After the dramatic events of the last two to three years in Ireland’s ‘tiger economy’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that inflation was hardly their biggest worry. Indeed, Ireland currently had negative inflation at -2.9% for the year 2009 – the lowest figure in the EU. But a different kind of inflation – exam grade inflation – is currently front page news. Not just because the importance of a robust educational system is something the Irish value and are proud of, but because the credibility of exam grades – and the quality of the system’s graduates – is critical to future of a country where inward investment is critical for current recovery and future success “of a knowledge-based economy”.

The crux of the matter was summed up in an editorial in the Irish Independent on 2 March 2010:

Education, more than any other sphere of activity, has long been a focus of Irish self-congratulation. In the 1960s, admirers of politicians (some existed then) spoke of free secondary schooling as if we had invented it. A generation on, and we boasted of the high proportion of our young people who attended third-level institutions. In reality, by international standards we are only average at maths and a little above average at science.

It has taken straight-talking by some of the very people who work by international standards to prick the myth.”

Even in a pre-globalised world, education is vital to national competitiveness. The talent pool of tomorrow – and the leaders and innovators of a couple of decades further on – can come from only one place: the classrooms of today. As human capital has become both more valuable to most organisations and more recognised for its value, it’s importance as being as much a vital raw material of ‘production’ as physical materials has grown.

In a world where global and multi-national companies carefully evaluate different territories as potential operational bases, its value is also judged on more than just price. While cost of labour is a critical equation at many levels of the workforce, quality – the abilities of the workforce, on induction and through subsequent development – is also a critical success factor. And at the higher organisational levels, quality (ie ability) almost certainly trumps price as a deciding factor: it was, after all, called ‘The War On Talent’. (Perhaps ‘The War On Labour Costs’ was just something we all took for granted …)

Concern – and dissenting voices – about exam grad inflation has been rising in Ireland for several years. There is, for example, a Stop Grade Inflation website, containing a wealth of links and research. Given that previous studies show the percentage of first class honours degrees awarded in universities has trebled since the mid-1990s, while the number of students securing the perfect Leaving Certificate results has increased five-fold, this is hardly surprising.

But the latest round of press coverage and public debate has been triggered not by concerned academics, but by the ‘end consumers’ of Ireland’s education system: employers – many of them from major global companies.

Concern has already reached the point that the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, has launched two parallel reviews. The significance of retaining faith in the education system – in an eerie parallel of the more recent desperation to retain faith in the international banking system – has drawn comment from industry. A number of voices have been heard, including John Herlihy, Google Ireland general manager and vice president, global ad operations:

Ireland’s education system has been a critical attraction for US investment in Ireland and the key to delivering the smart economy. We found the Minister very open to hearing the comments of industry. We want people who can understand their core subjects and solve problems. The key thing is that it will confirm the integrity of the underlying system. Google and all the other multinationals are here for the calibre of the education system and it is essential that there be total integrity in relation to that.”

Harder hitting was Craig Barrett, the former CEO of Intel speaking in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin:

On the vital subject of education, Barrett warned that Ireland needs to be more than just average in terms of STEM subjects like maths and science.

He said that while two of Ireland’s universities are among the Top 100 in the world, neither are functioning as wealth creators in the same tradition as Stanford or Berkley in California or indeed universities in Israel. “The economics of Stanford, Berkley, MIT and Israel, this is what your future has to entail.”

This need to – as Mr Bennett put it – ‘redraw the Irish blueprint’ was echoed by Dr John Robinson, Chief Executive of the Kepler Institute, who recently spoke out in favour of raising the standard required for entry to third-level engineering degrees:

Writing in the ‘Engineers Journal’, he warns the implication is that our best and brightest students do not have courses to pursue that will take them to the limit of their ability.

“This is not only an injustice to them, but is a loss to the country. That untapped potential, a key resource of Ireland, the very resource required to create an environment for innovation, is lost to us”.

Concern about Ireland’s competitiveness and ability to attract inward investment is borne out by international indices: the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index for 2009-2010 shows that the country has dropped from 22nd to 25th place, having been overtaken by New Zealand, Luxembourg, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (Iceland, unsurprisingly, fell further than Ireland, but this may not be much of a comfort.)

If the importance of credible, high-performing education needed underlining, Batt O’Keefe himself commented to today’s Irish Times that:

 “There are allegations that the system has been dumbed down and we need clarification on this because our future is heavily dependent on the level of attainment in our schools and colleges. If we are an export-led country we have to be informed by industry as well as to their experience of graduates and the quality they are finding. It is important to listen to what industry is saying.”

Lessons, it seems, don’t end when the bell rings at the end of class (although that is something that some of the L&D industry could perhaps have ‘taught’ the education system). And neither does evaluation end with self-assessment. It’s not just ‘what’ you’re fit for that matters: in today’s world, it’s also a matter of ‘who’.

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