Friday 20 September 2019

Education the key to Ireland's entire future

THE pre-Budget debate has begun. Government Ministers are out stressing why their departments need to be protected. Interest groups are lobbying to ensure the October speech by Michael Noonan reflects their concerns. The focus is on what will happen next year but there is little consideration as to where we want to be in ten years or in twenty years.

When John F Kennedy visited here in 1963, fewer than one in 25 of the Irish adult population held a third level qualification. Second level education was not free and if you had a Leaving Certificate (especially if you were a woman), you were in a distinct minority.

This year, over 90% of 18-year-olds sat their Leaving Certificate and about two thirds of those will go on to study in higher education. Thousands more will enter further education and training courses. We now have more graduates per 1,000 people in their twenties and thirties than any other country in Europe.

In a world where knowledge is power and where technology is breaking down boundaries, young Irish people are now shaping global society at home and abroad in ways unimaginable to those who welcomed JFK to these shores.

While much focus in recent times has been on the attractive corporation tax rate as a reason why multinationals locate in Ireland, the other main reason is often overlooked. Talent. We have a young, flexible, intelligent citizenry who can contribute to any company and who equally are committed to improving society.

Ireland has gone from being a country with one of the lowest levels of educational attainment in the western world to being one of the more successful. This was because of long term investment decisions made as far back as the 60s and the commitment of teachers, parents, students and others.

When speaking in New Ross, Kennedy mentioned that he could have ended up working his whole life in John V Kelly's or in the Albatros plant. The average school leaver today is likely to change job fourteen times before his or her retirement.

New technologies require all of us to constantly upskill and learn new ways of doing things. For a student in the third year of a technological qualification, half of what he or she learned in first year will already have become redundant.

The future will be shaped by those individuals and countries that invest in education systems that result in critical thinkers who can explore and communicate new ways of doing things.

In the early 1990s, Finland faced as great an economic crisis as we have done in Ireland over the last five years. There was a banking crisis, unemployment jumped to nearly 20% and housing prices halved. The Finnish government was forced to slash public spending and increase taxes. The one area that it protected and in which it chose to invest was education. Today, in nearly every international study, Finland finishes at or near the top of all education charts. It is also weathering the current international crisis better than almost all other EU countries.

As with the Finns, Ireland investing in education is a long term strategy but it will have enormous returns for us as individuals, as an economy and as a society.

Or as John F Kennedy once put it: 'Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.'

New Ross Standard