Ireland and Greece, and some suggested educational innovations for Ireland

Sunday, December, 2010

An interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the IMF, in today’s Kathimerini (12 Dec 2010), suggests that Greece’s economy is at a crucial crossroads.  What this means, in other words, is that Greece has a choice: either it can take the advice of the IMF and independent economic thinkers and implement the hard reforms necessary for the long-term transformation of its economy; or it can remain the same and risk spiralling into an even more debt-laden and uncompetitive country whose membership of the EU and the eurozone will become unsustainable, in turn threatening the very viability of these pan-European institutions.

Today’s interview with the IMF head is of interest to Ireland, a country which recently joined Greece and an array of even more exotic locations around the world in receipt of IMF aid.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn said that if Greece can maintain the momentum of reform, investors’ confidence will grow, and through the gradual return of competitiveness growth will follow. The IMF chief noted the need for consensus among the political parties and in that context he opened a “window” for limited adjustments in the memorandum, saying that “ideas for policy changes should, first and foremost, be discussed with the government”. In the spirit of political consensus, he said that “playing the blame game is not helpful” and called upon the political parties to “look forward instead of backwards”. 

Perhaps the IMF boss was also sending out a subtle signal to Ireland, which decided last Thursday (9 December) to ‘table’ a motion on the EU-IMF Financial Assistance Program for Ireland in the Irish Parliament (the Dáil) – the vote on this motion is scheduled for next Wednesday (15 December 15).

In his interview with Kathimerini, Mr. Strauss-Kahn also said that he believes that the euro is not in danger, but described the situation in Europe as “serious” and underlined the need for a comprehensive European approach to the crisis.

In respect of the Greek economy, Mr. Strauss-Kahn said that the overriding objective is to get growth going again and this will require fundamental reform of the economy.  In this regard, he mentioned “opening up services, trade, and the professions; streamlining state enterprises; and improving the climate for business and investment”.

He said that, while such reforms are “not easily done”, if Greece can maintain the momentum of reform, “investors will come to realise the country’s commitment to change and confidence will grow”.

In relation to the comparison between Greece and Ireland, Mr. Strauss-Kahn said that “Greece and Ireland are very different cases”.  In particular, “[w]hile Greece was mainly affected by mounting public debt in an uncompetitive and relatively closed economy, Ireland, which has a very open and dynamic economy, faced mainly a crisis in the banking system that became a heavy burden on state finances” [PMCA italics].

The differences between Ireland and Greece basically imply that the economic programs supported by the European partners and the IMF need to be tailored to the countries’ respective circumstances.

Nevertheless, Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s comments should not be interpreted that Ireland is in some way less worse off than Greece or requires less hard medicine, just because it might have stronger ‘economic fundamentals’ compared with Greece.

Whatever party or parties assume control of the next Dáil (Irish parliament) in 2011, it/they need to grasp the bigger picture and commence a process of radical and widespread reform of the economy because Ireland will be facing up to much tougher economic competitors than Greece in the twenty-first century globalised economy.  The emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China spring to mind (the so-called ‘BRIC’ countries).  If we want to measure up to the new boys on the block, we will have to make some hard choices and these not only concern cost-competitiveness.

Ripe for reform is the Irish education system in respect of maths and the hard sciences at primary, secondary and third-level and a genuinely ambitious approach needs to be adopted if we are to make claims for ourselves as ‘world-class’ or a ‘centre of excellence’ – terms that are all too easily thrown about in this country without a proper appreciation of the facts.

For example, the recently published OECD PISA results illustrate that Ireland is far from the frontier in terms of the maths skills demonstrated by its secondary-level students and we are lagging behind in literacy and science too.  These subjects are important for both maintaining and attracting inward investment, which will be critical to Ireland’s long-term economic recovery.  They are also vital to serving the needs of our best indigenous firms, whose efforts in export markets are noteworthy in terms of their employment impact (see the November 2010 PMCA Economic Commentary).

Consider the following possibilities.

Should we not award bonus points for ordinary-level as well as higher-level maths at Leaving Certificate?  Such an initiative would serve to incentivise maths performance at all levels and would recognise that not everyone can take on the higher-level maths course.

How about introducing a new ‘super-level’ maths course at Leaving Certificate, which would aim to push the very best maths students at secondary school (optional, of course)?  For example, the new course might include further topics of relevance to producing the future engineers and physicists that the country needs, such as the exponential form of a complex number, hyperbolic functions, three-dimensional vectors and geometry, partial differentiation and possibly operator-D methods – a nice taster of what they would be proceeding to at third-level.

What about adding more applied maths and numerical courses (optional) at Leaving Certificate such as statistics, maths-physics, computer science and further applied maths, even with economic applications that would capture the interest of the very best quantitative students?  In this brave new world, it should be possible for a Leaving Certificate student to take four or five, possibly more, maths and maths-type courses.

Of course, the provision of these additional maths-related courses would be a function of the ability of the Irish teaching profession to supply them and this would also need to be examined.

This leads us to the biggest ‘sacred cow’ in the Irish education system – Irish.  Is not time we re-visited the compulsory nature of this subject through primary and secondary school?  If Irish was such an important subject at primary school, why don’t the authorities test it in the Drumcondra or similar tests, which are carried out for maths and English?  Are they frightened of what the results would look like?  Can we really afford the luxury of making our children learn Irish through school in the increasingly internationalised economy in which the country now operates?  If Irish was made optional, the competition it would face might make it a better and more relevant subject to study at school.

Needless to say, the importance of English goes without saying – it is critical to communication skills and is, after all, the language of the business world.

Regarding other languages, should our schools not be considering teaching Chinese on a larger scale?  If we’re serious as a country about competitiveness, we should be gearing ourselves up in preparation for the country that is poised to become the world’s most competitive and dynamic economy this century?

These are just a taster of the more fundamental, microeconomic reforms that Ireland needs to consider making in order to become a truly competitive and innovative country.  We will return to them and other possible reforms in the coming weeks and months.

Keep Abreast of PMCA's Perspectives

Subscribe to PMCA's RSS feed and keep up to date with all PMCA's posts, articles and reports. Subscribe to PMCA's feed