The ties that bind


Education & Parenting: Despite all the promises, successive governments have done little or nothing to improve access to third-level education. The universities remain largely the preserve of the middle and upper classes, writes Sean Flynn, Education Editor

The figures published today reveal in graphic detail how UCD and Trinity draw a significant proportion of their students from expensive fee-paying schools.

It would be grossly unfair on the basis of these figures to draw any conclusions about individual schools. What the figures reveal is the gross inequality at the heart of the Irish education system. The universities themselves are not without fault here. But the main responsibility rests with government. For years, successive ministers have paid lip-service to the objective of education equality. The figures published today reveal that nothing has changed in a generation; the university sector remains largely the preserve of the middle and upper classes. Huge swathes of the population are effectively locked out of our top colleges.

Many non-fee-paying schools are well represented in the lists published today. With some notable exceptions, most are in middle-class areas.

What the figures show is this: we do not have not one " world class" education system - but rather two different and mutually exclusive systems.

The first exists in prosperous suburbia, where students from solidly middle-class families take it as read that they will make it to university.

Often these students attend fee-paying schools or expensive grind schools such as the Institute of Education. In most cases, these students come from a home where their parents also went on to third-level.

The other system operates in local authority housing estates, primarily concentrated in the inner cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Here, private fee-paying schools are thin on the ground. There is often no family tradition of third-level education and little expectation of a university education. Less than 10 per cent of school-leavers in these areas go on to third-level. According to the most recent figures, students from households headed by skilled or semi-skilled workers make up 0.49 per cent of university students.

In his report for the Higher Education Authority earlier this year, Professor Patrick Clancy of UCD found that 71 per cent of those in fee-paying secondary schools got into college, compared to 50 per cent in community schools and 38 per cent in vocational schools.

So what can be done to close the gap? Investment in primary education is probably the key, although the impact would not be felt immediately. At the moment, the State invests vastly more resources in third-level education than in primary education - one must wonder about the wisdom of this.

The colleges themselves all run specific access programmes. While these programmes are ambitious to a certain extent, the number of students involved in them is relatively small.

Individual access officers often do trojan work, but lack of funding means it is hard for them to make a major impact.

There is also the sense that each access officer is working on his/her own without much in the way of overall direction. Last year, an expert group appointed by the former minister for education, Dr Michael Woods, called for a new approach. It wanted the scatter-gun nature of access programmes replaced by a new, more co-ordinated effort.

The Action Group on Access to Third-Level - chaired by GP Dr Cormac Macnamara - wanted a new national body to tackle the issue of educational inequality. It proposed that this office should be centralised in the Higher Education Authority, which has day-to-day responsibility for the third-level sector.

The report also recommended the appointment of a high-profile business or public service figure as director of the new office.

The report - like a plethora of others in education - is still gathering dust in the Department of Education. Its proposals appear to have become enmeshed in a turf war between the Department and the HEA. The result? No action and no change and still no national framework of access programmes.

The access programmes face other difficulties. The current direct entry system - a form of positive discrimination for disadvantaged students - is not always welcomed by the academic community. In a report last year from the HEA, it was disclosed that some academics were worried that admitting disadvantaged students with lower CAO points could dilute academic standards. Many were also concerned that students would drop-out.

Whatever about the colleges, the main responsibility for the two-tier education system in this State continues to rest with government. When he established the Macnamara group, Dr Woods said: "I am committed to promoting access to higher education not only for compelling social reasons, but also for good economic reasons."

The potential shortage of skilled labour in key sectors means there is also an economic imperative. Put starkly, the State can no longer afford to leave the third-level system in the hands of the affluent. It needs all classes to be involved in third-level, especially when the number of school-leavers is set to diminish by about 35 per cent between now and 2012.

The current Minister of Education, Noel Dempsey, is a former teacher and knows the problems well.

There are encouraging signs that the new Minister is prepared to make educational disadvantage his main policy priority - and he appears motivated by the overall goal of social justice rather than economics.

Dempsey has already raised some thought-provoking questions about education funding. He has questioned, rightly, why the current funding arrangements for third-level are failing to achieve equity.

The Minister has said openly that the €350 million currently spent on student supports is failing to achieve greater equality. His recent decision to increase registration charges for students was good news for the Exchequer. But it appears to have been motivated - in part, at least - by his belief that the vast majority can well afford the increased charges.

It is clear from his public utterances that he is impatient with the elitism of the Irish education sector. But the manner in which the disadvantaged bore the brunt of the education cutbacks - revealed last week - does not augur well.

Dempsey has an opportunity to change things dramatically. But has he the courage to push for radical reform?

Education & Parenting is edited by Sean Flynn, Education Editor