I’m always reminding my colleagues that this blog isn’t just for me, it’s for them, and for you too. So this post was written by John-Paul, (WAM Research Officer) and comments will be answered by him too!


The following quote got me thinking about what exactly is the aim of our education system;

‘…the idea of education being the key to economic growth is no more than a myth. Of course, both individually and nationally, basic numeracy and literacy are essential for workers in a strong economy, but once they are achieved, which is the case by the age of eleven for most of the populations of the developed world, then, incredibly, there is absolutely no evidence that a nation’s economic growth benefits from further investment in education’ (James 2007:296).

The statement is taken from Oliver James’ book Affluenza which highlights how the line between needs and wants is becoming increasingly blurred in societies where status is linked to occupation and wealth. But this specific statement got me thinking; what exactly is the purpose of education? In other words, what is the ultimate goal for our third level education system? Is it to supply skilled, productive profit-makers, create socially and politically aware citizens, or simply to produce people who are content pursuing careers of interest?

The moral of the story usually goes something like; investment in education leads to more students attending third level – producing an increased number of qualified graduates – resulting in a strong, thriving economy and therefore one tiny smiling island. James, however, would ask for the evidence.

Education and economy have always been linked but the recent economic boom and now bust have highlighted the increasing influence they have on each other. So much so that it could be argued a large proportion of college going students chose their courses based on the likelihood of well-paid jobs at the end. Two examples further illustrate this point:

  1. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in the early noughties (hate that word but I had no choice) resulted in a decrease in the number of students choosing to take up IT/Computer related subjects at third level.
  2. The 2009 CAO application process saw a collapse in points for courses linked to the property market. This may be a consequence of students shying away from these courses due to perceived poor career prospects. In fact first preference for property-related courses was down 26% from 2008 CAO applications. Other notable statistics include;
  • architecture in UCD down 20 points, in UL down 30 points
  • construction management in DIT down 55 points
  • property economics in DIT down 50 points
  • civil engineering in UCD down 60 points (Irish Times, August 17th 2009)

Does course choice on those CAO forms come down to a battle between interests/passions and money?

Being a researcher myself, I would love to see research conducted which investigated why CAO applicants chose their first preference. Or why they chose to go to college at all. The results may provide a glimpse at what those being educated think education is for. An important thing in my book.

What do you think? What is the purpose of third level education?

Think back…why did you go for that choice when applying on the CAO form? Or, more generally, why did you choose to go to college at all?