Eamon Gilmore, TD, leader of the Irish Labour Party, gave tonight the 2008 Michael O'Brien Memorial Lecture on the subject of "Education and Sustainable Employment in the South East" at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) in Waterford City.
"Labour is passionate about education, and we always have been," said Mr. Gilmore. "Our vision of society is that of a collective of talents, working for the mutual benefit of each other, and for the generations to come. We seek to build a society where each individual can grow to the fullness of their unique human potential, something which is only possible when we work in collaboration with each other. Education is the key which unlocks the full potential - social, civic, ethical and economic - of the human person. For this very reason, universal education - available to all, for the benefit of all - is at the heart of Labour's vision of society."
The Labour leader pointed out that over the past forty years "education has brought about a revolution in Irish society" and that it has "fundamentally altered the way in which our economy functions and the opportunities which are open to our citizens".
Between 1998 and 2004, for example, admission rates for third level increased by 11%. Most significantly, the proportion of students from the semi- and unskilled backgrounds going to college increased from 23% to over one third, while the number of students from a skilled manual background almost doubled to 60%.
"I am proud to say that the decision of Labour's Niamh Bhreathnach [when she was Minister for Education] to abolish third level fees was a vital part of that process," Eamon Gilmore said.
"Education is also essential to dissent," he continued, "and dissent is something which is essential to any prosperous modern democracy. Our political freedom is built on our right to express opposing views. To challenge the status quo and to demand the creation of something new and better. Without that kind of critique, Ireland would not have made the transition from being a closed, insular conservative society to being the modern open European society that it is today. Dissent is also important for prosperity. Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase 'creative destruction' to describe entrepreneurial capitalism. Economic growth comes from people having new ideas, and the energy and freedom to bring them into being."
But the Labour leader had also critical words for our education system. "When it comes to solid foundations, Ireland's education system compares poorly to some of our more successful European neighbours," he said. "The seeds of success at school are sown early. Unfortunately, until we have universal pre-school provision, these seeds will continue to depend on family income. Ireland has no public pre-school provision to speak of. In the OECD-wide survey of pre-schools in 2002, they could not even find a graph small enough to chart the 0.007 per cent of GDP Ireland was spending on early childhood education. The situation has not changed significantly since then. This false economy costs us dearly. Studies have shown that investment in universal pre-school is returned up to seven times over. Pre-school gives children the tools to learn, and helps them to get the most out of their crucial primary school years."
"The absence of pre-school provision partly explains why educational disadvantage is still one of the most persistent legacies in Irish society. For example, the child of early school leavers is 23 times more likely to live in consistent poverty than the child of university graduates. Indeed, early school leaving as a whole has remained stubbornly at around 18 per cent since the early 1980s. In some parts of Dublin that figure rises to almost 60 per cent. Every year, about 1000 children do not even make the transition from primary to second level education."
"At second level the picture is more positive. Secondary education is better funded and, for the moment at least, there is no a shortage of school places. But there are considerable challenges, particularly if Ireland aspires to be a high-tech economy. For example, of the Leaving Cert class of 2007, only 6710 students scored grade C or higher on the Honours Maths paper. The problem is that Grade C in higher Maths is the minimum standard for entry to many science, engineering and technology courses at third level. Moreover, one in ten students failed Maths at some level. And only seven per cent of students got honours in Physics. These figures are extremely worrying. It is not simply the knock-on effect on science and technology courses at third level, and our subsequent supply of highly skilled workers. It is also that young people are excluding themselves, or being excluded, at an early age, from careers in growing industries."
Turning specifically to the South East, Eamon Gilmore presented some strong facts which many analysts have been using already for some time. "While income in Waterford itself is just below the national average," he said, "disposable income per capita in Wexford is nearly 11% below the national average, the same is true of Kilkenny, and in Carlow the figure is 12%. The more salient fact is that income per head in the South East as a whole is almost 20% below the Dublin level.
As one might expect, the picture is even starker when we look at productive activity. Again, using the South East region as an example, gross value added per person in 2005 in the South East region was 26% below the national average, and not much more than half of the Dublin level."
So why is the South East, famous for its "sunny" weather, so far behind the national average? It is no secret, and Eamon Gilmore pointed it out very clearly: "Ultimately, regional economies will thrive when they develop a virtuous circle whereby the availability of high quality employment and educational opportunities, attracts people to and retains people in, the region, who in turn create demand for new services, and are also innovators and entrepreneurs themselves. It is that self-reinforcing process, as distinct from a vicious circle of people leaving to find opportunity elsewhere, which will form the basis for sustainable employment in this region, and in other regions across Ireland. Universities are at the centre of the regional system of innovation. They are important in attracting industry to a region, and in persuading young people to stay in the region. Their research capacities are sought after by firms, and the presence of a university is a vital element in attracting firms to invest in the region."
"That is why Labour has been a strong supporter of a university of the South East. We see it as an essential part of any strategy to grow the economy of this region. Last year, in our manifesto for the 2007 General Election, we committed ourselves to a multi-campus university, with its hub in WIT, but also building on other centres of scientific and cultural excellence in the region. It is clear that WIT has the potential to grow from a high performing Institute of Technology to University Status."
Summing up the ideas of his lecture, Eamon Gilmore concluded: "If we want to grow and develop as a knowledge economy, then there are issues in the education system that must be confronted by all: pre-school provision, educational disadvantage and literacy, second level completion, teaching of maths and the take-up of science. The engineering graduate of today is not the product simply of the university years, but of an educational process that begins at pre-school. If we are to build a fairer and more prosperous country, then there is a serious agenda of educational reform that we need to address at all levels. At third level, we need to promote greater connections between the academy and the economy, but we must not loose sight either of the vital role of dissent and original thinking to both the economy and society.
Secondly, as the great boom of Celtic Tiger Ireland comes to an end, we must look afresh as regional economies, not simply from a redistributive perspective, but as a real and viable source of productivity growth.
Thirdly, it follows then, that we need strong educational structures at regional level. It is widely accepted that regional economies need third level institutions to facilitate economic growth. University research is an important source of ideas for industry, and the teaching role of the university is important in supplying skilled and qualified people for the regional economy. The university is also a vital cog in the virtuous circle of which I spoke, of people staying in the region, who generate new economic activity, which in turn makes the region more attractive to others and so on. It is at the centre of the regional system of innovation."
Eamon Gilmore's lecture was introduced by Marie Butler, who - as Secretary of the Waterford branch of SIPTU - inherited the mantle of Michael O'Brien and continues his work. In a brief but poignant impromptu speech she highlighted the major problems of the modern Irish society, and especially of the economical environment in which the individual worker seems to matter less and less, while huge corporations and their bosses do as they please.
The at WIT evening was hosted by Waterford's Labour TD Brian O'Shea, a former teacher who has represented the constituency in Dáil Éireann since 1989. The well attended lecture was another step of hope and encouragement on the long way Waterford and the South East have to go in order to secure a long overdue university for the region.
I am certain that a university will be established at some point in the future, and hopefully before Waterford - the oldest city in Ireland - celebrates her 1100 years of existence in 2014.
The Emerald Islander