News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Something is seriously broken in Irish education

Dan O'Brien

Published 25/04/2014 | 02:30

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In 2012 the annual disposable income of somebody with a third-level degree or higher was, on average, more than double that of someone who never went further than primary school.
In 2012 the annual disposable income of somebody with a third-level degree or higher was, on average, more than double that of someone who never went further than primary school.
Despite some of the highest levels of tertiary education, Ireland's 25- 34-year-olds do badly in problem-solving in technology-rich environments
Despite some of the highest levels of tertiary education, Ireland's 25- 34-year-olds do badly in problem-solving in technology-rich environments

IN the week that the country's teachers meet for their annual conferences, there could hardly be a better time to discuss the economic importance of education.

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By way of preface, though, let's start by stating the obvious. Education is about many things and the economic dimension – what it means for people's working lives, their earnings and how economies function – is only one aspect.

At an individual level, education enriches people's lives by broadening their horizons and allowing them the chance to fulfil their potential. At the broadest societal level, it changes the way people interact and behave, as measured by almost every indicator. Indeed, so wide-ranging are the benefits that there is even a debate about whether education make us morally better people.

Such questions are beyond the scope of an economics column, but they are worth posing, not least to dispel any impression that the discussion below suggests that education's only function is to make citizens into more efficient units of production.

That said, the learning embedded in a country's population is increasingly the most important determinant of wider economic performance and a people's material well-being.

Last week, this column discussed income inequality in general following the publication of the most recent statistics on the subject.

Those same numbers also highlighted the importance of education in determining one's income. And the message from them is simple: the longer you stay in education, the higher your income will be.

As the first chart shows, in 2012 the annual disposable income of somebody with a third-level degree or higher was, on average, more than double that of someone who never went further than primary school. A similar pattern is to be observed in any country where such figures are compiled.

One of many reasons that those with more education tend to have higher incomes is because they spend less of their working-age lives unemployed. Separate data on joblessness show that the higher one's educational qualification, the lower the rate of unemployment.

And with many low- and medium-skills jobs disappearing, insecurity of employment for the low-skilled will only increase in the future.

So for any young person considering further education or thinking about dropping out, the evidence is about as clear-cut as it could be – you are likely to be poorer and less secure in your earnings for the rest of your life if you give up on learning.

Thankfully, that message appears to be well understood in Ireland, as the proportion dropping out of secondary school before Leaving Cert has fallen below 10pc of schoolgoers and the number going on to third-level continues to rise.

Last year, according to Europe-wide data, Ireland passed an important milestone, with the proportion of the 25-34 age cohort holding a third-level qualification passing the 50pc threshold for the first time.

This is, as it has been for some time, the highest among the 28 members of the EU. Only a few other countries in the world now have a higher rate.

As the second chart shows, the trend in all advanced economies has been to give more young people the opportunity to access third-level education. The proportion of the 25-34 age cohort holding a tertiary qualification in the EU as a whole has risen by more than half since the turn of the century.

This is a crucial component of building a 'knowledge economy' – something upon which politicians almost everywhere place great emphasis. That the proportion of the young adult population in Ireland (which includes non-nationals, as well as nationals) with third-level qualifications is higher than in competitor knowledge economies – especially Britain and the Nordics – is also important.

But having large numbers of degree holders is not enough. Quality matters at least as much as quantity. And new evidence on the quality of adult skills levels gives cause for real concern.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recently expanded its coverage of skills issues. Adding to its PISA scores, which measure literacy and numeracy skills among 15-year-old school-goers relative to their peers in other countries, it is now measuring the skills and abilities of adults in the workforce.

Its first 'Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies' (PIAAC) was published last year. It sounded very loud alarm bells for this country. Shockingly, Ireland ranks fifth from bottom of the 24 countries included in the survey.

If this was largely the result of older age groups, who had more limited access to education than their peers in other countries, there would be little to worry about. But it isn't.

Most shocking of all is that despite some of the highest levels of tertiary education, Ireland's 25- 34-year-olds do badly in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

Given the importance of the information and communications technology sector in Ireland, and the hopes for its future, this is particularly worrying.

The 25-34 cohorts in Ireland also rank poorly in literacy and numeracy skills, despite PISA scores pointing to above-average performances when they were of school-going age. Exactly why there is such a difference between Ireland's PISA and PIAAC rankings needs urgent investigation.

The difference clearly points to something going wrong between the ages of 15 and the time people enter the world of work. Although it is far from clear what is going wrong, the starting place for any investigation would appear to be third-level institutions.

It is pertinent to conclude by saying what any investigation into poor comparative adult skills levels does not need: more megaphoning from education professionals.

There may be a reflexive instinct to blame budget cuts for the poor PIAAC performance, but that cannot be the case. That PIAAC survey was taken in 2012.

As the overwhelming majority of those in the 25-34 cohort had already completed their third-level education by 2009, anyone who blames reduced resources is barking up the wrong tree.

Whatever the real reason, we need to know. If the problem is not addressed, plans to build a cutting-edge knowledge economy could easily come unstuck.

The OECD PIAAC report is available at http://www.publicpolicy.ie/wp-content/uploads/OECD-Skills-Surveys-2013-Commentary.pdf For those interested in a very brief synopsis of the issues that are relevant to Ireland, the think tank publicpolicy.ie has recently published a two-page note.

Irish Independent

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