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Why the Celtic tiger is smiling

Growth rates in Ireland are among the highest of OECD countries, inflation could be below 2 per cent this year and employment is growing rapidly. Emigration has been replaced by net immigration as graduates, particularly those with software skills as well as skilled crafts, are wooed back home.

Much of the success of the "Celtic tiger" is due to investment in education over two decades and in the past three years that this has paid off with rapid growth in the economy. About 20 per cent of all social expenditure, or 5.3 per cent of GDP, goes on education. The boom has not benefited some parts of the cities where drugs are a major problem and the government is targeting these areas with educational initiatives called "Breaking the Cycle".

Almost one in three out of a population of 3.53 million is in full-time education. That includes more than 91 per cent of 16-year-olds, 82 per cent of 17-year-olds and 64 per cent of 18-year-olds.

Government policy is to increase the percentage of 16 to 18-year-olds completing secondary education to at least 90 per cent by the year 2000. The secondary school leaving certificate is a broad-based programme under which students take on average seven subjects. Around half of those go on to higher education while many of the remainder go on to one or two-year vocational training programmes.

The main expansion in higher education has been in two and three-year certificate and diploma courses in the network of regional technical colleges. This has been helped in large measure by the European Social Fund. Courses supply most of the technicians needed for the rapidly expanding software industry while the universities supply the bulk of those with degrees for the same industry.

There are 100,000 full-time students in publicly funded universities and colleges and the figure is set to rise to 120,000 by the middle of the next decade. The emphasis on technological education has led to a dramatic increase in engineering and science graduates. The percentage is higher in Ireland than in many OECD countries.

There is strong collaboration with industry, particularly in the emerging high-technology sectors.

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