Education in Ireland 2040

Leo Varadker speaking at UCCEducation in the Context of National Spatial and Development Planning

Recently, UCC hosted An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar and his colleagues in the first of a series of events to promote Project Ireland 2040 “the Government’s overarching policy initiative to make Ireland a better country for all of us, a country that reflects the best of who we are and what we aspire to be”. (‘GOV.IE – Project Ireland 2040’ 2018)

Lofty aspirations and political rhetoric aside, Project Ireland 2040 marks three notable changes for public policy and service delivery in Ireland; (a) multi-annual budgeting, (b) a new approach to spatial planning in Ireland and (c) a formalised integration of two significant national policy framework documents – the National Planning Framework (formerly the National Spatial Strategy) and the National Development Plan. These are informed by the Jan 2018 ESRI Report – Prospects For Irish Regions And Counties (ESRI and Morgenroth 2018). The list of tables, maps and figures in this report is illustrative of their main areas of analysis which includes population, migration, housing, density, jobs, employment and income.

This essay uses data visualisation to explore the the spatial distribution of educational attainment in Ireland in the context of this wider national development policy.

Geographic Centres

A key focus of the Ireland 2040 vision is an emphasis on developing the regions for more spatially balanced development, distributing growth beyond the capital Dublin, not merely to neighbouring territory as has been evident in recent years but also to other regions.

Recognising the differing spatial distributions of the population and economic activity, the ESRI report Prospects for Irish Regions and Counties aims to address the gap in regional level data and analysis, taking ‘a first step towards providing consistent projections’ and with the purpose of informing the National Planning Framework. (ESRI and Morgenroth 2018)

It notes that not only are ‘second tier cities’ such as Cork, Limerick and Galway smaller than their international counterparts, but that in addition to the ‘lack of larger second tier centres, the geographic location of centres leave significant parts of Ireland remote from larger centres’(ESRI and Morgenroth 2018).  Emphasising the role of these second tier cities for the regions, their analysis points to spatial trends that includes identifying:

  • the lack of centres of scale in the Midland region;
  • that there are no urban centres with a population of more than 30,000 people in Ireland north of a line between Galway and Dundalk, putting the North-West at a significant disadvantage;
  • that the Mid-East has experienced the most significant growth, driven by the expansion of the commuter belt around Dublin.

Fig. 1 below plots the relative level of educational attainment by administrative area. There are clearly different distributions of education level across different counties.

This visualisation is useful for capturing the full data set and identifying where there is greater variance worth examining in more detail.

Donegal has a higher percentage of people with no formal education – the only administrative area with more than 2% of the population reporting no formal education. The range across adminstrative areas for this category is small at only 2.6% (from 1.1% in Fingal to 3.7% in Donegal), making the Donegal outlier a little less significant.

One potential explanation for the Donegal outlier could be related to the age profile of the county, since older people are more likely to have had no formal education (‘Level of Education – CSO – Central Statistics Office’ n.d.). Although the county does not have oldest population, it does still have a relatively old population (‘Census 2016 Profile 3 – An Age Profile of Ireland – CSO – Central Statistics Office’ n.d.), which combined with its geographic isolation from urban centres may have resulted in historically lower levels of school attendance.

Four categories have a range of more than 10% between the lowest and highest counties. They are ‘Primary Education’ (11.05%), ‘Lower Secondary’ (10.51%), ‘Honours Bachelor Degree, Professional Qualification or both’ (10.96%) and ‘Postgraduate Diploma or Degree’ (14.74%).

The line chart in Fig. 2 makes it clearer to see the patterns that emerge across the third level education categories.



Although the trend for the category ‘Doctorate(Ph.D) or higher’ is in keeping with those for other third level education levels, like the category ‘no formal education’, the percentage and range is small. In absolute terms, the 3% with no formal education in Donegal represents an absolute figure of 3,869 people in a 4,861 km² area. The 2.5% of the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown population with a PhD or higher represents an absolute figure of 3,592 people in an area of 127.3 km².

Of interest is the spatial divergence that occurs between ordinary and honorary bachelor’s degrees. The divergence at this point in the trajectory of education suggests that the population in these areas are both more likely to have invested in further years of study and are more likely to have achieved better outcomes within the same courses of study at undergraduate level.

Plotting the information on a map gives a clearer picture of the spatial distribution of these patterns.

As only one set of variables can be visualised in a heatmap, Fig. 3 (a) and (b) plot Ordinary Bachelors and Hons Bachelor respectively.


From these maps the spatial distribution of the population who have completed third level education across the island paints a similar picture to the national spatial analysis in the ESRI report (ESRI and Morgenroth 2018). That is, a broad pattern which shows higher levels of third level education clustered around the urban centres. Looking at the maps comparatively also highlights the spatial divergence that was evident in the line graph.

City and Suburb

Another notable feature of the spatial distribution of education levels attained is the disparity between city and suburb. Taking for example Ireland’s two largest geographic centres Cork and Dublin, we can see that third level educational attainment in the city centres are lower than the surrounding areas.  This is likely to be due to fact that the cities, whilst being at the heart of the geographic centres, have large pockets of disadvantaged communities in a way that many suburban or commuter belt areas don’t. In this regard, Dun Laoighaire Rathdown is a suburb that consistently stands out.  This prosperous administrative county significantly out performs the rest of the county in terms third level education.

Education Levels and Occupation

This spatial pattern is acknowledged in the report which notes that, “a trend of absolute divergence in third-level attainment rates of the population across counties has also been shown. The degree to which this is due to migration choices both of internal and international migrants has yet to be explored in detail” (ESRI and Morgenroth 2018). That is to say higher levels of educational attainment in these locations may be due to the fact that these geographic centres are better able to attract and retain people, not least because of more opportunities for employment.  It is useful to look at the correlation of occupation and education levels in this regard. Similar to the distinction between employment and jobs in the ESRI report, occupation accounts for those living in the administrative area, not the administrative area in which they work they work.

In Fig. 4 we can see that, like education, a some key categories show greater variation across administrative areas. These are ‘Professional Occupations’ and ‘Skilled Trades and Occupations’.


They also present a similar spatial distribution.  Looking at the spatial distribution of ‘Professional Occupations’ in Fig. 5 below, we can see that in keeping with its remarkably high educational levels, Dun Laoighaire Rathdown also outranks all other areas for its percentage of population in this category at 30% compared to the next highest of 22% in Galway City. The inverse is true for the category ‘Skilled Trades and Occupations’.


The series of Scatterplots in Fig. 6 suggests a not surprisingly strong correlation between the categories of ‘‘Honours Bachelor Degree, Professional Qualification or both’ and ‘Professional Occupations’.


Much of this is perhaps not especially surprising. It is what one would expect of the demographic profile of geographic centres and their commuter belts, particularly leafy affluent suburbs. It does however underscore the role of education in the spatial distribution of population and economic activity.

A Greater Emphasis on Education

Launching Project Ireland 2040 in IT Sligo, and kickstarting their promotional roadshow at UCC suggests a recognition of the important role of higher education by those driving these policy documents. It suggests that at the very least they consider HEIs and fora like the Regional Skills Forum to be key stakeholders whose support will be important in the realisation of the plan and an integrated approach to social, economic and spatial regional development.

The potential for urban centres to have a potentially positive or negative effect is considered in the ESRI report. Yet it remains that the ontology of the urban hierarchy valorises geographic centres and drives development in terms of employment and economic growth. Evidently from the data, education is a key determinant.  There is the risk that the value of education, along with other social, cultural or natural assets, becomes derivative, defined exclusively in terms of their economic value and ability to serve a capitalist marketplace.

Research and education can play a key role in enabling more sustainable development models. The shift in policy focus to regional development is a step in the right direction, but perhaps there is opportunity for greater emphasis on education within the spatial analysis that is informing the national development planning and policy frameworks.


A note on the data

The data used was sourced from themes 10 and 13 of the public data sets from the CSO Census 2016 Small Area Population Statistics (SAPS), organised by Administrative County and mapped using the CSO generalised boundary map using Tableau desktop. The absolute values provided by the source data were converted to a percentage of county total figures to enable a comparative relative figure per county. The cleaned data files are available here and here.


‘Census 2016 Profile 3 – An Age Profile of Ireland – CSO – Central Statistics Office’. n.d. Accessed 21 March 2018.

ESRI, and Edgar Morgenroth. 2018. ‘Prospects for Irish Regions and Counties: Scenarios and Implications’. ESRI.

‘GOV.IE – Project Ireland 2040’. 2018. February 2018.

‘Level of Education – CSO – Central Statistics Office’. n.d. Accessed 14 March 2018.

‘Project Ireland 2040 National Development Plan 2018—2027’. 2018. Government of Ireland. file:///C:/Users/ceach/Downloads/NDP-strategy-2018-2027_WEB%20(1).pdf.

‘Project Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework’. 2018. National Policy Document. Government of Ireland.