Revisiting university access
Whatever country you are in, and whatever higher education system you are reviewing (unless you’ve found an obscure one I am not familiar with), there are serious issues regarding the extent to which the student body reflects in any real sense the population of the country from which it is drawn. Notwithstanding serious efforts to widen access and remove obstacles, in every system the participation of students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups is not satisfactory. While over the past half century or so middle income groups have gone to universities in much greater numbers, the same is on the whole not true of those from poorer backgrounds. Moreover, this pattern appears to apply regardless of the existence or otherwise of tuition fees. Indeed, it is possible that access for these groups in society has been determined more by the arrangements made by individual universities than by whatever is put in place by the state; though it is probably also true that more targeted financial support for the disadvantaged by the state would have a positive effect.
In this setting, it is interesting to read in the Irish Times that the Provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin plans to look at new ways to ‘increase admissions of poorer students’. Suggesting that the CAO points system (under which Irish students are admitted to higher education institutions on the basis of a points score determined by the final school examination results) may need to be reviewed, Paddy Prendergast suggests that Ireland might use a scheme pioneered in Texas; applying this to Ireland or TCD, Professor Prendergast wonders whether there should be a rule under which ‘the top 5 per cent in all state schools gained automatic access to the leading university’. In fact, the rule in Texas applies to 10 (not 5) per cent, and we’ll gloss over the comment about a ‘leading university’. But could this idea work?
Probably not, if he is suggesting a specific scheme for Trinity College. I haven’t worked out the statistics, but if the top 5 of every state school were to be given automatic access to TCD, and assuming they all wanted to go, it would more or less remove all discretion from the College as to whom to admit. Furthermore, it would create serious confusion in the rest of the higher education system, and probably a high level of hostility between TCD and the others. But even if he is suggesting a sector-wide rule that doesn’t just apply to TCD, it is not immediately obvious that it would work. How would the allocation of students from these groups be decided as between the 40 or so Irish higher education institutions?
I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously, has done more to undermine Irish higher education than almost anything else. I am also strongly of the view that access for the disadvantaged needs to be addressed much more seriously. But the two are not particularly connected. The reason for the unsatisfactory participation rate by poorer students is not a result of university selection practices, but of various social and economic factors, including low expectations, bad advice, inadequate personal and family resources, and so forth. These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Some of Paddy Prendergast’s other comments are interesting and show a willingness to address problem areas in higher education. It is also good that he understands that the route by which students enter higher education is not satisfactory. But on the specifics of access for the disadvantaged, he may want to reflect a little more on what he has proposed here.