Of late, government politicians love to talk about the knowledge economy, lifelong learning and fourth level education, but are they doing enough to support these ideas, or just dropping buzzwords they don't understand? An Irish person who left Ireland in search of education gives his view.
- Research in Ireland
A knowledge economy is an economy that relies, for its exports, on the output of a highly-educated workforce as distinct from industrial or agricultural economies, which depend on skilled or semi-skilled workers. The knowledge economy is fuelled by its new developments in science and technology, supported by fundamental and applied research. The knowledge economy is further supported by lifelong learning, regarding education as part of life, not something with which one is finished at a certain age or at a certain level.
Fourth-level education is education by research. Usually, it refers to doctorates. Some research is done at levels lower than PhD level, and most PhD students take some taught courses, particularly at the beginning of their studies, so to say that fourth-level education is research only and third-level education has no research component wouldn't be correct. The idea, however, is that PhDs are important to the knowledge economy because a PhD is, substantially, a training in the methodology of research.
So, research in science and technology is essential to the knowledge economy. Fourth-level education produces trained researchers, and third-level education produces graduates, some of whom are willing and able to undertake PhD studies.
Transforming an economy is a long-term project. In this article, it will be argued that Ireland has no hope of becoming a knowlege economy. The reason is that government thinking is short-term, never looking beyond the next election; the symptoms of this thinking are a history of underfunding of research, and encouraging successively lower standards in third-level education.
The remedy is a radical increase in government research spending, cessation of the policy of measuring the success of third-level institutions in terms of “throughput”, and certain paricular measures to make fourth-level education an attractive choice for the best graduates.
Research in Ireland
Key Research Indicators
According to Eurostat, investment in R&D in Ireland as a percentage of GDP, at 1.25%, is significantly lower than the EU average (1.84–1.91%) and we're not catching up. In fact, our investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP didn't increase between 1995 and 2005. We lie behind such wealthy economic and technological powerhouses as Croatia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. In contrast, Sweden spent 3.86% of GDP on R&D in 2005. Sweden isn't alone: 9 European countries spend more than 2% of GDP, putting them in the same league as the USA (2.67%) and Japan (3.2%), a league we're simply not in. 
Latest European supercomputer project: Ireland's not in it. CERN: Ireland's not in it. Why the hell not?
Fourth Level Education
Compared to Sweden or Finland, Ireland has a small fraction of the number of PhDs graduating each year. It takes (notionally) 3 years in Ireland and 5 years in Sweden/Norway, so why do people do it?
Doing a PhD in Ireland means living in a garret for 3-4 years. Anyone who aspires to a standard of living beyond living with vermin need not apply. In Scandinavia, PhD students are paid a decent living wage. Many of them have families. The Irish government effectively caps research grants at about 12k (could you live on that in Dublin?).
Third Level Education
It's all about bums on seats. When did “throughput” become the measure of success for a University? Educational standards in Ireland have fallen steadily over the last 10 years and are currently alarmingly low.
Second Level Education
Who's interested in science, mathematics, and technology? Why not do an easy course and make lots of money instead. Science & mathematics are seen as hard & boring.
Raise R&D spending to 5% of GDP for the next 5 years. More than double PhD student stipends (currently ~€12k) to about the average industrial wage (~€30k) as they are in civilized countries.
- David A. King, The scientific impact of nations, Nature, vol. 430, July 2004, pp.311–316.
- Eurostat, Gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD)