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Getting into college is only half the story – the course is the other half

Affluent students nine times more likely to study Medicine than disadvantaged, writes Katherine Donnelly


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A child’s address not only determines their chances of getting into college, but also the course for which they get an offer.

A school-leaver from the most affluent background is nine times more likely to be studying Medicine than someone from the most economically disadvantaged family.

Chances are medical students have grown up in a family of doctors and see it as a birth right. Their parents have the money to plough into buying any advantage to build up the CAO points to smooth the path into medical school.

It’s not only medicine. The same patterns are evident for entry to high-points courses leading to other elite careers, such as in banking and finance.

Over years of research, study after study has highlighted the big divide in general college progression rates between the financial “haves” and the “have nots”.

Advances have been made. Between Census 2006 and Census 2016, the percentage of 20-year-olds in disadvantaged areas who were students jumped from 27pc to 47pc. However, the same period saw a general surge in college attendance, so a significant gap remains.

More in-depth research, conducted by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), is shining a light on another, and less visible, indicator of gross inequality: the link between postcode and field of study.

The HEA describes the quality of data in its Spatial and Socio-Economic profile of the Higher Education Population report, published last month, as second to none.

It is based on Deprivation Index Scores (DIS), which measure the relative affluence or disadvantage of a particular geographical area based on data compiled from the Census.

The HEA uses that information to analyse the socio-economic profile of students on a college by college basis. The most recent research captured details on about 94pc of students — about 180,000 — attending college in 2018/19.

So researchers can pinpoint not only the numbers in college from small geographical areas for which they have details of household income, but what course they are on.

It found that, at a national level, 20pc of college places are taken up by students from the 15pc wealthiest families. In contrast, the students from the 15pc most disadvantaged families hold only 10pc of places.

To put that another way, on average, college students from the most affluent areas outnumber those from the most disadvantaged areas by two to one.

That gap is even wider when it comes to high points courses such as finance, banking and medicine. In Medicine, 35pc of students are from the wealthiest families, compared with 4pc from the most disadvantaged, making them nine times more likely to have one of those highly coveted places.

In Finance and Banking courses, it is a 34pc-8pc divide. In Engineering it’s 28pc-5pc, in Law 22pc-9pc and in Education, 22pc-8pc

The only areas of study where students from disadvantaged backgrounds outnumber the most affluent are Childcare and Youth Services, Social Work and Counselling, and Sports, many of which are accessible with lower points.

The inequalities perpetuate beyond college. HEA research also highlights how socio-economic background is also an indicator of likely salary levels after graduation.

Even where students have the same degree and the same grade, nine months after leaving college a graduate from an affluent background will be paid about 30pc more than a classmate from a disadvantaged background.

That is probably linked to how better social connections ease the route to the first job and is another less visible barrier to equality.

This research is providing the HEA with a greater level of information and analysis than was available previously. The intention is that it will be used to determine how funding is better targeted both at initiatives aimed at widening access to higher education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and in supports for colleges to support them in their journey.

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