The value of higher education


Sir, – The director of the Irish Universities Association’s letter on the value of higher education deserves some comment (September 17th). It is true to say that Ireland’s spend on higher education is the second lowest in the EU but only if that spend is expressed as a percentage of GDP. In contrast, if the spend on higher education is expressed as a percentage of total government expenditure, Ireland’s spend is just below the median value and almost identical to Germany’s.

Despite this, it is reasonable to advocate for more funding of higher education given our very high participation rates. However, to argue that this should be done to maintain the high “earnings dividend” of higher education in Ireland is not one of them.

Countries where the earnings dividend of higher education is high tend not to be ones that we would associate with equity. The top five countries in this regard are Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. In contrast, the places where the earnings dividend is lowest tend to have the most equitable societies in the world.

Readers will not be surprised to learn, therefore, that the earnings dividend of higher education is lowest in Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Finland.

Our continued emphasis on higher education in Ireland is difficult to understand because it seems to be driven by plausibility rather than evidence. Even a small amount of research will reveal that there is no correlation between a state’s spend on higher education and gross domestic product or gross national income. In addition, and as implied above, there is a real danger that putting so much emphasis on higher education might have the unanticipated effect of perpetuating inequality and creating a society of “haves” and “have nots”. – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor,

School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.