All students are equal, but some are more equal than others


The new figures tell us something very important about the universities themselves. A kind of social apartheid is at work, writes Fintan O'Toole

In the early 1970s, a reporter from the Irish Press called to our house in the Dublin Corporation estate in Crumlin. With the effects of free secondary education beginning to be felt, the paper was seeking answers to the next obvious question: will children from working-class backgrounds now go on to storm the barricades of Irish universities? The answer the reporters were getting was a fairly strong "No". On our road, only one parent - my own father - expressed the view that one or more of his children might go on to university.

There was none the less some element of underlying optimism. The massive investment of public money in the education system was bound to have some effect. When the top stream in my school sat the Leaving Cert, a fair smattering of us went on to UCD or Trinity. It was emblematic of some small progress that one of us eventually became a Trinity professor.

The progress, however, has turned out to be largely illusory. What seemed to be an advance guard has turned out to be the entire army. The handful of working-class students going on to universities were not harbingers of a bigger change. They were the change.

The vast expenditure of public money has made it easier for a small percentage of students from unprivileged backgrounds to enter the university system. It has not altered the fact that the system essentially belongs to the professional classes.

A vital caveat needs to be borne in mind by anyone looking at the figures published here. The story the figures tell us is not about the performance of the schools themselves.

The raw data don't tell us about the size of the school, or the proportion of its students who go on to university. They don't tell us how much or how little those schools have improved the life chances of the students who entered them in first year. They don't tell us how many students from those schools are going on to other third-level institutions, or how many are getting the points to progress but, for one reason or another, are not doing so.

What the figures do tell us is something very important about the universities themselves. They are failing miserably in one of the key aims of public education policy over the last 30 years. They are not achieving anything like an equality of provision. They are maintaining a system which, if it were run on the basis of skin colour rather than social class, would be look rather like apartheid.

We have known this for a long time on the level of social class, through the consistent work of Prof Patrick Clancy for the Higher Education Authority. Now we can see these inequalities made flesh within the educational system itself. In structural terms, the universities are discriminating strongly in favour of fee-paying and middle-class schools.

The facts may be stark and simple, but the explanations are complex. We should, perhaps, focus more on the transition from first to second-level education than from second to third. A 13-year-old entering secondary school with a reading age of 10 is entering a race from a position way behind the starting line. Any teacher in an area of deprivation can already make a very good guess in senior infants about who will have a realistic chance of ending up with a degree and who will not. Early intervention with intensive long-term supports is far more likely to make a real difference than a few gestures later on in the educational cycle.

But this does not absolve the universities from their social and moral duty to ensure that institutions funded by the public actually serve the public as a whole rather than a self-perpetuating élite. They have a duty to engage at more than a token level with the rest of the education system, from primary school upwards.

There must also be a recognition that the problem needs to be addressed, not just early on in the life of a student, but also at a later stage. For many working-class people, the expansion of horizons and ambitions comes through the world of work. A system based on the notion of a simple progression from one level of education to the next at the age of 18 is radically unsuited to the needs of people whose natural progress may be from school to work and from work to university.

This is not a radical insight. It is taken for granted in most European countries, who see the notion of second-chance education as being central not just to social equity but to economic progress.

Yet what are the first things to be cut when money gets tight? As The Irish Times revealed last week, among the targets for cutbacks in the education budget this year are programmes to tackle disadvantage and adult education. There could be no more telling manifestation of the assumption that equity is an added extra, not a core principle. In that light, anyone surprised to find that money talks in the university system hasn't been paying attention in class.