Tuesday 17 September 2019

Money talks when it comes to getting success in the college stakes

Latest figures show social divide of students starting university keeps on growing

Minister for Education Richard Bruton
Minister for Education Richard Bruton

John Walshe

When it comes to education - money talks, loudly. It buys the already privileged even more advantages that help them on the road to higher education.

So it was no surprise that fee-paying schools were over represented in this week's league tables of who goes to college. Their students did particularly well when it came to entry to high-points university courses such as medicine and dentistry.

Half of the country's 51 fee-paying schools reported that their full complement of Leaving Cert students had enrolled in higher education. The salaries of the vast majority of the teachers in these schools are paid for by the taxpayer. They have an additional €80m a year to spend on extras such as smaller classes, ancillary staff and better facilities - the money coming from fees.

They were not the only ones reporting maximum success in the college stakes. So also were increasing numbers of schools in the Free Education scheme, including some Gaelscoileanna.

But there is still an overall imbalance of participation between students from fee and non-fee-paying schools. This raises once again issues of fairness and equity in education. Tuition fees in higher education were scrapped two decades ago by Minister Niamh Bhreathnach. However, their abolition has not increased the percentages of students from disadvantaged areas going to college, according to research carried out by Dr Kevin Denny of UCD. He said that it failed to address inequalities - the OECD had concluded also that it did not improve participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"The only obvious effect of the policy was to provide a windfall gain to middle-class parents who no longer had to pay fees," argued Dr Denny. There is some evidence that parents used this unexpected financial boost to send their children to fee-paying secondary schools. Not surprisingly, those schools expanded their enrolments over the past two decades.

The growing social and geographic divide was confirmed in stark detail in statistics published by the Higher Education Authority. It showed the percentages of young people from different postal districts in the capital who go to college. They vary from 99pc in Dublin 6 to 16pc in the most disadvantaged parts of the city.

Debate over our two-tiered society and school system surfaces every now and then, particularly in relation to the continued existence of fee-paying schools. The sector breathed a sigh of relief when Labour lost the education ministry after its electoral wipe-out in the last general election.

It had feared Labour's intentions when Minister Ruairí Quinn argued that they should carry a greater share of the cuts during the financial emergency that the Fine Gael-Labour coalition inherited when it took office in 2011.

He decided that the officially approved and funded pupil-teacher ratios would be higher in the fee-paying sector than in the Free Education schools. This, allied to the effects of the recession on parents' discretionary income, alarmed fee-charging schools, some of whom joined the Free Education Scheme.

At one stage, up to a dozen schools were kicking the tyres to see if they would be better off in the scheme. They also put pressure on Fine Gael, which made it clear that Quinn could go only so far with hitting the fee-paying schools. In its general election manifesto, the party also sent out a signal that there would be no further cuts in that sector. The fee-paying schools are much happier now that there is a Fine Gael Minister for Education for the first time in 30 years. If they are to continue to enjoy their privileged position, it is essential to improve access to higher education for the most disadvantaged in society. This issue is tied up with the whole question of funding higher education which has been kicked into the Oireachtas Committee on Education by Minister Richard Bruton.

The most contentious recommendation facing the committee is an income-related loans scheme which had been recommended by the expert group on future funding of higher education, chaired by Peter Cassells. Getting any kind of political consensus on loans - allied to higher fees than the existing €3,000 annual charge - is a very difficult task for committee chair Fiona O'Loughlin.

The committee heard further submissions from interested groups on loans this week. What the committee has not interrogated, however, is the assumption that there will be, or should be, a 29pc increase in higher-education student numbers as predicted by Cassells.

The projection is based on existing trends but there has been little or no discussion about the burgeoning opportunities in further education (FET) and the extension of apprenticeships to new areas. These could well siphon some of the flow of young people going into higher education. It would not be enough to avert a crisis in funding higher education but a well-resourced and supported FET sector could act as a brake on runaway increases in third-level numbers.

This week's league tables unwittingly reinforce the message that Leaving Certificate students really have no other option but higher education. The tables would give a more rounded picture if they also showed the percentages who went into FET courses, but unfortunately these figures are not readily available. If they were, the Irish Independent would happily publish them alongside the college entry figures.

We do need to question the obsession we have in this country with degrees as if they were the only road to success. There are other avenues, as a TEDx session in Shannon this week testified. It was organised by the further education and training authority SOLAS and Atlantic Aviation Group, now a thriving Irish-owned company with 250 staff which has just opened a training institute in aircraft maintenance.

Individual speakers told their stories of how they had taken the scenic route to personal achievement rather than go directly into higher education. They confirmed that, as the theme for the day had it, there are indeed many paths to success.

John Walshe is a former adviser to former minister Ruairí Quinn

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