The north’s economic problem – education…

John FitzGerald is one of Ireland’s most respected and influential economists –formerly research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute and currently chair of the group advising the Irish government on climate policy. He is a strong critic of Northern Ireland’s policies on education and skills training, arguing that these are core factors in the weakness of the northern economy.

He is the latest interviewee in the Holywell Trust’s Forward Together podcast series.

“In terms of productivity, Northern Ireland is at the bottom of the scale,” he says. “That reflects the fact that the educational attainment of the population in Northern Ireland is the lowest for any region in these islands.

“Ireland, London and Scotland are at the top. Northern Ireland is at the bottom. Measuring both in terms of early school leavers, who don’t complete high school, and the proportion of the population who have third level qualifications. Northern Ireland is at the bottom on both of those measures. That helps to explain why productivity performance is so poor.”

Moreover, the proportion of young adults who have third level qualifications is a major factor in determining the location of foreign direct investment, says John. Between a quarter and a third of Northern Ireland’s undergraduates leave to study in Britain and two thirds of those do not return.

The contrast with the Republic is significant. A larger proportion of school leavers go to university, and while “quite a high proportion of them, 25 to 40 percent, would then go abroad for whatever reason, but they’re homing pigeons and they come back,” says John. “It looks as if the pattern is that you return to where you did your third level of qualifications. Even if you’re from Northern Ireland, if you do your undergraduate degree in Britain, you don’t come back.”

Moreover, a significant number of those people who do graduate in Northern Ireland go into the public sector. “The public sector is much bigger in Northern Ireland than it would be in most other parts of the United Kingdom,” says John. “That reflects the fact that in the crisis years between 1970 and 2000, and in particular in the 70s when employment collapsed because of the Troubles, it was ramped up in the public sector. And really, the public sector still dominates.”

Another core problem of the Northern Irish economy is the shortage of relevant vocational skills. “In the Republic, one of the success stories of the last 30, 40 years was the institutes of technology.” These, argues John, have been a foundation for some of the key industrial growth areas, such as health care devices and pharmaceuticals.

The contrast with Northern Ireland is substantial and linked to the influence of academic selection. Selection at 11 tends to separate pupils at a young age, with one route being academic and the other vocational. Research, says John, “shows that segregation by educational attainment in grammar schools and secondary schools is very damaging to kids, in particular from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He adds: “It seems to be an urban working class problem, which has been overcome in the Republic, but it’s really damaging in Northern Ireland. And it goes back to the selection by schools. The research done in the Republic shows that mixed ability teaching is really important… The research showed streaming doesn’t improve the prospects of good bright kids, but seriously impacts on the prospects of kids in the lower half of the distribution of attainment.”

The result is demotivating for those pupils not doing well, while “the bulk of kids from a middle class background get into grammar school. So you’re segregating, if you like, on a class basis as well.”

Alongside education and skills, the other basis for necessary reform in Northern Ireland is infrastructure investment, argues John. “The evidence is that Northern Ireland is an exception in the investment in physical capital compared to the Republic, compared to the United Kingdom as a whole, compared to Scotland. The transfers from London have been used to provide support of income through employment, through welfare or good public services, rather than holding back some of that and investing in infrastructure, which would support a productive and active business economy.”

But the strains on infrastructure have been accentuated by urban and rural planning policy. “Belfast has decentralized and partly because of the Troubles, it has not grown. There has been much more dispersed population growth. Whereas in the Republic and in Britain, the problem is that there’s been overconcentration in London, overconcentration in Dublin. But cities across Europe are successful.” The “failure to develop Belfast” backed by good public transport has led to a dispersed population. “So I think there’s a need for a change in approach and investing in infrastructure.”

But John concedes: “It’s an issue which we face in the Republic as well: Irish people, north and south, would like to live in rural areas and work in urban areas. That’s totally unsustainable. And the dynamic of a dense city works…. That is the future.”

This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of Holywell Trust, a peace and reconciliation charity, and is financed by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme


Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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