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Shared Island: Impact of education on NI’s human capital must be addressed

Cost of living and NI protocol dominated recent election – but education needs close attention

In his speech launching the Government’s Shared Island initiative in late 2020, Taoiseach Micheál Martin described how a comprehensive research programme was being established which would underpin the goals of the initiative. The ESRI is a research partner on this programme. As we complete the publication of the first set of reports, it seems like a good point to reflect on what has been learned from this ESRI research so far.

Let me begin by outlining what we had hoped to achieve from the research. There are two objectives.

First, Ireland and Northern Ireland both have small populations. To maximise the opportunities which typically accrue to larger populations, it is important that we minimise any barriers to collaboration and cooperation that might arise due to the existence of two jurisdictions on the island. The first goal of our research was to explore potential areas of increased collaboration.

The second objective was to see what could be learned from the unique situation on the island. We have populations which are similar in many ways but where we have two systems of taxation and public services delivery. Researchers across Europe try to distil lessons on “what works best” by comparing systems and outcomes in different European countries, as do researchers across the different states of the US. We wanted to invoke that comparative research method to see if there were lessons from both sides of the Border which could benefit people, North and South.

On potential areas for increased cooperation, we looked at two issues.

Cross-Border trade in goods received a lot of attention during the Brexit discussions but the scale and content of trade in services was less well understood. The ESRI examination showed that cross-Border services trade is considerably lower than cross-Border trade in goods. Services make up 26 per cent of the total trade going from Northern Ireland to Ireland and 16 per cent of the trade going from Ireland to Northern Ireland. This suggests considerable scope for the further development of all-island services links.

Another area of potential collaboration which ESRI colleagues explored was the attraction of foreign direct investment (FDI). This is a highly competitive area but the possibility exists for an overall increase in FDI to the island of Ireland if the full set of benefits which the island offers were coordinated more, for instance on taxation and on research and development.

We have also looked at two areas of public services, to see what lessons might be learned from the existence of two systems.

Access to primary healthcare is free at the point of use for all in Northern Ireland but not for all in Ireland. We would expect this to give rise to differences in unmet need across the two jurisdictions and there is evidence of higher unmet need related to affordability south of the Border. However in both jurisdictions, the key driver of unmet need is waiting lists – which are lengthening after the pandemic.

Given the common challenges, an obvious question is whether greater cooperation across health systems could benefit people on both sides of the Border. It seems likely that the quality of care in certain specialities can be improved through the consolidation of practices in centres of excellence. Cross-Border cooperation on the provision of cardiac care for children and young people is often taken as a good example of what might be possible.

The ESRI also examined the education and training systems and outcomes on both sides of the Border. Remarkably, this is the first such study conducted and many interesting findings emerged. Ireland and Northern Ireland perform well in international comparisons of skill development at primary and secondary levels. However, Northern Ireland has much poorer outcomes with regard to early school leaving compared to Ireland. According to the ESRI researchers “it is likely that academic selection in Northern Ireland and the success of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme in Ireland in retaining students in education are strong contributory factors”.

In the recent election in Northern Ireland, the issues of healthcare, the cost of living and the protocol appeared to get most attention but these findings on educational outcomes in Northern Ireland deserve close attention. High rates of early school leaving, lower progression to further and higher education, and the greater tendency among young people in Northern Ireland to leave for college and not return have important implications for human capital, with subsequent impacts on productivity and economic growth.

There are, of course, broader implications of these educational outcomes and these were well-captured by the Taoiseach in his remarks launching the ESRI report on the education systems on the island when he quoted Confucius: “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”

The ESRI is now working on a further set of studies as part of the Shared Island initiative covering productivity levels, migrant integration, early childhood and renewable energy policies. Through these studies, and work being conducted by our colleagues in the National Economic and Social Council and funded through the Irish Research Council, the evidence-base of the Shared Island initiative continues to build to inform public and political discourse on how we share the island of Ireland.

Prof Alan Barrett is director of the ESRI