Spending on Education

In amongst the rather bizarre, pizza-centred, ramblings of Marc Coleman’s recent column was a serious point about funding for education.

How much should a state spend on education? And, more importantly, where should it spend its education budget?

Education is a sure thing for politicians. Who can argue with a politician making the case for educating the population? It’s a human right after all, isn’t it? Tony Blair recognised this early on in his tenure and spoke about it ad nauseam.

Irish politicians have jumped on the bandwagon. Education is sacred. Wherever economic prosperity is found, education spending is examined and correlations are discerned. More spending on education means greater economic success, or so it seems. But, as you learn in an elementary  statistics course, correlation does not mean causation. In fact, it is quite easy to construct an argument that explains why economic prosperity drives educational attainment, rather than the reverse.

So how much should we spend on education? I haven’t a clue but I think  we do need to consider carefully how we spend our limited education budget. Unfortunately, the politicians have a very simplistic view of education. The whole trust of education policy has been to simply advance more and more people up the education ladder. From emphasising secondary school education, we moved on to third level, then Masters degrees and now PhDs. Irish Governments have promised to double the number of PhDs as if it were self-evident that this was a good and necessary thing. Is a PhD really superior to a graduate with four years experience in a relevant industry?

Instead we should be thinking a lot more carefully about what the economy needs and what people actually want.

I was thinking about ideas like this during a tutorial the other day. It was an active learning session in which I was getting second year students to solve some maths problems. Some students took to it with gusto but others just didn’t engage at all. I felt sorry for them because they were clearly doing something in which they had absolutely no interest – and were never likely to. It appears to me that a lot of youngsters have been drawn into the drift towards ‘third level for all’ without any rigorous analysis as to whether this is good for the country or, just as importantly, good for them.

Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but I think there must be some optimal educational configuration in which economic prosperity and personal fulfilment are maximised by giving everybody the opportunity to reach a level of education that suits them.

Unfortunately, we have created a third level ‘cult’ in which it is believed that only people with degrees can possibly have the skills necessary for the workplace of today – this mythical ‘knowledge economy’.

This not only overstates the practical value of third level education but forces many young people to endure years of stress and tedium to gain a qualification, the need for which is not obvious at all.

For what its’ worth, I think the early years are crucial. If I were Minister for Education, I would make Primary and Secondary Education my priority. For me, the two most important determinants of  a person’s competence in the workplace will be  (i) their basic skills and (ii) their intellectual curiosity and willingness to continue learning.

It seems to me that we are failing to teach the former and crushing the latter.



About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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