Colm O’Reardon delivers 2024 Henry Grattan Lecture

Posted on: 17 April 2024

In his lecture, the Secretary General of the Department of Further and Higher Education focused on the transformative journey of Ireland's higher education landscape and the challenges facing the third level sector.

Colm O’Reardon, Secretary General of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, delivered a thought-provoking address at the 2024 Henry Grattan Lecture in Trinity on Tuesday, April 16th.

The lecture, entitled 'Whither the third level sector,' delved into the transformative journey of Ireland's higher education landscape and the challenges facing the third level sector in the years to come.

Provost Dr Linda Doyle, Colm O’Reardon, Secretary General of the Department of Further & Higher Education; Prof. Gail McElroy, Dean AHSS; Dr Ronan Lyons, Associate Professor, Economics

An initiative of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy, the Henry Grattan lecture series has been running since 2013, featuring speakers including Ambassador of Ireland to the United States, Geraldine Byrne Nason; former British prime minister John Major; former Taoiseach Mr John Bruton; EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness; former President of Ireland Mary McAleese; and Mario Draghi, former President of the European Central Bank.

At the lecture, Mr O’Reardon reflected on Ireland's economic trajectory since the late 1980s and underscored the nation's remarkable transformation from economic stagnation to prosperity.

"In the late 1980s, Ireland was one of the poorest of the rich... Since then, a remarkable transformation has taken place," he noted, emphasising the pivotal role of education in driving this resurgence.

"The expansion of higher education has been a central theme of Ireland's evolution, with the percentage of individuals holding third-level qualifications soaring from 14% in 1991 to 48% by 2022.

“The contribution of the third level sector to Irelands economic & social transformation has been fundamental.”

"We have transitioned from a society where third-level education was reserved for a privileged few to one where it is the norm for the majority," Mr O’Reardon remarked, highlighting the imperative of fostering inclusivity within the education sector.

Addressing the challenges ahead, he outlined five key tasks for the sector to provide leadership on in the coming years:

    1. Teaching and Research: Mr O'Reardon stressed the importance of valuing and celebrating good teaching. He emphasised that teaching will become increasingly challenging in the future and underscored the critical role of education in fostering the necessary skills for success in a modern economy.
    2. Open Access: While acknowledging the significant expansion of third-level participation, he highlighted the persistent issue of unequal access based on social background.

    3. Drive Economic Growth: Mr O’Reardon emphasised the integral role of third-level education and research in propelling economic growth. He noted the growing demand for lifelong learning in the face of rapid technological advancements and highlighted the need for education to adapt to these changes.

    4. Be Pioneers: He argued that universities should lead the way in societal advancement, particularly in tackling emerging challenges like artificial intelligence. He envisioned universities as pioneers, boldly exploring new frontiers and guiding society through uncharted territory.

    5. Be Advisors to Policy Makers: Finally, Mr O’Reardon emphasised the importance of collaboration between policymakers and researchers in addressing complex societal issues. He expressed his commitment to fostering collaboration between the two spheres to ensure evidence-based policymaking and effective solutions to pressing challenges.

The lecture not only provided a comprehensive overview of Ireland's educational journey but also underscored the imperative for continuous evolution and innovation in the third level sector.

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