Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Empower/FETAC scandal is the tip of the iceberg

Two years ago I was invited by an acquaintance to a training day run for the benefit of trainees at a large state department. A critical resource, which I won't go into, to protect the identity of those in powers of influence, for reasons which will become clear.

The acquaintance, after years of operating a very poorly managed sole tradership, had undergone some years of what I can best describe as a life transformation, and appeared to now be trying to make a career out of her experiences, possibly in the hope of offsetting an ailing business (which as I recently discovered, basically charges nearly 160 euros for domestic services which you can do yourself for free - I won't go into any more detail).

I stood in horror, as the acquaintance basically retold her life story, over and over, alongside numerous incorrect "scientific facts" that are not facts at all (the particular subject has 2 well cited studies, but the vast majority of references to them clearly show the readers have not actually read the studies at all, as the conclusions they reach do not verify the ideological position references often cite - a common pseudoscience tactic). I noticed a group which I know of from Dublin, a long established community association which does good work, noticeably cold shouldering the acquaintance - and very quickly it became obvious why - she was basically piggy backing on her experience for her own personal self-promotion, it was a very well veiled effort to promote herself as an "expert" and mini celebrity rather than genuine effort to change things.

This lady has setup herself up as a "consultant", advertising FETAC certified skills which I will detail more about below, yet she is nothing but a self appointed expert, a dangerous mickey mouse operator who can do real harm should she ever really manage to get her foot in the door of voluntary operations - which she persists in trying to push. I made a few inquiries and found that she doesn't up front look for money but would like "expenses". Sounds like she is still trying to get established. She attaches herself to every group that lets her in, and tries to push her seminars on them. The legitmate group above, it seems, cut her off for this.

Anyway, back to FETAC etc. It seems that in her effort to "professionalise", the lady had gone and done a FETAC "advanced certificate" in "facilitation". Now don't get me wrong, nothing wrong with doing qualifications. But then I went and looked up what is required for the cert in question. Here is a brief summary of what I found.

The basic course, which costs about 350 euros, is 5 days. 5 "days" that is, from 10am to 4pm with an hour for lunch. In other words, 5 hours per day over 5 days or a grand total of 25 hours. 1 point of a UK Open Univesity qualification requires 30 hours study, to put that in context. But lets move on. From their website, it seems that the provider in question is no longer receiving FETAC accreditation. But I was able to find other provides claiming to provide the same course. Another advertises a level 5 FETAC cert for 800 euros - again 5 days, this time requiring a 2000 word essay. A follow up course upgrades to "FETAC level 6" with similar requirements. So, a grand total of 50 hours study and maybe 2 essays. Interestingly, the course my pal did has vanished without trace - was its quality queried?

Now look at the ECTs guidelines:

ECTS credits are based on the workload students
need in order to achieve expected learning outcomes.
Learning outcomes describe what a learner is
expected to know, understand and be able to do after
successful completion of a process of learning. They
relate to level descriptors in national and European
qualifications frameworks.
Workload indicates the time students typically need
to complete all learning activities (such as lectures,
seminars, projects, practical work, self-study and
examinations) required to achieve the expected
learning outcomes.
60 ECTS credits are attached to the workload of a fulltime
year of formal learning (academic year) and the
associated learning outcomes. In most cases, student
workload ranges from 1,500 to 1,800 hours for
an academic year, whereby one credit corresponds to
25 to 30 hours of work

I've highlighted the key point of this section (you can read the entire document here). The point is that the qualification level is related to both the learning outcome (i.e. skills acquired or validated) AND the actual workload. Its clear from this that a 25 hour workload simply cannot compare to a full academic programme, yet Fas, FETAC etc are happy to validate and describe as "certificate" courses which amount to only 1/60 of a normal programme. Is it no wonder, in that case, that the system is virtually issuing written invitations to unproven providers with questionable programmes. The real problem of course, is clear: many of these "qualifications" are simply not worth the fancy paper they are written upon. Worse still, learners are being let to believe that these are worth something. And no wonder employers complain of the poor quality of applicants, and lastly, no wonder anecdotal evidence suggests that a vast chunk of those on the live register - a record 450,000 people do not have the skills they and the world at large were led to believe that they have.

What is more serious is how this has chronically devalued qualifications in Ireland, despite the existence of frameworks. With the framework based on a flawed notion of paper validation allowed to operate on minimal coursework and unclear outcomes (themselves no doubt based on the same flawed concept of what "skilled" really means), we have created a monster in FETAC, Fas and all state run upskilling programmes.

And in doing so the state has invited low grade providers, including downright fraudsters such as those covered in the press, to exploit and gouge huge sums of money from learners and the state under the guise of "upskilling." No wonder the vacuous waste of the SIPTU/HSE fund was seen internally as being justified - the low standards of the existing skills framework permitted anything that counted as "learning" - no doubt including nice holidays for execs on St Patricks day to nice worldwide holiday locations.

Hence why, anecdotally, at least one recruitment consultant in Dublin privately admitted to a friend recently that less than 20% of those she places are from the live register, and I suspect, that of those, most are short term recipients "between jobs". In other words, the true extent of Ireland's "skills crisis" is that so many people are either unskilled or have unwanted skills.

The graduate situation is exceptional to this for the very same reason that the overall situation has emerged: they are inexperienced applicants in a market that cannot regard paper skills as valuable. The value of ANY qualification in the free market mess that the skills base developed into has been downgraded by short length, accreditation-inflated courses that don't measure true abilities, thus destroying even the value of an honours degree as employers have no choice but to regard hard experience as having validity. This means the "good guys" suffer too. And what of Fas, that notorious money pit - surely no agency suffers more than they do from a lack of credence? The planned amalgamation of the various standards body will be unworkable until a standard is set, maintained and policed with regard to the recognition of a framework for qualifications. Without this no Irish employer can currently trust many so called certifications.

I would suggest that an immediate review so carried out by the bodies and by FETAC in particular with regard to a) qualifications delivered by state funded bodies and contracted out by them, b) accreditations by other bodies affiliated and finally c) retrospective quality checks need to be put in place, and a website or information service set up to warn the public and employers about quality concerns on previous bodies, especially those which have lost accreditation for quality issues. Considering that many of these qualifications were in childcare, this is a critical issue. Those working in fields where these are necessary ought to be recertified through validated bodies - indeed this kind of work should be recertified on an ongoing basis.

In short, there has been considerable evidence of "market failure" in a free and easy, almost entirely deregulated training and education market. Nobody knows what qualifications are worth anything, so by default, this devalues all qualifications, including difficult, time consuming and costly full time courses which people dedicate years of their lives to. It also generates massive profits, often at the expense of the public purse or vulnerable people, for rogue operators with poor governance. Lastly, it permits equally unscrupulous (or merely stupid) rogue operators like my acquaintance to set themselves up as pseudo "experts" with few real credentials. This puts people at risk from poor workmanship and shoddy practice. It must end, now.


reform said...

Congratulations on article, finally an accurate account of the problems with FETAC and Skill and the Government especially HSE Health service money i.e. taxpayers money being wasted on this program.
New government with new reform program to reallocate money to priority area in the Health Service.

reform said...

Congratulations on article, finally an accurate account of the problems with FETAC & Skill and the Government including HSE Health Service money i.e. taxpayers money wasted on this program.
New Government with new reform program hopefully to address misuse taxpayers money.
HSE Health service to reallocate budget money to Priority area.

Shoe said...

Thanks Reform, it does seem that IMF/EC overviews are watchful of what is going on where vast sums are essentially outsourced to the private sector: its obvious to us in Ireland, but we know full well that many of the recipients are basically cronies of the last administration, in some form or another.

This includes of course, the so-called "equality" brigade, who have rapidly been rebranding themselves looking for a fresh round of public funds for themselves under the auspices of "social justice", their new tag.