Ireland sees increase in science postgraduates, but low uptake by school leavers

September 5, 2006

Brussels, 04 Sep 2006

The number of students pursuing postgraduate education in Ireland has increased over the last four years, with almost a third of postgraduates engaged in research-based studies, according to the latest figures from the country's Higher Education Authority (HEA). Other recently published statistics on school leavers would suggest, however, that Ireland will face a deficit in the coming years of candidates for jobs in science, engineering and technology. Published on 25 August, the HEA statistical digest for 2004-5 showed that a total of 22,000 students enrolled in postgraduate courses, with just over 4,500 of these engaged in PhD studies. This is an increase of over 5,000 students in the space of four years, says the HEA.

Almost a third of the postgraduates are engaged in research-based studies, where numbers have increased by 41 per cent, from 5,173 in 2000-1 to 7,306 in 2004-5. Of the total number of postgraduate enrolments, 26 per cent were in the area of social science, business and law, while 22 per cent were for science subjects.

According to Dr Vivienne Patterson of the HEA statistical unit, 'the growing numbers pursuing graduate studies reflects not only the much improved higher education research infrastructure that has been established under the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) but the increasing acceptance that if Ireland is to continue to progress socially, economically and culturally we need highly educated, innovative and creative people to meet that challenge.'

According to experts, Ireland needs some 14,000 engineering and 6,900 IT graduates each year for it to become a top five global economy by 2020. And while postgraduate numbers are up, with a significant number going to the area of science, the number of school leavers with an adequate level of maths falls short. Out of the 51,000 students who sat the Leaving Certificate (exam normally taken at 18), only 11,000 took 'honours' maths, the level required by most engineering and IT courses at university. This is a decrease of some eight per cent compared to previous years. Of the total number of Leaving Certificate students, over 20 per cent failed ordinary and foundation levels of maths.

Results were also disappointing in science subjects, where 16 per cent failed ordinary level chemistry, 13 per cent failed biology and nine per cent failed physics. The failure rate at higher level across the three science subjects averaged 7 per cent.

However, according to Úna Parsons, Engineers Ireland Industry Director, these figures are being misinterpreted. 'The fact that 82.2 per cent of students sitting the Higher Level Maths papers achieved a C3 (55-59 per cent) or higher, up from 78.3 per cent last year, is overlooked. Furthermore 31,400 students passed Ordinary Level Maths, which is a requirement for engineering technology programmes.'

Also encouraging, they say, is the demand for places on courses in engineering, technology and science areas. According to HEA, there are more students entering science programmes in Irish higher education institutions than ever before in Irish history. It reports that there are currently no vacant places on any undergraduate degree science programme.

'It is because of Government initiatives like STEPS to engineering and Discover Science and Engineering that we are seeing a turnaround in interest in engineering/technology courses and over the course of the coming year we will again travel the country to inform students and parents about the opportunities open to them with a qualification in engineering and technology,' said Ms Parsons.

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