On the road to something less inclusive

In the higher education system of this country, we are still talking the talk of inclusiveness and diversity, but in fact we are retreating from that position and walking the walk of a return to elitism.

OK, maybe I am overstating the case a little, but it is time to sound an alarm. Why? According to the most recent available statistics, the proportion of university students in this country who come from a disadvantaged background is now declining. For a number of years there has been an annual increase in these numbers, but that now appears to have come to a halt. In the HEA’s annual analysis of the backgrounds of students, the percentage of students from the groups ’employer and manager’ and ‘higher professional’ have risen, while the proportion of those classified as ‘lower professional’, ‘non-manual’, ‘skilled manual’ and ‘semi-skilled’ have fallen. The figures for ‘unskilled’ have stayed the same, but at 4.1 per cent it’s not significant anyway.

In fairness, the shift is not large for now, but the reversal of the trend is still alarming. But more importantly, it is very likely that this trend will continue and accelerate. It is a well established fact that the capacity of a higher education sector to provide for the socio-economically disadvantaged depends on a reasonable level of funding and income, and as this drops the very expensive supports for those whose families have no traditional link with universities are quickly compromised. In Ireland we have exacerbated this problem voluntarily by deciding to focus the declining resources for higher education on the more affluent classes, courtesy of the well meant but ill judged ‘free fees’ scheme.

Running a university system that takes its students largely from the more affluent classes is much less complicated and troublesome than being inclusive. But it is immoral. I fear that as a country we are abandoning our inclusiveness agenda by stealth, and if we do so we will pay a price for it in due course.

What we are doing is not good enough.

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12 Comments on “On the road to something less inclusive”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    First lets congratulate the HEA on putting out such a well done report, basic data like this is essential for informed discussion and in the past has been hard to get.
    Secondly, those numbers for low SES students are alarming in that they are low and heading, if anywhere, in the wrong direction. However those %’s are shares of the student population so you would need to know what the share of that group is in the overall population to make better sense of them i.e. if 4% of the population were unskilled then 4% of the students coming from that group would be ok. Of course they are not.
    It shouldn’t be too difficult to get an estimate of those numbers. The last HEA report on “Who goes to college” published in 2006 written by an ESRI team led by Phil O’Connell does this.

    • Kevin, I agree that the making available of data in these matters is to be commended. It is one of the reasons, I believe, why the HEA continues to play an important role. That kind of attention to detail would probably be lost if it were folded into the DES.

  2. Jilly Says:

    This week’s discussion of bonus points for higher level mathematics is relevant here too. Its introduction would make access to college even more unbalanced according to socioeconomic background. There are a number of reasons for this, but the starkest is that more than 15% of secondary schools in Ireland do not offer higher level maths to their students – and it goes without saying that none of them are fee-paying schools, or ones in solidly middle-class areas.

  3. The debate about having those who can afford it, pay university fees has been blighted by too simple an understanding of what it means “to afford”. Before the abolition of fees many families found the money to pay but they certainly could not afford it. (I posted a longer piece on my blog quite some time ago.)

  4. Kevin,
    I’m sorry if it was unclear. I was trying to be brief. (All is explained – I hope – over on my blog.) My point is that many families managed to get the money together to pay fees but they could hardly be described as being able to afford fees. They had lean years while their kids were at college and perhaps for years after. They are never mentioned as debate concentrates on the poor and on the rich.

    • Colum, I don’t agree that these are never mentioned. In previous posts in thios blog I have often referred to the need to support middle-income earners, and this was also a focus of the O’Keeffe proposals that didn’t make it into actual policy.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Hugh,ok..it seems a strange definition of affordability to me! So you are saying it was tough for some people, probably the people just above the grants threshhold. Well maybe, but given the huge benefit to being a graduate (a multiple of the cost) the fact that they paid suggests that there is not a major problem. They made the right decision and would have reaped the benefits.
      As for the debate, actually this group do get a mention as if anyone was to benefit from the abolition of fees it would be them. A sensible way of helping this group, to the extent that fees were a problem, would simply have been to adjust the threshold for the Higher Education grant.

  5. Kevin,
    Don’t worry about the name. Were this not someone else’s blog, I’d tell you about my chance of 15 minutes of media fame and being captioned as “Conor McCarthy”! Sic transit …

    Yes, it would have been better had I said “seldom mentioned” and made it clear that I was talking about the debate generally and not your contribution to it.

    I recall a relatively well-paid friend who for a period had three kids and his partner at college. That family took years to repay the loans occasioned by fees. Ok, that’s an extreme case but one or two at college could make life that bit too difficult.

    Now, if fees were reintroduced for those above some income level, that level would need to be quite low to bring in significant income. (E.g. I have the data for numbers of public servants on different incomes and without checking I can tell you that there are few above, say, 100K.) I accept of course that the problem could be addressed by way of grants but a similar argument applies in relation to total cost and threshholds.

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