At Kilkenomics last year, one eminent economist from India was asked about what type of industries and activities he thought Ireland might foster to get ahead in the future.

What industry could we host in Ireland that would take advantage of the rapid changes in the global economy? Did we have any comparative advantage?

He answered that it was obvious to him: education is where we should be concentrating. He recalled having Irish priests teaching him in Delhi in the 1970s and that these guys had left a significant positive impression on him.

“This is what you are good at,” he quipped.

When Bono and Bob Geldof were in Africa at the time of Live Aid, they told stories of having been welcomed all over the place by Irish nuns and priests. They said they didn’t feel like foreigners because the missionaries had been there well before them. The missionaries blazed a trail.

It is not politically correct and certainly not hip to laud them or recognise what they did, but these people projected an image of Ireland out into the world and part of that image was a nation of teachers.

One of the historic echoes of the drive by Irish religious orders into education all over the world is this recognition of Irish people as teachers. When I was in school, retired priests who had spent years in Africa, Asia or Latin America used to regale us with stories of the missions, what they had seen and who they had met.

These experiences are real and have a lasting impression on the people affected. For example, the brilliant Spanish footballer Xabi Alonso speaks fondly of his time in Kells learning English and his time playing GAA!

These memories are part of the national brand and the brand is powerful. The missionaries are gone but their echo remains.

This echo gives us a launch pad from which to build a new industry for the 21st century. That industry is education and learning. And it’s not just missionaries who have helped create a image of Ireland as a place to learn. Today, the global education market is worth $4.4trillion. It is poised to grow significantly in the next five years. The e-learning market is projected to grow by 23pc between now and 2017. In dollar terms, this was worth $166.5bn in 2012 and will be worth $255bn in 2017. Irish companies such as are market leaders in this business.

In 2010, the Government launched ‘Investing in Global Relations – Ireland’s International Education Strategy 2010-2015’. This is a plan to lure international students to Ireland. It should be dusted off and efforts refocused on making it work.

The three primary aims of the plan were: To increase overall international student numbers by 50pc to 38,000; To boost the number of English language students by 25pc to 120,000; To increase from 23pc to 35pc the proportion of full-time international students undertaking postgraduate programmes.

This is all achievable.

Other small, English-speaking countries have done this with some significant success. One such country is New Zealand. It has had an ‘Education as an Export’ strategy in place since the 1990s and here’s what it has achieved. In 1998 less than 4pc of NZ students were foreign-born. In Ireland that figure was 5pc. In 2008, 24.4pc of NZ students were foreign-born, while in Ireland it was a trifling 7.2pc.

The Aussies are onto this too. They know that they are Asian now. In the past, the Aussies and Kiwis regarded themselves as Europeans stuck in the wrong part of the world. In recent years, they have embraced Asia and repositioned themselves, and not just in education.

However, the results in education have been spectacular.

Now in Australia, 25pc of students are foreign-born and the education export sector is valued at €8.9bn, making it the third-largest exporting sector in the entire economy.

Of the foreign-born students in Ireland, a whopping 40pc are from Anglophone countries, whereas it’s 20pc in NZ and 10pc in US/Canada/UK. This is something we need to address.

With regard to Indian/Chinese students, in the UK, one in five students is Indian or Chinese. In Canada, it is one in four while in the US some claim it’s one in three. Australia and NZ claim 40pc of students are either Indian or Chinese, whereas in Ireland it’s 12pc – the same as Sweden.

Why such an anomaly? Students from India and China make up the lion’s share of those wanting to come here, yet they are not getting in.

Looking at visa approval rates, Ireland and the UK are about the same, at 29pc and 28pc. But the UK receives 33 times as many applications as Ireland. Looking at applications from particular regions, the UK receives 150 times as many applicants from North Africa and the Middle East than we do.

That said, the number of Asian students studying in Ireland has increased by over 400pc since the year 2000. Over the coming years, these countries will get stronger and their middle class will expand. The parents of these middle class kids will spend money trying to get a “Western, English-speaking” education for their kids. This will be a bonanza for us, if we seize the opportunity.

At a time when the global economy is so competitive and when our tax policies are subject to so much scrutiny, a new big idea is surely one worth pitching for?

Rarely can there be one that is so obvious for Ireland. It’s time to grab this opportunity with both hands.

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