Wealthy students and high-points courses

 

Sir, – That students from affluent backgrounds are more likely to study “high points” courses should come as little surprise to anybody (News, October 21st). However, the findings of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) report make clear the need for significant additional, targeted investment across all levels of education to afford students an equal opportunity to fulfil their own potential, irrespective of their postal address.

The latest OECD indicators show that only two countries spend a lower percentage of national wealth on educational institutions than Ireland. The deficit at second level is worse again, with Ireland spending a lower proportion of national wealth on the sector than the 34 other countries listed.

Middle-management structures and guidance counselling provision, which provide vital support to students, have not been restored to their pre-cut levels, and this impacts acutely on schools in communities that are neglected by policymakers.

The report endorses the institute of technology sector in reflecting the social profile of the broader population, but this sector has been devastated by swingeing cuts to funding which have had a direct, detrimental effect on the quality of service to students and the working conditions of academics.

Investment in education pays dividends in terms of significantly increased revenue from taxation. It also provides the individual and her or his dependants with vastly better life prospects.

Those from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer the most from the negative effects of grossly inadequate education budgets, and the continuing refusal to invest must be viewed as a sustained attack on the most vulnerable in our communities. – Yours, etc,

SEAMUS LAHART,

President,

Teachers’ Union of Ireland,

Rathgar,

Dublin 6.

Sir, – The headline to the article “Wealth eases way for entry to top courses” (News, October 21st) is misleading. The article is a summary of a Higher Education Authority study indicating that students from more affluent backgrounds in Ireland were far more likely to study high-points courses in universities. One of the first lessons those students attending university will learn is that correlation does not imply causation. Showing that students from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to study high-points courses does not establish that they are studying high-points courses because they are from affluent backgrounds. But the headline to the newspaper article implies a causal relationship – that wealth is enabling materially privileged children to access the best courses.

International research by behavioural geneticists, such as Robert Plomin, over the past few decades into uniquely informative types of families (with twins, or adopted children) has revealed that almost all traits, including intelligence, have a substantial heritable component, ie children tend to resemble their biological parents for genetic reasons. People with higher cognitive ability tend to do better in school, and are more likely to end up in occupations with higher status and more pay. Thus, they tend to live in more affluent backgrounds. Their children are therefore more likely to come from these backgrounds, and also to inherit higher cognitive ability. The latter helps them access the more sought-after university places. Once parental ability is accounted for, social background of their children plays only a very modest role – so long as the threshold into extreme poverty is not crossed – despite the widespread assumption that social background must be decisive in such matters.

Your newspaper headline perpetuates the fashionable but mistaken narrative that social background is the critical factor in educational access. A more scientifically valid headline would be “Genes ease way for entry to top courses”. – Yours, etc,

Dr MICHAEL O’CONNELL,

Associate Professor

of Psychology,

UCD,

Belfield,

Dublin 4.

Sir, – Brian O’Brien (Letters, October 22nd) must be correct that one’s performance in the Leaving Certificate, and admission to university courses, is genetically pre-determined. In which case, I’m sure wealthy parents (intellectually superior as they are) have figured that out, and refuse to waste their hard-earned cash paying for private schools, private grinds tuition, a house near a “good” school with lower classroom ratios and better resources, language trips to the Gaeltacht or abroad, and extra-curricular music or art classes. Their little geniuses will flourish without all that (in Mr O’Brien’s words) “intervention”. – Yours, etc,

ALAN EUSTACE,

Dublin 2.