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Mi:Lab’s View on the Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021–2025

Modern higher education was built for a world that no longer exists. As Hansen (2018) wrote of the pre-pandemic higher education system: “most education systems were built for the needs of the 20th century. Take higher education: it has not been designed to deliver the skills needed for the disruption ahead”.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are ivory towers (Anderson, 2006). Cocooned from the changing, external world, the ivory tower is an idealised and unchanging space where academics create and disseminate knowledge for students willing to listen. However, HEIs and the hallowed traditions they continue to support are no longer privy to bypass changing times. Instead, HEIs are now forced to evolve “from education for the common good to education for an individual student’s job preparation” (Anderson, 2006, p.76).


That is why we at Mi:Lab believe that HEIs must take heed from the Irish Government’s Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021–2025. Higher education risks being left behind if it does not learn lessons from Further education and expand its portfolio of qualifications offered at third level. Today, there is no ‘one-size fits all’ student. For HEIs to keep up a diverse cohort of contemporary students, they must adapt to meet their needs. HEIs must come down from their ivory tower and spend some time understanding the ‘swampy lowlands,’ “where situations are confusing messes incapable of technical solution and “usually involve problems of greatest human concern” (Schön, 1983, p. 42).

In a quest to ‘future-proof’ apprenticeship programmes in Ireland, The Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021–2025 aims to open 10,000 new apprenticeships through a single apprenticeship system with supports for employers and apprentices. It proposes a “systems change and culture change” in Further and Higher education wherein the traditional university degree is not the only esteemed option. The intention of the Action Plan is to fully embed apprenticeship as an option within the national education and training system, transforming apprenticeship from a well-established route to a career in niche areas (the craft professions) to a well-established route to a broad range of careers and which is attractive to employers and learners. By 2025, apprenticeship will sit firmly within the broader education and training landscape as a core offering.


What can Higher Education learn from this? Higher education must meet and serve the needs of students, industry and wider society in the way that this Action Plan sets out to do. We are dealing with a constellation of global challenges and “the daily work we do within higher education institutions must be understood within, and connect and respond to, a rapidly changing world and should offer both visions and practical paths to aid our students and the broader society in moving forward with hope, wisdom, integrity and courage” (Austin, 2012, p.57).

The ‘Earn and Learn’ model proposed by the Apprenticeship Plan aims to be accessible to more groups in society, rather than the archetypal middle-class school leaver. As Minister Harris highlights, today’s apprenticeships are for people who “can’t just pack their bags and head to university for three or four years, perhaps they have kids or dependents or a mortgage”. Equality of opportunity in Higher education is fundamental in dismissing linear, narrow and restricted pathways that have previously been the sole option for learners. Actively reducing boundaries between modes and levels of study must be a key ambition of HEIs moving forward. The Apprenticeship Plan nurtures lifelong learning and acknowledges a key association between education institutions, graduates and their employers in facilitating this. “Lifelong learning is oriented to the future, based on the development of the human potential of individuals, led by information-gathering-and-using skills, and focused on learning and learners” (Longworth & Davies, 1996, p.179). On a quest of fulfilment, lifelong learning provides learners with an ability to value knowledge and opportunities for its acquisition.

We know that many HE traditional degrees offer little in terms of practical knowledge to apply to real-world challenges. The traditional, linear knowledge-descent from academics to students for their consumption must evolve. The challenges of today demand practical application of knowledge and skills in a tangible sense to solve a given problem. The challenges of the 21st century are too great to only produce very smart but ultimately ineffectual graduates. The traditional student lives in the world of discourse, but they must also live in the world of action. There will always be a need for rigorous traditional degrees, rigorous academically trained graduates and the pursuit of knowledge, but we need thinkers who are also do-ers, makers and practitioners.


How do we go about making change in HEIs? As we look to examples in Further Education, we believe that a strategic design approach provides an overarching framework for implementation of transformation in higher education. Strategic design is future-facing, agile and centred on the needs and goals of students, industry and society.

A strategically designed university:

(1) encourages and facilitates individuals and teams within HEIs to centre on people’s needs & goals, and the resulting empathy and understanding helps guide better decision-making to create more meaningful outcomes.

(2) encourages and facilitates curiosity and openness to allow teams within a HEI to discover patterns and collect & connect them to develop real insight.

(3) encourages and facilitates intellectual humility amongst HEI staff in order to help challenge biases, question norms & create an openness to new ideas.

(4) encourages and facilitates co-creation and the coming together of diverse mindsets across the HEI in order to help tackle complex challenges facing the HEIs.

(5) encourages and facilitates collaboration and exploration across silos of the HEI to assist in the discovery of innovative solutions.

(6) encourages and facilitates HEI individuals and teams to make abstract ideas tangible, iterate and experiment to unlock powerful thinking, learning and team alignment.

(7) encourages and facilitates HEI individuals and teams to get comfortable in ambiguity, discourages jumping to solutions too quickly and leads to more informed understanding, points-of-view & ideas.

(8) encourages and facilitates simple, empathetic and creative communication in order to build a shared vision and inspire action.

If universities follow these principles as they plot the course ahead, they will be able to audit, research, reframe, ideate, validate and execute a new university operating system to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. And this may mean blurring the lines between what constitutes further and higher education to create a more diverse, flexible and inclusive educational landscape at third level that is attuned to the challenges ahead.

We propose four immediate action points:

  1. Be open to learning from other industries and sectors, including taking inspiration from Further Education’s Apprenticeship Plan.

2. Audit and reflect on your individual and institutional capacity for change. This requires intellectual humility and a willingness to make change. We recommend using the ‘Forces of Progress’ Exercise.

3. As we seek to centre on the needs & goals of a diverse cohort of university stakeholders, we can utilise research tools such as Journey Mapping and Empathy Mapping. These simple tools dismantle the ‘empathy delusion’ (Tenzer and Murray, 2019) wherein people believe that they know the problems students and staff face. We can only know and solve the problems our stakeholders face when we talk to them and step into their shoes.

4. Try to test pilot a new idea with the use of a prototype. Testing your intentions becomes invaluable as our concept then forgoes multiple iterations of testing it with users and fabricating new versions.

The Maynooth University Innovation Lab (Mi:Lab) takes a human-centred design approach to exploring and tackling challenges within the higher education system.

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