Are we send­ing too many young peo­ple to third level?

Too many stu­dents with low points are fall­ing through the cracks

The Irish Times - - Home News - Carl O’Brien

The fact that we send more stu­dents to third level than any other coun­try in the EU is of­ten seen as a badge of hon­our.

The pro­por­tion of school leavers go­ing on to higher ed­u­ca­tion bal­looned from about 10 per cent in the 1960s to well over 60 per cent nowa­days.

Ire­land now has the high­est pro­por­tion of young peo­ple with third-level qual­i­fi­ca­tions across the EU.

But this new new study re­leased by the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Author­ity high­lights a flip­side to this achieve­ment : are we now send­ing too many to higher ed­u­ca­tion?

Over­all, some 5,800 stu­dents – or 14 per cent of all new en­trants to third level – did not move on to their sec­ond year of their course.

Fall­ing in­vest­ment

These are en­cour­ag­ing fig­ures when set against higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems across Europe.

De­spite a decade of fall­ing in­vest­ment by the State in the sec­tor third-level col­leges have man­aged to re­duce non-pro­gres­sion rates over­all in re­cent years.

How­ever, dig a lit­tle deeper and there are alarm­ing num­bers of stu­dents who have scored lower Leav­ing Cert points and are fall­ing through the cracks in the sys­tem.

For ex­am­ple, half of all stu­dents study­ing higher cer­tifi­cate cour­ses in con­struc­tion at in­sti­tutes of tech­nol­ogy failed to make it past their first year. These num­bers reached as high as 80 per cent in some in­sti­tu­tions. There is a sim­i­lar pat­tern in engi­neer­ing and com­puter science.

This is un­der­min­ing the self-con­fi­dence of young peo­ple and has a huge cost to the in­di­vid­u­als, their fam­i­lies and wider so­ci­ety.

These fig­ures also raises ques­tions about the ad­e­quacy of ca­reers guid­ance and chal­lenges us to re­con­sider the suit­abil­ity of third level for a sig­nif­i­cant mi­nor­ity of school leavers.

Surely, many of these stu­dents would do bet­ter in other op­tions such as ap­pren­tice­ships or fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion?

We all learn in dif­fer­ent ways. We are not all suited to tra­di­tional aca­demic ap­proaches. Ap­pren­tice­ships, for ex­am­ple, of­fer ex­cel­lent “earn and learn” op­tions with on-the-job ex­pe­ri­ence, de­cent start­ing salaries and high chance of em­ploy­ment.

Howev er, they still suf­fer – wrongly – from a sta­tus prob­lem. Par­ents – and stu­dents – re­main ob­sessed with third level.

There is a big job of work ahead on the part of pol­i­cy­mak­ers, guid­ance coun­sel­lors and the me­dia in pro­mot­ing these al­ter­na­tive op­tions.

These lat­est non-pro­gres­sion fig­ures also high­light an­other stark side to the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem: how glar­ing in­equities in so­ci­ety ex­tend into aca­demic per­for­mance.

Fee-pay­ing schools

Stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged schools are al­most twice as likely to fail to make it past their first year in col­lege com­pared to those from fee-pay­ing schools.

It is clear that stu­dents from more af­flu­ent back­grounds have a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage over those from less-well-off homes. There is also ev­i­dence of a class di­vide. Al­most a quar­ter of stu­dents from Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin and UCD are from fee-pay­ing schools.

The com­pa­ra­ble fig­ures for Athlone IT, Gal­way-Mayo IT and IT Tralee, for ex­am­ple, are be­low 1 per cent.

Ge­og­ra­phy is, of course, a fac­tor given that most fee-pay­ing schools are in south Dublin.

How­ever, at IT Blan­chard­stown and IT Tal­laght, be­tween 4 and 8 per cent of stu­dents are from fee-pay­ing schools.

Ed­u­ca­tion, we know, has a unique ca­pac­ity to break down cy­cles of disad­van­tage. If any­thing, our sys­tem seems to be repli­cat­ing priv­i­lege.

The Gov­ern­ment has spo­ken of­ten about its aim of build­ing a fair and com­pas­sion­ate so­ci­ety. The rhetoric of equal­ity, how­ever, can flow freely off the tongue.

While there are var­i­ous strate­gies to im­prove the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of work­ing-class young peo­ple in higher ed­u­ca­tion, they are mod­est by any mea­sure. Much more am­bi­tion will be needed to tackle this class di­vide, backed up by proper fund­ing and po­lit­i­cal will.

‘ ‘ For all our talk of pro­mot­ing ac­cess and equal­ity, it is clear that stu­dents from more af­flu­ent back­grounds have a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage over those from less well-off homes.

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