Making Trinity more socially inclusive is a good idea but it needs a good plan

 

LEFTFIELD:I AM REGULARLY surprised to find that quite a few academics feel a sense of nostalgia for academic life in the 1970s or 1980s. Of course there were fewer bureaucratic irritants back then and a greater sense of academic autonomy. As regards public funding, it was more or less the same as now. I remember something in Trinity College Dublin (where I was a lecturer in the 1980s) actually called the Cuts Committee.

One fundamental difference between those days and now is that, back then, a university education was for the very privileged few. To be a student marked you out as a member of the professional and social elite. You rubbed shoulders with the sons and daughters of the wealthy set, and once you left the university you could, even without a particularly stellar grade, slip easily into a lucrative career (though admittedly many would do so outside Ireland).

Universities may have pursued intellectual excellence (though typically in a more laid-back way than they do now), but they certainly were not representative of wider society.

All of that changed, and today, being a student is not that exceptional for the country’s young adults. Listening to the voices in the student cafeteria no longer involves hearing only those carefully nurtured vowels that invite you to imagine Dublin 4 or thereabouts, or people aspiring to settle there. Universities now reflect, to a much greater extent, the entire population of the country.

Or do they? The introduction of “free fees” in the 1990s initiated a major growth in participation in higher education, and middle-income groups in particular began to think of universities and colleges as a natural destination after the Leaving Certificate. These days you can visit Phibsboro or Portumna or Portlaoise and be just as confident of seeing graduates as you would in Sandymount (or at least nearly so).

But what about Coolock? Or Finglas? Or Leitrim? No, there are still virtual no-go areas for higher education in Ireland, and those areas that are particularly economically deprived send almost no young people to university. “Free fees” have made virtually no difference to this, and the participation rates are almost unchanged from the 1980s.

In this setting, it is interesting that Paddy Prendergast, the provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin plans to look at new ways to “increase admissions of poorer students”. Suggesting that the CAO points system may need to be reviewed, Prendergast suggests that Ireland might use a scheme pioneered in Texas; applying this to Ireland or TCD, He wonders whether there should be a rule under which “the top 10 per cent in all state schools gained automatic access to the leading university”. Could this idea work?

Probably not. Prendergast is making this proposal just as a consensus is emerging in Texas that the scheme is unworkable. So for example in the University of Texas 81 per cent of new entrants get into the university via this framework, but ironically the ones who have benefited most are those who do not satisfy diversity criteria: they tend to be white middle class, who now have guaranteed access and who exercise their rights, whereas students from poorer backgrounds or ethnic minorities, who don’t start with an assumption that this is their route through life, often don’t take advantage of the rule.

The effect has been to remove the university’s discretion as to whom to admit without actually improving the social and ethnic mix of the student population. There could also be a real problem if the now entitled students don’t choose their colleges on a reasonably distributed basis. If all of them decided to go to DCU, for example (a rational choice), it would create major structural problems.

That said, I am very glad that Prendergast is raising this as a general topic. I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously, has done more to undermine Irish higher education than almost anything else. I am also strongly of the view that access for the disadvantaged needs to be addressed much more seriously.

But the two issues are not particularly connected. The reason for the unsatisfactory participation rate by poorer students is not a result of university selection practices, but of various social and economic factors, including low expectations, bad advice, inadequate personal and family resources, and so forth. These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Some of Paddy Prendergasts other comments are interesting and show a willingness to address problem areas in higher education. It is also good that he understands that the route by which students enter higher education is not satisfactory. But on the specifics of access for the disadvantaged, we may all want to reflect a little more on what would work most effectively, so that universities can become institutions that truly reflect our society.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is principal of Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Scotland