IRELAND could become one of the world's smartest and wealthiest nations – but it will need planning for education over the next 50 years, according to Higher Education Authority boss, Tom Boland.
He said Ireland, and the EU as a whole, needed to expand the provision of education to cope with population growth.
As a country, Mr Boland said he believed "we still have not grasped the size of the potential for Ireland's place in the world over coming decades".
He pointed to the expected 45pc growth in Ireland's population over the next 50 years, well ahead of the 3pc average in the EU. In the same period the population of Africa is expected to double.
While the EU population will rise by 15 million, Ireland will contribute two million, or 13pc, of that growth, even though it accounts for less than 0.9pc current total EU population, he said. But Mr Boland warned that population growth alone would not make us rich, and without high levels of education the opposite is the case.
"So we must expand education provision at all levels to keep pace and avail of our advantage.
"We must continue to reach into the parts of our society where people still see education, especially higher education, as elitist and not for them."
He said that Ireland's young population must be viewed as the driver of progress and supported and encouraged.
Other factors that gave Ireland a position of strength include an English-speaking population, a unique cultural heritage and higher education institutions that were responsive to wider society, he said.
"Ireland has the potential to emerge as a strong player in the global higher education landscape of the future," he said.
Mr Boland was addressing heads of third-level colleges about progress in reforms in Irish higher education to equip it for the challenges ahead, including competing for students, staff and research investment in a global world.
Changes will involve college mergers, greater collaboration across institutions, clear definitions of the mission of individual colleges and the elimination of unnecessary and wasteful course duplication.
Mr Boland acknowledged that the system had coped with the twin challenges of funding and staffing reductions of up to 15pc, combined with a 15pc increase in student numbers over the past five years.