Health & Inequality: Inequality in Third Level Education

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 15.18.32.png

The social class divide that has been persistent in the Irish education system has impacted on the abilities of students from the lower socioeconomic groups progressing to third level education. The Irish government has introduced multiple policies that aim to tackle these inequalities. In particular in the 1990s Ireland experienced major reform in education resulting in a dramatic increase in participation rates in third level education. However, students of lower income families continue to experience disadvantages in accessing third level education due to the lack of cultural and economic capital that they inherit from their parents. Multiple studies and surveys have highlighted this trend of inequality throughout history.

As observed by the department of social justice socio- economic background plays a significant role in the Irish education system.  A high proportion of early school leavers are linked to semi or unskilled backgrounds.  Hence, a significantly smaller proportion of students in third level belong to this socio-economic group.  A survey conducted by The Irish University Association noted that 39.4% of students belonged to this group in 2014 which decreased to 38.2% in 2015 where students who belonged to professional or skilled backgrounds were seen to have increased levels of participation in third-level education from 60.70% to 62.3% during the same period as shown in figure 1.

In 1968 a means-tested grant scheme was introduced for university students in Ireland. As a result, participation in university increased from 1.5% in 1924 to 11% in 1969. The participation rate then stagnated since there was a growing number of those completing secondary school, while the available places at university remained the same. This resulted in the conditional probability that a student who finished secondary school goes on to university fell drastically.  During the 1980s there was a period of mass expansion of higher education in Ireland. However, Finnegan (2015) and Byrne (2009) have highlighted that during this period students belonging to working-class families still had lower participation rates in higher education than other groups. During the 1990s changes in education policies resulted in an increase in the number of working-class students entering universities. In certain parts of Dublin, participation in universities has doubled between 1998 and 2004. As of 2009 the approximate participation rate was 60%. Although Keane (2011) has seen improvement in certain lower socioeconomic groups, there are still disparities between the different social classes in regard to participation in higher education.  

Wilkinson and Pickett (2011) argue that,  the biggest influence that affects students’ chances of attaining higher education is family background. Children do better in school based on the parental involvement in their education, which affects the children’s ability and/or own will to attend higher education. Some disadvantaged students miss out on ever reaching a higher-level education, even though the society they are living in offer a good school system, based on their particular society’s pursuit of achieving equality of opportunity. This means, as Marmot (2015) suggests, that disadvantage can, not only influence, but completely decide a person’s educational destiny if society does not offer an educational system which recognises economic, social and cultural background as possible obstacles for attaining higher level education.

Marmot also argues that, other than the influence a student gets from his or her family, the wider socio-economic conditions and the schools are important components in educational performance. However, Wilkinson and Pickett (2011) indicated that income inequality is closely related to educational scores and so, more unequal countries have lower educational attainment. It is, however, important to note that poverty and inequality have independent effects and that poverty does not explain the inequality effect.

Marmot also highlighted the issues of students coming from a lower socio-economic background, especially where the social gradient is steep, the society’s role in education makes a big difference since social inequalities are entrenched throughout early childhood before the start of formal education. He refers to Annette Lareau who pointed out key differences in the organisation of daily life, social connections and the use of language between the social classes which influence children’s development and socialisation.

Lareau uses the evidence from the Study conducted by a neurologist that found an increase in the stress hormone cortisol due to anxiety, and class differences, how the individual feels and thinks and found a correlation between inequality and educational achievement predominantly in secondary level education which indicate a lack of focus on pursuing higher education.

Finnegan and Merill (2015) observed that social class continues to be an important indicator of who enters third-level education in Ireland. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds may naturally gravitate towards the environment in the Institutes of Technologies and colleges as it is closer to what Bourdieu (1984) would describes as their ‘Class habitus’, i.e. the kinds of cultural and social capital they possess. It is also evident in the study conducted by McCoy in 2010 that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds perceived universities to be ‘large and impersonal’ whereas they viewed Institutes of Technology (I.T.’s) and colleges as places that were smaller and friendlier the kind of place where you can make friends easily. The students from the poorer socioeconomic backgrounds also stated the opinion that most students had money from their parents to fund their education and would not need to work. The majority of students in the study needed to work part time in order to fund their education. A Eurostudent survey report noted that parents of third-level undergraduate students on average required a provision of 266 euro per month to cover the average living expenditure of 692 euro.  Thus; it is evident that those who belong to lower-socio economic background may not attend third-level education due to the ever-increasing expenditure of student life and parents not being able to pay the deficit of student expenditure.

Furthermore, personal concerns about fitting in are just one part of the picture. Inequalities regarding the ability to participate in tertiary education and specifically the potential to attend a university over other types of higher level institutions begin much earlier in life. Inequalities in educational transitions in Ireland revealed that Effectively Maintained Inequalities (EMI) are present in the Irish educational system.  According to Byrne and McCoy in their 2017 report “considerable evidence to support the persistence of EMI in tracking decisions made in the transition from lower to upper secondary education for each of the three cohorts”. As students move through the education system, ‘they transition through qualitatively different educational experiences, at the same level of education’. ‘Social-class and the socio-economic backgrounds of young people influence not only the probability of making it through the education system but also their location in the curriculum, with implications for future transitions’ parental social class is an important predicator of the likelihood a student will take higher level math. Students from the lower socio-economic group become less likely to take higher level math as the number of students taking higher level increases.

Byrne and McCoy (2017) detail the findings of McCoy’s  study which revealed that children of the non-manual occupational class received career guidance was lacking in some ways, interest was only directed toward those taking higher level subjects, narrowly focused or directed them away from higher education altogether towards a more ‘appropriate’ place in the social order.

A student in McCoy’s study expressed her feeling stating schools only prioritise honour students and pay little or no attention towards those without honour subjects and tend not to encourage those students either thus they feel left out.

The study discovered evidence that those who did not go on to pursue tertiary education felt frustrated and excluded by their schools at a young age. Their view was that their teachers did not have positive expectations for them in regard to academic success. It was revealed that attending a DEIS school (a school in a disadvantaged area) has a ‘multiplier effect’ making it more likely for individuals unable to progress successfully through second level education.

Wealth and income inequality links, then, play a significant role in the education system in Ireland. The Eurostudent report 2013 noted that 53% of students who benefited from the educational system are belonged to the middle and professional social classes of which 22% earn seventy thousand or more.  Although these figures have decreased by 6 percentage points, it remains significantly higher compared to lower socio-economic background students.

Coming from a wealthier family can mean that if a student struggles academically they can rectify the issue because they can afford it. Economically disadvantaged students do not have these options. They lack the necessary supports and may be pressured towards entering the workforce by their family. Unfortunately, McCoy’s study asserted that disadvantaged students don’t always get the support they need enable them to progress successfully from second to third level education.

Different factors contribute to the lower participation rates of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The difficulties these students encounter as a result of this discourages them from attending universities. Although this inequality has decreased over time it is clear that there is still a significantly lower number of students from lower economic backgrounds attending universities, despite the efforts of the Irish government. The parent’s own educational attainment levels are one reason for this. The inability of these parents to fund their child’s education also discourages these students from participating in third level education. As a result, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are outnumbered by students from higher social classes in Irish universities.


Madeleine Alexandersson, Isobel Doyle, Mohea Cheong, Syed Shah, Ashiling Rindzeviciene

Be first to comment