Ireland must become location of choice for third-level students

Higher education, both at an individual and societal level, is key to the social, economic and cultural development of the country

Research shows that education is not only beneficial for individuals, but for society as a whole. Picture: Getty

For a small country, Ireland punches above its weight when it comes to the quality and diversity of higher education on offer throughout the island.

Indeed, the higher education landscape is constantly evolving and adapting through its matrix of universities, technological universities, institutes of technology and colleges of further education.

These are buttressed by other third-level institutions which provide specialist education in fields such as art and design, medicine, business studies, rural development, theology, music, law and much else.

What is clear is that third-level education attainment makes a huge difference, not only in terms of career prospects and earning potential, but also in personal development and the ability to contribute to society.

Studies consistently show that individuals with higher levels of education tend to have better health outcomes, are more engaged in their communities and have a greater sense of personal fulfilment. The key finding is that investing in education is not only beneficial for individuals, but also for society as a whole.

Ireland ranks third in the OECD for the rate of third-level education attainment – at 54 per cent, compared to the average of 41 per cent – according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Education at a Glance report for 2021. Furthermore, 63 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds in Ireland are in education – well above the OECD average of 54 per cent and the EU22 average of 59 per cent.

These statistics are often cited as one of the key reasons for Ireland’s success in continuing to attract foreign direct investment and for the growth in the knowledge economy.

According to Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, the supply of highly educated graduates is the keystone of Ireland’s appeal to Fortune 500 companies in industries from pharma to tech.

“Universities are pivotal to the supply of high-skills talent and the research and innovation that underpins the knowledge economy,” Miley told the Business Post.

“Talent rather than tax is now the nation’s calling card. Our universities are at the heart of our regional growth clusters, including ICT, bio-pharma, medtech, agrifood and life sciences. They also foster the cultural creativity of the country. As public institutions, universities will continue as core stakeholders in the future social, economic and cultural development of Ireland.”

The demand for highly skilled employees across Ireland and the globe has led to a greater demand for higher educational attainment. According to a major report carried out by consultancy Indecon and released prior to the pandemic in 2017, there were more than 120,000 students enrolled in universities in Ireland – up 50 per cent from 2000.

That intake also included more than 16,700 full-time international students from more than 100 countries. They also make a significant impact on the economy. In 2017 alone, international students in Ireland generated an estimated €386 million in total annual export income. What’s more, Ireland’s seven universities contributed €8.9 billion to the economy.

Attaining higher education qualification also impacts hugely on earning potential. Graduates generate an income premium significantly beyond those with no third-level education and have consistently lower unemployment rates, even during recession years.

Innovation initiatives

As the single biggest funder of higher education in Ireland, the state is spearheading initiatives to drive innovation in higher education.

In December 2022, Simon Harris, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, announced the establishment of a National Tertiary Office.

The office will be set up within the Higher Education Authority to develop joint further and higher education degree programmes, with 13 disciplines to come on stream this year.

Harris described the new initiative as a “game changer”, adding that it had been on the agenda for decades to create a “unified third-level system in Ireland. One in which you are driven by the career you wish, rather than the points you get”.

This is that vision in action. For September 2023 we will roll out courses where the student will commence their degree in further education and progress to higher education.

This will ensure there are alternative routes to the points system. It will reduce dropout rates and, crucially, it will ensure we have a system that is driven by the needs of the learners.

Equally, the launch of ‘Impact 2030: Ireland’s Research and Innovation Strategy’ in 2022 is a major investment in strengthening research and innovation in the higher education sector in Ireland.

Impact 2030 is also, as Harris said, a recognition that in order to attract the best talent from across the globe to Ireland’s research institutes, the state needs to invest.

Speaking at the launch of Impact 2030, Harris said, “As the attraction and retention of world-class talent becomes increasingly competitive on a global level, Ireland needs to be a location of choice for the best and the brightest in order to realise our ambitions.”

Impact 2030 is a multifaceted approach to strengthening the environment for research. Key action points include strengthening technological universities’ research and innovation offices in order to increase regional impact, as well as increasing the number of female entrepreneurs and research students from under-represented groups.

As the OECD noted, while Ireland is outperforming many of its peers on opening doors to higher education, the state actually spends less on higher education. In fact, Ireland was placed at the bottom of 36 countries when it comes to investing in education as a measure of gross domestic product (GDP), according to the most recent Education at a Glance report from the OECD.

Spending on education in Ireland in terms of its GDP amounted to 3.1 per cent of our GDP in 2019: 2.3 per cent in terms of primary and secondary, and just 0.8 per cent at third level. In comparison, the UK devoted 6.1 per cent of its GDP to education spending.

Responding to that report, Harris highlighted the importance and impact of higher education, both at an individual and societal level.

“We have a good track record in relation to third-level education in Ireland, and I am pleased to see us building on this year on year,” Harris said.

“It is clear from the OECD report that Irish people understand its importance for their own well-being and success in life.”