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Invest on Education to Achieve Economic Growth: Ireland – A Model Worthy to Note

Invest on Education to Achieve Economic Growth: Ireland – A Model Worthy to Note

Two covers of the Economist newspaper, showing the speed and effect of the change. Two special reports on Ireland, the first in 1988, describing Ireland as the “Poorest of the rich”, the second in 1997, less than a decade later, showing the “The Celtic Tiger: Europe’s shining light” (from Wikipedia).

The town of Leixlip, in County Kildare, is the birthplace of Guinness beer. But Guinness was yesterday; the company of today is Intel, which recently built a plant worth $5 billion.

Thousands of well educated workers are making the chips that drive Europe’s computers. Intel knows a good thing when it sees one; a new building is being added to its plant in County Kildare.

Do you remember the sad town of Limerick of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), where jobs were as rare as jewels? Well, today 4,000 workers in Limerick are busy building computers for Dell.

Leixlip, Kildare County, and Limerick are only three of the regions that experienced the miraculous economic boom in the Republic of Ireland, one of the wealthiest European countries, which used to be on the other extreme only two decades ago. The name “Celtic Tiger” is therefore very well deserved, owing to rapid economic growth in Ireland that began in the 1990’s: Irish economy has grown by more than 200% as of today (“Celtic Tiger” is analogous to the phrase “East Asian Tigers” used to annotate South Korea, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan during their periods of rapid tiger growth in the 1980’s and 1990’s).

The economic growth in Ireland can be attributed to foreign investments; at present, over 1,200 multinational corporations (including Microsoft, Dell, and Intel) have chosen Ireland as their base to serve the European market and beyond. Here, these companies do not only find favorable tax environments and competitive operating costs, but they also have the advantage of a highly skilled, productive, and less expensive English speaking workforce created by a strategically planned and carefully executed long term investment in domestic education. Thus, the rate of unemployment in Ireland has remarkably decreased and the persistent emigration of the qualified population has also been successfully reversed.

The educational revolution in Ireland all began in 1965, with the influential report entitled “Investment in Education” sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on education in Ireland. This report emphasized that education was “the key” to the future of Ireland’s society and economy. Although not directly recommended in the report, the government started investing on education beginning in 1967 by paying for all secondary schooling and transportation to school in addition to an intense public awareness campaign initiated on education. This measure resulted in not only a rapid rise in the level of education attained by the younger population, but also a series of noteworthy transformations in the way education was perceived by the society:

• More and more students were availing of education (particularly in second and third level education).
• Students, parents, and teachers increasingly demanded better education services.
• The range of services provided by the Department started growing in response to technological and economic changes and the increasing demand for second level education.
• The public started demanding a more efficient and effective use of government resources and transparency and accountability in the uses to which these public resources are put.
• There was a growing interest by the media and the general public in education policies.

Starting in the early 1990’s, education, technical skills, infrastructure, and the general business environment in Ireland were handled simultaneously as is portrayed in the official review entitled “A Time for Change,” a.k.a. “Culliton” (1992); high quality long term educational policies were created and executed. This critical policy change built upon the strong educational infrastructure was indeed what triggered the massive growth in the Irish economy.

According to the 2004 independent IMD (International Institute for Management Development) World Competitiveness Report, Ireland has one of the best education systems in the world with almost 1 million people who are in full time education. Furthermore, 60% of all high school graduates in the Republic of Ireland choose to continue to higher education and are encouraged to undertake courses in business, engineering, computer, and life sciences in line with the requirements of the contemporary Irish economy. According to the prestigious American magazine “The Scientist”, Ireland is among the elite in several areas of science including biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Ireland now hosts 32 manufacturing plants, approved by the powerful US Food and Drug Administration, and producing 6 of the 10 best selling drugs in the world.

The rapidity of growth in Ireland, fuelled in part by the strategic investments on education, has created its own problems such as the skills shortages emerging in a number of areas, notably in Information Technology, Teleservices, the Construction industry, and hotel and catering services. However, the Irish government, in partnership with educational institutions and industry, is committed to solving these problems in the most direct way possible. Innovations such as the establishment of the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ICSTI) and the allocation of considerable amount of funding on applied research are meant to ensure that Ireland retains the capacity to remain at the leading edge in the technological arena. The setting up of the Future Skills Needs Group to identify and develop strategies to cope with possible skills shortages will ensure a proactive approach to the problem. The Irish government is well aware that maintaining leadership and growth is much harder than achieving them.

Aside from the technical data I have given thus far, I would like to make a note of what Elizabeth Redmond has to say having witnessed part of the educational world in Ireland:

“I’ve been in Ireland when it is at the end of the school year and students are taking their leaving ‘certs’, and depending on how many points you receive on your ‘certs’, this will determine what college program (based on your application to the Central Applications Office) the CAO will offer you to attend. It is a huge event, determining your life direction, which is broadcasted on television. I’ve also been there at the beginning of the year when my husband’s nephews are preparing and having to buy their books and workbooks for school. Every student is responsible for purchasing textbooks, whether you attend a religious supported school or Comprehensive school (the US equivalent to public schools). My nephew is 13 yrs old and in September, will be starting his second year of secondary school; in the US, we think of secondary school as high school, starting at age 14-15 in the 9th grade. Children start school as Junior Infants at age 4, and typically end their secondary school years at age 17. And they HAVE to take second languages. My husband (who was born and raised in Ireland and attended a religious supported school) had to take English, Gaelic (still required), and French! He also began college when he was 17. To me, there is a clear difference in how students and the country, view education in Ireland; to them, it’s competitive and actually means something! Students are truly concerned about passing their ‘certs’ and making enough marks to get into college.”

All in all, the enviable reputation of Ireland with its thriving and knowledge driven economy has a lot to do with the educational policies effectively carried out in the past two decades. In fact, there is a very important lesson that the rest of the world has to learn from the “Celtic Tiger” which has succeeded at a time when almost every other country has been suffering from economic crisis; and this lesson is perhaps the very key to the magical solution in order to give an end to this catastrophe once and for all.

Education is the key to a prosperous future; therefore educational policies must not only mean to save the day. They should be strategically created, meticulously planned, generously supported, and carefully executed in accordance with the requirements and trends of the modern global world.