Wikileaks cable highlights Irish third level's dicey future.


Former Ambassador James C. Kenny is a clever man indeed.

The former Kenny Management Services President and US Ambassador to Ireland was also a man who seems to have had a clearer idea of where Ireland was headed than the Government did itself.

In a series of insightful documents released by now infamous whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, Kenny is seen counselling a doleful Irish government on the quandary facing the country in just a few short years from when the documents were dated (2004): a shortfalll of smart economy ready graduates from the nation’s universities, and a resulting exodus of foreign direct investment (FDI) from the now not so shimmery ‘Emerald’ Isle.

That things have played themselves out almost exactly as Kenny predicted makes him a rather impressive economic forecaster, if not a genius.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, though.

This was the Government that did, after all, shipwreck Ireland into a situation in which it was forced to beg the EU and IMF for help, so whatever economic know-how Ambassador Kenny and his aides at the US Embassy had, it certainly could well have been more prescient than the ponderings going on over at the Irish Government.

The Wikileaks cable, dating from 2004, reads like a script for what was then to be Ireland's future.

“The Ambassador related concerns expressed by U.S. firms and Irish universities that the quality and number of third-level graduates....increasingly appeared insufficient to meet the needs of Ireland’s hi-tech economic sectors,” the cable says in the staid language of leaked diplomatic missives, before recounting how the US Ambassador predicted several other mounting economic house-wrecks before our own puppet-masters in Leinster House did.

The words ring true today just as they did then. Both quantitatively and qualitatively, the future of our smart economy is in a fairly large spot of bother, and to compound this not exactly insignificant problem, our educational standards also seem to be on the slide.

The recently released OECD rankings tables have added a sleuth of further problems to our ailing third level education system.

The world recognized tables find that our literacy and educational levels are sliding fast, and have justifiably set alarm bells ringing back home, as what we thought was our one major consolation - that despite all that's happened our educational system was still world-class - has now turned out to be a mere fallacy.

Years of rumours that the State exams have been getting easier would now also seem to have been true, as our students struggle to achieve the levels of education envisioned by former Ambassador Kenny and his advisors in 2004; if it was true back then, it's even truer now.

Reading levels have dropped from 5th to 17th in the OECD table, while maths competence levels have plummeted from 16th to 26th in the same decade-long, intervening period.

The problem facing Ireland's smart economy now looks worse than ever, and although it’s hardly the cheeriest prognosis to make, it increasingly seems like an unfortunately realistic one.

Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Education and Skill Mary Coughlan's first concrete reaction to the OECD news was the announcement of what's effectively a petty building and infrastructure fund for Irish third level institutions; a moderate contribution towards taking care of sundry building and maintenance expenses at the nation's seven universities.

The newly announced fund shows just how off-target the government's approach to tackling the problem continues to be: a fundamental overhaul of the Irish secondary school system, will based in disconcertingly large proportions on 19th-century style rote learning, is what's needed to tackle the pressing issue.

In post-Bailout Ireland where the country is literally gasping for hope amidst a seemingly endless tide of despair, these latest findings weren't exactly the good news story that we were hoping for, but they came nonetheless.

Amidst the controlled panic at the findings, some calls have been made to curtail Irish language teaching hours in order to free up class time for instruction in the more basic skills we seem to be so lacking in, but sacrificing our culture and heritage would be an even more tragic loss to Irish society than our rapidly devolving literacy and mathematics standards.

There are few easy answers to the mess, but sadly it's people like the former US Ambassador who can probably proffer better answers than our own crop of politicians can; and that, truth be told, is a fairly sad state of affairs to find ourselves in.

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