Our meritocratic education system serves us well
A meritocracy is a social system in which individual advancement is based on personal ability and effort, not family wealth or social position. Ireland is a meritocracy – as are all countries in the European Union.
The main driver of meritocracy is the education system where everyone has equal access to education up to the third level, qualifies with grades commensurate with their intelligence and effort, and uses those grades to compete for a job. . Meritocracy has come under increasing criticism lately, mostly from the left. While meritocracy in practice undoubtedly has flaws, critics have yet to find a superior system.
Obviously, meritocracy is superior to feudalism, or a system accommodating hereditary aristocracy, or a system in which only primary education is freely available to all. But many people today criticize meritocracy on the grounds that it does not provide a level playing field for all. For example, Kathleen Lynch, Emeritus Professor of Equality Studies at UCD, criticizes meritocracy in an article titled Class and Wealth, not Merit, Rewarded in Ireland’s Education System – published by TheJournal.ie in September 2020.
Lynch indicates the most selective third-level courses, including medicine, finance/business, law, engineering, requiring the highest Central Application Office (CAO) academic entry points and perceived to lead to the highest paying and most secure job. These classes are dominated by students from wealthier families because, she claims, wealthier parents spend far more money than poorer parents can afford, sending their offspring to some private schools. and purchasing grind and other extracurricular benefits for their children. Lynch’s solution to this “class inequality in education” is to “challenge the neoliberal capitalist economic model that generates wealth inequality in the first place.”
Grinds and so on help well-to-do students get better grades, but only, I believe, to a small extent. It seems highly unlikely that students who diligently attend their second-level classes at school and study hard outside of class, but take little or no grinds, will perform significantly worse on exams than their well-to-do peers who have took grinds. After all, grind teachers are, by and large, the same people who teach their classes at school.
That said, the intense, multilevel efforts of affluent parents to help their sons/daughters enter the most “desirable” educational programs appear to be effective. Of course, well-to-do parents have every right to make these efforts, and regardless of parental help, only the brightest students can achieve the necessary high CAD points. And, while all parents are keen to help their children progress through higher education, the intense concern of the rich in this regard is unmatched by poorer parents who have much less experience. navigation on the shores of higher education. Of course, this picture will change rapidly as the less well-off become accustomed to universal access to higher education.
Examination of the distribution of students from socio-economic backgrounds attending selected postgraduate courses in 2018-2019 is revealing – it was published by the Higher Education Authority in 2019. Figures in brackets represent – from left to right – the percentage of students from lower socio-economic groups, slightly below average, slightly above average and affluent: medicine (4, 19, 42, 35); law (9, 28, 41, 22); engineering (5, 23, 44, 28); chemistry (11, 30, 41, 18); nursing (10, 34, 42, 15); teacher training (9, 38, 42, 11); and social work/counselling (16, 36, 36, 11).
While the most affluent students are strongly overrepresented in the first three highest-scoring courses, students of more modest means are reasonably represented elsewhere. And that picture will almost certainly change soon to reflect fairer representation across the board.
For example, there is evidence that many students from low-income backgrounds who are on track to earn CAO’s highest entry points are reluctant to designate “elite” programs – especially medicine – as their top CAD picks. This can surely be adequately countered by school guidance counselors ensuring that all students capable of scoring top CAD points fully consider all the options this opens up.
My problem with Lynch’s analysis is that it selectively highlights a single flaw but ignores the massive achievements of educational meritocracy made over the past decades to ensure universal access to Irish higher education. In the early 1960s, less than 5% of secondary school students progressed to third level (university), today this figure is over 80%. In 2006, 27% of 20-year-olds from disadvantaged neighborhoods went to third level; in 2016, this figure was 37%. By comparison, ensuring equitable access to all available third-level courses is a relatively small remaining hurdle that will surely soon be overcome. And finally, Lynch’s proposal to solve this problem, the dismantling of capitalism, is just a simple ideological agitator.
William Reville is Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC