Science and technology – a crisis for Ireland?

Just as the results of Ireland’s final school examinations (the Leaving Certificate) were released this week, the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland (representing US companies here) issued a warning that the country’s capacity to attract foreign investment, particularly from the United States, is under threat. The Chamber observed:

One of the key attractions for US investment in Ireland is a flexible, highly educated workforce.  If we are to retain and grow this investment we need to ensure a continuous pipeline of graduates with the skills which will drive innovation across all industry sectors such as ICT, pharmaceuticals, engineering, biotech and financial services. Reform in the education system to make the necessary and sizeable change to the curriculum must focus on creativity and innovative thinking and the problem solving capabilities that an engaging mathematics and science programme brings to Ireland’s future development.

There were two causes that prompted these comments: the continuing reduction in the number of Leaving Certificate students taking higher level mathematics, and the news that there was a disproportionate number of third level students dropping out of science and technology degree programmes. So the Chamber urged that there should be more investment in measures that might provide solutions to these problems and thereby increase the number of skilled graduates in these vital areas.

This is territory that has been covered before in this blog, and it is clear that the solution depends on action at a number of different levels. There is no doubt that mathematics and science teaching at both primary and secondary level is a problem, as is the availability of appropriate equipment and laboratory facilities in schools. Given that the Task Force on the Physical Sciences reported on all that seven years ago without any coherent response from the government to date, it should surprise no-one that we have a very serious problem. But it also seems obvious that higher education institutions need to look closely at these issues and see whether either a curriculum adjustment in some programmes, or the allocation of bonus points in the CAO system, might provide some improvement. But above all, it seems to me that all these stakeholders need to engage in a joint discussion with joint agreed actions. So far the experience has been that while there has been plenty of comment there has been no joint process of discussion and action. These are not issues that only the government can resolve, or only the universities; there has to be a joint approach.

It is not too late, I think. But it is high time to act. Not just public statements of concern, but real action.

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8 Comments on “Science and technology – a crisis for Ireland?”

  1. MikeMurphy Says:

    I also noted in the same study boys are doing poorly and this is common in many western democracies including the UK, the USA and Canada.

    Professor Mark Perry at the University of Michigan showed the 2009 grad classes in the US and it looks as follows:

    Perry shows that men are now on the wrong side of the degree gap at every stage of education. Here are his figures for the class of 2009:

    Associate’s degrees: 167 for women for every 100 for men.

    Bachelor’s degrees: 142 for women for every 100 for men.

    Master’s degrees: 159 for women for every 100 for men.

    Professional degrees: 104 for women for every 100 for men.

    Doctoral degrees: 107 for women for every 100 for men.

    Degrees at all levels: 148 for women for every 100 for men.

    I’m from Canada and an observer/critic of modern feminism and I believe an imbalance is occurring in western democracies and perhaps elsewhere. I’m uncertain of it plays out in Ireland.

    I agree with your thoughts on mortar boards. In most countries, including Canada and the USA both genders wear them. You have an opportunity to set the pace in Ireland.

    You have a good blog. As a boy who grew up in a working class poor home I couldn’t ever think of higher education. After I started work and I was making an income I started my degree part time and finally finished it. It was one of the proudest days of my life. Your comments on those boys you met reminded me of myself and it is an opportunity just waiting to be taken.

    I’m uncertain of your part time studies programs but it is a way to try and capture those who have the ability and have started earning income. Some may not have finished secondary school completely but may have the ability as mature students. I’m sure you already have all of this in place but some of them may get to you by reaching out when you are getting media attention.

    All the best.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Do you not think that the kids are in tune with the future employment zeitgeist. And that you are leaning towards the college sitting in a colliery town training cattle for the pits and the seam.
    The other day, they wheeled out one of those so called high end employers. There he was bemoaning the fact he had to go outside the State for his educated workforce. But he did not give one indication that he could train up this force himself. Oh No, he expected that just because he -the little Gods gift- decided to start a for profit company everyone should bend over and do everything to insure that company is profitable. That the Universities should have known he was about to establish, that the kids in expectation to his requirements should have studied their little hearts out and in sufficient numbers to make sure that his wage bill was kept to a minimum. And all of this predicated on a prescience when the kids were 16 and deciding whether to sit higher maths.
    Also the same person was bemoaning that the Uni’s were too focused on research to the detriment of teaching. Here I feel he may well have something. The Uni’s should ignore the Government and their requirements for ever more artificers and provide top class officers that can and will move outside the State.
    Welcome back, BTW, hope you had a good holiday.

  3. Mike Says:

    I don’t think listening to industry spokespeople is a good way to estimate the number of students we should train and what areas we should target. I recall recently that industry in Ireland was ‘screaming out’ for Ph.D. graduates. Now we discover industry cant absorb all the graduates and many (myself included) need to emigrate to find a suitable job.

    There has to be an underlying reason why potentially superb science/technology students are veering away from such careers.

    My own hunch is that careers in science and technology are not attractive. These jobs are generally hard and require a lot of education, with not much in the way of compensation. In order to attract the “youth” to these careers, we need to make the jobs more attractive.

    My 2c

    • Thank you, Mike – and I am sorry that you are facing such a dilemma. I do however wonder whether some of this is related to better communication and better careers support. I recently spoke with a company that is setting up a major plant in the Midlands and needs 40 per cent of its workforce to have PhDs. I think we do need to listen to industry spokespeople, so that we can match supply and demand more effectively.

      Having said all that, what I was writing about here was the problem we are having with secondary school qualifications and undergraduate degrees.

  4. John P. Says:

    As another PhD graduate facing the dole queue/emigration, I am reluctant to listen to industry spokespersons and the nonsense government sponsored rhetoric about Fourth Level Ireland. We have created what amount to little more than PhD factories in many departments in which there is scant funding and little prospect of employment. As someone who has spent the best part of a decade buying into the idea of the knowledge economy it is with heavy heart that I find that I have no choice but to take the skills that the Irish taxpayer paid for through grant funding elsewhere. There are six in my department graduating with PhDs this Autumn and we are all in the same boat. A poor return on investment I would think.

  5. Tom M Says:

    Part of the solution is definitely in the way the CAO allocates points for these subjects – some kind of premium must be allocated for Sciences and higher Maths. Even back when I was in second level in the 80s, plenty of competent students dropped out of Higher level maths because they calculated that the effort required vs. the points gained was not worth it.

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