Posted tagged ‘university access’

Higher education: is excellence the enemy of social mobility?

February 14, 2011

An interesting discusion has got under way in Scotland, promoted in part by The Herald newspaper. The issue is this: can excellence in higher education, of the kind that allows universities to compete with the best in the world, only be achieved at the expense of access for the disadvantaged? Or to put the question in another way, are quality and equality inherently incompatible?

What has prompted this discussion is the current recession and the impact it has had on higher education funding. As university budgets are cut and, as a result, not everything that institutions previously did is now affordable, what are the consequences? Taking the example of Glasgow University, the Herald reports that it is cutting a number of subject areas that may have particularly attracted the disadvantaged, while protecting and developing other areas that allow the university to compete with world leaders in research. The newspaper suggests that this throws up the following question for universities.

‘Is their primary function to be an agent of social justice and mobility, or do they need to concentrate on competing with Oxford and Cambridge and the US Ivy League universities in research and innovation?’

The newspaper also quotes the president of NUS Scotland, who puts the dilemma as follows.

‘I think we should be honest about our priorities. At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That’s not the purpose of universities now – it is about social mobility and people changing their lives.’

If there is a suggestion here that high quality or excellence is a luxury that may not be affordable and therefore should not be a priority  in difficult economic times, then this has other consequences. If a country cannot demonstrate that its universities offer programmes of teaching and research that can compete with the best in the world, it will not be an attractive location for investment, and even those companies that are locally based may look to graduates from elsewhere for the more demanding jobs.

If the participants in the higher education debate in Scotland and Ireland start to suggest that a high volume university sector with lower quality ambitions is an appropriate compromise during difficult times, and that funding or resourcing can properly reflect this, they have not understood how the world is going. It is a dangerous policy direction to suggest, and the price may be paid not just by universities but by the country as a whole. Higher education access should always remain a top priority; but maintaining it at the expense of excellence is making a dangerous and false choice. There really are no cheap options for a modern university system.

The postal code qualification

November 19, 2010

The President of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, has said on a number of occasions that the most reliable predictor of higher education performance for any person is available from the moment they are born: the zip code (US postal code). Where you are born and where your family lives will, more than anything else, affect the level of your educational ambitions, and will be decisive in determining whether you will go to university. The same is true in Ireland, and as politicians keep indicating that Ireland is to get postal codes shortly we will shortly be able to use these also to predict educational outcomes.

Yesterday the Irish Times published its list of university feeder schools, and this once again demonstrates that schools in affluent areas (often in South Dublin) send the largest number of students to the country’s universities. But beyond that, the Irish Times has produced a separate list that shows that private (fee-paying) schools dominate student entry to those programmes with the highest points and the greatest social cachet and income potential. These are the programmes that demonstrate more than anything else that free fees have not in any serious way affected the tendency of higher education to cement class divisions, and that they have not helped to end social disadvantage in higher education.

As a country, we are well aware of the educational inequality that we have been maintaining, but the only major measure we have taken to address it has actually had a disproportionate impact in supporting wealthier families and has done very little to combat disadvantage. We really should not go on like this.

Widening access

September 2, 2010

Some good news, for once: a report in yesterday’s Examiner newspaper  revealed that the number of third level applicants seeking to enter a university or college through pathways for the disabled and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds has risen significantly this year. If these applicants – 10,500 of them – secure admission in reasonable numbers it will represent a significant increase in these categories of students.

But it is also important to remember that these advances are possible on the whole not n]because the state has facilitated it, but because the institutions themselves have raised or set aside sums to provide the special support that these students need. It is my fear that as resources become tighter still we may find that the capacity for these special entry pathways will decline. That would have appalling consequences for both higher education and for our need to regenerate Ireland at this point. We must not return to the days when a social underclass was largely excluded from higher education.

University entrance quotas

September 7, 2009

The BBC carried a news item today on a dispute in Brazil about quotas set by the government under which persons from some ethnic backgrounds and from disadvantaged areas have protected access to higher education. Brazil, like a number of Latin American countries, has ethinic groups that are seriously under-represented in universities, and therefore in the higher paid professions that require university qualifications. To improve this situation, quotas have been set aside for such groups, but this has now been challenged in the courts.

There is a point here that is worth debating in Ireland also. As I have pointed out before, the composition of the third level student population in Ireland equally presents us with a serious issue, with evidence that the education system is at least in some measure tending to perpetuate certain social problems. While none of these issues can be solved overnight, addressing them in part through university access is a good idea. Whether this can be done successfully through a formal quota system is doubtful, as the equality provisions in the constitution, ironically, would make it very hard to set up such a system in a way that would give it a chance of surviving a legal challenge. But we must continue to ask ourselves whether our access programmes are sufficiently combating educational disadvantage, and whether the resources made available for this purpose are really adequate.

Alongside the concern with socio-economic disadvantage, we also need to start looking now at how the new composition of the Irish population in terms of ethnic, racial and national backgrounds is being reflected within our higher education institutions. One lesson we must learn early is that racial tensions can mount quickly if there are ghettoised groups that don’t get access proportionately to certain careers or opportunities for advancement. Ultimately measures to address this will work best if they are introduced by the universities themselves, preferably in coordination. But the time to consider this is now.

Universities, disadvantage and postal codes

February 8, 2009

Last week the Guardian newspaper had an interesting article about the postcode profile of university entrants. It found, probably to nobody’s great surprise, that people living in certain postal districts are overwhelmingly more likely to go to university than those in others. We know that is true in Ireland as well: Dublin 4 has a close to 100 per cent participation rate in higher education, and Dublin 9 (which includes DCU) has a figure well below 20 per cent (with some areas within it less than 5 per cent). In the Guardian article, a working class mother from Bristol is quoted as saying:

“Most of the kids round here can’t be bothered. They’re in groups and would rather nick cars. It could be that the universities just aren’t picking them because of the way they dress and act. They don’t completely finish their words. Universities don’t like common people, do they?”

The Guardian found one other interesting feature: that children from Asian families were much more likely to go to university than those from white working class families. At a time of economic stress and a much more ethnically mixed population, that sort of profile can have an impact on racism and xenophobia.

Educational disadvantage is perhaps the greatest social cancer of any society. It installs itself within a depressing vicious cycle of deprivation, ignorance and prejudice, fuelling a whole array of social problems that quickly get out of hand. A society that ignores this is a society on skids. In Ireland we have shown some awareness of the issue, but only a very limited determination to solve it. Free fees, seen by some as part of the solution, have probably exacerbated the problem. In any case, programmes targeted specifically at alleviating disadvantage have been under-funded and neglected.

It’s time to get serious about this, and to tackle educational disadvantage head-on.

More on tuition fees…

July 9, 2008

On Monday morning of this week I was interviewed on RTE’s Morning Ireland on the topics of access to universities of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and tuition fees. In fact these topics are closely related. I believe that one of the reasons why as a country we neglect the support of less well-off students is because we spend too much money paying for the wealthy. That would not matter – in theory at least – if we had so much money that we could pay for the rich and still have lots of money to support those with modest resources. 

If we were a developing country whose universities were needed to provide a basic up-skilling of a poorly educated population, universal free access would make good sense. But we are a country that needs to persuade the world – and international investors in particular – that Ireland is a centre of expert skills and has the high value research needed for a knowledge society. That is expensive, and more expensive than can effectively be resourced by the taxpayer alone. All these ambitions become even more important during difficult economic times, and so now is the time for some courageous decisions. I hope that our politicians will give the lead, so that we can be international leaders, and also give proper support to the disadvantaged at the same time.