Ireland’s Third Level Education through the OECD Lens

oecd reportThe latest OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) ‘Education at a Glance’ report reveals that the position of Irish universities on a world ranking scale has remained largely static this year. However, the Higher Education Institutes have issued a reality check on such optimistic OECD statistics; they question both their relevancy today and point to the now difficult task in maintaining such a ranking amidst current and continuous budgetary cutbacks.

Without doubt, the International reputation of higher education in Ireland has received a boost from a new global ranking system. The Irish third-level system is ranked 16th among 48 countries, ahead of Germany and even Japan. These rankings measure 20 factors across four categories: resources, environment, connectivity and output. Their relevancy comes under criticism because the rankings were compiled in 2009 before a series of staff and other cuts in Irish colleges were implemented.

It wasn’t all good news for Trinity College Dublin; they have dropped two places from 65th to 67th internationally. In response, Trinity College’s Dean of Research Professor Vinny Cahill still maintained that it is positive that new rankings show that the performance of Ireland’s institutions has stabilised following a recent downward trend, despite cuts in university funding and grant aid to students. However, UCD has increased its standing slightly from 134th to 131st place but UCC has fallen nine places to 190th. Out of 48 countries, the US, Sweden, and Canada emerged as having the best systems. However, to be rated ahead of Germany and Japan, and several European countries is a boost to the third-level system in Ireland, and will more than likely contribute to attracting more International students to these shores especially when some of our universities remain among the world’s top 300 or 400.

The government must welcome the OECD’s report as it reveals that men who graduate in Ireland will pay back almost six times the amount of public money invested in their education, in taxes etc. This figure makes optimistic reading when one considers that this compares to an average of a four-fold return across the OECD.  Women graduates in Ireland also represent greater value for money to the Exchequer than their counterparts elsewhere. On average, a woman who graduates will contribute two-and-a-half times the cost of her third level education. However, that figure rises to three-and-a-half times in Ireland. On average, Irish graduates can over their working lives expect to earn up to €190,000 more than those who did not proceed to higher education

The report’s figures again reiterate that people with lower levels of educational attainment are more likely to become unemployed. However, time will tell and show the positive results of ever increasing access for mature learners and FETAC learners into our third level college system, with a large cohort coming from areas with poor educational attainment. It seems regrettable that it takes the majority of those from socio-economically disadvantaged areas to get to the age of 23 or over to consider third level education or to be eligible for college courses in the absence of the standard leaving certificate. Another issue of concern is the government’s continuous rising contribution fee which is creating a stumbling block for those who are just on the edge of financial survival. These students often come from PAYE families who do not have the contribution fee waived for them due to marginally failing to meet the criteria for a maintenance grant.

Higher Education Authority chief executive, Tom Boland said that the latest ranking was positive news for Ireland, hard-working colleges, their staff, and students.  He particularly welcomed the ‘Output Ranking’ which measures research and its impact, and the extent to which labour market needs are met by an educated workforce — Ireland was rated 17th for these areas. Projecting market needs and implementing and adapting college courses are key to producing graduates with relevant qualifications. An example of how colleges respond to market demands is in the area of Engineering; whilst civil engineers have significantly fallen in demand, there is a demand for energy engineers; something colleges have recognised. There are now a range of excellent energy engineering courses available to students. Also, the number of HEI conversion courses now available, reveal a proactive third level system who are offering much hope for graduates whose defunct degrees often force them to join the rising unemployment figures or to emigrate.

Overall the Irish education system is seen globally as one of the most efficient and effective in terms of the graduates produced. However, one is still drawn to the existing shortage and predicted shortages of home produced graduates with certain key skills like languages and IT; perhaps lessons will finally be learnt and importing skilled workers in key areas may become less necessary in the future.

Catriona Lowry

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