Why do the English fail to see real worth of study?

February 13, 2004

Higher education is valued on one side of the Irish Sea and underappreciated on the other, says Garret FitzGerald

From an Irish point of view, the controversy over variable fees has highlighted some surprisingly negative attitudes in England towards higher education.

The British Conservatives' opposition to the modest aim of raising the proportion of young people entering higher education to 50 per cent has caused astonishment in Ireland. And the apparent hostility of some business interests to increasing the numbers of graduates has also come as a shock. There seems to be a gulf between a long-established and, I think, universal Irish conviction that education is key to academic growth and these English attitudes.

Moreover, data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development record only 53 per cent of British young people remaining in education at age 18 - seeming to reflect a wider undervaluation of education among the English.

Irish economists attribute a significant part of our high growth rate to educational factors. Every year, a cohort of recruits to the labour market - more than half of whom have experienced higher education - replaces the retiring generation, 40 per cent of whom never got beyond primary education. Ireland's Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that this adds about 1 per cent to national output each year - and some economists would put this figure somewhat higher.

England's debate over top-up fees makes some of us wonder whether this economic aspect of higher education is sufficiently appreciated on the other side of the Irish Sea.

For four decades, Irish public policy has been founded on an understanding that education is a key factor in economic growth. In the late 1960s, this was reflected in a decision to increase funding of the confessional secondary school system so that all but a handful could abolish fees, in effect giving everyone in Ireland free private as well as public schooling. More than 80 per cent of young people now take the national school-leaving examination; 58 per cent of each age cohort enter university or institutes of technology. With others continuing to further education, the proportion of 18-year-olds still in education is now 74 per cent.

University fees were abolished in Ireland a decade ago. Their reintroduction was raised last year by a new education minister but was pushed off the immediate agenda because of opposition from the smaller party in the coalition government.

However, the diversion of resources towards primary education in the 2004 budget, leading to a 10 per cent real-terms cut in university funding, has rocked higher education and has led the Higher Education Authority, which funds universities on behalf of the government, to re-open the issue.

Why have the educational experiences of our two countries led to such different outcomes?

Until fairly recently, Ireland was a predominantly rural society that largely missed out on the industrial revolution. Even today, 40 per cent of the population live outside towns of 1,500 or more people, and half the population of Dublin were either born in the countryside or have parents who were born there. And, in sharp contrast to the urban working class - who constitute only 15 per cent of the population - Irish people in rural areas have a strong commitment to education. High emigration rates up to the 1960s made rural parents eager to secure an education for their children to avoid them ending up as immigrants at the bottom of the social heap in Britain or the US.

This educational commitment was communicated to their children, and, together with limited job opportunities in rural areas, these factors have combined to create a very strong rural demand for higher education. The highest participation is found today in the six poorest counties in the west of Ireland, where two-thirds of each cohort now enter university or an institute of technology. When Ireland was, by Northern European standards, a poor country, this motivation made it possible to overcome underfunding.

Even today, educational commitment continues to make it possible for Ireland to achieve a level of educational productivity that is significantly higher than in most neighbouring countries. The positive motivation of many Irish parents and students has made it possible to overcome a shortfall of resources and to educate a high proportion of the population to a high standard at relatively low cost.

In a curious way, underdevelopment and poor job opportunities have given Ireland a belated but important advantage.

Garret FitzGerald is chancellor, National University of Ireland. He was prime minister from 1981-82 and 1982-87.

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