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US complained to Irish PM about quality of graduates

The United States bluntly told the Republic's government that Ireland's education policies were not providing US firms with enough quality graduates.

Details of a meeting between then Finance Minister Brian Cowen and the US ambassador James C Kenny have emerged in documents released by WikiLeaks.

The leaked cable reveals details of a 2005 meeting in which Mr Kenny outlined his fears and suggested Ireland should have a US-style donations scheme in the form of tax-free endowments.

WikiLeaks quotes the former ambassador as saying concerns over the supply of quality graduates were linked to limits on education funding, which derived from the Irish government's long-standing decision not to impose university tuition fees.

Mr Kenny had stated that with tuition fees off the table in Ireland, an alternative funding mechanism for Irish higher education could be US-style university endowments.

Mr Cowen told him in the government's drive to improve university education, the Irish Department of Finance had concentrated on assisting the transition to better management structures in university administration.

The extra motivation for the Department of Finance's efforts with the universities had come primarily from an OECD report in 2004 on Irish higher education, which claimed that Ireland was risking its global economic competitiveness without more extensive education reforms.

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Mr Cowen added that whereas endowments had not previously played a major role in education funding in Ireland, this was an idea that the Government might do well to consider, especially with the unlikely reimposition of tuition fees.

But to introduce tax write-offs for endowment donations, it would be necessary, said Mr Cowen, to ensure that funds otherwise destined for government coffers would not simply be switched to the endowments.

Second, the tax incentives for contributions would have to be designed to discourage contributors from dictating to the universities how their donations should be used, eg: only for cancer research.

No comment was available from the Taoiseach's office last night but the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, said the then-ambassador and then-minister were right to discuss their concerns and to look at ways of addressing these issues.

He said Ireland needed to continue to ensure that its education system at all levels, including Leaving Certificate, had a clear focus on developing critical thinkers who can work in and also to establish both multinational and indigenous firms.

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