When the Higher Education Authority (HEA) was established 50 years ago it was, inter alia, accorded the following functions: furthering the development of higher education; promoting an appreciation of the value of higher education and research; democratisation of the structures of higher education; promoting equality of opportunity in access to higher education; and co-ordinating State investment in higher education.
One cannot but be impressed by the high-mindedness of these aspirations. It is evident that in the darkest periods of the Ireland of the early 1970s, policymakers believed in the intrinsic merits of higher education as inherently enriching of culture and society.
As things turned out, Ireland would have a very successful engagement with higher education in the decades following from the 1970s to the present. Most notable has been the growth in participation. From just above 20,000 students in 1974-1975 the numbers have grown to more than 200,000 – of which about 169,000 are undergraduates and 31,000 are postgraduate. Furthermore, 60 per cent of women and about 53 per cent of men aged 25-34 hold third-level qualifications while women account for about 55 per cent of new entrants to higher education, having accounted for just 45 per cent in the early 1980s.
There is, therefore, much that Ireland can be proud of in terms of its achievements in higher education over the past five decades. Participation has increased massively; Ireland has now one of the highest education attainment rates in the OECD; the universities are key players in the Irish research, development and innovation agenda and in the attractiveness of Ireland for FDI.
But the equality objective, foregrounded in the establishment of the HEA in 1972, remains elusive.
Notwithstanding the country’s achievements in widening and increasing higher education participation, there is a stubborn persistence of intergenerational socioeconomic immobility in Ireland. Those born in the higher socioeconomic groups in the country tend, mainly through their attainment in education, to retain and consolidate their birth positions; those born into lower socioeconomic groups tend, also by virtue of their educational attainment, to remain in their birth positions. While the rising tide may lift all boats, it doesn’t change the relative size of the boats.
To the extent that inherited status becomes redefined as achieved status – be it high or low – educational attainment becomes the legitimating mechanism both for the haves and the have nots – those who win believe they have done so on their own merit and those who don’t, believe they have received their just deserts.
This is what the philosopher Michael Sandel refers to as the “tyranny of the meritocracy”. This is the political doctrine that everyone is given the opportunity to be the best they can be – and having been given that opportunity, they must accept the validity and fairness of the outcome.
This is the core subtext of the proposition that the points race is a level playing field.
To the extent that the points system fails to adjust for starting out advantages and disadvantages in the life chances of children, the proposition is not only inaccurate but is also insidious.
Right now, Leaving Cert parents are addressing the next great national ritual: the CAO application deadline of January 31st.
In doing so they might reflect on how, in pre-CAO days, the Irish merchant classes transformed themselves into the Irish professional classes through sending their children to university. Since the early 1970s with the introduction of the apparently meritocratic, level playing field of points, these same professional classes have largely maintained their grip on the higher level courses – medicine and law in particular, while ostensibly such programmes are equally accessible to all.
A lottery would be the fairest way of allocating places in higher education, in that prior education attainment could be ignored in such a process
It is now apparent that a higher education entry system predicated on early life educational attainment will always disadvantage those who are most deprived in society. These encounter the greatest obstacles to success in early life education. And while the access rates of the most deprived into higher education have significantly improved, they still face significant barriers in accessing high-point courses and disciplines.
The median point score in 2021 was 420. These students beneath the median score are ineligible for a wide range of courses including medicine, veterinary, pharmacy, primary teaching and possibly general nursing, among others. Those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minorities – Travellers in particular – find it next to impossible to meet these entry requirements. If university education is the gateway to professional membership, then the democratisation of these professions requires the democratisation of entry to those key programmes.
Ultimately the surest way of doing that is to replace the reliance on early life educational attainment as the core fundamental of allocating higher education places with an alternative mechanism. Certainly, a lottery would be the fairest way of allocating places in higher education in that prior education attainment could be ignored in such a process.
On the assumption that there would be little public appetite for such an approach, we need to find other ways of ensuring that those essentially locked out of high-point courses by virtue of socioeconomic or ethnic background gain entry to such courses. Surely it is time to ringfence places for underrepresented groups in these high-point disciplines – for example, in all courses above the median point level – such that these groups are represented in such disciplines at a level which reflects their representation in the wider society.
Prof Tom Collins is a former Professor of Education at Maynooth University