The BBC carried a news item today on a dispute in Brazil about quotas set by the government under which persons from some ethnic backgrounds and from disadvantaged areas have protected access to higher education. Brazil, like a number of Latin American countries, has ethinic groups that are seriously under-represented in universities, and therefore in the higher paid professions that require university qualifications. To improve this situation, quotas have been set aside for such groups, but this has now been challenged in the courts.
There is a point here that is worth debating in Ireland also. As I have pointed out before, the composition of the third level student population in Ireland equally presents us with a serious issue, with evidence that the education system is at least in some measure tending to perpetuate certain social problems. While none of these issues can be solved overnight, addressing them in part through university access is a good idea. Whether this can be done successfully through a formal quota system is doubtful, as the equality provisions in the constitution, ironically, would make it very hard to set up such a system in a way that would give it a chance of surviving a legal challenge. But we must continue to ask ourselves whether our access programmes are sufficiently combating educational disadvantage, and whether the resources made available for this purpose are really adequate.
Alongside the concern with socio-economic disadvantage, we also need to start looking now at how the new composition of the Irish population in terms of ethnic, racial and national backgrounds is being reflected within our higher education institutions. One lesson we must learn early is that racial tensions can mount quickly if there are ghettoised groups that don’t get access proportionately to certain careers or opportunities for advancement. Ultimately measures to address this will work best if they are introduced by the universities themselves, preferably in coordination. But the time to consider this is now.