The Meaning of Education: A Reflection on the Recent Migration Data

Recently, the CSO released data on immigration and emigration in the year to the end of April 2016. For the first time since 2009, Ireland has registered net immigration. Much of the press coverage has tracked the changes of net migration by nationality, i.e. Irish nationals or non-Irish nationals, or by economic status, i.e. at work or unemployed.

These were all useful, yet the CSO database could allow more detailed analysis.

During a recent coffee break, a colleague at the Irish Universities Association mentioned that someone could examine the number of immigrants or emigrants by their education attainment. This was something that was of interest to me, of course.

Figure 1 - Immigrants
Figure 1


Figure 2 - Emigrants
Figure 2

In Figures 1 and 2 above, I show the number of immigrants to and emigrants from Ireland by education attainment between 2011 and 2016. At a high level, those with third level degrees made up the majority of migrants, suggesting the following two things. On the one hand, it might reflect a broader picture of the expansion of higher education in both Ireland and many other countries. On the other hand, it implies that educated workers tend to be more mobile than those with lower levels of education experience.

If we exclude those immigrants or emigrants who did not specify their education attainment, we can examine in more detail the flow of people in to and out of Ireland.

The number of immigrants with third level degrees increased significantly from 22,400 to 38,200, while the number of immigrants with higher secondary certificate and below slightly grew from 17,300 to 18,600. It could be argued that the Irish labour market was attractive to those university degree holders. Indeed, nearly 60% of total immigrants coming to Ireland held third level degrees.

On the contrary, the number of emigrants with any type of education attainment declined during the period. In particular, the number of emigrants with third level degrees fell from 30,100 to 25,100, while the number of emigrants with higher secondary certificate and below also declined from 6,200 to 4,500. It may be a result of the strong economic performance of Ireland in the last few years, with more jobs being provided in the workforce.

Figure 3 - Net migration
Figure 3

Combining the number of immigrants and emigrants together, Figure 3 shows the net migration during the same period. Interestingly, those with third level degrees were the only group with net immigration. Net emigration was found for those with lower levels of education experience.

Although the reasons for people moving in to and out of Ireland could vary, the reality is that the workforce in Ireland has become one which increasingly requires higher levels of education experience. It highlights again the meaning of education in the Irish context, especially as the economy continues to grow, there will be more need for educated workers. A possible side effect, though, could be those with no or low levels of education experience may face more challenges or be crowded out.