The cost of an ed­u­ca­tional leg-up: ¤3,200 a year in grinds

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - David McWil­liams

Lately, have you no­ticed an up­surge in busi­ness cards with peo­ple’s aca­demic ac­com­plish­ments em­bla­zoned on them? It is not un­com­mon to come away from a con­fer­ence with busi­ness cards ex­claim­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ments, even though these aca­demic ex­ploits have noth­ing to do with the job the hy­per-qual­i­fied in­di­vid­ual is ac­tu­ally do­ing.

The busi­ness card is, in re­al­ity, a so­cial sig­naller. So rather than the card telling you that you have just met some bloke called Mick Mur­phy, giv­ing you the email and mo­bile of this sales­man who might give you a deal on your of­fice’s cloud com­put­ing pack­age, his busi­ness card bel­lows that you have just met some­one called: Michael S Mur­phy jnr BA, BSc, ACA, FRM, CPA (NUI).

Quite what all these let­ters and ti­tles – an­nounced as if the owner were an in­bred duke ar­riv­ing at a royal wed­ding – mean is be­yond me. Only a tiny per­cent­age of peo­ple work in a field that has any re­mote con­nec­tion to what they stud­ied in univer­sity, ren­der­ing most of the let­ters after their name su­per­flu­ous from any prac­ti­cal point of view.

But maybe this too is the point. Are Ir­ish peo­ple more in­vested in the sta­tus that ed­u­ca­tion and the univer­sity con­veys than the ed­u­ca­tion and the aca­demic sub­ject it­self?

These thoughts struck me the other night as I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traf­fic at about 8pm – usu­ally late enough to be able to drive around south Dublin rel­a­tively un­hin­dered. It turns out the tail­back of Audis, Volvos and beemers in Stil­lor­gan was due to par­ents col­lect­ing pupils com­ing out of the Dublin School of Grinds.

Ed­u­ca­tion arms race

The grind school is now a sta­ple of the mid­dle-class Ir­ish ed­u­ca­tion arms race, as par­ents strive to get their chil­dren not just into univer­sity, but into the “best” uni­ver­si­ties.

Some­thing odd is hap­pen­ing to com­pe­ti­tion for third-level ed­u­ca­tion in Ire­land. De­spite the fact that the num­ber of univer­sity places has never been higher, the com­pe­ti­tion has never been more in­tense. This seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive. Pre­vi­ously, com­pe­ti­tion for univer­sity was in­tense pre­cisely be­cause there were too few places. You would ex­pect that as uni­ver­si­ties and tech­ni­cal col­leges ex­panded, com­pe­ti­tion for places would re­lax. But the op­po­site has hap­pened – de­spite num­bers sit­ting the Leav­ing Cert not hav­ing risen dra­mat­i­cally. What’s go­ing on? Ire­land has a seen a dra­matic rise in the pro­por­tion of its work­force with a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion since 2000, ris­ing from 21 per cent to more than 45 per cent in 2017. There has been a si­mul­ta­ne­ous de­cline in the pro­por­tion of those without a Leav­ing Cert.

We have seen a huge ed­u­ca­tional up­lift, and third-level qual­i­fi­ca­tions have also had a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive im­pact on wages and in­come. Today, those with a third-level de­gree earn on aver­age 56 per cent more than those with only sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion.

So if the aver­age col­lege grad­u­ate is do­ing much bet­ter than those with no col­lege parch­ment, and if we now have loads more places than be­fore, why the neu­ro­sis of the grind schools?

Could it be that, be­cause uni­ver­si­ties have ex­panded ca­pac­ity, the sta­tus of the gen­eral univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion has fallen, but the sta­tus of the spe­cific univer­sity in­sti­tu­tion has risen? As univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion has be­come more avail­able, the “dis­cern­ing” class look for ways to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the hoi pol­loi. The sta­tus of the pres­tige col­leges has gone up pre­cisely be­cause of the ar­rival of newer ones. In hi­er­ar­chies, con­trast is ev­ery­thing.

If this is the case, par­ents would ap­pear to be in­ter­ested in the univer­sity less for the ed­u­ca­tion it pro­vides than for the sta­tus it be­stows.

To see if this is true, let’s ex­am­ine the points sys­tem, a trans­par­ent rank­ing sys­tem re­sem­bling a TripAd­vi­sor for uni­ver­si­ties – and a barom­e­ter for the ed­u­ca­tional tastes of the Ir­ish mid­dle classes.

How do we ex­plain that the min­i­mum re­quired for English in UCC is 420 points but the same course is 473 points in Trin­ity, or that his­tory in Trin­ity is 487 points but 322 points in UCD or psy­chol­ogy is 208 points in Dublin Busi­ness School but 554 points in Trin­ity?

This is partly be­cause pop­u­la­tions (and there­fore ed­u­ca­tional de­mand) are high­est in Dublin, and is stoked also by in­ter­na­tional univer­sity rank­ings. But the points show that there is also an en­trenched univer­sity hi­er­ar­chy in the minds of par­ents, de­spite the pro­lif­er­a­tion of places avail­able.

For sec­ondary schools it is not enough to get a cer­tain num­ber of chil­dren into col­lege; it is also cru­cial that they get them into a spe­cific col­lege. There is a class sys­tem em­bed­ded into the univer­sity sys­tem. And it starts not at sec­ondary school but at the pri­mary school that “feeds” the chil­dren into the right sec­ondary school, which in turn, “feeds” the teenagers into the right col­lege.

God for­bid, there may even be the right creche that feeds into the right pri­mary school, which may ex­plain the Lit­tle Har­vard chain of creches in Rath­farn­ham?

With this in­tense com­pe­ti­tion, ev­ery lit­tle helps, and this is where the grind school comes in to of­fer the kids a leg up. The schools are ex­pen­sive.

The In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion in Dublin costs ¤7,295 for a full year, Ash­field Col­lege costs ¤6,495, Bruce Col­lege in Cork will set you back ¤7,450, while Yeats Col­lege in Gal­way comes in at ¤7,200.

Part-time ap­proach

Some fam­i­lies pre­fer a part-time ap­proach to grinds. Do­ing some rough maths, let’s say you send your child to a pub­lic school and to com­pen­sate she goes to grinds in three sub­jects she strug­gles with, once a week in each. At ¤35 for an hour of grind – which is prob­a­bly the low end of the range – that’s about ¤100 a week. Do­ing that ev­ery week of the school term (which is prob­a­bly just un­der 32 weeks), that works out at about ¤3,200 for one year.

Take it up to four sub­jects, and that jumps to ¤4,480 – and this is on top of what­ever peo­ple are al­ready pay­ing in vol­un­tary do­na­tions or other fees.

With all this ex­pense and com­pe­ti­tion, is it any won­der that a fella might pro­claim his ed­u­ca­tional con­quests on his busi­ness card?

Who’d be­grudge him?

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