It’s not hard to guess where the blame will fall for yesterday’s figures showing that, overwhelmingly, the wealthiest young people still dominate the most elite college places. As I remarked to Niamh when we were doling out the stories for today, “wealth finds a way”:
Students from the wealthiest families continue to retain a firm grip on college entry as well as places on elite degree courses.
In one glaring example, students from affluent areas fill 35pc of places in medicine, compared with the 4pc of enrolments from disadvantaged areas.
The postcode lottery around who goes to college and to what course is highlighted in data based on 180,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students in the 2018/19 year.
On average, for every 10 students from the most affluent areas, there are only five from the most disadvantaged – a ratio of two to one….
…Key findings include that Trinity College Dublin has the highest proportion of well-off students, with more than one in three – 36pc – coming from the wealthiest communities.
It is marginally ahead of University College Dublin (UCD) and the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI), with 35pc and 33pc of students, respectively, from the most affluent areas.
Trinity, UCD and the RCSI also have the lowest proportion (5pc) of students from disadvantaged areas.
The obvious reaction most commentators will have to this news is that it’s all about money. If you have it, then living in Dublin is more realistic. The “free” education that’s provided to third level students is eminently more accessible if you can attend UCD or Trinity while living at home with Mammy and Daddy in Rathgar. If you’re coming to Dublin from Leitrim or Mayo, meanwhile, your costs are immediately vastly higher, and it’s likely that your parents income isn’t on the same level as it is if your parents can afford to live in Donnybrook.
But is that the whole picture, and are we ignoring cultural factors? Speaking personally, three people – me and two others – from my leaving cert year, all of twenty years ago, ended up in Trinity, and another six or eight in UCD, out of 150 students. It’s no insult to any of them to say that we weren’t necessarily the smartest ten or twelve students in our year. It’s more accurate to say we were the ones to put those courses high up on our applications.
It might be more instructive, in fact, not to study who gains access to these courses, but to study who applies for them in the first place. People tend to move in herds. If you come from a community where most of the people in your leaving cert class are applying for a course in the local institute of technology, then you are more likely to apply there yourself.
What’s more, the perception of different careers is likely to vary according to social class. Nursing and teaching are fine and noble professions, but probably more likely to be seen as “good jobs” for people coming from a lower middle class, or working class background. And you don’t have to go to a top college to qualify in those roles.
What’s more, there’s an under-appreciated attractiveness to staying at, or near, home. Being a wealthy south Dubliner, for example, means that it doesn’t just cost you less financially to attend university – it also costs you less socially. If you’ve just spent six years building up a network of close friends in your secondary school, the prospect of losing them all to start again in DCU, or UCC, might be daunting. If you’re a Gonzaga pupil, or you went to Blackrock or Holy Child, it’s likely that you don’t face that problem when you go to university, since nearly all your friends are going too.
So is the solution to this problem really financial? And to what extent, come to think of it, is it a problem at all?
If you did want to solve it, the logical thing to do would be to re-introduce some form of fee-paying for richer students, and use that funding to make maintenance grants actually worthwhile for the less well off. Reserve campus accommodation for those eligible for those grants, and reduce its cost.
But we also need to recognise that for many people, these “elite” courses in our “elite” universities just don’t hold that much attraction. It might make us uncomfortable to consider that people might be happier in Letterkenny or Dundalk or Carlow IT, studying close to home, with the people they grew up around. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
And the numbers who end up in these courses only tell us half the story. Show us who actually applies, and maybe we can have a more honest conversation.