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FactCheck: Does Ireland really have the "highest education" in Europe?

Junior Minister Eoghan Murphy made an effort to impress international viewers on CNBC this week. But did he over-state the case?

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MINISTER OF STATE Eoghan Murphy talked up Ireland to an international audience this week, appearing from Singapore on CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss the EU Apple ruling and other matters.

During a discussion about the attractiveness of Ireland as a destination for foreign investment, he claimed:

We’ve a young population, with the highest education in Europe.

Is this true?

(Remember, if you hear a claim about how Ireland compares to Europe and the rest of the world, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet @TJ_FactCheck).

Claim: Ireland has the best education in Europe
Verdict: FALSE

  • We have among the highest (but not the highest) percentages of third-level graduates in the EU
  • Our universities rank significantly below 49 others in nine other EU countries
  • Our secondary students rank among the best in the EU (especially for reading), but not at the top
  • Literacy, numeracy and computer skills levels among Irish adults are average, and quite a distance from the top of the EU rankings

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

You can watch a short clip of Murphy’s interview, and a breakdown of the basic facts, above. Watch the interview in full, here.

Our focus is on this claim:

We’ve a young population, with the highest education in Europe [Emphasis added].

The Facts

We asked Fine Gael, Eoghan Murphy’s office, and the Department of Finance for evidence to support his claim, and the department directed us to the 2016 OECD Education at a Glance report.

FactCheck asked Murphy’s spokespersons to clarify the precise meaning of “highest education”, and to specify the measure he was referring to, but unfortunately we did not receive a response.

We’re going to treat his claim as a general claim about the quality of Ireland’s education system, in the context of his broader argument about the attractiveness of Ireland for foreign investment.

This means we won’t be analysing evidence relating to our primary education system.

Third-level

Prevalence of third-level education

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The 2016 OECD report tracked the educational attainment levels of, among others, 23 EU countries, in 2015.

It found that, among 25-64 year-olds (post third-level, working-age adults):

  • Ireland had the second-highest percentage (43%) with a third-level education, behind the UK (44%)
  • The fourth-highest percentage (21%) with a Bachelor’s degree
  • The 23rd-highest (fourth-lowest) percentage (8%) with a Master’s degree

Among 25-34 year-olds:

  • Ireland had the second-highest percentage (52%) with a third-level education, behind Lithuania (55%)
  • The third-highest percentage (29%) with a Bachelor’s degree, behind Lithuania and Greece
  • The 22nd-highest (fifth-lowest) percentage (10%) with a Master’s degree

The OECD report also tracked the types of degrees being obtained by college graduates in 19 out of the 28 EU member states.

Of particular relevance to Murphy’s broader point about the attractiveness of Ireland as a destination for foreign investment:

  • Ireland had the highest prevalence of science, mathematics and computing graduates (16% of those with a third-level education)
  • Ireland had the lowest prevalence of engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates (11%)

Although it wasn’t cited by Eoghan Murphy’s spokesperson, we’ve also looked at the latest data from Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistics agency, which relates to all 28 EU member states.

In 2014, Ireland had the 10th-highest percentage (36.9%) of 20-24 year-olds currently enrolled in third-level education.

However, the figure for Ireland is provisional, so it comes with something of a health warning.

Quality of third-level education

highereducation Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The prevalence of third-level education is only part of the question of how good our system is.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a comprehensive international ranking of aptitude among third-level students, but we do have rankings for our universities, via the Times Higher Education Top 200.

Due to complications with data involving Trinity College Dublin’s ranking in the most recent report, which emerged this week, we’re going to look at the 2014-2015 list, in the interest of fairness.

The highest-ranked Irish university was TCD, at 138th. Ranked above that were:

  • 20 institutions in the UK
  • 9 in the Netherlands
  • 8 in Germany
  • 5 in Sweden
  • 4 in France
  • 2 in Belgium
  • 1 each in Italy, Denmark and Finland

That’s 49 EU universities, in nine countries, ranked above Ireland’s highest-rated third-level institution.

Ireland had one university in the top 200, whereas seven EU countries had a higher number than that.

So clearly, according to the Times Higher Education rankings, which measure quality of teaching and research, as well as influence and innovation, the third-level institutions on offer in Ireland are far from the best in the EU.

Second-level

pisa Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

To evaluate the quality of secondary education, we consulted the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

That’s a reading, maths and science test given to more than half a million 15 and 16 year-olds in 65 countries around the world, including 27 out of 28 EU member states.

The test is administered every three years, and unfortunately the most recent results are from 2012.

Nonetheless, according to those figures:

  • Ireland ranked 8th out of 27 EU countries for mathematics (20th out of all countries)
  • Ireland ranked 2nd out of 27 EU countries for reading (behind Finland). We ranked 9th out of all countries
  • Ireland ranked 5th out of 27 EU countries for science (14th out of all countries).

Literacy and numeracy

The 2016 OECD report also ranked the ability to read and write, as well as perform mathematical functions, according to the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies).

This breaks down literacy and numeracy into six levels, from 0-5, with 0 being the lowest level of competency, and 5 being the highest.

Here’s how Irish adults ranked in 2015.

Literacy

literacy Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Out of 17 EU member states (plus Northern Ireland, England, and Flanders in Belgium, which were treated as separate entities).

  • The 8th-highest percentage of adults (18%) who have the lowest literacy levels (0 or 1)
  • The 11th-highest percentage of adults (9%) who have the highest literacy levels (4 or 5)

Numeracy

numeracy Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

Out of 16 EU countries (plus Northern Ireland, England, and Flanders in Belgium)

  • The 6th-highest percentage of adults (26%) who have the lowest numeracy levels (0 or 1)
  • The 16th-highest percentage of adults (8%) who have the highest numeracy levels (4 of 5)

Clearly, by this measure of literacy and numeracy among the general adult population, Ireland is quite a distance from the top of the EU rankings.

Computer skills

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

The OECD report also involved an ICT (information and communications technology) test. Results were reported for 14 EU member states, plus Northern Ireland, England and Flanders.

  • Ireland had the 12-highest percentage (51%) of adults with moderate or good computer skills
  • Ireland had the 7th-highest percentage (12%) of adults with no computer experience
  • Ireland had the 12th-highest percentage (18%) of adults who failed the basic ICT test
  • Ireland had the 12th-highest percentage (23%) of adults with “good ICT and problem-solving skills”

Again, by this measure of computer skills, Irish adults rank a fair distance from the top, among the EU countries measured.

Conclusion

Sequence 06.00_00_11_09.Still001

Eoghan Murphy’s claim was that Ireland had “the highest education in Europe”. Taking this to mean “best”, it’s clear that this is a vast exaggeration of the reality, according to most key measures.

  • We have among the highest percentages of third-level graduates in the EU, especially in the economically valuable field of science, mathematics and computing
  • But our universities rank significantly below 49 others in nine other EU countries
  • Our secondary students rank among the best in the EU (especially for reading), but not at the top
  • Literacy, numeracy and computer skills levels among Irish adults are average, and quite a distance from the top of the EU rankings

We rate the claim FALSE.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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