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By JonMarcus
Dublin
I
t’s OpenDay at Trinity College, the day when
the Irish equivalent of high school seniors come
to look the place over. The historic quadrangle is
swarming with 17- and 18-year-olds, some in their
school uniforms—rumpled ties, tousled skirts—others
in the logo-laden gear that is the uniform of teenagers
worldwide.
But these students are different from their
international counterparts in one important respect:
They don’t appear nervous or uptight, worried about
whether they will be admitted, can afford to pay tuition,
or will have a job awaiting them on graduation. They
have the calm, self-confident and optimistic look of
young people who believe the world is at their feet.
And they’re right. It is.
Ireland’s extraordinary economic success means
these students live in a society with one of the lowest
jobless rates and highest growth rates in the world. Since
the early 1990s, Ireland has gone from being one of the
poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. Its
gross domestic product grew by a dramatic 9.5 percent per
year between 1995 and 2000—nearly 60 percent in real terms
during that period, compared to less than 16 percent for the
European Union as a whole. The transformation is evident
everywhere, from the Aer Lingus flight to Shannon crowded
with Irish families returning from shopping sprees in New
York and Boston to the hours-long traffic jams in once-sleepy
Dublin.
Even through the relative downturn of the last few years,
Ireland’s economy—dubbed the Celtic Tiger—has continued
to outperform those of other Western nations. In 2004, for
instance, Irish GDP grew by 5.5 percent, compared to 1.8
percent for the rest of Europe. Unemployment has fallen from
18 percent in the late 1980s to less than four percent today.
The students in the Trinity quadrangle can look forward to
almost certain employment. The jobless rate last year for
graduates of the school was just 1.6 percent, compared to the
United Kingdom, where graduate unemployment exceeds
six percent. Since the onset of the Celtic Tiger, the Irish have
enjoyed a two-and-a-half-fold improvement in average
material living standards. Income has gone from 35 percent
below the European Union average to 20 percent above it.
Higher education itself is credited, in part, with this
impressive turnaround. In the absence of jobs, or for the
training needed to find work overseas, Irish young people
have been enrolling in universities in large numbers for
decades. “People traditionally in Ireland placed a high priority
on education,” said John Hegarty, Trinity’s provost. “They saw
it as a passport to succeeding anywhere in the world.” Tuition
Winter 2007
The Celtic Tiger
Ireland invests heavily in higher education, and benefits mightily
for undergraduates was eliminated in 1995, and the number of
students ages 19 to 24 in college ballooned from 11 percent in
the mid-1960s to the current high of 56 percent—projected to
increase again to 65 percent by 2015—compared to a higher
education participation rate in the United States of 24 percent.
Meanwhile, the combination of a low corporate tax rate,
a low-wage English-speaking population, and membership
in the European Union (and access to its markets) helped
attract the likes of Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Wyeth, Boston
Scientific, IBM, Bell Labs, Apple, HP,
Abbott Laboratories, and Google to Ireland,
where they set up production facilities to
make everything from pharmaceuticals to
software; by 2002, Ireland produced half of
all consumer software sold in Europe. The
country had a large supply of well-trained
university graduates to fill management and
other professional positions at these fast-
arriving multinationals. Citing prominent
economists, an Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD)
review suggests the university education of its population has
accounted for almost one percent per year of additional Irish
national output.
But there are fears that things are slowing down. In
October, the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland said
there were signs the Celtic Tiger was losing its momentum.
Forfás—a board that provides policy advice to the government
on trade, technology and innovation—warns that Ireland’s
high-tech manufacturing business is particularly threatened
John Hegarty, provost of Trinity College, in Dublin, believes colleges and universities have
helped to fuel the Irish economic boom.
Since the early
1990s, Ireland has
gone from being
one of the poorest
countries in Europe
to one of the richest.
Photos by Peter Matthews, Black Star, for CrossTalk