Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Ireland’s brilliant education system is a complete fluke

Education is our greatest asset, yet we produce it in an utterly haphazard way

This week, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe more or less accepted that the old game is up. Moves towards a minimum global corporation tax rate are unstoppable. Ireland will no longer be able to use low corporate taxation as its unique selling point.

“This moment”, he acknowledged, “has been coming for years; it’s now happening, and it will have consequences.”

The moment has indeed been coming for years. The moral case for Ireland seeking to prosper by helping to rob its friends of tax revenues has long evaporated. The remarkable thing is not that the old order is running out of road but that it has lasted so long.

The vast expansion of the education system is the one big thing the State has managed to achieve

So what else have we got? Three things: culture, environment and education.


The first two of those are not success stories for the State. Support for the arts and culture has been consistently among the worst in the developed world. The systematic degradation of an almost pristine environment is one of the great scandals of the last half century.

Education is different. The vast expansion of the education system is the one big thing the State has managed to achieve. It has immense intrinsic value in allowing citizens to expand their horizons and aspirations. But it has also been crucial to economic development and, through the creation of a new middle class, to social change.

What’s striking, though, is how haphazard all of this has been. The State has never managed to think in a coherent way about education, to place it where it should be, which is at the heart of the story of Ireland’s development.

I recently reread TK Whitaker’s epoch-making Economic Development, the blueprint for the revolution he launched with Seán Lemass in 1958, and thus for the creation of the modern Republic. It says nothing about education.

At one level, this is extraordinary. Ireland in 1958 was one of the worst-educated countries in Europe. How could it possibly sustain an economic transformation if most young people either left school entirely at 14 or had only a year or two of further education or training?

But at another level, the silence is easily explicable. Education was the business of the church. In 1956, Richard Mulcahy, the then minister for education, described his job as being that of “a kind of dungaree man, the plumber who . . . will take the knock out of the pipes”. The State’s role was humbly to service the church-controlled system, and certainly not to disturb it with impertinences such as policies.

Officialdom was sickeningly smug about the maintenance of a model that fitted so many young people only for manual work and emigration. Áine Hyland, who was a young civil servant in the Department of Education in the early 1960s, later recalled that “my colleagues were in no doubt that Ireland was fortunate in having the best education system in the world, so why did we need to change that? The fact that we had no evidence to prove this assertion was neither here nor there.”

This did change in the 1960s. There was a landmark report on Investment in Education in 1965. The dungaree job was taken on by some of Fianna Fáil’s more ambitious ministers: Brian Lenihan, Patrick Hillery, George Colley and especially the bold and dynamic Donogh O’Malley. But the State never quite got over the initial failure, in the Whitaker-Lemass revolution, to see education as a driver, rather than a byproduct, of economic change.

Even O’Malley’s most famous initiative, the justly celebrated opening up of free secondary education, was largely a personal coup. It was not even discussed by the government in advance of its announcement by O’Malley – which means, of course, that its economic implications were not fully planned.

Ad hoc planning is an oxymoron but also an all too accurate characterisation of the institutional culture

Apart from that dramatic gesture, the watchword was caution. In 1989, John Coolahan wrote tellingly of the culture of the Department of Education: "The approach taken was one of pragmatic gradualism. There has been a great reluctance within the Department of Education to reveal more than it has to or to go on public record on policy statements or analysis of the system . . . An important advantage of the lack of published policy statements for the public service, however, is that it allows maximum scope for ad hoc planning and for changing directions easily without public controversy."

Ad hoc planning is an oxymoron but also an all too accurate characterisation of the institutional culture. For the most part, the education system just grew. Some of the key innovations – such as the creation of Educate Together schools – came from civil society. Huge anomalies, including church control of the primary and secondary school systems, have been allowed to fester.

Joined-up thinking about the passage from preschool to post-grad has been largely absent. Large numbers of young people have been locked out of further and higher education, while the personal and economic cost of low educational achievement has risen.

And yet, in all of this, there is a kind of triumph. From being one of the worst educated populations in Europe, we’ve become one of the best. The EU’s long-term target for 2020 was that 40 per cent of its population between the ages of 30 and 34 would have degrees. By 2013, Ireland’s figure was already 51 per cent.

The growth of higher education has been spectacular. In 1991, we had 76,809 full-time students. By 2009, that number had almost doubled to 145,789. By 2019,it had reached 183,642. If you include part-timers, we now have over half a million people engaged in some form of higher education at any given time.

This is the one big thing we’ve done for ourselves. It is the single most important accomplishment of the State. And yet it is weirdly weightless. It is not anchored in coherent long-term national planning.

This applies even to the most basic issue of who pays for the system. University fees were abolished in 1996. The Celtic Tiger regime compensated the universities with direct funding, but then slashed it when the bubble burst. Crucial infrastructural and research funding came as manna from Heaven, via Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies – a source that has now dried up.

Universities have survived increasingly by earning their own keep, through research grants and from foreign students. More than half their income now comes from sources other than the State. They’ve been, by default, largely privatised.

So we’ve ended up with a deep contradiction. On the one hand, as Ireland’s tax advantages fade, educational capital looms ever larger as our greatest asset.

On the other, the system that creates that capital is, at first and second level, still based on an anachronistic 19th-century religious-based model. We haven’t even managed to create what every other developed country has, which is actually free primary education. Meanwhile, the third-level world has been forced to become a different kind of private domain in which institutions have to be managed as if they were businesses.

This can’t go on. If the future depends on high skills rather than low taxes, we’re betting our survival on that old oxymoron: ad hoc planning.

It’s quite a gamble: that a system that has performed miracles with uncertain resources and without consistent political leadership will go on doing so. If the miracles dry up, what are we left with?