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Social Inclusion and Entrepreneurship

By Dr. Alan Bruce, Universal Learning Systems

Social Inclusion and Entrepreneurship in Ireland: Policy and Context 

 A contribution to the SIATE project 

 Dr. Alan Bruce 

Universal Learning Systems 




This document describes the current state of policy and context of social inclusion though entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial education in Ireland. It is intended to provide the SIATE consortium with the current position of the Irish approach to the implementation of social inclusion measures using entrepreneurship models and education. 


There is a competency based teaching approach being implemented in Ireland called Key Skills.  This is supported by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). The Irish curriculum – both primary and secondary – is already very full and teachers in both sectors find it difficult to find opportunities to deviate from the established norm.  The current teaching approaches have generally not been competency based. The secondary sector, for example, currently is dominated by final terminal examinations, curriculum based and focused on recall and memorization – an approach which limits experimentation.  


However significant change is planned over the coming years and elements of project based learning are intended to be built into the system.  This will give greater opportunities for experimentation and engagement with issues such as entrepreneurship. The Irish education and vocational training system is a centralized system. While the NCCA has engaged in competency based teaching in early or primary schools (for example the AISTEAR programme) it is still in the process of implementation.  Absence of funding in recent years (and the impact of the recession in 2008) has been an additional factor affecting the speed of implementation.  


The economic crash and recession of 2008 had a profound impact on Irish society and, by extension, the education and vocational training system. The recovery proved difficult and problematic. While socio-economic conditions had improved significantly by 2016, the crisis forced a fundamental re-evaluation of strategic objectives regarding learning, employability and socio-economic relevance. While the economy has now returned to pre-crisis levels of activity and national finances are in a healthy state, the legacy of uncertainty, volatility and indebtedness will last many years more. While unemployment is now at a historically low level, there is evidence of significant imbalance in access to resources and a consequent marked degree of social and economic inequality. The further implication as been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020 on, which has complicated many plans and policy developments. It is in this context that initiatives around entrepreneurship as a tool to develop enhanced social inclusion should be viewed.  


National Skills Framework 

 The competences set out in the European Framework for Key Competences for Lifelong Learning are broadly referred to as Key Skills in Ireland – and so the Key Competences have been adapted to suit the Irish context. Ireland has introduced a key skills framework at secondary level, Early Childhood education level and is now planning implementation at primary level also. Competence oriented cross-curricular reform has been an educational goal for Ireland, to upgrade the status of competence at all curricular levels. The approach is a holistic one based mostly on skills or competency. The education system is undergoing curriculum reform and the embedding of key skills is considered central. The approach is an integrated one, in which competences are embedded into the learning outcomes of the formal curriculum and assessment, with emphasis placed on the competencies in classrooms. Schools are encouraged to develop competences in ways that work best for them. 


National policy in Ireland acknowledges that skills learners need to prepare them for life, learning and work in the 21st century have changed. As well as learning knowledge, learners need to develop skills to create new knowledge and to deal with and navigate their way through this new world. These skills are central to teaching and learning across the curriculum at all levels.  


These are:  


  • critical and creative thinking  
  • communicating 
  • information processing  
  • being personally effective   
  • working with others.  


These skills are important for all learners to achieve their full potential, both during their time in school and into the future. They enable learners to participate fully in society, to engage in happy family lives, to prepare for working lives that are likely to change constantly and to engage with and enjoy learning throughout their lifetime. 


As learners develop competence in these skills in an integrated way, they also develop competence in learning how to learn. In order that learners benefit from their interaction with the key skills, it is important that they would encounter them frequently and in an integrated way right across the curriculum. A set of Key Skills frameworks have been developed separately for each curriculum but are similar for all schools and vocational training centres. There are six key skills covering key areas:  


  • Managing Myself 
  • Staying Well 
  • Communicating  
  • Being Creative  
  • Working with Others 
  • Managing Information and Thinking.  


Each of these six skills incorporates Learning to Learn and Digital Competence. These six key skills relate to the following key competences of the European Framework:  


  • Digital Competence 
  • Learning to Learn 
  • Social and Civic Competences 
  • Sense of Initiative and Entrepreneurship.  


The transversal skills of critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, decision making and constructive management of feelings also correspond closely with the six key skills. 


Situating Entrepreneurship Education 


It is widely argued in the international literature that sustainable economies emerge from indigenous entrepreneurial ventures. In Ireland this observation became all the more pertinent in light of the impact of the 2008 crisis in the nation’s economy. Given the enormous contribution of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to the worldwide economy, it is not surprising that the Irish Government re-defined and dedicated economic policies  in favour of SMEs. This placed the entrepreneur and enterprise at the heart of its efforts to deal with the crisis. 


In the past decade, entrepreneurship has entered the realm of Irish higher education through Entrepreneurship Education, with Irish Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) being exhorted to play a strategic role in fostering entrepreneurship and drive and increase the rate of entrepreneurial activity by promoting and supporting campus and graduate entrepreneurship. Until the early 1980s there was little or no acknowledgement in Irish economic policy of the intrinsic links between economic  growth and the education system (Carr, 1998)1. A key change of Ireland’s economic development policy was the recognition of the importance of education in strengthening the enterprise sector. 


A fundamental challenge for Irish entrepreneurship educators and curricula designers is that there is no standard definition of entrepreneurship. This has led to a lack of uniformity in curricula design and delivery. The lack of sound conceptual frameworks and approaches to entrepreneurial education has resulted in debate about what is the appropriate content for the subject. Moreover, the recognized shortcomings in the definition of entrepreneurship and small business have led to a lack of standardization in the conceptual and assessment  approaches of entrepreneurship in Irish HEIs. 


The OECD (2008)2 recommended that Entrepreneurship Education in higher education should shift its focus to growth-oriented entrepreneurship. This suggests a movement away from a traditional business management approaches to Entrepreneurship Education, with more attention being given to key business growth strategies such as internationalization, exports and finance and facilitating the development of students’ skills to include opportunity identification, risk-taking, strategy-making, leadership, negotiating, building strategic alliances and Intellectual Property protection. HEIs can then produce graduates of a high calibre with the business acumen needed to recognize and foster creative potential through the creation of high-potential start-ups. Such companies would be capable of achieving high growth, high turnover and high levels of employment, servicing both national and global markets. One of the objectives of Entrepreneurship Education in Irish higher education is to nurture the personal qualities that form the basis of entrepreneurship – creativity, initiative and a spirit of independence. The net result of Entrepreneurship Education was designed to be the deployment of an entrepreneurial mindsets amongst faculty and students and improving the probability of campus and/or graduate enterprise development. Irish HEIs are placing a greater emphasis on Entrepreneurship Education to stimulate the development of entrepreneurial mindsets in students and graduates. 


Irish higher education plays a fundamental role in fostering entrepreneurial career paths for students and graduates. The wide and rich range of initiatives includes undergraduate and postgraduate courses, work-based learning, business start-up and incubation programmes, mentoring and coaching to mention but a few. President’s Awards and national competitions, such as the all-Ireland business plan competition, are also important to showcase achievements by staff and students. 


As Forfás, the former national policy advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation in Ireland, noted in its “Evaluation of Enterprise Supports for Research, Development and Innovation” of 2015, Ireland had made significant progress over the previous decade and established an international reputation in key research areas; collaboration between HEIs and industry has increased, with resulting economic benefit; and 

there has been an increase in business expenditure on research and development (Forfás, 2015)3. The report, however, also emphasised the need for continued investment in Ireland’s innovation system, pointing out that it was weaker than benchmark countries such as Austria,  Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.  


The key challenges identified in the report were to:  


  • increase the scale and depth of R&D activity in firms 
  • to commercialise state-funded academic research  
  • to connect industry with HEI research and vice versa.  


Innovation 2020 was Ireland’s five-year strategy for research and development, science and technology published in December 2015. It provided a whole-of-government approach to research and innovation, building on the progress made to date in the research and innovation systems, addressing identified challenges, and advancing fresh strategic ideas to distinguish Ireland globally through its ability to make research work to maximum effect for the country. Its aim is to leverage a vibrant public research base in order to develop the skills base necessary to build a sustainable and resilient society, to create employment, and to establish innovative companies that will succeed internationally. 


Stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship through education plays an important role in Irish higher education and entrepreneurship education is offered across the sector in various formats and across many disciplines. In all Irish HEIs there is clear evidence of the central role of students in the higher education system and the desire to help students develop entrepreneurial mindsets and behaviours. Course modules and programmes in entrepreneurship originated from the business schools within the HEIs. Increasingly these have been adapted and transferred into other disciplines and in some cases adopted across a variety of disciplines within HEIs. Efforts need to be increased to organise education activities on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, which involve students from different faculties and departments in the form of (optional) interdisciplinary modules throughout the duration of their studies. These activities develop “soft” skills which enable students to communicate in entrepreneurial terms outside of their traditional disciplinary silos  and make graduates so valuable to employers.  


Connecting Entrepreneurship to Social Inclusion in Ireland 


Delivering entrepreneurship education is part of a defined and driven national policy and set of priorities in Ireland. This has been stimulated by several strong reports from the OECD in 2008 and 2017, national higher education reviews, the demands of a changing labour market as employment levels increased and awareness of the impact on communities and individuals of sustained social marginalization. A significant link has been established between entrepreneurship approaches and models and the structures of social enterprise. Development of social enterprises stems from a long tradition of cooperative approaches to socio-economic development in Ireland that stretch back to the nineteenth century and the struggle for national emancipation and civil rights. Social enterprises represent a set of initiatives that address issues pertaining to social inclusion, reduced marginalization and creation of measures to ensure viability for vulnerable groups. 


Since 2000, the European Commission and other EU bodies have adopted and launched more than 200 initiatives and official documents, recognising the importance and contribution of social enterprises to several key socio-economic objectives of the European Union, including high quality employment, job creation, social cohesion, access to services, social and environmental innovation, promotion of entrepreneurial culture, and local and regional development.  


The benefits that accrue from social enterprise activity are both social and economic and include:  


  • the provision of training, jobs and employment opportunities both in the social enterprise itself and within the wider economy  
  • supporting those most vulnerable and those marginalised in society  
  • fostering and sustaining local communities, both urban and rural 
  • addressing market failures  
  • addressing social problems 
  • boosting social capital.  


The potential of the social enterprise model has become increasingly apparent at an international level. In an era of better informed and socially and environmentally-conscious citizens, the social enterprise model has gained increased traction as a vehicle to deliver social and societal benefits while also utilising the best components of a commercial model.  


While the term “social enterprise” is relatively new in Ireland, the country has a long tradition of non-State intervention in community and social life which is consistent with the ethos of social enterprise. Many social enterprises have emerged from the community and voluntary sector and build on the work of addressing social challenges in that sector. Other social enterprises have been established by entrepreneurs who have chosen to use the social enterprise model to maximise the social impact of their enterprise and/or their contribution to society. 


The spectrum of social enterprise activity in Ireland is wide, and social enterprises take a variety of different forms, including, amongst others:  


  • Work Integration Social Enterprises (WISEs), which support disadvantaged people to prepare for, and participate in, the labour market 
  • Enterprise Development social enterprises which support the creation of other enterprises (e.g. through the provision of office space and facilities) 
  • ‘Deficient Demand’ social enterprises which seek to meet a demand for goods and services within a community where there is insufficient demand for the operation of a regular market due to inherent economic and social disadvantage or low density of population 
  • Environmental social enterprises which focus on environmental sustainability 
  • Social enterprises contracted with the public sector to deliver public services in disadvantaged areas and communities.  


Alongside the concept of social enterprise, other new approaches to creating social value have also developed, in particular social entrepreneurship and social innovation. Social entrepreneurs and social innovators are an important part of the wider social enterprise ecosystem. They develop concepts and ideas for social good and are often assisted through philanthropic or corporate donations supporting them, kick-starting them and enabling their ideas to be tested in a real environment. Social enterprises can often be established as a means of delivering or developing ideas initiated by social entrepreneurs. These types of social enterprises are currently much smaller in number in Ireland, but they typically have more potential to upscale their ideas, both nationally and internationally.  


A number of organisations in Ireland provide support to social entrepreneurs and innovators through funding and other measures such as advice, mentoring, training and networking opportunities such as Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and Social Innovation Fund Ireland. 


The Government has acknowledged the contribution which the wider community and voluntary sector make to addressing social objectives. Many social enterprises have evolved from the work of community and voluntary organisations. Therefore, there are often many similarities between the social enterprise model and the traditional community and voluntary approach. However, social enterprises are differentiated by their more entrepreneurial approach and the generation of revenue from the on-going provision of goods and services.  

Some community and voluntary bodies use a social enterprise model to deliver some of their services. However, other services which many of these organisations provide are not suited to such an approach, or are not commercially tradable. Therefore, the social enterprise model does not suit all non-profit activities. Other delivery models can, and do, work effectively in the wider community and voluntary sector.  


The Government acknowledged the important role of the community and voluntary sector in its Framework Policy for Local and Community Development, published in 2016. Also it is committed to supporting that sector through an Action Plan to Support the Community and Voluntary Sectors in Ireland which is being developed by the Department of Rural and Community Development in conjunction with the sector. 


Collectively, the Action Plan to Support the Community and Voluntary Sectors in Ireland, the Social Enterprise Policy, and the forthcoming National Volunteering Strategy, is designed to provide a comprehensive basis for the development and growth of the traditional Community and Voluntary approach and social enterprise model respectively in an aligned way. The Government’s objective is to ensure that a full range of appropriate supports are available to all organisations seeking to deliver on social and societal objectives that will support a better Ireland, regardless of the model they use for service delivery. 


    Entrepreneurship Education and Social Inclusion in Ireland 

      The National Policy Statement on Entrepreneurship (2014) seeks to ensure that, over time, any existing barriers or challenges to starting and growing a business will be removed and that in the near future Ireland will be internationally acknowledged as a highly entrepreneurial country. The National Policy Statement detailed the three main objectives of the government with regards to entrepreneurship in Ireland:  


      1. Increase the number of start-ups by 25% (3,000 more start-ups per year) 
      2. Increase the survival rate in the first five years by 25% (1,800 more business survivors per annum)
      3. Improve the capacity of start-ups to grow-to-scale by 25%. 


      These objectives are for the general population of entrepreneurs and businesses. Within the strategy there is only limited mention of social target groups that are under-represented and disadvantaged in entrepreneurship. There is a limited number of strategies or actions that specifically focus on entrepreneurship activity relating to these groups and therefore clear objectives for inclusive entrepreneurship policies are not well-defined, despite the large number of initiatives that have been launched to support people within the target groups in finding employment (and to a lesser extent, self-employment).  


      Irish policies and programmes that support entrepreneurship and inclusive entrepreneurship contribute to efforts to reach key goals of the Europe 2020 strategy. One of the key Irish targets is to raise the employment rate for women and men aged 20-64 years old to 69-71%, including through greater participation of young people, older workers and low-skilled workers, and better integration of legal migrants. 


      To ensure that people from under-represented and disadvantaged communities have an equal opportunity to start and run their own business, the National Policy Statement on Entrepreneurship identified the following key actions that needed to be taken: 



      • Work with the Department of Social Protection to promote the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance, and support these start-ups with appropriate interventions (e.g. mentoring, micro-loans) 
      • Develop dedicated calls under Local Enterprise Offices, Údaras_na_Gaeltachta_and Enterprise Ireland programmes to target under-represented cohorts  
      • Evaluate the Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur Fund with a view to building on the success of the 2014 scheme and increasing the number of youth entrepreneurs accessing support systems 
      • Ensure that entrepreneurship is recognised as a career option in the roll-out of the new apprenticeships system 
      • Promote female entrepreneurship through the identification and promotion of female role models, targeted events and awards, support for female entrepreneur networks and promotion of a dedicated area on corporate websites.  

       Overall, the policy framework is strong for broad entrepreneurship. But it is underdeveloped with respect to dedicated and tailored initiatives for under-represented and disadvantaged communities. In recent years, there have been a number of efforts made to support women, youth, unemployed and immigrants in terms of enhancing their entrepreneurial activity, but older people and people with disabilities have received very little attention. One of the challenges involved in rectifying such matters is that very little data is available about the exact number of people from each target community who have started their own business. There is no single agency that gathers profile data on people who start businesses so there are no official government figures that can be utilised to identify how many people from each of the target communities are involved in entrepreneurial activity. This significant gap in knowledge negatively impacts on the ability of policy makers to develop tailored supports for each of the groups. 


      The Department of Justice and Equality (Equality Division) develops policy and draft laws to improve equal opportunities and to work towards a more equal society in the area of employment and family-friendly policies, and in the access to goods, facilities and services. It oversees a number of agencies that influence the opportunity for people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups to start their own business through the legislation that it introduces, the policies that it brings forward and the initiatives that it establishes. The Department also has responsibility for state agencies such as the National Disability Authority and the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration who also introduce initiatives that influence the potential for people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups to start their own business. 


      As has been already noted, there is a strong culture for entrepreneurship in Ireland and it is being increasingly introduced into the formal education system with a variety of role models being employed. There are also many different award programmes and Irish media promote entrepreneurship widely. Additionally there are quite of number of business networks for entrepreneurs and many of which are recognised by Government. These networks are open to entrepreneurs of all backgrounds but, with the exception of two women’s business networks, there are few networks dedicated to any of the other social target groups, apart from some migrant led initiatives (represented in the SIATE associate partner network in Ireland). It could be suggested that because Ireland is such a small country in terms of population, that little need exists for dedicated networks or award programmes since all groups are included in the mainstream awards. 


      In Ireland, coordination between the national educational system and schools has traditionally mainly focused on administrative and resource issues rather than fully developing and embedding a shared visionary and strategic perspective on the role and purpose of education and learning in a rapidly changing and transformed society. The changed external environment and deepening impact of the economic crisis since 2008, have thrown down a profound challenge to the traditional schooling systems that comprise formal Irish education. This challenge relates to themes around control, governance, community engagement, relevance, critical thinking capacity, assessment/examinations, research, innovation, inclusion and teacher competence and formation. Key to these strategic issues is the understanding and deployment of innovative learning systems, which act as both a challenge and incentive to wider change processes. 


      Research suggests that there needs to be more systematic approaches to innovation and responses to learner needs with greater focus on the concept ‘of schools becoming learning organizations around the issue of inclusion’ (Kinsella & Senior p.659)4. Changes within the school environment will affect other areas, resulting in a knock on effect that illustrates the delicate nature of implementing change in schools. The systematic approach to meaningful learning includes collaborative approaches and consideration of the multiple actors and sectors involved in the process. In keeping with the ecological model it is argued that schools do not work in isolation but are dependent on greater social systems. 


      Ireland is at an important crossroads in terms of its social, economic and cultural systems and needs. Irish society is in a time of profound change in which the core values of its educational system – and higher education in particular – need to be defined clearly. The capacity and quality of its educational systems are evidently critical in providing individuals with opportunities and space for development, in developing social solidarity, in promoting tolerance and diversity and in creating the basis for sustainable and enriching levels of socio-economic participation. In addition, the educational system and its structures must accomplish these objectives in an increasingly globalized and interdependent environment. It is in this framework that entrepreneurship must be re-defined to meet Irish needs in general and the aims of social inclusion for marginalized groups in particular. 


      The education system of the Republic of Ireland has undergone fundamental and significant changes over the past 25 years. There have been major alterations to the curriculum at both primary and post-primary levels. At a strategic and policy level several other issues have begun to make a deep impact. These issues include social inclusion, early identification of children with learning difficulties, multiculturalism, partnership with parents, rights, language learning and identity and advanced ICT all becoming central to the planning of quality educational provision. A formal, denominational and divided (academic-vocational) system has been forced to re-evaluate its most basic assumptions and structures in recent years. Despite this, fragmentation of the system remains a marked feature. A continuing and noteworthy challenge has been identified as the need to develop the links between the early years sector and the infant classes of primary school and between the child-centered primary sector and the more rigid subject-based and exam-driven post-primary sector.  


      This latter point is critical in looking at the scale and impact of innovative methodologies and inclusive deployment. Assessment, quality, progression and achievement at secondary level rest almost entirely in final exit-stage examinations, which are the sole vehicle for ascertaining attainment and determining entry to third level (the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate are the two examinations designed and implemented by the State Examinations Commission). These examinations rely on clearly defined curricula, memorization and intensive academic recall. Competence is barely addressed nor are other attainments during the six years of the secondary cycle taken into account. While these examinations are being reviewed and a move to more holistic assessment systems is being developed, there is evidence of strong resistance and uncertainty. 


      A rapidly changing society has meant that teachers in Ireland have found themselves facing a range of new challenges in the classroom in recent years. The inclusion of children with special educational needs into mainstream schools and the unprecedented increase in the numbers of students from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds have been identified as among the most significant challenges in recent years. New technologies have emerged which play a central role in the way young people communicate and learn and teachers have been required to adapt their teaching to reflect the new reality. An increasingly diverse society, changing family structures and the emergence of new social problems have added to the complexity of teachers’ role. 


      Throughout the nineteenth century, education policy in Ireland and the operation of a standardized schooling system remained highly contested areas. Issues around religious influence, national identity, political struggle and denominational control dominated discourse. The neglect of the Irish language (Gaelic) and of Irish culture in general was an important charge made against the national school system.  With independence from Britain in 1922 for the majority of the island, education policy became central to the creation and maintenance of identity. The Department of Education was established in 1924.  


      The Constitution of 1937 set forth fundamental rights and principles relating to education, but education and strategic policy/planning remained totally subservient to a centralized system of rules and regulations in which compulsory language teaching, denominational control and a rigid focus on memorization in an examination dominated system remained the norm. The influence of the Department of Education pervades the entire Irish educational system, especially at primary and secondary levels, where it controls regulations, standards, operational criteria, curricula and examinations. Only vocational (technical) schools had oversight from local authorities and elected public representatives. 


      The conflict between open learning methods built around either self-learning or communities of self-learners on the one hand and formal structures that regulate and direct learning is an old one. The prevalence of national schooling systems since the industrial revolution sometimes gives the impression that regulated schooling systems have existed from time immemorial. They have not and in fact are historically very recent.  Ironically, it is the explosive development of advanced communications technologies and computers that has allowed us to challenge the dominance of these “traditional” schooling systems and look back to freer forms of learning. 


      Thinkers like Illich and Freire have spoken persuasively of the need to locate learning either in collaborative work and local cultures or in the communities of which individuals are part. Many of the innovative thinkers and inventors of the past century have been self-taught or learned through informal leaning community structures: Edison, Einstein, the Wright brothers, Helen Keller and Margaret Mead are examples. How we learn determines the kind of society we construct. Authoritarian, hierarchic schools can produce hierarchic and authoritarian societies. Lifelong learning is rightly emphasized in today’s world. But learning implies the ability to question received wisdom and to learn to think in new and challenging ways. 


      An example of self-directed learning lies in home education of children. Home-based self-directed learning has been witnessing substantial growth in several countries. Far from producing declining educational standards, the evidence is that this method produces improved academic results. In one study (Rudner 1998)5 it was found that home based students scored significantly higher that school based counterparts and this referenced the fact that schooled children became peer dependent while those who learned with their parents had more self-confidence, optimism and courage to explore. 


      The Irish Constitution explicitly acknowledges the rights of parents as the primary educators. Nonetheless, the system that has emerged is historically hierarchical, denominational and teacher centred. The role of arts – music, painting, dance – has not been adequately integrated in a largely academic model which devalues competence. While this is changing, the pace is quite slow. In one sense, the crisis therefore has created new opportunities for creative approaches to multicultural perspectives and enhanced inclusion. And it is that context of change, crisis, reconstruction and re-imagining need based on critical reflection that entrepreneurship education is being constructed in Ireland. 

      Education and social change 


      Promoting equality of opportunity has been one of the five overarching functions of the Higher Education Authority since its establishment in 1971. Following two national policy statements in 1995, the HEA introduced the targeted initiative scheme in 1996 to promote enhanced access and participation for traditionally excluded groups. Initiatives and resources have grown considerably since then. By 2004 over €40 million had been allocated to support initiatives in nine participating institutions.  


      The Higher Education Authority must also promote linkages across society where education is seen as part of a developmental continuum for individuals and groups alike. Increasingly these links are seen not only in terms of personal enrichment and technical competence but also in terms of innovation, knowledge, workforce skills, research, diversity and social inclusion.  


      In responding to the OECD Report on Quality Assurance in Irish Universities, the Minister of Education stated that strategic priorities would focus on a number of themes including:  


      • Greater flexibility in course offerings for diverse student needs in lifelong learning contexts 
      • Promotion of quality in teaching and learning 
      • Effective technology transfer 
      • Increased participation and improved access. 


      (Dept. of Education and Science, 25 April 2005). 


      In developing this strategy, the central role of the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education has been acknowledged. Achieving equity of access to education was underlined as a priority for the Irish education system, for Irish society and for economic development by the Higher Education Authority in both its action plan (HEA 2004) and discussion paper on funding to achieve equity of access. 


      These reports and others reflect the impact of a growing equality and diversity debate nationally and internationally. This emphasizes the need for enhanced participation to achieve improved social cohesion and quality of life by promoting opportunities for all. Education is not removed from this debate. In stronger terms, educational structures can play a key role not simply in redressing imbalances in participation but in promoting innovation in terms of access and inclusion. 


      The link established between quality of education in an increasingly competitive world and the importance of inclusion is a cogent one. It demonstrates that improved access is not simply an extraneous element to educational policy but a key driver in developing wider quality standards throughout the Irish educational system at all levels. In that link between education and inclusion the specific role of entrepreneurship education in Ireland is being forged. 


       Diversity and inclusion 



      A key starting point for the analysis of issues around social inclusion and educational provision is the nature and pace of change in modern Irish society. The nature and extent of this change is producing a social configuration unlike anything that has preceded it. The transition from rural to urban – common to all other societies globally – is occurring in a context of continuing post-colonial adjustment in a politically divided society. In the Irish experience, deep currents of violence and instability have paralleled this process of social change. 


      The violence ranges from the more or less forced migration of hundreds of thousands from their place of birth in the Republic since independence to the more overt, cyclic violent instability in the North. Common concerns around underdevelopment and ownership of wealth have been voiced in the context of rampant sectarianism, discrimination and significant disparities in access to resources.  


      These unresolved conflicts of Irish societies and identities are the background to a deeper understanding of social inequality, access and learning than can be assumed from a more traditionally standardized version of social change, divorced from context and actually existing history. With conflict over resources and identity as a starting point rather than result, it is suggested we can develop a more accurate picture of the tensions and difficulties (as well as the challenges and opportunities) for educational provision and economic performance. This analysis helps us to locate issues around exclusion and inclusion in the proper framework of ownership and control – and access to the fruits of ownership and control. 


      In short, change in Irish society is not a bland, steady progression of economic indices but an unfolding and profound restructuring of all social, cultural, personal and ethnic relationships and understandings.  At almost every level of Irish social experience in the late twentieth century there has occurred a profound and all-embracing re-examination of what it means to be Irish. 


      The traditional depiction of Irish backwardness and underdevelopment has a strong parallel with contemporary depictions of social exclusion. Under every category employed, Irish society could be viewed in toto as a metaphor for under-privilege and disadvantage.  The structural inequalities were built into a fragmented and discriminatory polity. As the decades of disadvantage unfolded in the twentieth century, Ireland seemed unable to emerge from the social, economic and cultural constraints that dragged it down.  


      Decades of deprivation, emigration, political violence, unemployment and disadvantage are not overturned by a few years of prosperity. More importantly, the attitudes, practices, rationalizations and understandings of those decades persist, and persist profoundly, in the social and economic practices of modern Irish society. In many ways the specific nature of Irish social dislocation intersects and is organically connected to more widely recognized aspects of the globalization process. It means that no discussion on policy or strategy can be undertaken without a full parallel international understanding and analysis. 


      The connection between generic Irish socio-economic development needs and the needs of those groups currently accepted and defined as socially excluded is an important theoretical perspective. It means that policy considerations can be informed by a dynamic unique in European terms. In this dynamic, exclusion not power, emigration not gastarbeiters, landlordism not colonies were the norm – not the other way around.  


      The fact remains that modern Irish society is displaying worrying levels of uneven development and disturbing levels of documented inequality, poverty and discrimination. Environmental degradation, homelessness, two-tier social service provision, absence of planning, asset stripping of public services and blind reliance on ever-increasing consumption patterns are but some of the indices of current social malaise.  


      At another level, has been the sustained attack on concepts such as social justice, human rights, public morality and equitable distribution of wealth. The need for educational provision that is innovative and dynamic is very different from perspectives that assume Irish society is a stereotypical transition from rural to urban, peasant to modern, backward to progressive. Entrepreneurship itself must be seen in this paradoxical context. It can be conceptualized as the rugged individualized risk-taker image. It can also be seen as the socially engaged and rights driven innovator who emerges from a hard history determined to succeed and do better – exactly as so many Irish emigrants have done in other countries. 


      Irish society is open and adaptable and flexible. It has benefited profoundly (thanks to language and affinity) from its connection to the lessons of the great Civil Rights movements in the United States. It has, through its diaspora, been at the centre of a learning process where it can observe and understand the real nature of the global economy in all its manifestations. In a fundamental way, its collective experience enables Irish society to understand the voices of impoverishment and injustice that echo so powerfully in the large movement of migrants to Ireland. 


      Membership of the European Union has had a profound effect on the sensibility and structure of Irish social institutions. This has had both negative and positive aspects. On the one hand, there has been the culture of subsidy and the mind-set of unilinear economic expansion. Under the guise of the need for standardization and market harmonization, significant areas of autonomy and local decision-making have been impaired. The sustained inability of the institutions of the European Union to overcome their self-declared ‘democratic deficit’ has been a major failing.  


      On the other hand, the European Union’s emphasis on a social market model and partnership finds a ready resonance in the Irish body politic. At another level, the European Union, through its specific funds and Community Initiative programmes, has allowed the creation of community to community linkages across the Union where much learning and exchange has occurred. This influx of money, ideas and standards has propelled Irish society to a point where it has had to address the educational, training and social needs of its citizens as of right in their country of birth for the first time since the establishment of the State. 


      This exposure to external ideas, coupled to the need to provide for a growing population with expectations and a sense of entitlement, has transformed Ireland into a questioning and curious society.  


      The depiction of Ireland as a homogeneous and uniform cultural polity is a recent and flawed one. It has its origins in the settlements achieved by the Land League, the pervasive cultural expansion of the Roman Catholic Church in the post-Famine era and the inert conservatism of the two States which emerged from the Partition settlement. The trauma of the thirty years of insurgency and conflict has been in equal measure linked to social change, urbanization, inequality and cultural identities as much as it has been to movement for political unification or resistance to unification.  Ireland has never been a uniform or agreed socio-political entity. The nature of Irish society has been a fragmented, divided and polyglot one. In its very fibres, Ireland has been a laboratory of diversity. Its cultural mosaic has encompassed layers of identity not to be expected in a remote offshore island.  


      Its discontinuities and divisions have however been the source of extraordinary creativity and interplay, where no one culture (Celtic, Gaelic, Danish, Norman French, English, Scottish, Flemish, Jewish or Huguenot) has had a monopoly of Irishness.  


      This should provide a useful starting point for understanding the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in approaching the issue of entrepreneurship educational provision within the context of diversity. No current problem is a new one in Ireland. More properly it may be seen as a new manifestation of problems which have existed for a very long time. What is new and innovative, is that Irish educators must now address issues from which they have been largely absent as original contributors for many decades. 


      The derivative and imported nature of much Irish education has been an issue of note for many decades. Irish schooling has tended to model itself on and compete with external systems, largely British. This has tended to deprive Irish social discourse of authentic indigenous voices addressing local concerns, albeit from a perspective of international best practice. Particularly in community spheres like disability, gerontology, health services planning, gender studies, housing provision, spatial planning, transport and cultural diversity the first instinct has often been to reach for imported models, both of analysis and of practice. This applies equally to models and definitions of entrepreneurship. The idea of a socially progressive entrepreneurial model that strives not simply to maximize profit but to re-shape society and articulate values based on innovative inclusion is a common one in Ireland and a positive element in re-defining the issues and challenges ahead. 


      Entrepreneurship education has become increasingly connected with the transformation of Irish society and as a valued element in shaping discourse about a dynamic economic model that actually meets the needs of its citizens as opposed to maximizing the profits of a tiny minority. Public, private and community models of entrepreneurship exist in Ireland and interact and learn from each other. In the educational sphere new models are being promoted designed to overcome structural limitations of the post-colonial economy that still persist as well as to take advantage of the significant opportunities that arise from membership of the European Union (not to mention the significant implications of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU which has re-drawn the map of socio-economic relations in the economy). Promoting entrepreneurship to copper-fasten national priorities for sustainable growth not only addresses national policy priorities but also brings a fresh dimension to social inclusion measures designed to enhance living conditions and economic outcomes for marginalized, vulnerable and excluded populations. 


      Without doubt, the pace of change in recent years has been extensive.  Public discourse on diversity, in addition, has increasingly been formed by a more pronounced focus on equality and rights. This has meant a re-examination of the importance of civil rights as the basis for participatory citizenship – including meaningful participation in education and employment.  


      A key function of education in Ireland now should be the ability to analyze the contradictions and conflicts in a society fractured by the inherent inequalities of the prevailing socio-economic system. As the ecological, psychological and social dimensions of crisis become increasingly apparent, it is essential to rediscover critical capacity. This means a radical challenge to accepted wisdom, and a deep and focused investigation of the persistence of the profound inequalities in human opportunity and access – ranging from entrenched reactionary forces (racism, homophobia, sexism and anti-scientific obscurantism) to the growing disparities in wealth, power and access that now characterize most of our planet. 


      It is in this context that Irish models of entrepreneurship education are being developed to both explore options and enhance opportunities for inclusion and participation in labour market engagement and community growth. 




      Dr. Alan Bruce 

      Universal Learning Systems 

      September 2022 






















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