Saturday 1 October 2016

Equality of access at university is vital

Published 09/11/2015 | 02:30

Education also brings many other social and political benefits to a country like Ireland, where people set great store by fairness in life
Education also brings many other social and political benefits to a country like Ireland, where people set great store by fairness in life

Some of the best arguments in favour of equal opportunity in education amount to little more than vulgar commerce. A well-educated populace can drive on economic development and help boost prosperity.

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Education also brings many other social and political benefits to a country like Ireland, where people set great store by fairness in life.

Assessments of the rise of the Irish economy from the mid-1990s onwards attributed much of the credit to investment in education. The latest figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) about participation in third-level education are encouraging, with more than half of school leavers going on to college.

The specific number is 56pc of our 17- to 19-year-olds, compared with a third-level participation rate of 43pc a decade ago. But drilling deeper raise disquieting issues about equality of opportunity, especially in relation to "who goes where".

Just one in four Trinity College Dublin first-years are on a student grant, while in Letterkenny Institute of Technology, the ratio is almost three in four. Only some of this is attributable to geography and students going to college close to home.

The cultural barriers, where families had no tradition of going to third-level, appears to be at play. Thus, students living close enough to Trinity and UCD may genuinely feel excluded.

The institutes of technology have brought third-level education to the regions and to families with no college tradition, providing courses of very high quality. But the question of access to traditional universities must be reassessed - if only on purely economic grounds.

Taoiseach must push concerns about 'Brexit'

It is a given that British voters will, in due course, decide on future EU membership without much, if any, thought of the fallout for Ireland. And we must not exaggerate the influence of Ireland, as one of the smallest member states, at the EU negotiating tables.

But those two basic realities do not for one second mean that the Irish Government should sit on its hands in the coming 18 months, as London tries to push EU reforms and put the issue of EU membership to its voters. They mean the exact opposite and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has long ago rightly signalled his intention of playing a vigorous role in the upcoming debate, both within the EU and in Britain itself.

The future of our biggest trading partner's relations with the EU, whose fortunes are also utterly enmeshed with ours via Northern Ireland, is a matter of vital interest to everyone on this island of Ireland.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny today goes to address the Confederation of British Industry on the issue, and he will later meet British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Ireland has a record of loyal European Union membership going back over 40 years, relations between Ireland and Britain are now excellent, and many of the EU reforms sought by Mr Cameron are extremely desirable. EU membership has benefited people on both sides of the border and Irish-born voters in Britain will be influential.

This issue goes far beyond party politics, and Mr Kenny must carry the good wishes of all Irish people in this matter today and in the months ahead.

Irish Independent

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