Higher education is shaped and changed by the context in which it operates. For the past several decades, it has been shaped in Ireland by plans for economic development and the focus has been on education as an enabler of wealth creation. It is claimed to have been an important factor in the rise of the Celtic Tiger economy, and the government are again looking to education as a main contributor to recovery from the current recession. This focus marked a major change in Irish higher education. It was in sharp opposition to the deep-seated tradition of liberal education based on the ideals of Newman which had dominated the universities for more than a century, and to the discourses on politics and in particular religion which had determined the structure of higher education from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century.
This paper will trace the discourses used in university education in Ireland from the founding of Trinity College in the sixteenth century, to Newman’s Idea of the University (1996) in the nineteenth century, the impact of the independence and nationalist movement in the early part of the twentieth century and finally, from the late 1950s on, the gradual turn towards the economic dimension, where education has progressively been perceived as a vital component in developing the wealth of the country, in providing a well-educated workforce to allow for economic and industrial development.