create the skills to tackle these issues.

Some of the essential challenges and changes that will be required in all sectors of education and training include:

  • The urgent need for greater awareness of the importance of ecological issues
  • New managerial and organisational structures in institutions
  • Fundamental reviews and reforms of the existing curriculum
  • Introduction of multidisciplinary subjects and programmes
  • Higher profile and importance of scientific (both biological and physical), technical and mathematical subjects;  and hence a significant increase in the number studying these subjects
  • Development of a new set of skills that will match and satisfy the occupational needs of these ecological subjects’
  • Move away from the current linear economy to a circular one with a much greater commitment to recycling and hence reduce waste.

New skills will need to be developed and applied to the existing and emerging scientific and technology knowledge base. These changes will present many daunting challenges for education and training institutions that will include radical reviews and reforms in the way they are managed and organised. The curriculum has to be relevant, up to date and fit for purpose which means that it must involve new qualifications and awards for multidisciplinary subjects and more enlightened methods of assessment. This will require fundamental changes to the way subjects are taught and learnt.

The majority of the curriculum in institutions is still located within a collection of conceptual boxes which create constrictive and confining boundaries. Boundaries not only in terms of subject content but also the way the institutions are managed e.g. separate departments, division and faculties. If the challenges are to be tackled effectively these existing structures must change fundamentally. Specialist departments must cooperate and work more closely together and understand holistically the nature of the challenges that confront them. Parochial and historical practices need to be buried in order to achieve an effective set of reviews and reforms.

Environmental and ecological studies will require a more enlightened approach recognising the fusion of key disciplines such as built environment, construction, engineering, management, facilities management, mathematics and the physical and biological sciences. It has to be multidisciplinary and can no longer be boxed into separate subjects or disciplines. An energy technician represents a good example of this multiskilled and multidisciplinary approach. These individuals need to acquire competence, knowledge, skills and understanding to appreciate the scientific and technological aspects of their occupation. In addition the technician must be aware of the legal aspects of pollution control and management as well as energy conservation and management. Therefore the energy technician needs a curriculum and experience that is truly multidisciplinary and utilises fully an institution’s expertise and resources.

One major concern is the continued reluctance of many to pursue courses that involve scientific, technological and mathematical content. Enrolments in courses and programmes have continued to decline over a number of decades and various campaigns to increase enrolments have largely failed. Coupled to this is that colleges and universities have downsized, merged or even closed departments in many technical disciplines e.g. construction, engineering and physical sciences. Also successive governments in this country have operated insensitive funding regimes which discriminate against higher cost lower recruiting technical and practically based subjects preferring instead to fund lower cost and populist subjects.

In addition, as the country lost its manufacturing base young people in particular perceived construction, engineering and science as fields not offering secure careers and that in turn deterred them from studying these disciplines. Therefore if attitudes to the study of scientific and technical subjects are to be encouraged to change it will need to be recognised that part of the strategy to succeed will have to be linked to increasing the capability and capacity of institutions to cater for growth in these scientific, technological and ecologically oriented courses. This would need long term recognition and commitment from successive parliaments.  It will not be a quick fix. A whole series of strategies needs to be introduced including:

  • Comprehensive systems of careers information advice and guidance (CIAG) at all education sectors to encourage students to pursue these courses
  • The  courses and programmes need to receive adequate resources i.e. financial, physical and human
  • More credibility and appropriately qualified and experienced teachers need to be recruited supported with effective CPD programmes
  • Awarding bodies need to create new qualifications and awards – CGLI have already made a good start with their green skills qualifications initiative
  • Establishment a parity of esteem between technical and the so-called academic subjects
  • Produce more highly qualified crafts/trades people, technicians, technologists , and environment scientists

The challenges are immense but if successfully implemented could greatly contribute to tackling one of the major problems facing this country and the world.

First published on the City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development website in Winter 2012.

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