Innovation Talk: We must find a way to hold on to our graduates

Universities in other countries are more than happy to mop up the people we manage to drive away because of a lack of opportunities


It was heart warming and encouraging last week to see the smiling faces of three Cork schoolgirls, beaming because they had just been awarded first place in the European Contest for Young Scientists.

Emer Hickey, Ciara Judge and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community School – winners of last January’s BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition – won the top award in biology for their project about the effect of diazotroph bacteria on plant germination . . . whatever that may mean.

It was heart warming because of their youthful exuberance and excitement on their big win, and in equal measure encouraging.

It showed without doubt that our education system does work and that superlative students involved in that system can measure up to and beat similar students from other countries.

Not that we had any reason to doubt the quality of our education system and the hard-working teachers and students that populate it.

And it is also worth noting that more of those students are now looking to pursue further education in science, technology, engineering and maths, something that the Government supports because it can produce a positive feedback into the wider economy.

The Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn said as much last week when he launched the Digital Schools of Distinction, a marvellous programme designed to build up the digital skills of pupils at primary school level.

The idea behind the programme – funded in the first year by Microsoft Ireland and HP Ireland – is to reach the students early and incorporate ICT right through the whole school curriculum.

This would help improve their digital literacy, valuable for the students by boosting their chances of work in later life, Mr Quinn said. It was also something being pursued across Europe with a “digital agenda” that aims to help reboot the European economy.

Everyone accepts that when the State and individuals invest money in education a benefit arises, one that can be measured in terms of money.

By the same token there is an inherent cost in providing a person with a formal education at primary, secondary and third level. No one doubts the wisdom of this investment, but there is foolishness in this simple equation as well.

For example, what is the sense of a government starving education of resources at any of these three levels? If we accept the simple truth that investment in education pays off, then shouldn’t we be putting more into it?

And how can you do a good job providing science education if the students don’t have access to laboratory facilities and a place where they can do experiments?

Some schools are well equipped but most have only rudimentary facilities and lack of facilities means experimentation – the core of science – is relegated to the theoretical, no more than what you can pick up in a textbook.

Cost cutting within higher education is even more ridiculous. Each year of full-time education acquired by a student represents a measureable cost to the State. This reaches a peak at third level were the yearly costs rocket, making the preparation of a graduate in any faculty a costly business.

But if State support for third level is trimmed there will be less money available to support postgraduates and postdoctoral fellows – two valuable commodities that are central to making good science happen. What are these students to do?

Unfortunately, the answer for a growing number of our graduates and postdocs is to leave. Universities in other countries are more than happy to mop up the people we manage to drive away because of a lack of opportunities.

They are getting highly qualified scientists at no cost to themselves
because the Irish taxpayer footed the bill, so why wouldn’t they hire these Irish graduates?

So if everyone agrees that investment in education at all levels is good for the person, but also good for the State, then how could we contemplate pulling even one red cent from the education budget
or from the third-level sector? It represents a senseless squandering of taxpayers’ money.

Of course, Ireland manages to benefit to a degree in the same way as universities abroad, given the influx of graduates from eastern Europe in particular. A recent analysis suggested that a large fraction of émigrés to Ireland were highly qualified graduates across a range of disciplines.

But how many of these ending up waiting tables, cleaning toilets or working as nannies? And how many of the Irish graduates who had to leave because of uncertainty over career advancement in the sciences and other disciplines end up cleaning toilets in some other country as they search for opportunities abroad?

Let’s find a way to keep them here so we don’t lose our educational investment in the future.