Good news for graduates
The report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on 1992 graduates, which was published yesterday, presents a broadly positive picture. The overwhelming majority of graduates have found good, relatively well-paid employment. Most had found this work within a very short period of graduation.
The contrast with the grim, debilitating experience of many 1980's graduates could scarcely be more complete. When the ESRI tracked the progress of the 1992 graduates from universities and institutes of technology until 1998, they found a contented and confident group. On average, the class of 1992 enjoyed an annual income of £23,000 per year in 1998. Most importantly, they also enjoyed a high level of job satisfaction.
The migration patterns which emerge from the ESRI report, The Irish Graduate Labour Market, are also generally positive - certainly a marked improvement on the 1980's. Over two-thirds of those surveyed had never lived abroad, with the remainder split between returned migrants and graduates living overseas. From a public policy perspective, the Government will be reassured that the very significant public investment in third-level education is paying dividends in the native economy; the `brain drain' is now much less of a phenomenon. Even those who do leave, return with wider skills.
There are some less encouraging patterns evident in the report. Female graduates continue to earn 18 per cent less than their male colleagues. In most cases, a female graduate who has worked to secure a postgraduate qualification, still earns less than a male colleague with a primary degree.
Despite this supposed emancipated age, there is also disturbing evidence from researchers Ms Vanessa Gill and Mr Philip O'Connell, of a continuing `glass-ceiling' for female graduates. While some 37 per cent of male graduates worked in the higher professions, only 24 per cent of female graduates had managed to make this advance. All of this presents challenges for policy makers but there is no short-term solution. Changes in work patterns would be of enormous benefit to female graduates who - on the basis of the survey - can be penalised in the workplace for working less hours than their male colleagues. At its most basic, there is a need to change a work culture that links supposed job commitment to long and unsocial working hours.
For all that, the report presents an impressive snapshot of the economic progress this society has made in the past decade. It includes the prediction that some 40 per cent of the population will have third-level education by 2011 compared to only 20 per cent in 1991. Significant challenges remain. As the Union of Students in Ireland has pointed out, the level of access enjoyed by the disadvantaged and mature students to third level is still meagre, when compared to other developed economies. Significant progress has been made but the recent assertion by Fine Gael that the Irish education system reinforces inequality is depressingly accurate.