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by competition fromAsia. After 15 years of economic
expansion, “Ireland has reached a turning point,” reports the
nation’s Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.
Ireland’s success is part of its problem. Its rising standard
of living has elevated the low wages that drewmanufacturers
in the first place. “One of the consequences has been a high-
income society that needs to be even more competitive
internationally if it is to continue to forge ahead in a period of
slower economic growth,” the OECD said.
So policymakers are turning to the universities again in
a unique experiment in tailoring a higher education system
largely—and explicitly—to serve the
needs of an economy. That system
is to be a major part of moving
Ireland from a nation that depends
on technology-importing and low-
cost production to one that is based
on innovation. And it “requires
that Irish (higher) education and
research…become the new drivers of
economic development,” the OECD
said.
In the last 15 years, said Jim
Browne, registrar and deputy
president at National University of
Ireland, Galway, “education was important because it provided
a skilled workforce. But what got us to where we are won’t
keep us there.”The professionals with undergraduate degrees
that the universities turned out before are skilled enough to
manage, but they were not necessarily trained to innovate.
“Now we need to invest in postgraduate education,” said
Browne, who advocates churning out Ph.D.s and expanding
research and development so that Ireland doesn’t only
manufacture drugs and technology products, but also invents
them. “The conversion of knowledge into wealth is valued
by universities here,” said Hegarty. “We do have to push this
along.”
Trouble is, as successful as Ireland has been at furnishing
undergraduate education, it is only now starting to do
research or produce postgraduates in many disciplines, and in
collective numbers smaller than some single-major research
institutions in America and Europe. Universities are worried
about attracting qualified students at all levels. The birth rate
in largely Catholic Ireland, once a popular subject of derisive
Monty Python skits, has plummeted from 23 per thousand
in the 1970s (which was, in fact, twice the European average)
to about 13 per thousand, meaning the number of students
ready to enter college will have declined from 70,000 in 1990
to a predicted 53,000 by 2015. This at a time when two-thirds
of new jobs Irish employers will create are expected to require
a university education, compared with one-third in 2001. The
estimated number of university graduates needed to meet
demand is around 37,200 a year, while Irish universities are
now producing only 32,500.
Computing and engineering programs are especially hard
put to attract students. Increasing numbers of secondary
school graduates don’t do well enough in math and science.
Of the 51,000 who took the so-called leaving certificate exam
last year, only 11,000 got honors in math, the prerequisite for
most university engineering and technology courses. That was
down eight percent from just the year before. More than 20
percent failed math altogether, 16 percent failed chemistry, 13
percent failed biology, and nine percent failed physics.
The Royal Irish Academy calls this a crisis threatening the
very future of Ireland’s information-technology industry.
Ireland’s supply of Ph.D.s is also low compared to those
in other European countries including Switzerland, Finland
and the UK. In Ireland, among people ages 25 to 29, 1.8
percent are Ph.D. graduates —much lower than the European
Union average of 2.9 percent. The total number of doctoral
students in all of Ireland, while it has begun to climb, is only
4,500—again, not much more than at some major universities
in other countries. Research has, until recently, been almost an
afterthought.
As recently as 1997, the research budget in the Department
of Education was zero. Ireland spends barely 1.4 percent of
its gross domestic product on research and development,
compared to 3.1 percent in Japan, 2.7 percent in the United
States, and the European Union average of 1.9 percent. In
another measure, only 70 of the 1,056 applications to the
Irish patent office in 2004 came from higher education
institutions. In all, Ireland submitted 86 patent applications
to the European patent office per million population, half the
European Union average and far fewer than Finland (338) or
Germany (310).
Yet rather than collaborate, some Irish universities
(there are seven, plus 13 institutes of technology) have been
competing for faculty and are accused of duplicating costly
research efforts. Government spending on higher education
has remained constant at about 1.3 percent of gross domestic
product, compared to 2.7 percent in the United States, 2.5
percent in Canada, and 1.7 percent in Finland.
And many faculty and students protest that administrators
Jim Browne, registrar and deputy president of the Irish national university’s Galway
campus, believes there should be more emphasis on research and graduate education.
Ireland’s extraordinary
economic success means
that its college students
live in a society with one
of the lowest jobless
rates and highest growth
rates in the world.