John Herlihy: 'bad system'

It was reported last week that Ireland had lost out on 200 Intel jobs to Romania because we couldn't assure the company that we could supply the requisite number of suitable graduates. This is not a one-off and hi-tech companies have been telling us for years that the quality and amount of Irish graduates is just not good enough. All this talk of an export-driven recovery will matter little if we continue to lose out on expansions like this because of our continued delusion that Irish education standards are high by world comparison. They're not. Anybody who has employed or dealt with those finishing the Leaving Cert in recent years realises that reading, writing and arithmetic are all lacking in school leavers in this country. We're not getting the basics right. It comes down to teachers and their inability to deliver students of a requisite standard. That situation persists into third level.

Last week, The Belfast Telegraph highlighted Wikileaks cables in which the US bluntly told the government here that our education policies were not providing US firms with enough quality graduates. In 2005, then finance minister Brian Cowen met US ambassador James C Kenny and was told of Kenny's fears about the standards of graduates and linked it to the limits on education funding caused by free fees. He wanted the Irish government to use US-style university endowments to make up some of the slack. This is a valid point – universities whinge they're underfunded while doing little to tackle the underlying problems. A US system would improve standards by allowing us to attract some of the brightest and best, which hopefully would rub off on some of their stale colleagues.

Instead, Cowen said that the finance department was concentrating on a transition to better management structures. Once again he was blind to the real issues – a lack of quality begets a lack of quality.

We need a fundamental reform of Irish education to make it more responsive to the needs of industry. Otherwise it won't be just construction workers looking at a generation of unemployment. Rob Richardson of Pioneer International has said he'd hire 100 people more every year if suitable people were graduating; John Herlihy of Google says Irish education is simply a "bad system". But nobody's listening.

Cowen told Kenny at that meeting that the government would consider Kenny's proposal but that it would be necessary "to ensure that funds otherwise destined for government coffers would not simply be switched to the endowments". This is hilarious in the context of a country losing €1bn a year in property tax relief schemes. He also said that the tax incentives would have to be designed to discourage contributors from dictating to universities how their donations should be used, such as for cancer research. Given the colossal disaster Cowen was as Minister for Health that just sounds like another sick joke.