Opening up the professions

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.

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4 Comments on “Opening up the professions”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The issue as I see it with the professional bodies is that they have two conflicting rolls, police and union.
    If you take Neary up in Dundalk, had the M.C. had only the roll of police then his case would certainly have been looked at with different eyes. That very few if any from outside investigate points up another problem, that numbers here are way to small to provide sufficient distance. While I think the intake from low-payed homes hasa deal to do with the time spent before any realistic pay is forthcoming. And you can see other companies playing the same cards with their two year ‘internships’. A word designed to disguise a system of bullying savagery imported from the States which amounts to slavery.


  2. In so far as the legal profession is concerned, the need for reform is particularly acute. As Vincent has said, some professional bodies have two conflicting roles “police and union”. In fact, the Law Society occuplies a variety of roles, acting as regulator, educator, union and (indirectly) insurer. There are strong arguments to the effect that it fulfils none of these roles well. Contrary to popular belief, I believe many (if not most) solicitors would welcome reform. If nothing else, the profession requires independent regulation for the sake of its reputation.

    With respect to broadening access to the profession, part of that problem will have to be addressed at third level, where the advent of “free fees” did not appreciably increase access. However, the true barrier to both branches of the legal profession is the affordability of pursuing qualification where little or no income is available during many years of training.

    At the very least, the Law Society should combine both PPC training courses into a single course and facilitate admissions to that course where the student does not yet have a training contract (as happens in the UK). This would help but, as on-the-job training is a requirement for qualification, the student still comes up against the necessity for an income (or other support) while completing that training.

  3. Conor Galvin Says:

    So would we rather have councils and regulation drawn from within the ranks of those who enter a profession – with, it should I think be said, an increasing level of awareness of and openness to ‘lay’ involvement in their processes – or should we go with what is increasingly punted as the obvious alternative; ‘public’, state endorsed, regulation regimes which are of course responsive to calls for openness, ethics and transparency?

    The kind of things that oversee our banks, the business world and very soon our universities, for example…

  4. Mark Dowling Says:

    You can graduate and accredit as many professionals as you like, but can you get them employment?


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