Ireland has been reported to be 'the most educated country in the EU'. This contrasts with a report which identifies Irish youth as the most underemployed in Europe. What does this mean for Irish youth who have invested in higher education with the promise of a better, brighter future?
A recent Eurostat report found that Ireland has the highest number of third level graduates in Europe with 51% of Irish residents holding a third level degree. At a time of economic depression, with the looming threat of the reintroduction of third level fees, this came as a welcome signpost that Ireland was heading the right direction in terms of overreaching EU targets and investing in the vital areas needed for growth and sustainable development. As Ireland enjoyed the momentary satisfaction of being marked out as 'the most educated country in the EU' there was an underlying uneasiness and unwillingness to address the fact that Irish graduates are also the most underemployed in Europe.
First off, as an Irish student who has been in higher education for the last six years, I can safely say that despite the Free Fees initiative, higher education in Ireland is not the beacon of free education that many hold it up to be. Irish students enrolled in a degree programme pay an annual student contribution charge. When I began my study in 2006 this charge was €900. Since then I have seen it rise on a yearly basis. It now stands at €2, 500 and will rise to €3,000 by 2016. In fact, we pay one of the highest rates in Europe. In addition, Irish students will generally pay for their own postgraduate study with an Masters degree costing between €5,000 and €6,000. Nonetheless, despite the challenges of being a student during a period of bleak economic austerity, Irish youth continue to invest in higher education study. After all, a university qualification is the key to greater job opportunities, job stability and higher earning potential.
Irish youth, 'the most educated in Europe' have put this theory to the test and the results are disquieting. The reality facing a majority of Irish graduates does not revolve around notions of opportunity or stability. Young Irish graduates line up to collect their dole on a weekly basis. They are emigrating at a mass level that Irish history has not witnessed since the Great Famine in the 1840's. Those that are lucky to get work are in positions that they are over-qualified to work in and many more are working in jobs that do not even relate to their qualification. To add insult to injury, Irish employers have taken advantage of the precarious position that young Irish graduates find themselves in by hiring unpaid interns with little chance or opportunity of being offered a full-time, paid position.
Irish youth are facing the grim reality that higher education may not be the key to a better, brighter future. Irish graduates have the highest level of third level qualifications compared to our European counterparts. Despite this we have the least chance of being employed. Regrettably, even the leaders and members of the 'most educated country in the EU' are struggling to figure out and deal effectively with this this oxymoron. Therefore, can we argue that Irish graduates have debunked the myth that higher education is a worthwhile investment? It's an uncomfortable theory. Nonetheless, it's an important question that we can no longer afford to shy away from.