A relative of mine is currently grinding through the end of his Leaving Certificate exams, and how he does won't make a bit of difference to his life. This isn't because he has some great insight into the big picture that his peers, and I, lack. It's because he has an acceptance letter from a very respectable University in the United States.
Statistically, he's not an outlier. He's smart, but no more so than many of the other kids sweating it out this month to win the points race. His immediate family are comfortable, but not wealthy. They are, to be fair, somewhat better educated than the average, but are by no means outliers..
In a different age, he would have been a sure thing for the local university and have to make the best of it. Instead, he's going to play a different game, and engage with his future at a level that wouldn't be possible in Ireland. Win, lose or draw, he's jumped ahead three squares in the game of life, and is going to get opportunities at a level his stay at home peers simply won't have.
What does this mean for Universities in Ireland. If the best and the brightest of their potential undergraduates can now go overseas as easily as getting to Dublin or Cork, why wouldn't they? NUIM or Notre Dame? CIT or Cornell? It's ok. There's be plenty of students.You can get along fine with the ones who don't have the pluck to go abroad, the ones who don't have the audacity to think outside the box and sit SAT's, and the ones without the determination to dive into the overseas college applications maelstrom. There's plenty of students who will just grind through the leaving certificate because that's what everyone else does, and go to the local university, because that's what their pals are doing. Your University can make do with them, as the cream of the crop heads off overseas. Skimmed milk diet. Is that ok? When Irish Universities think of international education, they invariably think of Chinese, Malaysians or Saudi students paying full economic fees, little human ATMs walking out of the Arrivals hall to pretty up balance sheet. We forget that international education can cut both ways. Airport have a departures hall too.
In many ways the most transformational learning technology is the jet engine, relentlessly ferrying thousands, millions of students away to pastures greener. The internet's most significant contribution to education so far might well be the online application form. No longer are our children limited by their career guidance teacher ("Would you consider the seminary. You'll never want for a shirt on your back." my father was once advised). They can find the one best place to help them be whatever it is they want to be and find a way to get there. The early ones will break ground, and show it is possible to go overseas at undergraduate level. Once teachers, students and parents know it can be done, others will follow. Our diaspora is another enabler. There are few places on earth without an 'Irish Mafia' who might keep an eye on young Seanie or Mary. Many parents have lived and worked in these places. Boston is, in many ways, more familiar to us than Belfast.
Deep prosperity helps too.We forget that, in current climes of doom and gloom, that we are at the level of utopian wealth Keynes prophesied in "Economic prospects for our grandchildren" when slow and steady growth has given us incomes unimaginable in 1930's (Keynes piece is timely reading). Of course it's expensive to attend university overseas, but real fees are coming down the pipeline in Ireland, so staying here is expensive too, and wherever you study, you must still pay housing and food. You may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and many Irish parents can put education first on their family budgets. Indeed US colleges provide student supports precisely to attract bright candidates without big wallets, and in a global Higher Education market, they'll be seeking to build a global Alumni base, which is, after all, where the real money is for them. They're not charging for the undergraduate you are, they are investing in the Alumnus you will be. May our children be wise enough to do the same.