Young visitors

Right now, over this extended Easter weekend, there’s not a huge amount going on in my university. I live on the campus, and as I walked across it earlier today it was eerily quiet, as staff and students are taking a break. But then as I turned a corner I ran into a little group of boys, mostly in the age group of 8 to 12 I think. I won’t say what they were doing, except maybe to point out that they weren’t up to much good. I walked up to them, intending to suggest that they move on. However, one of them asked me what I did here, and I so I humoured them and told them a little about the university and my role in it. I explained the teaching that we did, and some of the research – and the idea that people worked here who might be contributing to the eradication of some diseases or writing computer programs seemed to intrigue them.

It became quite a lively discussion, and from this it emerged that this group of young people had two key questions for us: they did not describe them this way, but the two questions were in essence about entrepreneurship and ethics. They wanted to know whether our programmes of study would make it easier for graduates to start businesses and become wealthy; and what would happen if our research was ‘dangerous’ or ‘bad’. In fact, the visitors were asking the questions that others are also asking, about the role of universities in supporting economic effort and about combining our work with a strong assessment of the ethical dimension of what we do.

It was however extraordinary that, while these young people were in possession of intelligent insights into university issues, not one of them (when I asked) thought they would ever have the opportunity to study in one. They all came from a disadvantaged area not far from the university, and while they were happy to mess around on the campus now, they did not believe there was any prospect for them that would allow them to become students here (or in any other higher education institution) later.

We are still failing the young people from these backgrounds. Not only have we as a society not provided the resources to make a university education a realistic prospect for them, we haven’t even managed to make them feel that they should at least aim for this outcome. Yet here was a group of young people who, from their questions and comments, immediately convinced me that they would have every chance of excelling here. I chatted with them for another while, and told them this was their university as well as mine, and gave them some suggestions as to how they could get the support needed to come here one day as students. I don’t know if it will happen.

Ireland is, as we know, standing on the edge of the economic precipice. In some ways I think that if we fall over the edge it will not just be because of our over-spending, or falling productivity, or inadequate revenue (bad though all these are): it will also be our reluctance to ensure that everyone has a decent opportunity to get a good education and a genuine stake in whatever prosperity we may yet recover. Under the guise of equality in education we have in fact grossly neglected some of the most disadvantaged in a system that is still heavily geared to the tastes of the middle classes. Unless we harness the creative potential of all the population we are in peril.

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11 Comments on “Young visitors”

  1. Iain Says:

    As someone from a ‘disadvantaged’ background in Glasgow but who
    ultimately did go on to university, your little anecdote reminds me that in
    my own experience it was never the universities that blocked any ambition
    or aspirations ( after all you spoke to the kids!) but rather most of the schoolteachers we had in secondary who only seemed to have time for the kids from the wealthy areas and whose cynicism and sarcasm must have detered so many from going on to HE. Partly
    I guess that’s why I’ve rarely subscribed to the school of thought that criticises
    universities exclusively for elitism and class bias.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    Dr von P – what kind of outreach does DCU do in its catchment? I remember UL being involved in some outreach in Southill and Moyross when I was there in the 90s, and presumably they still do.


    • Yes, we have lots of outreach programmes. DCU started Ireland’s first access programme in the 1980s, at that time focused mainly on Ballymun. By now the programme is nation-wide. We also have a ‘DCU in the Community’ office in Ballymun. I agree that outreach is something that all universities now need to do.

  3. Nicola Gillard Says:

    Ferdinand,

    I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and just wanted to say that this was a wonderfully written piece. Personally I think that Universities do a lot to encourage students from all backgrounds to join and learn – the issue I think is getting to these kids when they are still young enough to believe that they can achieve something like going to University. So many young people by the time they get to secondary school have already formulated their views on what ‘someone like them’ will be able to achieve and it can then be too late unless they get a teacher who believes in them and pushes them forwards. If they have the desire and the belief then the opportunities are there for them to take.


  4. I might also suggest that schools and colleges can only do so much. A large proportion of the responsibility lies with parents to encourage their kids to achieve and provide them with an environment where they can do so. I am from Ballymun. My parents were raised there, neither of which received a decent education. Both worked since they were young and were determined to provide me with the education they never had. I was always told I could achieve whatever I wanted. For this reason I was able to attend DCU and achieve a BSc in Computing, an MSc by Research in Computing and I am currently pursuing a PhD in Computing. Parents should be supported and urged to provide lives for their kids that they never had in an effort to stem the tide of a lack of education and the prevalence of anti social behavior. Otherwise disadvantaged areas will remain so for a long time to come.

  5. etoille Says:

    i’m a final year DCU student and i live in a somewhat ‘disadvantaged’ area not too far from DCU. i’m also the 1st person in my family to go onto 3rd Level. my old secondary school is in fact linked to the DCU Access scheme.

    However, the vast majority of students weren’t even told about the Access scheme at all. only a handful of students, including me, received any guidance counselling in the school.

    With regard to the Access scheme, i was simply told by the teachers at the school, that it’s just a way of getting into college for less points. The points for my chosen course, Common Entry Science, weren’t even that high to begin with, so I just wasn’t bothered filling in the form.

    Nothing was ever said to me about financial scholarships, which are also provided to Access students. This is something I really could have used during my 5 years in DCU.

    None of the teachers even offered to help me fill in the form. there are several international students in that school now. This makes me wonder how many other bright and intelligent students are being denied the chance to go to uni, simply because of their ignorant teachers.

    I don’t think I’ve seen that many students from my old secondary school around DCU. I did my Leaving 5 years ago. Of course, I do Biotechnology, so I wouldn’t expect to see anyone from my old school in the Science building, especially since we didn’t have a proper Science lab. It’s a real pity things haven’t really changed at all, since my day.

  6. Stephen Says:

    Hello,

    I was one of those ‘working class’ kids, in 1984.
    I never dreamed those places were for the like of me.

    After 20 years trying to make a living without qualifications, (stop/start jobs, last in/ first out) and in and out through the revolving door of the dole office, I decided to stop digging and get qualified.

    That was 2000 and after 5 years I was unemployed, again, and a new father when the offer of a place in University finally came through my letterbox.
    I had spent the five years preparing for this opportunity, taking night courses in computers and return to learning programs, and here was my chance.

    With a new baby boy to provide for I was in a bind, should I/could I take this chance?
    I was told by a very experienced educator that the only way to ensure my son had a third-level education, was to have one myself.
    I resolved to take the the offer.
    A degree before I was 40 was the goal.

    I started in September 2005. I qualified for the education grant (€3,420, €65per week) as I had earned just under €10,000 (€200 per week) in the previous year.

    I was unemployed when taking up the course but not for the full year as required to qualify for social welfare (Back to Education Allowance).
    I knew it would be a struggle, and I would have to borrow, but the alternative; to spend a year on the dole to qualify, just did not -sit- with me.

    Here was my chance, I had to take it.

    It was after a month in college I heard about the Special Rate of Maintenance Grant (Top-Up Grant), I phoned to inquire, believing it was for people like me who missed out on the dole in college (BTEA).
    I was asked if I was receiving BTEA, I said unfortunately not. I was then told that I could only get the top-up if I was getting the BTEA.
    This sounded crazy to me but it turns out to be true, the social welfare will only help you if they are helping you.

    They would give me an extra €3,420 if they were giving me €10,000 BTEA! This is not including the €5,000 per year rent allowance of the cost of education grant €500 per year, an the ordinary grant too!

    I sat down and added it up. Because I had worked in 2004, even though the wages were not great and it was only temporary (painting an office block), I had lost out on €85,000 over the four years of my degree and postgraduate course.

    The government would have paid me more (€20,000 dole) in 2004 than I had earned working. I would have qualified for Back To Education Allowance (dole) €20,000 per year for four years, that makes a €100,000 government scholarship and the only thing you must not do if you want to qualify is work.

    If I had of went to prison for that time I would have qualified, prison time is counted toward BTEA.

    If you work (not get a job) work, you break your ‘service’.

    I graduated in 2008 with an honors degree, two weeks before my 40th birthday. My son was there to share my proudest day.

    I borrowed €5,000 per year (€100 per week), to pay the rent and two €15 bags from ALDI each week. My grant, €65 per week, went to my sons child support. I am now hoping to finish the postgraduate course this coming August 2009.

    My fear is now, I cannot borrow any more.
    I owe nearly €30 thousand to the bank (€5,000x4yrs=€20,000+ interest@9%=€27,790). The last grant cheque was before Easter. I face the risk of jail because I cannot continue to pay child support.

    My sin was to take up the offer of a few months work to get me over the winter in 2004.

    Please tell anyone who has lost their job and see education as a way forward;

    Whatever you do, do not work.

    Stephen

    PS. Studying part-time was not an option because the fees €6,500 are impossible when you earn €200 per week.

    The system penalizes those ‘working class’ who have the cheek to work.

    Its cynical to say but, from my experience, the smart economy is the social welfare economy.

  7. Quovadis Says:

    Sorry to hear your story Stephen, you’re right the smart economy is the social welfare economy. I hate telling clients they have to be unemployed for 2 years to qualify for most educational supports.
    Coming from a disadvantaged area, did anybody mention that a FAS officer can recommend you for the BTEA in certain circumstances which bypasses the 2 year rule?
    If you were not informed of this and are eligible and have documentary evidence of your attempts to obtain information, it might be worth the long shot of putting in a complaint to the ombundsman?
    You might get some kind of a financial award.

  8. HeraldAm Says:

    Hi,

    I just read this piece on the Irish Times site.
    Fascinating insight – i wonder is there anything more the universities themselves can do?

  9. Laura Says:

    I was encouraged and even pushed by my parents and teachers to achieve and there was never a question but that I would go to university. I now live in a disadvantaged area of Dublin. Recently I offered to give grinds to my next door neighbour who was in transition year at the time. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about – the concept of grinds was completely new to him. Regular extra tuition is just not available to him or anyone he knows. He a capable guy who could do anything he wants with his life but he isn’t even aware of the opportunities that better off students take for granted. If he did aspire to a third level education financial constraints would come into play, but without the aspiration what chance has he got?

    I live in the south inner city, with NCAD on my doorstep, 10 minutes walk from Trinity College and 5 minutes from 2 DIT colleges. I’m sure that they all have outreach programmes and they may bring in a handful of the best disadvantaged students in Dublin to each institution every year. But tens of thousand of middle class students who aren’t the highest achievers in their communities get an excellent third level education in this country every year. While I realise that the middle classes traditionally value third-level education I can’t believe that every middle class parent gives their children masses of encouragement and the best possible home environment. Do middle class schools have higher expectations of their students? Couldn’t schools do more to make sure that all children from disadvantaged areas (not just the very brightest individuals) are made aware of their potential? I wonder what the role is for community based organisations?


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