A Kind of Social Apartheid

 

The figures published today about college entry patterns to University College, Dublin, and Trinity College, Dublin, are deeply troubling. They confirm what we already know: those from the upper reaches of the socio-economic ladder are much better represented than those of working-class origin.

But this is the first time that the whole picture has been revealed in such detail. Nine of the 10 schools best represented in UCD are fee-paying. The pattern is broadly similar in TCD. As one commentator notes in today's Education and Parenting pages, a kind of social apartheid is at work. But the raw data does not tell the full picture. It doesn't tell us how many students went to other third-level institutions. It doesn't take account of the size of the schools or its location.

What the figures do tell us in some detail is how the State has failed to achieve its oft-quoted objective of equality in education. A generation after the introduction of free second-level education, third-level education remains largely the preserve of the middle and upper classes. There is, in effect, two education systems - one in leafy suburbia where students can virtually expect to glide into top colleges and another in the working class suburbs, where entry to colleges like UCD and Trinity has never been part of the family history.

Dr Don Thornhill, chairman of the Higher Education Authority, is to be commended for his candour in admitting that the figures are a matter of deep concern. He points out that the situation, while by no means good, has improved significantly in the past two decades. Some 28 per cent of students from lower socio-economic groups can now expect to reach college, compared to three per cent in 1980.

The colleges, despite the trojan work of access officers, bear some of the blame for the situation. But the perceptive president of the Union of Students in Ireland, Mr Colm Jordan, is correct when he puts the blame for this "scandalous and shocking" situation at the door of Government. There is an urgent need to give the access programmes in each college a new priority. Last year, a Department of Education report suggested a new national access officer within the remit of the HEA - but the proposal has still to be activated. There must also be a long, hard look at the continued underfunding of the primary school sector.

The new education minister, Mr Dempsey, is clearly unhappy about the inequality at the heart of the third-level system. But last week's decision to cut funds from a programme designed to widen third-level access scarcely augers well. For all that, the minister's impatience with the two-tier nature of our education system is deeply felt. He is current examining how the €350 million spent on student support could achieve greater equality. The minister has talked a good game. He now has an opportunity to make a real difference.