Prendergast -v- Higher Education Authority & Ors, [2008] IEHC 257 (2008)

Docket Number:2007 7838 P
Party Name:Prendergast, Higher Education Authority & Ors
Judge:Charleton J.



JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Charleton delivered on the 30th day of July, 2008

  1. The plaintiff is a Dubliner of twenty years of age and wants to become a doctor. In the competitive system of entry into the five medical schools in Ireland, his performance, over two occasions, on points in the Leaving Certificate examination has left him short of what was required. Were he not a European citizen, meaning for the purposes of this case, a citizen of a Member State of the European Union or of the wider countries forming part of the European Economic Area, however, his examination performance would have been adequate to secure him a place. This is because the Government has reserved a fixed quota of places in medical school for European citizens. This is what the plaintiff was obliged to compete for. In addition, a service industry has been created in education whereby non-Europeans can compete for separate places in the medical schools, to which European citizens are denied entry. He claims this is unlawful.

    The Plaintiff's Account

  2. The plaintiff was born in Ireland, though his parents also worked abroad, and has lived in Ireland, in China and in Malaysia. He was partially brought up in these places. He attended Gonzaga College in Dublin from 2000 to 2006. After the Junior Certificate, there is a transition year before the Leaving Certificate studies begin. During that year, students relax and also do some work experience. The plaintiff shadowed a gastroenterologist in St. Vincent's Hospital for a week. He was so stimulated by the experience that he decided that his vocation was in medicine. The maximum number of points that can be achieved in the Leaving Certificate, on the basis of A1s in six subjects, is 600 points. Everyone who wants to go to university, or any other participating third level college in Ireland, makes an application for a place in the course of their choice through the Central Applications Office. This was founded in 1976 to process Leaving Certificate students from Ireland and all European citizen applicants. Forty-four institutions at third level are involved; see Central Applications Office, Board of Directors Report 2008 (Galway, Autumn 2008). A form is signed whereby an applicant agrees to be bound by the conditions attached to the system. The plaintiff signed this form. However, the plaintiff, like everybody else, had no choice but to sign. The conditions specify that he is only entitled to what he is offered.

  3. In 2006, the plaintiff achieved 490 points in his Leaving Certificate. This was not nearly enough to get into medicine as a European citizen. He then repeated his Leaving Certificate, through the Institute of Education in Leeson Street in Dublin, and in 2007 achieved a score of 550 points. To enter medicine, he needed certain minimum requirements which are set by the five medical schools; Trinity College Dublin, National University of Ireland, Galway, University College Cork, University College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. On both Leaving Certificate performances, he comfortably met those requirements. The competitive nature of applying for a course in medicine with a fixed intake meant that in 2007, he was again disappointed. He tried to get into two universities in the United Kingdom. There, four universities will accept Irish students. He did two interviews but was not accepted. He could have applied, but I understand he did not apply, to one of a number of universities in central Europe that offer medical degrees through English. A condition of studying there is that over two or three years, one will learn the language and become so proficient in Slovak or Magyar, or in the appropriate tongue, as to be able to pursue clinical training on patients in the latter years of the course. I was told in opening that there may be scores of Irish students pursuing this route into medicine; however no evidence as to numbers was offered.

  4. In his application to the Central Applications Office, the plaintiff's choices were, in order, medicine in any of the colleges, dentistry in Trinity College Dublin and then pharmacy. He achieved a place in pharmacy in Galway. At the time he gave evidence in this case, in July, 2008, he had completed his first year and had achieved a second class honours first division result. To become a pharmacist, he must study for three more years and then do a one-year practical registration course.

  5. While studying in the Institute of Education, the plaintiff got to know a number of non-European citizens. For the purposes of this judgment, and for entry into medical school, I will refer to them as foreign students. They had the same ambition as him to study medicine. One of them achieved 500 points. He secured a place in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland because he was from outside Europe. The plaintiff felt bitterly aggrieved by this realisation. Some foreign students apply for admission to medical school through the Central Applications Office, though many do not, relying instead on the international baccalaureate or on national results as interpreted by the medical schools. About 18% of our Irish and European students, who applied for medicine as a first preference, got in. I do not know the percentage success rate of foreign students.

  6. For competition in the places reserved for foreign students, as opposed to European citizens, in the five medical schools a lower threshold for entry is required. This still comfortably meets the minimum standard of results for eligibility to study medicine set by the medical schools and this threshold applies to every applicant. To be certain of a place in medicine in the five Irish medical schools, as I understand it, a European citizen student needs to achieve at least 570 points. In reality, all or almost all, these applicants are Irish. The figures in relation to foreign students are less clear. The plaintiff said that a non-European citizen needs only 450 points for the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. However, his acquaintance had achieved 500 points to gain entry. Professor Brendan Loftus of the National University of Ireland told the court that to study medicine in Galway the entry requirements for non-European citizens was currently at 500 points. In any event, it is considerably less.

  7. The plaintiff's family is well off. University fees were abolished in Ireland in 1995, though students still pay a registration fee. At no stage prior to 1995, were the fees paid by students in State-funded colleges, in respect of any course, anything close to the economic cost of their education; in medicine the fees covered a fraction of the cost. If a foreign student wishes to come and study here, however, he or she must pay fees at a level which exceeds the economic cost. The number of foreign students in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland now greatly exceeds 50%. In the other four medical schools, the foreign intake is somewhere around a third, but the contribution that they make to the budget of the medical schools is around 50% or more. The plaintiff thought: why shouldn't I apply as if I were a foreign student and agree to pay what they would pay? He wrote the following letter in August 2007:-"We act for Frank Prendergast… a student who obtained 550 points in his Leaving Certificate this year. Our client applied for a place in your undergraduate medicine degree course[. H]owever, he has not been offered a place.

    It has come to our attention that several non-EU students have been offered places in this course notwithstanding that they obtained fewer points than our client (either in the Leaving Certificate or other equivalent examination). We understand that these non-EU students are obliged to pay significant fees to attend this course and we confirm that our client is also prepared to pay these fees. Please confirm that you are prepared to offer our client a place on this course on the same basis as these non-EU students. If you are not prepared to offer him a place, please indicate why you are not prepared to do so.

    This matter is obviously extremely urgent from our client's point of view and therefore we should as[k] you to reply to this letter by Wednesday 29th August, 2007. If we do not hear from you we may issue legal proceedings without further notice to you and this letter will be used to fix you with the costs of same."8. The reply by Trinity College Dublin fairly sets out the scheme within which the five medical schools operate. It reads:-"I refer to your letter…There are two separate competitions - EU and non-EU - for entry to medicine in Trinity College. To be eligible for consideration for a place in medicine applicants must be EU nationals for the EU competition and non-EU nationals for the non-EU competition.

    Your client's results in the Leaving Certificate unfortunately are not competitive for an EU place in medicine, and as he is an EU, and not a non-EU national, he is not eligible for consideration for a non-EU place in medicine."9. The replies which the plaintiff received from the other medical schools are similar. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland replied by indicating that they were restricted by the Higher Education Authority to offer only 39 medical places to European school leavers and that candidates for these places were ranked according to academic merit and offers issued in accordance with this ranking until all the places were filled.

  8. In 2007, that same year, University College Dublin had a limit of 122 European citizen entrants into medicine, as set by the Higher Education Authority, and the National University of Ireland, Galway had 81 such places.

  9. The plaintiff then issued these proceedings. He claims that setting a quota...

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