The following OECD assessment and recommendations summarise Chapter 3 of the Economic Survey of Ireland 2006 published on 2 March 2006.
Maintaining high rates of productivity growth will entail continued efforts to upgrade skills. Reforms at all levels of the education system are needed. At the earliest stages, pre-school attendance is low while classes are large and of short duration. International experience shows that integrated systems, which combine pre-primary education and crèche-based day-care, have higher quality for children and provide greater parent satisfaction. Priority should therefore be given to reducing class sizes, extending sessions and creating seamless pre-school and day-care facilities at the same location.
Access to pre-primary education is limited
Percentage of children aged 3-6 enrolled in early childhood services1
1. Data cover the latest available year which is between 1998 and 2000.
In secondary schools, too many youngsters are leaving without upper-secondary qualifications. They are doing so not because of a hot job market – their employment performance is worse than their counterparts in other OECD countries – but because of inadequate help for students who are struggling. There is a shortage of remedial or catch-up classes and the special programmes that are available focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds rather than those who are having learning difficulties. Overall, Irish 15 year-olds are good at reading but only average in maths and science. Recent changes to primary school curricula should help in this respect.
Would tuition fees help?
Funding is an issue in the tertiary sector. This makes it harder to undertake research, attract staff from abroad and retain graduate students. It may also worsen human capital bottlenecks. Foreign investment could dry up if it becomes hard to find skilled staff. With a tight budget constraint and the need to spend more at earlier stages in the education pathway, there is a strong argument for additional funding to come from tertiary students themselves. Undergraduate tuition fees were abolished in 1995 in an attempt to improve equality of access across social groups, but it has not achieved its goal. One option is to re-introduce tuition fees but back them with an income-contingent loan scheme, similar to the successful systems in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Apart from bringing much-needed resources, experience in other countries suggests it could make it easier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain access, would make higher education institutions more innovative and responsive to the needs of students and would boost efficiency by encouraging students to choose useful courses and not waste time. This approach would differ from the pre-1995 system as fees would not be paid up front but would be repaid later only if the person’s income is above a certain threshold. If the government is unwilling to do this, it will have to find the required funding from other areas of the budget.
The final step on the learning pathway is the re-training of adults. A distinctive feature of Ireland’s skill set is the difference in educational attainment between the young and the old. Around three-quarters of those aged 25-34 have attained an upper secondary qualification, compared with just 38% of those over 55. People at work can be locked out of further education by financing constraints and because the supply of part-time courses is not responsive enough. But in general, public funding should be limited to the most vulnerable groups, leaving others to pay for their own job training.
Go to Chapter 4
Return to the Economic Survey of Ireland 2006
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For further information please contact the Ireland Desk at the OECD Economics Department at email@example.com. The OECD Secretariat's report was prepared by David Rae and Boris Cournède under the supervision of Peter Hoeller.