Leaving on a jet plane?

“People often talk about how the 80s were awful, well we’re in the 80s right now,” declares USI Deputy President and Campaigns Officer, Cónán Ó’Broin.

Indeed it seems that the 1980s have experienced something of a revival in recent years: Marty McFly and Doc Brown once again grace our cinema screens and The Commitments are poised for a return to the Dublin stage. And with 80s nostalgia at every turn, it seems we’ve taken our own spin in some sort of hot tub time machine.

Of course, one of the most memorable aspects of the 1980s was the emigration of thousands to foreign shores. With the current economic downturn forcing companies to close their doors and driving unemployment rates upward, emigration is becoming a concern for a new generation. For those students taking their first tentative steps into third-level education, the concern is arguably reduced: for those in final year or those who have already graduated, however, the issue is markedly more troubling. So why exactly are graduates choosing to leave the country?

“We’ve got unemployment at 14 per cent, and if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ve got a public sector recruitment ban in place as well,” explains Ó’Broin. “So what that means is that there are absolutely no opportunities for graduates to get the experience that they need in order to get jobs in future years. They quite simply have to make the choice to leave the country and get that experience elsewhere.”

He expounds that things are particularly difficult for those “who would have intended to go in to the public sector. There is no recruitment going on in the public sector and it’s unlikely that any is going to happen in the next two years. That means that they emigrate, and whilst some will inevitably come back, an awful lot won’t.”

Ó’Broin’s sentiments are echoed by UCD graduate Rory Geraghty, who has moved to London to study for his masters at the London School of Economics. He attributes his move to the prospect of “more opportunities”.

“Most of my friends who are over here don’t want to be doing a masters, they want to be working,” Geraghty explains. “But there [are] just no jobs in Ireland, so they came over here to do a masters basically to get contacts, to build up a network of employers. Obviously the London universities in particular and the Oxford universities have a huge amount of contact with employers, and it’s easier to get a job if you’re referred on from one of those universities.”

Though for Geraghty the move to London was a choice, for many of his friends it seems it was practically a necessity. A return to Ireland is likely for Geraghty at some point. “Rain, hail or snow I will be on a plane coming home to vote in the next election,” he declares. However, he admits that not everyone will make the journey back to the green nation: “People are too scared to go home for fear of just going straight onto the dole queue.”

But is the domestic situation truly dire? With news bulletins deeming the country doomed until 2014, are we facing a brain drain similar to the one that occurred in the 80s?

“The USI estimates that there’s about one thousand graduates leaving per week,” claims Ó’Broin. “I would say it’s worse than the 80s.”

However, recent statistics suggest that we are in fact losing a lower percentage of our skilled workforce now than we were in the 80s. There were only around 40,000 students in the Higher Education System in the 80s: there are now over 145,000 in third-level academia, an increase of almost 400 per cent.

An article published in the Irish Independent in January 2009 alleged that the country was losing 30 per cent of third-level graduates by the end of the 1980s. Moreover, in August of this year, a Higher Education Authority survey of last year’s graduates suggested that the country lost 100 graduates a week through emigration, losing ten per cent of level-eight degree recipients in 2010.

According to a September report from the Central Statistics Office, the current level of unemployment in Ireland is 13.7 per cent, whilst long-term unemployment has increased to 5.9 per cent in the past year nationwide. 6.7 per cent of those who hold third-level honours degrees or above are unemployed. This figure has dropped from ten per cent the previous year. Perhaps things aren’t quite so reminiscent of the dark decade just yet.

Who is to blame for the loss of graduates to foreign economies? The common consensus places the responsibility with the government. Geraghty states his opinion on the matter: “Essentially the government ruined what was a very strong economy that was handed over to them from the late 90s when they first got into power. Fianna Fáil effectively, over the last few years, have ruined that by complete mismanagement.”

Ó’Broin adds that the USI is calling for Government endorsement of an internship programme. “Graduates would take up a placement in either the public or the private sector and they would continue to be able to claim social welfare payments up to the maximum level of the jobseekers allowance, which is about €197 a week.

“Essentially, they’d take up an unpaid position and continue to be paid the dole. It would give about 20,000 graduates the opportunity and ability to get experience in the workplace. If and when things do get better, they will then have the experience that they need to go out and get a solid job for themselves and have a stable future for themselves in Ireland.”

The USI will also hold a protest march in Dublin city centre on November 3rd entitled: ‘Education not Emigration’. “We’re campaigning against an increase in the registration fee, we’re campaigning against a cut to the grant,” Ó’Broin states.

“Every single euro you increase the registration fee or by which you cut the grant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, you’re turning more and more people away from third-level education and you’re turning them on to the dole. They’ll have very slim prospects of getting employment, they’re going to fall into long-term unemployment and inevitably they are going to emigrate.”

But with Eurostat deeming Ireland the country with the highest budget deficit in 2009 at 14.1 per cent of GDP and the government committed to reducing this figure to three per cent by 2014, we must ask where the funding for such a programme will come from? Though it would undoubtedly prove unpopular, cuts to grants and an increase in the registration fee could provide a source of capital: perhaps paying more for education would ultimately benefit students in this instance.

With our gaze fixed firmly on the economy, many now view our country as nothing more than an unbalanced budget. “When was the last time you heard them talk about anything else?” asks third-year English major Emma Alken. “You do have to obviously talk about the economy but yeah, possibly not just the economy.”

Have we lost our Irish identity as we have sunk into what Geraghty deems “a collective depression”? The Ireland that fought through the hard times in the 80s seems to have retracted its Celtic Tiger clipped claws, adopting a decidedly defeatist attitude.

When news of the decline first broke, we claimed we would defiantly ‘Session through the Recession’ as we had in the 80s. Yet we are now content to mourn the loss of affluence and pay more attention to the markets than to ‘yer man’ next door, basing our ideas regarding the state of the country on statistics rather than on personal experience. Many have yet to experience the full effects of the downturn, though that is not to deny that the recession has claimed its victims.

“This is the 80s all over again, in fact it’s probably worse than the 80s,” says Ó’Broin. However, the recession in the 80s pushed unemployment to 17 per cent and was not preceded by an economic boom. The Celtic Tiger brought prosperity that Ireland had never experienced before, along with a plethora of privileges. Are we now too busy mourning the loss of the privilege to select our profession and to accept that we may need to take on whatever job we can get?

Considering that the majority of current students have spent between five years and five days living in the 1980s, who are we to decide? Alken seems to be of that opinion. “I don’t know, I wasn’t born in the 1980s, but I did run into a woman at work who said: ‘well, at least the banks had money then.’”

So what does the future hold for a new generation of graduates? Will students continue to emigrate or will recovery herald a return home? Only time will tell. Marty made it back to 1985 unscathed, but it seems Doc Brown had it right twenty-five years ago: something definitely has to be done about his kids.


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