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David McWilliams: Ireland badly needs a global education business

When multinationals consider moving here, the first thing they will research is schools

'If we want to be a proper player in the globalised world, we need to offer globally recognised education not just for the kids of potential foreign executives but for Irish children too.' Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

One of the opportunities Brexit offers this country is that multinational companies, which might have invested in the UK, are now more likely to look at Ireland. If you are the boss of such a company, why would you go to the UK when you worry that your company might not be able to trade freely within the EU – and that the type of EU professionals you hope to employ might not be able to work freely in the UK?

Or imagine you are an executive in a large Asian-based multinational, say a tech company. Your boss says the company is thinking of moving an operation to Europe and, with the UK compromised, Ireland is one of the options. The company aims to employ skilled locals and to attract skilled international employees. The bosses are keen to get "buy-in" from their key executives.

An experienced executive team has to want to relocate because they will determine the move’s success or failure. The board therefore needs key, senior “decision-makers” they can trust to be in place after making such an investment.

Right now we are not at the races, even as we are exporting thousands of qualified young teachers to the likes of Dubai

It’s easy to forget when we talk about direct foreign investment into Ireland that the decision to move is taken by real people. Hard issues like tax are important, but when it comes down to it, the decision is often swayed by much “softer” issues. And for parents, the most important “soft” issue is the education of their children.


A recent survey by HSBC of 16,000 parents from all over the world revealed that 49 per cent of parents think that funding their children's education is more important than funding their own pensions. Thirty-two per cent say that their children's education is the spending they are least likely to cut if they fall on straitened times, and 60 per cent would to go into debt to fund education.

Citibank has estimated that the total global value of the education business is $4,906 billion.

In short, education is a massive business opportunity for Ireland.

Unfortunately, right now we are not at the races, even as we are exporting hundreds of qualified young teachers. We should be thinking of building a global education industry to complement the other multinational industries that we host here.

Indeed, Ireland has a much greater “right” to build an education business here than we had the “right” to build an international pharmaceutical industry here.

On a recent trip to India I was surprised by how many of the Indian ruling class had been educated by Irish priests and nuns in India. When you mention Ireland to them, they automatically think of education. Education is part of the Irish global brand, particularly in Asia.

Spend most

It is Asians who spend most on education. The Milken Institute in California has published research on how much the average Asian middle-class family spends on education compared with the equivalent American family. In Asia, after food comes education. Asian families spend 15 per cent of their income on extra education for their kids. In America, family spending on education comes way down the list, with only 2 per cent of income spent on education.

Armed with these facts on education and the priority parents put on education, let us go back to the investment decisions being taken by multinationals.

In large companies, experienced senior managers are the people who make these decisions. Typically, they are men and women in their 40s or early 50s, often with young or teenage children. Therefore, their decision on which country to move to will largely be dictated by how the move affects the family. How do the potential countries compare?

The parents want to know that Ireland offers a transferable school diploma for their children

As the company deliberates the move, the board suggests that the senior people head home, chat with their families and reconvene a few weeks later.

The executive heads home and sits down with his/her husband/wife to assess the pros and cons of moving the family to Ireland. One of the first things they do is Google the schools. The parents want to know that Ireland offers a transferable school diploma for their children – and that when they leave that this education is recognised elsewhere.

Therefore, the education offering is crucial for a country aiming to attract industries, mobile capital, mobile people and enterprise.

The executives see something called the Irish Leaving Cert and ask around whether anyone has heard of this system. They scratch their heads. Can their children use this back home? Can they use it to compare standards across countries?

They search for international schools and don’t find any. They search for local schools and find they are all full and have waiting lists jammed for the next five years.

One exam

Then they discover that the Leaving Cert is one exam at the end of school. There is none of the continuous assessment that is standard in the rest of the world. The top schools resemble “exam factories” focused on a points race that acts as the sole arbiter for university entry.

There are no interviews or student personal statements explaining why the student wants to do a certain course and what they have done to prepare themselves for the chosen path of university education.

The executives wonder if this is the right system to put their kids through, particularly as no one outside Ireland has ever heard of this Leaving Cert thing. Where is the International Baccalaureate option offered in almost every other developed country in the world?

If we want to be a proper player in the globalised world, we need to offer globally recognised education not just for the kids of potential foreign executives but for Irish children too.

A private school, Nord Anglia, due to open in Leopardstown, Co Dublin, is the beginning of that process. Over time, the price of international education will fall as it becomes more popular.

Indeed, because education will be as important as tax breaks in attracting the right type of investment in the future, the State could do worse than identify, say, 10 sites around the country for international schools and start tendering for business.

Given the huge size of the education business worldwide, our strong brand in education, the facts we speak English, have good universities and have Irish teachers working all over the world, it would seem that building an international education business here is an obvious 21st-century industry.

Yet we have hardly started. You have to wonder why.