Wednesday 20 February 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Forget the 'brain drain' - we can count on a 'brain gain' as Ireland climbs world education ladder'

Almost half of all adults in the prime of their working lives in Ireland have a third-level qualification. That is the highest in all of Europe. It is far above the EU average of less than one in three. Stock picture
Almost half of all adults in the prime of their working lives in Ireland have a third-level qualification. That is the highest in all of Europe. It is far above the EU average of less than one in three. Stock picture
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Almost half of all adults in the prime of their working lives in Ireland have a third-level qualification. That is the highest in all of Europe. It is far above the EU average of less than one in three.

That Ireland has the most educated cohort of people of prime working age - aged 25 to 64 - is not only quite something in itself, the speed of the change has been astonishing.

Back in 1992, when the figures were first collated, fewer than one in five Irish adults in the prime of life had a third-level qualification. This quite incredible change is testament to the highly meritocratic nature of Irish society and, as someone who has lived and worked in six other European countries where there is often less equality of opportunity, I don't think we give ourselves nearly enough credit for this openness.

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Last week marked the International Day of Education. Eurostat - the EU's statistics agency - published a wealth of information on the topic to coincide with the day.

With so much negativity and fears around Brexit, the really good news about Ireland's achievements in education is worth highlighting, not least because however bad things get in the short term in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Ireland's extraordinarily high levels of "human capital" will stand the country in good stead over the longer term.

Another strikingly positive trend recorded in the figures is the dramatic collapse in the share of the population with the lowest level of education.

Just 17pc of people in their prime in Ireland are educated to Inter/Junior Cert level or lower. A mere quarter of a century ago it stood at 58pc.

It is hard to exaggerate the enormity of this change given how transformative education is to how people live their lives.

And it gets better - progress looks set to continue. More than half of Irish 24-34-year-olds now hold third-level qualifications and only 8pc left school early - one of the lowest rates in Europe.

This progress goes against any notion that long-term living standards in Ireland have stagnated or declined. Across the Western world there is an idea that vast swathes of the population have been "left behind" because of de-industrialisation and globalisation. Sometimes this narrative has taken hold in some quarters in Ireland despite the absence of evidence to support it. Bunkum should always be debunked.

Where a debate might be had is whether a country is well-educated because it's wealthy or if its wealth is thanks to a well-educated population. As with most such questions, the answer is complicated, but there is no doubt investment in education by people, societies and governments pays off.

From the 1960s, Irish governments placed more emphasis on education. Probably the most famous educational decision was the abolition of secondary school fees in 1966.

This in turn led to more demand for third level. Several Regional Technical Colleges were established, which have since become Institutes of Technology and/or universities. Additionally, there was much-needed investment in vocational training - something, it should be acknowledged, that was partly funded by EU subsidies.

A more educated workforce is unquestionably more productive and innovative. And Ireland's highly educated population has been a major selling point for foreign investment - the many high-tech manufacturing and services companies located here would not have come without an educated workforce. Indeed, for some time Ireland has had one of the highest shares of graduates in engineering, science and technology in Europe.

The presence of multinationals goes some way to explaining why Ireland's foreign-born population is relatively well-educated compared to the rest of Europe - any large multinational providing goods and services to foreign markets needs people with mother-tongue level language skills. The Irish education system can claim many achievements, but proficiency in languages other than English is not one of them.

In large part thanks to the multinationals, 56pc of foreign-born people living in Ireland are third-level educated, compared with 44pc of Irish-born. This is well above foreign rates in Italy (14pc), Germany (25pc), and France (31pc).

This, it is worth noting, is not only down to lots of degree-wielding folk from former communist countries in Europe. Ireland's non-EU-born population has an eye-popping third-level rate of 66pc.

A counter-response to the positive news above might be to claim we export too many of our graduates. It's true the recession hit new graduates particularly hard.

According to CSO migration estimates, 294,000 people with third-level qualifications departed in the 2009-18 period. However, 347,000 immigrated or returned home. In other words, there was net inward migration of high-skilled people over the decade - a "brain gain" rather than "brain drain".

What about the hot topic of gender? As in most European countries, Irish women are more likely to go to third-level than men - exactly half of 25-64-year-old women have third-level qualifications compared with 43pc of men (both are well above the European norm).

The gender gap did not always exist. Traditionally, university was the preserve of men. But greater gender equality and female labour force participation over the past half century has turned things around. By the late 1990s, third-level completion rates among 24-34-year-olds were roughly equal between the sexes.

Women have pulled ahead since. There is little sign of the gap narrowing.

Irish Independent

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