The two-tier nature of education system

Sir, – The recently published Higher Education Authority (HEA) report on socioeconomic and spatial differences in third-level education (as reported in Carl O'Brien's article "Wealthy students more likely to study high-points courses", News, October 21st) draws attention to the role that parental income and where you live may play in higher education choices in Ireland.

However, a deeper understanding of these relationships is needed.

First, given the variety of factors that may influence where and what people study in higher education participation, it is important to consider the interaction between where an individual lives and their socio-economic situation. For example, does living further away from a university or institute of technology impair the ability of someone from a wealthy background to go to higher education and choose a specific course to the same extent as an individual from a poorer background that is far away?

Previous research has supported the view that travel distance can have a negative impact on participation, but crucially demonstrated that these travel-distance effects only matter for school-leavers from lower social classes, even with secondary school exam performance (CAO points) accounted for.


Furthermore, the same research showed that even with the same CAO points and similar geographic accessibility to a university, those from a “low” social class had virtually zero chance of pursing a medical degree compared to someone from a “high” social class.

The first strand of this research highlights the role that travel distance may play in these outcomes for certain people and pose questions around the efficacy of the adjacent and non-adjacent element of the higher education grant system.

The differences observed in higher education choices in the second strand, as well as those seen within cities such as Dublin (as outlined in the HEA report), suggest distance effects are only one part of the story. These differences suggest deeper, more challenging issues such as peer, neighbourhood, family and school influences that may require earlier policy interventions and investments.

However, as many young people in Ireland will soon consider whether and where to study beyond secondary level, it seems that the choice set facing many of them in terms of their higher education opportunities may very much be a function of where they live and what income their parents have.

A review of the role financial aid (amounts, qualifications and application procedures) may play in higher education choices would be a useful starting point in examining these inequalities further.

Unfortunately, this rarely feature in higher education policy debate. – Yours, etc,


Department of Economics,

Kemmy Business School,

University of Limerick.

Sir, – The fact that the Higher Education Authority has released a new and detailed report on the two-tier nature of access to third-level education is a welcome development.

However, it is important to remember that it is 40 years since it issued its first such report. Of course, the blame for this does not lie solely with the HEA nor is it best placed strategically to tackle the underlying problems.

Proceeding through the education system is somewhat akin to the Grand National. There are a series of fences to be jumped or transitions to be negotiated. Some will fall at one of these transition points. Others will have such difficulty overcoming them that catching up is virtually impossible. Over-concentration on the last one, the school to college transition, can be misleading, although higher-education institutions need to do a lot more.

Detailed research by the HEA, the ESRI, and others, has established that the likelihood of success at each transition stage is strongly associated with parental socio-economic status. As a result, a strategy to tackle educational disadvantage throughout the education cycle is needed.

Rectifying the weaknesses in our education system at earlier stages is the responsibility of Ministers and officials in the Department of Education and Skills. The record on educational disadvantage is patchy, at best.

Certainly, the introduction of a universal pre-school provision will begin to address the school-readiness issue and should bring great benefits, if professionally delivered. Other than that, it would seem that the policymakers considered the initiation of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme (Deis), over a decade or so ago, would have the desired impact in achieving national educational objectives. Deis was a welcome, albeit very limited, initiative. It targeted additional resources to schools serving disadvantaged areas but never to the extent necessary. Until such time as adequate support services are put into Deis schools, the two-tier nature of our education system will continue. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 20.