According to media reports, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is soon to publish the results of a study on levels of inequality in access to third-level. That students from poorer households are less likely to attend college is not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention in recent decades.
However, the extent of inequality between socio-economic groups is deeply worrying.
The Irish Independent reported that the HEA analysis shows that areas included in the top 16 per cent most affluent in the country account for 19 per cent of enrolments, almost double those from areas that make up the top 16 per cent least affluent. Almost a third of students achieving between 555 and 600 points came from the top 16 per cent most affluent areas and just 3 per cent of students achieving this level of points came from the poorest areas.
This means there is a substantial over-representation of those from wealthier backgrounds within courses requiring higher points for entry. Even when poorer students manage to make it to third-level, they tend not to make it to courses in medicine, law, pharmacy, finance, and so on.
As well as being unfair and damaging for individual students, this state of affairs is bad for the Irish economy and society, and also damaging for those students lucky enough to gain a place in college. Segregating young people from those from different social backgrounds is bad for everyone.
A common refrain from students’ unions and others is that the removal of fees for third-level is necessary to address the problem of unequal access to third level. However, the extent of inequality in access and in educational performance – measured by leaving certificate points – shows that free fees at this stage would amount to little more than a subsidy to rich families.
There is no basis for arguing that the abolition of fees will do anything to alleviate the problem of unequal access to college for poorer students
Rich families would likely divert the money they save on third-level fees to paying for second-level fees and grinds to simply reinforce and increase the inequality that already exists. The demand for private second-level schools (which are already subsidised by the state) would increase.
This is not speculation. This is what happened when the Rainbow Government abolished third-level fees in 1996. There is little reason to believe something different would happen now.
There may be good reasons to scrap third-level fees as part of a sustainable funding model for third-level, such as the signal that third level education is open to all or to encourage more geographic mobility in the system. But there is no basis for arguing that the abolition of fees will do anything to alleviate the problem of unequal access to college for poorer students.
The universities and the HEA are doing good work to improve access for poorer students, and those in other under-represented groups such as lone parents and ethnic minorities, including Travellers. The grants scheme is undoubtedly a worthwhile and important contribution to enabling many students to take up their place in college.
The level of inequality in admission to third-level is only a symptom of disadvantage at all levels in our educational system
However, the extent of educational inequality showing up in third-level access data shows that the problem is much greater than initiatives at third-level can resolve. The level of inequality in admission to third-level is only a symptom of disadvantage at all levels in our educational system.
Access programmes and grants, while welcome, do not help the many students that are lost to the system before ever reaching the point where the costs of college are considered.
So what can be done to reduce educational inequality and promote access to third-level for poorer households? There has to be a mixture of short, medium, and long-term policies. Educational disadvantage has built up over decades and it will take decades to fix it.
It begins long before children are approaching the leaving certificate. Nobel laureate James Heckman has focused for many years on the economics of early childhood education. He has demonstrated that there is a substantial social return from investing in early childhood development, particularly in disadvantaged families, from birth to age five.
He argues that starting at age three and four is too little too late. It is clear then that outreach from colleges to secondary schools will be ineffective for those students already left behind.
It is not enough to provide tax breaks to help meet the costs of market provided early childhood care. This only helps those who are working and earning more to avail of the tax break.
We need to provide effective early childhood education to everyone based on the child’s needs rather than their parents’ ability to pay. This means having state-funded and provided early childhood care. The service should be provided free at point of use, and there should also be targeted supports for poorer families.
This is not cheap. However, there is substantial evidence that it is good value with significant positive returns on this investment, as well as positive educational, social, and economic outcomes for the individuals, their families, and the community.
Of course interventions such as these will take a generation at least to show fruition. We need other shorter-term policies to address the existing inequality. This has to be more than initiatives by third-level colleges. These are too late to reach students that have given up on the system at primary and secondary level.
In the short-term, the government must stop subsidising private secondary education, redirecting the savings into real free education. The DEIS schools system can be extended, with free book provision and hot meals at all schools.
There is also the need for a demonstration effect so that students from poorer areas see others from their areas at college. If they can see it they can be it, and we are open to quotas to address inequality in other areas. Why not a quota of third-level places reserved for qualifying students from DEIS schools or, even more radically, adjusting the points for DEIS students accompanied with additional supports when they arrive at college?
This is the type of thinking that is needed if we are really serious about educational disadvantage. Though I am less than convinced that, as a society, we care as much as we say we do.