Skip navigation

University College Dublin Logo

Advanced Search

UCD News

Nuacht UCD

Posted 12 January 2010

Education policy choices in an economic downturn

Given that Ireland cannot compete with low-cost economies in the manufacturing sector, that agriculture requires fewer people to produce increased-value output, that construction has collapsed as an economic driver, Professor Sheelagh Drudy argues that education is vital to Ireland’s economic recovery and to social cohesion.

“The economic turnaround has had immediate effects on education.” Drudy says. “The December 2009 budget extended the cuts in education. The 2008 October budget set out a programme of cuts in services which included an increase in class sizes in primary and post-primary schools, and a consequent loss of teaching posts, cuts in the allocations to teacher professional development, cuts in higher education funding and cutbacks on a range of schemes designed to support disadvantaged and marginalised pupils.”

Pictured at the launch: Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Prof Sheelagh Drudy, UCD School of Education
Pictured at the launch: Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Prof Sheelagh Drudy, UCD School of Education

Commenting on impact of the 2009 budget cuts, Drudy noted that, in addition to pay-cuts for teachers (along with all public servants), education cuts amounted to €134 million and included reduced funding for the Strategic Innovation Fund in education, further reductions in the allocations to higher education institutions, reductions in rates of student support grants and grants to Youthreach and VTOS, ‘rationalisation’ of teacher support services and ‘efficiencies’ in school transport.

“Ireland has little choice but to invest all possible resources in its development as a knowledge economy” writes Professor Drudy, Editor of Education In Ireland: Challenge and Change, just published by Gill and MacMillan and launched by former President of Ireland, and President of Realising Rights, Ms Mary Robinson. A contemporary snapshot of Irish education, this book positions 21st-century Irish education at the centre of the creation of the knowledge economy. Divided into three parts - The Changing System, Diversity and Inclusion in Schools, Teacher Education for Changing Times - it outlines the challenges and changes presented as a result of a changing education system and society. Chapters are written by staff of the UCD School of Education, which celebrated its centenary.
Launching Education in Ireland: Challenge and Change in Newman House, Ms Robinson, said that education is the key, if Ireland is to maintain momentum in strengthening innovation and knowledge skills at all levels. This, in turn, is vital to employment creation.

Following her attendance at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, Ms Robinson said that there was an opportunity for Ireland to become a champion of climate justice. She added that schools and teachers, as well as other agencies such as universities, business, social entrepreneurs, Irish Aid and Irish development NGOs all had potential leadership roles to play. She suggested that, “through education, from our young people visionaries will come forward who will rise to the challenge of leading Ireland to a new era of prosperity and fairness for all our people, and a special place as the champion of climate justice for the poorest nations who deserve their place in the sun."

“Perhaps most seriously from the perspective of educational participation and achievement, the budget introduced cuts in social welfare, including child benefit, of €760 million.” Said Drudy. Given the level of unemployment in families and the proportion of children who were already ‘at risk’ of poverty (in 2008 6.3% of all children under 17 were living in consistent poverty and 18% were at risk of poverty), she argues that these measures seem very likely to increase poverty levels among children. “There is plenty of evidence from Ireland and other countries that children from poor households are much more likely to do poorly in school and to have lower levels of achievement than others. An increase in child poverty will aggravate existing levels of educational inequality and will increase the risk of socially destabilizing factors such as early school leaving, future unemployment, juvenile crime and early parenthood.”

Both the economic collapse and the education policy response to the budget, raise a number of fundamental questions. According to Drudy, although the development of the knowledge economy has been a key plank of public policy for some time, questions arise around whether or not the groundwork was sufficiently well laid during the period of high growth to continue this trajectory in any meaningful way.

In her analysis of knowledge infrastructure and educational performance, Drudy uses four indicators; Ireland’s general position on knowledge competitiveness internationally, investment in the digital technology base, investment in education and general education performance.

Using the World Knowledge Competitiveness Index, compiled by the Centre for International Competitiveness, Drudy says that Ireland’s knowledge performance is roughly in the middle – approximately halfway between Latvia and Sweden.

On investment in digital technology “Ireland’s performance is not impressive in comparison with other European countries.” Focusing in on education, she points out that the mean number of computers per student in schools in Ireland (0.11) is below the OECD average of 0.16 and well below UK (0.23), the US (0.30), Finland (0.17) or Denmark (0.19).

Despite an increase in investment in education during the boom 90s, Ireland continues to be below the OECD average on all of the investment indicators at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Given the dramatic increase in participation at third level (in 2008 34% of those aged between 25-64 compared with 4% in 1970), it could be argued that the return on investment in education in Ireland is high as these outcomes were produced with relatively modest public financial resources.

Drawing on the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Paddy Cunningham, who pointed out that Ireland ranks modestly at 18th out of 28 OECD countries in terms of expenditure in research and development, Drudy questions Ireland’s capacity to compete with the highest performing knowledge economies in Europe and elsewhere.

She goes on to comment on general education performance. Using the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), she looks at the relative performance of 15 year-olds in literacy, mathematics and science. Irish 15 year-olds performed well on PISA literacy reading tests, ranked 5th out of 31 countries, just above average on science (14th out of 32) and at the OECD average on mathematics (16th out of 32). Taking the example of another small European country, Finland, shows that their 15 year-olds were ranked 2nd for literacy, and 1st for science and mathematics.

“It is quite clear that education has to be a key part of the solution to the economic difficulties now facing this country. Education cannot adequately contribute to a resurgence of the economy and to a stable and democratic society unless a number of important choices are made by Ireland as a society. One of these choices relates to the issue of equality and social cohesion.”

Quite apart from the indicators for a knowledge economy, Drudy argues that during Ireland’s boom years the gap between rich and poor continues and despite some improvements in income redistribution, society is still relatively in-egalitarian. These indicators of inequality in the general population are closely interlinked with educational inequalities.

Looking closely at performance among disadvantaged children, almost 50% of primary school children in this group have very low scores in reading while almost two thirds score poorly in mathematics.

“The international evidence suggests that education should be a central mechanism for Ireland’s economic recovery. But, in spite of having the development of the knowledge economy and the building of social cohesion as central policy platforms for over a decade, Ireland invested only moderately in its knowledge infrastructure in comparison with other OECD countries. Ireland’s position leaves it facing major educational, economic and social challenges.

Even though the country faces severe cutbacks in public expenditure, strategic educational investment will be a key ingredient from the primary and pre-primary levels through to postgraduate student and research and innovation. Social cohesion is a core policy platform for Ireland” she said.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


>> More News and Events
<< Back to Home

Pictured at the launch: Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Prof Sheelagh Drudy, UCD School of Education