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.