Saturday 19 October 2019

Class divide in universities is bad for business

Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Class divide in the university education system is nothing new. It is prevalent in many countries and deeply engrained in places like Britain and the US. Recently-published figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in Ireland show it is a very real phenomenon in Ireland too.

Discussion of the topic always comes down to questions of inequality and fairness. So it is confined to a social debate rather than an economic or business one.

Aside from questions of fairness, we have to ask the following: in a small population country like Ireland with a limited talent pool, is the economy missing out on a chunk of talent because of inadequacies in the selection process for university?

The HEA figures show that the percentage of third level students in receipt of a maintenance grant, and therefore from lower income family backgrounds, is a lot higher for regional institutes of technology than it is for top universities.

The most extreme contrast was between Letterkenny Institute of Technology, where 71pc of students received a grant, versus Trinity College with just 24pc.

We have to be careful about extrapolating too much from the figures because you have to look at the natural geographic catchment areas of institutes of technology. For example, Letterkenny Institute of Technology might attract people from anywhere in Ireland based on its course mix, but by and large its natural catchment will be from the North West region.

If income levels are lower in that region to begin with, then it will be reflected in the backgrounds and grant qualifications of the student population. There is also an urban/rural situation across Ireland where the children of farmers have very high third level education participation rates. Some of these families have lots of assets but relatively low incomes.

This in turn would drive up the numbers who qualify for grants in some regions while not reflecting the incredibly low participation levels of people from families who are asset poor and income poor in villages, towns and cities, including Dublin.

Institutes of technology have done a great job in opening up third level education, experience and qualifications to tens of thousands of young people. But there are real problems with access to top courses and top universities.

Of the top 100 second level feeder schools for all third level courses, 75 of them are non-fee paying. This seems pretty good. But when you look at the schools feeding the top-points courses in universities, 17 of the 100 are in South Dublin and 14 of those are fee-paying.

One argument says the equation is simple. These are better schools, with higher achievement, attracting smarter students who make it into the courses requiring the highest points.

But there are wider issues going on. If that is the case, then this narrow recruiting ground for top jobs will be self-perpetuating. If it just keeps rolling over like that, the quality of those entering professions won't necessarily improve and could even fall.

In the US, for example, with its history of "opportunity" and the "American dream", there are real concerns that the financial elite are perpetuating their position to the detriment of others being able to progress on merit alone.

This is unfair but also bad for the economy and business.

One US congressman put it that his big fear is that America is losing sight of the notion that "the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life".

Access to top American universities is a major part of that. The danger of the self-perpetuating elite is that universities will become glorified finishing schools with a pathway to career and financial success taken as a given.

In the UK the situation is a hot topic of debate. Just 7pc of Britons are educated in private schools. Yet 71pc of senior judges, 62pc of senior armed forces officers and 55pc of permanent secretaries in the civil service, were privately educated.

Around 42pc of students at Oxford came from private schools. And it isn't just the Oxbridge double act, with Bristol University coming second at 41pc and St Andrews third with 40pc.

Former British education secretary Michael Gove, an Oxford graduate himself, warned that the UK had a profoundly unequal education system and the "sheer scale" of the dominance exercised by former private schoolboys pointed to a "deep problem" in British society.

In Ireland the situation does not appear to be as bad. But it may be heading in that direction. The population is growing and its growth is greatest along the east coast around Dublin.

Recent debate about the role of religious denominations in national schools has actually been triggered by the growing competition for school places. This is an early sign of pressure on the system which could lead to greater demarcation and a streamlining of the route to the top.

The answer is to build more schools but also build more diversity into the educational and employment model. This is something for universities and employers to tackle, as much as for policymakers.

For example, 75pc of senior UK judges might have gone to Oxford or Cambridge but just 44pc of those on the 'Sunday Times' UK Rich list went to private school.

Some employers in Britain, like KPMG, are even recruiting more through apprenticeship programmes as a way of getting access to and developing talent without going exclusively down the more predictable route.

Schemes like the Access programme at DCU, which is now 25 years old, have pioneered the way to change. Around 10pc of the DCU student population comes through that programme which is aimed at attracting more students from the likes of disadvantaged areas and ethnic minorities.

Over 92pc of them stick the course and graduate. Of those who graduate, 98pc do so with first or second class honours degrees.

Employers in big professional firms tend to promote in their own image. It isn't always a recipe for success.

Michael Gove lamented back in 2012 that more than two-thirds of the England cricket team is privately-educated, compared to less than 10pc a generation ago. And more than half of the England rugby team and the British gold medallists at the 2008 Olympics went to private school.

Yet, 10 of the starting 15 players for Dublin in this year's winning All Ireland final team went to DCU, along with four of the last five captains to lift the Sam Maguire.

We are on a slippery slope towards American and British models of career hierarchies, and there are solid economic as well as social reasons to prevent that from happening.

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