Posted tagged ‘professions’

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

March 17, 2015

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.


Opening up the professions

May 16, 2010

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.

Higher education and class

August 26, 2009

In a quick follow-up to the post on this blog of last night, the Higher Education Authority has released figures that show the extent to which in Ireland the children of so-called ‘higher professionals’ (mainly doctors and lawyers) are hugely over-represented in the student body in degree programmes that lead to professional qualification. ‘Higher professionals’ make up 3 per cent of the population, but their children account for 33 per cent of medical students and 23 per cent of law students.

Leaving aside for a moment the discussion about professions and training for professional qualifications, what this shows us is that higher education continues to entrench class divides rather than overcome them. This is remarkable after  more than a decade of ‘free fees’, and underscores the point made previously that the abolition of fees may actually have harmed equality rather than enhanced it, as the state was unable to provide proper resources and support for disadvantaged students in part because it was spending too much money on free fees for the middle classes.

But whether I am right or wrong in my analysis, it is unacceptable that the system of higher education should be reinforcing privilege and wealth. A tertiary sector that is not manifestly offering opportunities regardless of class and background is not doing its job in a modern society.  This should be a priority concern for us all as we look again at our strategy for higher education.

Professional qualifications and postgraduate degrees

August 25, 2009

In a previous post I questioned our national attitude towards the professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so forth), and asked whether we were training too many people for these careers, and whether we were getting our priorities wrong when we were valuing them (at university entry level) above the actual ‘productive’ professions of engineers, managers, scientists and so forth. As I have also mentioned, these latter careers can be pursued through university programmes that require much lower points than those needed to become, say, a lawyer.

Maybe we should look again at whether professional qualifications should be available at all through, or with the help of, undergraduate degrees. In other words, it may be that we should have law, accountancy, architecture and similar degree programmes only at postgraduate level, and that anyone wanting to pursue the relevant degrees would need to do an undergraduate degree first in a different discipline. This has been a topic of discussion in relation to medical education and training, but it may be right to look at the whole framework of training for the professions and to consider a change of this kind.

Moving professional training to postgraduate programmes would have a number of potential advantages: it would probably reduce the numbers somewhat (except in medicine); it would be pedagogically more desirable, as it would allow undergraduate education to focus more on general intellectual topics; it would avoid excessive interference by professional bodies in undergraduate university education; and so forth.

There are also arguments the other way, to do with cost principally. But it would be worth a more vigourous debate.

Re-assessing the professions

May 30, 2009

As many readers of this blog will know, I am a lawyer by training. Many years ago when I began life as a student I believed I would go on to be a solicitor. About a year into my studies I decided I would be a barrister instead, and so I embarked upon the necessary activities in the King’s Inns (the professional body for barristers in Ireland) – those ‘necessary activities’ consisting principally of sitting exams and eating dinners (you had a take part in a minimum number of dinners per year, with pretty terrible food). Well, life never goes the way we expect, and by the time I had finished I knew I wanted to be an academic. And of course in some ways I have left that profession also, but not quite – I am just now writing a new academic monograph.

As a lawyer of one sort or another, I became one of that great army of respectable people: a member of the professions. For decades all over Ireland, ambitious parents were anxious that their children would become lawyers, accountants, architects, surveyors, doctors or vets. These were the career choices that would secure a social rank, lots of income, independence and sophistication. This was the life to aspire to. And for decades the CAO points have reflected that, attaching a premium to programmes of study that opened up the gates to these careers. By contrast, you could launch yourself on a trajectory towards being an engineer, a research chemist, even a senior manager in industry on the back of much lower points; these latter career choices often seemed insecure and poorly paid to the same ambitious parents.

The problem is that a country that provides itself with too many people in the professions has to pay a high price. If the most desirable careers are in such areas as law and accounting, then the work that creates the wealth that will pay for all these professionals will have to be done by people who either had lower academic attainments or who were willing to swim against the tide of popular fashion. In Ireland we are only now beginning to take seriously the significance of having an entrepreneurial culture, and more importantly, the need to have actual entrepreneurs to start up businesses or improve them or make them world class. But the effectiveness of any entrepreneurial culture can be seriously undermined by excessive litigiousness (a product of too many lawyers), over-complicated accounting and auditing (too many accountants), problems in the planning processes (too many architects), and so forth. Too many people in a profession leads to that profession aggressively selling the importance of its services, which are then typically directed towards slowing down or impeding the actual business of doing things. On top of that, the professions are notoriously incestuous, and every new generation of professionals tends to spawn another one following in its footsteps; a very significant proportion of students studying a professional degree are the children of parents at least one of whom was also in the same profession.

Of course I am caricaturing a little, and members of the professions are needed to make the wheels of the economy and society turn. But not when there are too many. And not when we tell our young people that those who provide legal and financial and other advice are more important to society than those whom they are advising and who are getting on and doing things. We have our priorities wrong.

It is time for us to think again about what the professions are. They are not there in order to be the pinnacle of the social pyramid. They are not there as an end in itself. They are there to provide a service, in other words to support those whose activities are the primary drivers of progress and prosperity. They are important, but their importance is secondary. A country that does not grasp this will find it hard to recover and maintain a vibrant economy and a prosperous and fair society.