What next for Ireland? – Education and research

Last September, at the ‘Global Economic Forum’ held in Farmleigh, former Intel chief executive and chairman Craig Barrett created something of a stir when he suggested that Ireland was under-performing in both education and research and development, and that these failings needed to be corrected if the country was to pull itself out of recession. I wasn’t at the Forum (hey, I wasn’t invited), but I gather from some who were there that Barrett electrified the proceedings and set the tone for a significant debate.

Yesterday evening I was able, along with a few hundred others, to hear him develop his theme a little more at a public lecture organised by the Royal Irish Academy. It was a fascinating talk given by someone with an external perspective but with significant inside knowledge of Ireland.

In his lecture, he set out what he described as some ‘observations’ on current global conditions, followed by a list of things that Ireland needs to get right, and finally by a list of proposals or recommendations for the country.

His observations were as follows:

• Levels of income in any country are closely connected with the educational attainments of the population.
• Levels of productivity – which are vital for future growth – are closely linked to the successful harnessing of new technology .
• It is possible to identify the significant technologies of the future: nanotechnology, nano- and micro-electronics, photonics, biotechnology, new materials and alternative energy.
• Future economic growth will depend critically on entrepreneurship and successful start-ups.

From this he developed his list of national needs:

• A national education system that compares well with the best in the world and is based on excellence. He pointed out that Ireland’s education system has inadequate public investment and performs poorly in vital subjects such as mathematics and science.
• A system of higher education and research that promotes and values basic research, that encourages spin-outs from that research, and that allows universities to be ‘wealth creation centres’. Currently, he believes, Ireland’s universities lack proper expertise in relation to these goals, and their global standing is not as good as it could be.
• The right environment, particularly as regards taxation, IT infrastructure, and a culture that values risk-taking.

Then he presented 10 recommendations for Ireland:

(1) Our goal should be that Ireland’s education system becomes number 1 globally in all subjects, taking account in particular of our current failings in mathematics and science.
(2) We need to have excellent teachers who are truly experts in the subjects they teach. The teaching profession should be rewarded on the basis of performance, not seniority.
(3) Our education system should emphasise 21st century skills such as problem solving and interdisciplinarity, and should rely less on rote learning.
(4) More students need to study mathematics and science at third level, and we should reform the CAO points system in order to ‘bias the system towards the results we need’.
(5) Ireland’s universities need to focus more on delivering start-ups, following the example of Stanford or MIT.
(6) Ireland needs to implement the Lisbon target of investing 3 per cent of GDP in research and development; right now we are only managing about half of that.
(7) We need to ‘grow the economy from within’, as foreign direct investment is unlikely to go back to previous levels. Future growth must come from indigenous start-ups and from entrepreneurship, and we need to have a framework that encourages and facilitates this.
(8) Ireland needs to focus – we cannot do everything, so we need to prioritise those areas in which we can add value and lead.
(9) We need to achieve a dramatic improvement in our IT infrastructure.
(10) Ireland needs to want to compete with the world and to base its economic and business systems on that ambition.

This, it seems to me, represents a good basis for a new national strategy.

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4 Comments on “What next for Ireland? – Education and research”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The system we have at the moment is designed to provide a pliant population for an officer corp. An corp not necessarily in any real army, leastwise not one existing to-day, but nonetheless run on those lines. And while this system has its merits, one thing it does not bring to the fore is individual thought and action.
    George Lee is a case in point, his error was in going into a large party for the large party has a developed life of its own. He should have done a Parlon on it and joined with the Greens. And I’m really surprised at the level of outrage expressed by both FG and Lee.
    Barrett is correct, vast changes are needed to survive at any level never mind at or near the top in the coming years. The question is whether the political parties have the wherewithal to metamorphosize or will we look back down the tree and see the husk still clinging there unopened. But in the end it will not matter over much for like with the Taxi drivers and the Publicans, those who cling to out dated control systems will simply be by-passed or as with the pubs largely ignored.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    Indeed provided that the interpretation/translation of these suggestions into political action doesnt end up narrowing the sector to smaller number of ‘elite’ institutions rather than ensuring the value of a diverse educational ecosystem in fostering creativity and innovation. The mismatch between funding and the OECD target is also worth reiterating as is the value of universities in the cultural and civic domains.

  3. NMQ Says:

    I can think of a few companies, let alone teachers, that could do with a better balance of Point 2 (not just emphasising seniority, but balancing the two)……

  4. ed sanders Says:

    Kids today are not stupid, they want to optimisze the effort they expend vs the reward they can expect. When someone who is studying engineering realises that his/her salary is capped by what an equivalent engineer in China or India earns they know that they are fighting a losing battle. Along with facing a very uncertain career path ( It will be fraught with constant threats of outsourcing ) . We live in a free market economy which will always drive for lower cost. Any job that can be oursourced will.

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