Lee Eustace reflects on The Irish Independent’s recently published article – ‘Everybody is going to university – but is it really worth it?’
 
It’s hard to believe that there really did exist a time before the rise of the beard; a time when the beard was a distinguishing, not a unifying symbol. 
 
Now, what if I were to tell you that there existed a time before everybody went to college; a time when the Leaving Cert was the coveted grail of the Irish education system, and not an undergraduate degree.
 
I’ll pause and allow you to scratch your beard while you think about that one. 
 
As Ireland’s third level system approaches the watershed point - primarily due to an increasing demand for college places coupled with the growing competition of the workforce - it’s high time that we as a nation reflected on the role of further education in Irish society.
 
As reported in The Independent, over the past generation there has been a marked increase of forty percent more students attending third level institutions, with a further thirty percent increase expected in the next decade -according to the Higher Education Authority. 
 
As both the proprietor of a badly groomed beard and a prospective owner of a BA degree, this trend worries me greatly. 
 
Presently, Ireland’s third level education system is approaching a point of no-return. As shown in the latest QS rankings, Ireland’s universities, with the exception of Galway, have slipped down the international rankings for the second consecutive year.
 
Ireland’s leading universities, with the backing of the HEA, have continually stated that insufficient funding is the primary reason for this decline. 
 
With the current Government having raised student fees for the past three consecutive years, one can only wonder as to how such deficiencies may be resolved. The latest figures show an increase of ten percent in the total number of students now attending third level education over the past five years. 
 
With an estimated 210,000 students now enrolled in third level education, Ireland’s universities continue to struggle with public funding cuts - an austerity measure introduced to combat the growing tide of students pursuing further education. 
 
The universities, however, are not the only ones affected by such developments. The average Irish student is now faced with a bill in the region of 9,000 - 12,000 euro before he or she emerges with an undergraduate degree, most of which consist of three to four years study – plenty of time to grow a beard. 
 
In addition to student fees, students themselves are forced to contend with years’ worth of bills and living expenses; even those who are lucky enough to live at home with mammy. 
 
Granted, an investment in education is widely considered to be smart choice; however, with the increasing number of graduates, coupled with a general lack of investment in Ireland’s economy, Ireland as a country cannot sustain the current level of activity in Ireland’s third level sector, not to mention the predicted growth over the next decade. 
 
For students, this instability is manifested in two interrelated areas – the lack of graduate opportunities, and over-qualification. 
 
With the increasing pressure on Ireland’s teenagers to attend third level education resulting in a flood of graduates in Ireland’s labour market, the consequences that arise are those of emigration - and for graduates who do not wish to leave the country, over-qualification – neither of which benefit Ireland as a society or the student as an individual. 
 
Ireland need only look at the model of Spain to see why a further increase in third level graduates is not necessarily a positive development. With Spain’s labour market saturated beyond repair and an unemployment rate of more than half of those under twenty five, Spain’s brightest and most qualified are forced to either pack their suitcases or settle for poorly paid, or at times, unpaid internships. 
 
With our parent’s generation placing such an emphasis on further education -a privilege that many of them were denied- the reality is that third level education has transformed from a privilege to a burden. 
 
The solution to this shifting demographic is neither simple nor forthcoming; however, one can assume that an overhaul of our third level system is necessary, before we reach the dire straits of Spain.
 
Such an overhaul might encompass a reintroduction of the apprentice system, wherein students on completion of the Leaving Cert are given the opportunity to learn their trade, not necessarily manual, directly, rather than indirectly by means of third level education. 
 
This shift would remove the financial burden placed on the Government to support the growing needs of Irish universities, in addition to easing the increasing strain placed on Irish universities to deal with an excess of students. 
 
Whether or not such changes are possible is up for debate, as is the type of third level course that might be transformed into a workplace specific apprenticeship or training course. 
 
What is clear, however, is that we may continue to model our beards on our Spanish compadres, but our graduate system should look elsewhere for inspiration. 
 

Photo: Leon Fishman/ Flickr