Whether one might agree with him or not, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, has encouraged public debate on third level issues by raising a number of issues in the media, and indeed in this blog. His most recent contribution, reported in the Irish Examiner newspaper, raised the question of diversity within the professions. His point was that some of the key professions – he listed law, medicine, veterinary medicine and pharmacy – were in effect a ‘closed shop’ with access restricted by a single professional organisation.
Furthermore, he suggested that it was difficult for people from ‘outside high-earning families’ or ‘from lower socio-economic backgrounds’ to enter the professions and succeed in them. A significant proportion of those entering these professions come from families where the parents were also in one of the professions, whereas only a very small minority come from the ‘lowest paid social categories’.
It seems to me that in this context we need to re-assess the role of the major professional associations. Generally such associations are private bodies, but they exercise what are essentially public functions, not least in that they determine who can and who cannot enter a profession: they can grant, withhold and remove a person’s livelihood. Furthermore, entry restrictions put in place by professional associations create distortions in demand for the relevant university programmes, thereby raising the points levels artificially.
Tom Boland is, in my view, right in calling on professional bodies to consider how there can be greater diversity in their memberships. But perhaps we ought to go further: we should look again at the whole concept of a private association, with monopoly control over a particular profession, regulating access to that profession. I would suggest that this is no longer an acceptable way of managing entry. Furthermore, the universities and other colleges (which in practice have to deliver programmes geared to the requirements of these bodies) should be given a more autonomous role in vocational education for these professions, which in turn should perhaps largely be done at postgraduate level.
It’s time for change.