It’s hard to be sanguine about access to third-level education in Ireland, particularly given the news this week that only one per cent of Travellers progress to higher education. Among the wider population, the figure is 55 per cent.
In real terms, there were 41 Travellers in third-level education last year, out of around 250,000 students in third-level education in general.
If this is a startlingly low figure, then the truest indicator of the issue’s severity came with the government’s recognition that its aim of increasing the number from 35 in 2015 to 80 next year may be particularly difficult.
Eighty out of 250,000, it hardly needs pointing out, is a minuscule proportion. The government’s aims were modest, and still they seem a distant prospect.
However, the pithily titled National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education has succeeded in making third-level education more accessible for people with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are grounds for optimism in some areas and causes for gloom in others.
In other words, the report told us little we didn’t already know.
Perhaps, instead of obsessing once again over the state of higher education in Ireland, it’s worth revisiting the question from a different angle. Of course it behooves the government to expand its efforts at making universities more accessible, in order that underrepresented groups have access to an education that has for so long been denied to them.
However, it seems the government’s fixation on higher education is informed by a nationwide deification of the concept of a university degree.
Despite the cheerlessness of higher education in Ireland – borne out by the consistent decline of the country’s colleges vis-a-vis their international counterparts – there still exists a morbid fascination with a university education.
Other EU countries seem to have realised that an academic degree should not mark the apotheosis of the education conversation. Apprenticeships and other forms of further education should be as valid as a piece of paper from a university. Rather than obsessing about “higher” education, perhaps it’d be better if the government’s policies encompassed more aspects of learning.
Correction: December 24th, 2018
Due to an ambiguity in wording, an earlier version of this piece incorrectly asserted that there were around 250,000 people in the Travelling community, rather than the same number in third-level education in general.