Ambassadors, Provost, Prof. Horne, Dr. Arnold, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to speak to you this evening on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European Studies programme at Trinity College.
I know that among the audience this evening, there are a number of graduates of European Studies who have benefited from the education they received during their time in this programme (including one of my own colleagues from the Commission's Representation).
European Studies graduates have emerged from this University for the past 20 years with command of at least two European languages, but also the analytical skills acquired through the study of historical concepts and events, political philosophy, political science, sociology and economics.
As a graduate in Economics and Politics from UCD and a postgraduate of the College of Europe in Bruges, it won't come as any surprise to you that I am a strong believer in the importance of the Humanities and languages. This belief was reinforced by my previous post in the Commission where I was in charge of Higher Education and the Erasmus programme.
Graduates of courses in the Humanities are increasingly seen by businesses as being more flexible and adaptable, more likely to appreciate the need for intercultural communication skills and more able to build relationships with counterparts or clients in other countries.
So why then are Humanities getting such a bad press?
The drive to encourage more students to study science, mathematics and engineering is important and necessary, but it should not lead to a downgrading of the study of Humanities or of languages. Not all students are suited to one or the other, but providing Irish students with equal opportunities to excel in these areas will translate into a concrete competitive advantage.
It is a misconception that studying the Humanities makes students less competitive in finding employment. Through Humanities we learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason and to ask questions. These skills allow us to gain new insights into everything from poetry to business models. This is perhaps why, in April this year, Stanford University launched a drive to increase study of Humanities. It seeks to counteract the false impression that Humanities do not help students to find a job.
Now, I would like to turn to languages, given that today is also the 10th anniversary of the European Day of languages.
In 2010, the recruitment body for the EU institutions ran a competition looking for graduates who could work in one of the EU institutions. Nearly 500 Irish graduates applied for the first stage of the competition, but only 3 made it on to the reserve list. At a time when native English-speaking graduates are very much in demand in the institutions, this is a pretty grim outcome!
So, what is the problem? It seems it is languages.
Any graduate applying to work in the EU institutions must be able to operate in three of the EU's official languages and this must include one of the three working languages – English, French and German. But if English is your mother tongue you must sit the competition in either French or German. It seems that Irish graduates are not able to compete with many of their counterparts in other EU Member States, when it comes to foreign language ability.
This problem is all the more acute during a period of recession, when many young Irish people are either unemployed or seeking employment opportunities abroad. They are emigrating mainly to English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom etc. Knowledge of a modern European language would provide them, regardless of their interest area, with a range of other avenues, destinations and opportunities.
A 2010 Eurostat report shows that only a tiny proportion of primary school students in Ireland are exposed to foreign languages in any meaningful way. In this regard, Ireland is by far the worst of the EU Member States.
Furthermore, Ireland is one of the only EU Member States in which it is not compulsory to learn a foreign language, although most secondary school students in Ireland do so in practice. The 2010 report shows however that by the time students reach the senior cycle in secondary school, 19% have dropped the foreign language and only 8.4% are learning more than one. (The only country worse than Ireland in this regard is the UK, where nearly 51% of secondary school students have dropped the foreign language by the time they reach the senior cycle.) In contrast, in every other EU Member State the figure for students who have dropped their foreign language by the time they reach the senior cycle is below 2%.
It is worth noting that the Colleges of Education, where primary school teachers are trained, do not require a Leaving Cert. qualification in a foreign language as a condition of entry.
It is not all doom and gloom however - there have been some small but positive initiatives taken. In 1998, the Irish Government launched the Modern Languages in Primary Schools initiative. It is a voluntary scheme, which facilitates the teaching of one foreign language to 5th and 6th class pupils for one and a half hours each week. This year, 17% of all primary schools are participating in the scheme. But what about the remaining 83% of primary schools?
As part of the 2002-2006 National Development Plan, the Irish Government launched a Post-Primary Language Initiative focusing on the teaching of Japanese, Italian and Spanish. Initially offered as transition year modules, the teaching of these languages as part of the curriculum at Leaving Cert level has increased steadily.
Studies show that students who develop their language skills enhance their employability and their competitive edge in the labour market. Competence in at least one other language in addition to English is seen as critical for business success in Europe and beyond.
In 2009, when Ruairí Quinn was an opposition spokesperson on Education, he said that 'at a time of economic recession, Ireland should be focusing its efforts on language teaching' and that this focus will 'be vitally important if our economy is ever to recover from the current recession.' Now that Mr Quinn is the Minister for Education, he has the power to act on these words and develop a comprehensive language policy.
Without investment in language learning, the Irish education system is leaving students at a disadvantage compared to their EU peers.
Now more than ever, Ireland's future depends on its ability to build closer and stronger ties with its European neighbours as well as with the rest of the world. Ireland's small open economy and its reliance on foreign direct investment, demands a workforce which is capable of adapting to fast changing business environments. European Studies graduates from this university are uniquely placed to avail of these opportunities.
Finally, I would like to congratulate Dr Arnold and all those who have contributed to the success of the European Studies Programme, for their work and achievements over the past 20 years.