Saturday 18 November 2017

Why it pays to get a degree in this country

Education at a Glance is an annual report from the international think tank, the OECD, comparing systems in more than 30 developed countries. John Walshe sifts through its latest findings

The figures show that working for a qualification after the Leaving Certificate is a good investment. Stock image
The figures show that working for a qualification after the Leaving Certificate is a good investment. Stock image

John Walshe

If you want to be healthy, wealthy and wise then stay in the education system until you get a qualification. The figures show that working for a qualification after the Leaving Certificate is a good investment.

According to Education at a Glance, an Irish male graduate can expect to earn on average €330,000 more over their lifetime than a male who leaves the education system with the Leaving Cert or equivalent. In fact, the financial benefits of a degree to an Irish male graduate are among the highest in the world.

For a female graduate, the earnings "premium" from having a degree is lower at around €250,000 - yet another sign of the gender pay gap.

Graduates - both male and female - are much more likely to be working than those without a degree. In Ireland and a slew of other countries, the unemployment rates for adults who went to college are less than half of those who left at the end of second level and significantly lower than those who dropped out early. The biggest winners are those with information and communication technology skills.

It's not just the graduates who benefit. So too do governments as third level graduates pay higher income taxes and social contributions and require fewer social transfers such as the dole. "This is the case in Luxembourg, Ireland and Portugal - countries with very large net financial and public returns," says the OECD report.

Of course, not everybody with a degree is automatically doing well financially but comparative data show that, for the most part, Irish graduates are much better off than those who left the education system early or at the end of the Leaving Cert year.

The report confirms that early school-leavers in Ireland are being increasingly penalised on the jobs front for dropping out of education too soon. Seven years ago, 68pc (a little over two in three) of 25 to 34-year-olds who left school early were in jobs - but that has since plummeted to 44pc (less than half). This is not unique to Ireland. Other countries where less than half of those who failed to complete upper secondary education are employed include Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and South Africa.

Common sense tells us that not all early school-leavers fare badly in the jobs' stakes. We are all familiar with the 'self made' individual who was "never good at the books" but who had a keen nose for a business opportunity. As the OECD notes: "In several countries, the share of the low-educated with the highest earnings is 5pc or more - Brazil (7pc), Canada (7pc), Estonia (5pc), Ireland (5pc) Mexico (6pc) and Spain (6pc) - suggesting that factors other than educational attainment play an important role in high remuneration in these countries." Family connections, the right opportunities and luck are obviously such factors.

We are fortunate, though, that the "stay in school" message is hitting home as the percentages remaining in the Irish system have risen over the past decade. But within the early school-leaver group is a category we should be alarmed about. Somewhere in the region of a fifth of young people in the 15-29 age group are the new NEETS - they are neither in employment nor in education. They are a challenge for policy makers and for society.

The 452-page report is certainly not a quick read but is worth persevering with to learn, for instance, how other countries successfully use education and training to reduce inequalities that can persist across generations.

Places like Germany, Austria and Switzerland that combine study with work-based programmes blunted the job loss effects of the recession for young people. Ireland is a relatively late comer to providing a wide range of these types of 'earn while you learn' programmes.

But now Solas and the Higher Education Authority are expanding the number of work-study apprenticeships, some of which will lead to degrees with the remainder leading to other worthwhile qualifications.

Irish Independent

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