So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?

Irish readers of this blog will be well familiar with the complaint – and it’s an entirely justified complaint – that the so-called ‘points system’ that attaches a value to the final school (Leaving Certificate) examination results has created a completely false ‘market’ in university entry to different courses. If you want to do medicine or law you have to achieve very high points. If you wan to study computing, you need far fewer points. So, the apparent judgement is you need to be much cleverer to be a lawyer than to be a computer programmer. Speaking as a lawyer, I can categorically say that this makes no sense.

But the problem is not unique to Ireland. A senior Scottish academic, Professor Alan Gilloran of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has now been reported as saying that ‘that society should reconsider how it views different professions’ and has called for a re-think of established hierarchies in terms of jobs. He has suggested, more specifically, that the high entry requirements for medical studies are not reasonable, because medicine ‘is plumbing, for God’s sake’.

Whether we would agree with this assessment of medicine or not, there is an important point in all of this. We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations. Right now we need more engineers, biotechnologists, computer programmers, mathematicians; and these are the careers into which we should be enticing the brightest and best of the younger generation.

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9 Comments on “So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Living in Ireland, I’m still amazed at how obsessed people are with points and medicine. So many young people steered towards a profession because of prestige rather than necessarily a ‘vocation’. The salaries for consultants combined with the social cachet seem to shape the public perception and the aspirations not only of parents but of school teachers. I wonder what impact moving medicine to graduate entry only might have.

    • bealoideas Says:

      “I wonder what impact moving medicine to graduate entry only might have.”

      hard to say but at the least. More debt-ridden and older doctors.

      “So many young people steered towards a profession because of prestige rather than necessarily a ‘vocation”

      The US relies on graduate only entry and medicine is still about prestige over there.


  2. The points requirement is determined, in part, by the number of places available. We need more doctors but entry is strictly controlled. This serves to ensure consultants can hold the government over a barrel when it comes to pay. There is an external element to this but a contract which accurately reflects the cost of training doctors might help to some degree. The point is that changing the social status is not enough; we need to change the economic status.

    More relevant however, is the that we have a points system at all. We should do away with it altogether and have third level colleges run SATs. This would remove the effect of the points system on learning at second level.

    • bealoideas Says:

      “More relevant however, is the that we have a points system at all. We should do away with it altogether and have third level colleges run SATs. This would remove the effect of the points system on learning at second level.”

      Introducing the SAT will only add another hoop to jump though. You can reduce the pay of medics and increase college places without touching the points system.

  3. Gordon Dent Says:

    Academic entry requirements for university courses have little or nothing to do with how academically able students need to be. It’s a simple case of supply & demand. For competitive courses like medicine, high A-level/IB/AH/ILC grade requirements are a form of demand management. The recent near-universal adoption of aptitude tests for entry to medicine & dentistry works in the same way.
    For medicine, there are about 25,000 people applying for about 7,000 places nationwide (and medical schools have absolutely no discretion to increase the number of students they take). Somehow, we have to get that number down to a number that we can realistically interview. We already get endless complaints, challenges and legal threats if we base any decision on anything that could possibly be described as “subjective” (e.g. a judgment of whether someone is suitable to be a doctor), so medical schools tend more an more towards using “objective” measures such as grade profiles and aptitude test scores. I’m sure we could recruit better students by being more flexible on grades and placing more emphasis on applicants’ ability to demonstrate commitment, motivation, empathy, caring, discretion, sensitivity, etc. but (a) there is a move among official bodies to discourage this at pre-interview stage (because it’s subject to coaching, as though A-level grades weren’t also subject to coaching) and (b) applicants, their parents, their schools and their MPs feel justified in challenging any decision made on this basis.

  4. no-name Says:

    “We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations.”

    Indeed. There are some who think that society would be improved if the standard salary scales currently associated with medical doctors and garbage collectors were swapped.

    If salary expectations associated with follow-on careers were different, then fewer would take up medicine. Professor Gilloran is generously euphemistic in relating medicine to plumbing in the quotation provided: it is hard to imagine that secondary school students relish the notion of conducting prostate examinations or other tests that require inspection of human orifices (and their standard and abnormal contents) when signing up to medical studies.

  5. Vincent Says:

    Until the POTUS puts in place an order to expand medical training of doctors to fit demand in the USA through the establishment of training hospitals under the auspices of the military the demand there will distort the market. For way too long we’ve viewed the professions as a body fundamental to the survival of the modern State, and to some extent they are. But there’s no reason to say we need the current expensive lot and certainly not as currently constituted.

  6. James Fryar Says:

    I’m afraid we can’t do anything about marketing. Why do students want to study medicine? Because TV is filled with glamorous US medical dramas. When CSI hit Ireland, we saw a sudden somewhat cynical ‘rebranding’ of analytical science courses to include the phrase ‘with forensic science’, and a sudden surge in numbers applying to study those courses. So the glamour of medicine/law/etc in Ireland is not simply due to the fact they have high points. Plus, universities are not exactly passive bystanders in it all – it hardly harms their ‘image’ when the media end up discussing the 600 point student off to study X subject in Y university. I certainly heard the phrase ‘prestige courses’ being floated around by academics. University marketing people like to promote their high-points courses in Ireland, even to the detriment of other courses struggling to attract students (hence having lower points).

    One solution to the issue would be to have a first year of general studies. So, for example, you would have a general ‘common entry strand’ like humanities or science or arts. Students apply to the strand, not to the course, and in their first year take a range of modules within that strand. A student wanting to study medicine would, for example, enter into the science strand, would have to choose a range of courses from a variety of fields. Whether you progress to study medicine would be based on assessments within that year on those courses related to medicine. Such a system would also highlight the students’ own interests and aptitudes which they may not have explored or realized when sitting within the secondary-level education system.

    These massive common-entry programmes would a) keep points down, b) would allow progression into a field of student of any student demonstrating an aptitude and c) allow the student to explore options they had not considered when filling in the CAO forms. It maintains the current ‘independent ‘points system, removes the snobbery associated with entry requirements and CAO cut-off points. The only real drawback to such a system would be the additional computational effort required in timetabling existing modules, but Moore’s Laws solves that one.

  7. no-name Says:

    “These massive common-entry programmes would a) keep points down,….”

    Keeping points down is a retarded goal (in the OED’s first sense for “retarded”).

    Clearly, it matters why the high points are awarded: excellence in English, other languages, chemistry, mathematics, and physics should be encouraged; “point inflation” from a host of other subjects should not.

    It makes no sense for a member of society to hope for secondary school students to fail to earn high points in foundational subjects.


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