This week’s report in the Irish Times – which found that students from private secondary schools have a significant advantage when it comes to earning places on competitive university courses – should have come as no surprise to anyone.
History is loaded with evidence that students from affluent backgrounds have the odds stacked in their favour when it comes to excelling academically.
But among those in positions of power in higher education, the acuteness of the disparity seems to have been forgotten, or at least neglected.
Of course, there has been much progress made in recent years when it comes to making higher education more accessible: the well-publicised successes of programmes like the Trinity Access Programme (TAP) and the HEAR and DARE schemes are there as proof.
For some, however, it seems these initiatives are a more comfortable talking point than the systemic inequalities at the heart of Irish education.
The finding that state subsidies of €90 million a year are allocated to private schools – €30 million more than is allocated to Deis schools, according to the Irish Times – is clear evidence that we are still a very long way from breaking down the barriers blocking students from lower social classes from accessing higher education.
Access routes like TAP are helping with the issue, but they should not be held up as evidence of progress at a systemic level – in real terms, they’re a small plaster on a gaping wound.
Access programmes alone will never be able to close the wealth gap in education – nor should they be expected to. That task must fall to the government.
In order to ensure students from disadvantaged areas are given the same opportunities as affluent students, there must be equality and fairness in how much money secondary schools receive from the state. This would mean tackling the problem at its root, instead of expecting overstretched and under-resourced programmes to remedy the inequality after the fact.
For this to happen, a change in attitude, as well as an about-turn in financial policy, is needed from decision-makers in government and in education.