Students on 420 points are locked out of veterinary, teaching and nursing. How is that fair?

Published date24 January 2023
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
One cannot but be impressed by the high-mindedness of these aspirations. It is evident that in the darkest periods of the Ireland of the early 1970s, policymakers believed in the intrinsic merits of higher education as inherently enriching of culture and society

As things turned out, Ireland would have a very successful engagement with higher education in the decades following from the 1970s to the present. Most notable has been the growth in participation. From just above 20,000 students in 1974-1975 the numbers have grown to more than 200,000 – of which about 169,000 are undergraduates and 31,000 are postgraduate. Furthermore, 60 per cent of women and about 53 per cent of men aged 25-34 hold third-level qualifications while women account for about 55 per cent of new entrants to higher education, having accounted for just 45 per cent in the early 1980s.

There is, therefore, much that Ireland can be proud of in terms of its achievements in higher education over the past five decades. Participation has increased massively; Ireland has now one of the highest education attainment rates in the OECD; the universities are key players in the Irish research, development and innovation agenda and in the attractiveness of Ireland for FDI.

But the equality objective, foregrounded in the establishment of the HEA in 1972, remains elusive.

Notwithstanding the country's achievements in widening and increasing higher education participation, there is a stubborn persistence of intergenerational socioeconomic immobility in Ireland. Those born in the higher socioeconomic groups in the country tend, mainly through their attainment in education, to retain and consolidate their birth positions; those born into lower socioeconomic groups tend, also by virtue of their educational attainment, to remain in their birth positions. While the rising tide may lift all boats, it doesn't change the relative size of the boats.

To the extent that inherited status becomes redefined as achieved status – be it high or low – educational attainment becomes the legitimating mechanism both for the haves and the have nots – those who win believe they have done so on their own merit and those who don't, believe they have received their just deserts.

This is what the philosopher Michael Sandel refers to as the "tyranny of the meritocracy". This is the political doctrine that everyone is given the opportunity to be the best they can be – and having been given that opportunity, they must accept the...

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