Saturday 24 March 2018

Richard Curran: It's in everyone's interests to open up third-level education to all

Richard Curran
Richard Curran
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Education is a basic right, but going to university is much more. It is a pathway to opportunity and something that can in so many ways transform a person's life.

It mightn't feel that way when you graduate and can't get a job. But that can change over time, for the better. What never changes are the things a university graduate has learned and experienced.

On average university graduates earn more, live longer and have a good chance of having their children repeat the process.

University can't be for everyone, because there would never be enough places. But surely everybody deserves an equal shot at getting in?

Unfortunately that isn't the case. It is supposed to be for the brightest and best, but really equates to performance in the Leaving Cert. They are not always the same thing.

The decision by the last Fine Gael/Labour government in 1996 to abolish third-level fees was supposed to represent a panacea and complete change in opening up third-level education to all backgrounds.

It failed. It allowed more people to pursue a limited supply of university places, while also reversing the one advantage low income families had over high income families.

The government policy enabled many families just above the grant threshold to afford university for their kids. That was a very positive thing, but it would have been easier to just increase the grant threshold for them.

It would be wrong of me to say access to university is the exclusive preserve of the financial elite. That is just not true. But it is disproportionately the preserve of the better off.

Headlines on a recent survey of college feeder schools showed that of the top 100 schools sending people to college, 75 of them were non-fee paying. That seemed pretty reasonable.

But examine high-points courses in universities, teacher-training colleges and the Royal College of Surgeons, and it is almost entirely dominated by fee-paying schools. The top nine schools for these courses are all fee-paying.

Seventeen of the schools in the top 100 are in south Dublin – 14 of them are fee-paying.

The explosion in a broad range of third-level education courses in Ireland has been a very positive thing. It opened up third-level education of different kinds to a lot more people.

It means that around one in every three children of traditional working-class semi or unskilled parents go to third level.

But two-thirds don't. And when you talk specifically about university, the figures are less.

There is even evidence that, at the top of the education tree, the situation is getting worse.

In the year 2011/2012 almost half off all the students entering university were children of professionals, employers and managers. The figure was up on the previous year. For children of the unskilled the figure was 1.6pc – and it was down on the year before.

I know when I first went to university in the 1980s I was shocked to find that so many people came from a shared social background to each other. In many ways they shared similar interests, had a similar perspective and even seemed to know each other before they arrived!

The state has set targets for access to third-level education. In general, it is moving in the right direction. But there is real danger now in the aftermath of the economic crisis that gaps at the top of the education tree will actually widen further.

One simple ESRI study looked at how distance from a college affects the numbers of people from low income backgrounds who go there. It found that a less well-off student who lived 30 miles from college was 13.5pc less likely to go to third level than if they lived beside it.

Opening up universities to as many people from different socio-economic backgrounds is a vitally important challenge for government, schools, teachers, parents and universities themselves.

Some progress has been made. DCU was one of the first universities to champion an access programme for students who came from lower-income backgrounds just up the road in Ballymun. It has expanded massively and now has 630 students on it. They have a massive completion rate of 93pc.

Entrepreneurship studies have become a big growth area with DCU and now Trinity College investing heavily in it. It is utterly pointless to invest in this field without having commensurate mechanisms to open up these programmes to a wide variety of social backgrounds.

The country is trying to cope with the aftermath of a massive economic shock. In the search for the causes we are blaming institutions like the banks, the government, property developers and the Central Bank. And they share a collective responsibility.

But at its core was a consensus that built up during the boom. The consensus among the educated elite did not allow sufficiently for disparate views, challenges or alternative analysis.

In a small country like ours, we must seek out different perspectives. Different perspectives come from a combination of the life experiences of the person, combined with the educational tools to develop and articulate them.

The educated middle-classes love to form a consensus that protects their shared interest. And why wouldn't they? The highly educated upper-middle-classes have turned agreeing with each other into an art form.

Universities must find ways to open up to more people of different backgrounds, including those born outside the country, not just because of equality and fairness. Not only because it is the right thing to do.

They should also do it in their own interest. Universities will be better. They will produce better graduates and that should be good for everyone.

Irish Independent

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