Our meritocratic educational system serves us well

Meritocracy has flaws but critics have yet to come up with a superior system

A meritocracy is a social system in which individual advancement is based on personal capabilities and efforts and not on family wealth or social position. Ireland is a meritocracy – as are all European Union countries.

The main engine of meritocracy is the educational system where everybody gets equal access to education up through third level, qualify with grades corresponding to their intelligence and efforts and use these grades to compete for employment. Meritocracy is coming under increasing criticism lately, mainly from the left. While meritocracy in practice undoubtedly has flaws, critics have yet to come up with a superior system.

Obviously, meritocracy is superior to feudalism, or to a system accommodating hereditary aristocracy, or to a system in which only primary education is freely available to everybody. But many people criticise meritocracy today on the basis that it doesn't provide a level playing field for all. For example, Kathleen Lynch, emeritus professor of equality studies at UCD, criticises meritocracy in an article entitled Class and Wealth, not Merit, Rewarded in Ireland's Education System – published by TheJournal.ie in September 2020.


Lynch points to the most selective third-level courses, including medicine, finance/business, law, engineering, requiring the highest Central Application Office (CAO) university entry points and perceived to lead on to the best-paid and most secure employment. These courses are dominated by students from the most affluent families because, she claims, better-off parents spend much more money than poorer parents can afford, sending their offspring to select private schools and buying grinds and other extra-school advantages for their children. Lynch's solution to this "class inequality in education" is to "challenge the neoliberal capitalist economic model that generates wealth inequalities in the first instance".


Grinds and so on help affluent students get better grades but only, I believe, to a small extent. It seems highly improbable that students who diligently attend to their in-school second-level classes and study hard outside of class, but take few if any grinds, will perform significantly worse in examinations than their affluent fellow students who took grinds. After all, grinds teachers are, by and large, the same people who teach their in-school classes.

That said, the intense multilayered efforts affluent parents make to help their sons/daughters to get into the most “desirable” degree programmes seem to be effective. Of course, affluent parents are entitled to make these efforts and, regardless of parental assistance, only the brightest students can attain the necessary high CAO points. And, while all parents are eager to help their children’s third-level educational progress, the intense preoccupation of the affluent in this regard is not equalled among poorer parents who have much less experience of navigating the shores of third-level education. Of course, this picture will change rapidly as the less affluent grow more accustomed to universal access to third-level education.

Socioeconomic backgrounds

Looking at the spread of socioeconomic student backgrounds participating in a selection of third-level courses in 2018-2019 is revealing – it was published by the Higher Education Authority in 2019. The numbers within the brackets represent – left to right – the percentage of students from disadvantaged, marginally below average, marginally above average and affluent socioeconomic groups: medicine (4, 19, 42, 35); law (9, 28, 41, 22); engineering (5, 23, 44, 28); chemistry (11, 30, 41, 18); nursing (10, 34, 42, 15); teacher training (9, 38, 42, 11); and social work/counselling (16, 36, 36, 11).

While more affluent students are strongly over-represented in the first three highest-points courses, students of more modest means are reasonably represented elsewhere. And this picture will almost certainly change soon to reflect more equitable representation across the board.

For example, there is evidence that many students from economically modest backgrounds who are on course to get the highest CAO entry points shy away from nominating “elite” programmes – particularly medicine – as their first CAO choices. This can surely be adequately countered by school careers guidance counsellors ensuring all students capable of scoring top CAO points fully consider all the options this opens up.

My problem with Lynch’s analysis is that it selectively highlights a single defect but ignores the massive achievement educational meritocracy made over recent decades in securing universal access to Irish third-level education. In the early 1960s less than 5 per cent of second-level students went on to third level (university), today that figure is 80 per cent plus. In 2006, 27 per cent of 20-year-olds from disadvantaged areas went to third level; in 2016 that figure was 37 per cent. In comparison, securing even-handed access to all available third-level courses is a relatively small remaining barrier that will surely be overcome soon. And finally, Lynch’s proposal to solve this problem, dismantling capitalism, is simply ideological flag-waving.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC