Guest Post on Higher Education Participation

GUEST POST: Darragh Flannery (UL)

In the context of the media coverage related to spatial differences in higher education participation (as outlined in this HEA report) some in this forum may be interested in on-going research conducted by myself, in conjunction with colleagues in NUIG and the ESRI. Our findings to date have been published in the Economic & Social Review (paper available here) and Applied Economics (paper available here). A brief summary of some of our findings and my thoughts on the issue are below. It is worth mentioning that the data used in our research comes from the School Leaver’s Survey (SLS) in 2007 (the SLS was unfortunately discontinued after this year). While our data is obviously dated, I would be confident that the conclusions of both papers are still relevant and possibly even more pronounced today.

The first strand of our research (ESR paper) examined the impact of travel distance to nearest higher education institute on overall higher education participation, controlling for factors such as CAO points, gender etc..  Specifically, we wanted to see how the impact of travel distance may vary according to social class. The results showed that travel distance has a significantly negative impact on participation for those from lower social classes and that this impact grows stronger as distance increases. We also found that the distance effects are most pronounced for lower ability students from these social backgrounds and make some policy recommendations.

The second strand of our research (Applied Economics paper) took a slightly different angle and looked at the impact of travel distance and social class on the type of higher education a young person in Ireland may pursue. So instead of looking at the potential impact that spatial factors might have on whether a young person goes to higher education or not, we wanted to look at how these factors may influence whether students go to a university/non-university, pursue a level 8 degree or not, and the field of study they choose. We found some evidence that spatial factors played a role, but social class was found to be a more powerful determinant. For example, even with the same CAO points and similar geographical accessibility to a university, those from a ‘low’ social class had virtually zero chance of pursing a medical degree compared to someone from a ‘high’ social class. Again we discussed some potential policy options, such as a more flexible higher education grant system and consideration of more affirmative action policies such as social class quotas.

Given the fact that it did not feature at all in the previous National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013, it is good to see spatial accessibility and its relationship with social class being mentioned by the latest HEA report as a possible driver of variation in higher education participation. However, I do think it is important that the debate does not stop at the rather broad view of the impact this may have on going to higher education or not. Instead, I would think it is important that we delve deeper and investigate more specific outcomes such as the impact social class/spatial factors may have on more specific outcomes such as field of study and longer term labour market outcomes. This is especially relevant in the context of income inequality and social mobility issues.

18 replies on “Guest Post on Higher Education Participation”

“The type of grant available depends on the course being attended by the student and whether the course they are taking is in Ireland or abroad. To qualify for the grant, three conditions must be filled:

* You must satisfy a nationality test, all Irish and EU nationals satisfy this criterion.

* You must satisfy a residency test, you must be resident in Ireland for at least three of the previous five years.

* You must satisfy a means test, based on the student’s own income together with parents’ income if the student was habitually resident with the parents prior to taking up the college course.

For students applying for a college grant for the first time for the 2014/2015 academic year, the means test is based on the income earned in 2013.

For farmers and the self employed, the business accounts will need to be prepared that bit earlier than normal, given that the closing date for grant applications is August 1, 2014, yet the tax deadline does not expire until October or November if using the Pay and file online facility.

Thankfully, the proposed asset test for farmers has been scrapped, with grants assessed entirely based on the income of the individual and if living at home, the income of their parents.”

Well done to researchers on what, in my view, is a significant finding in relation to the additional difficulties that distance from 3rd level institution present to students considering going to college.
The finding that the statistical difference in attendance at 3rd level is significant only in cases of students from ‘lower social classes’, does not mean that it is more difficult for all classes. [The fact that students in receipt of grant have decreased for from 63% in 1992 to 32% in 2007 will also, I assume, have hit more distant students harder].

I am not altogether surprised that distance from 3rd level institutions has less of an effect on the top level students. The old Mícheál O’Hehir line about the chances of a score from a long-distance-free come to mind:
‘Its a long way out but it’s near enough, if he’s good enough’. Although it is probably not a quote to encourage lesser mortals.

Well done to researchers.

This is really useful work. as ever, someone uses it to hone an ax or mount a hobbyhorse. Yes, unfeasiblytrollish, thats you.
have you anyhting so say on the ISSUE? No? STFU so please.


That’s a direct quote from a newspaper about a relatively recent change to a policy which would have either created a new ‘nudge’ or removed an old one, depending on how you look at it. Many outside the education business would be unaware of it.

It was presented without comment from me, and contains the phrase:

“Thankfully, the proposed asset test for farmers has been scrapped, with grants assessed entirely based on the income of the individual and if living at home, the income of their parents.”

I don’t understand your complaint.

Correction to above: I should watch what I write or write less!
It should have been:

The finding that the statistical difference in attendance at 3rd level is significant only in cases of students from ‘lower social classes’, does not mean that it is NOT more difficult for all classes.

This research is a very useful contribution to the economics of education in Ireland. Given the recent HEA data and the glacially slow progress in reducing socio-economic inequalities in education we need a lot more of this.
We also need policy makers to think harder about how to make serious inroads to reduce Irish people’s life chances being determined by an accident of birth. It’s hard to be optimistic.

@Kevin Denny — It is not my area, but I am not sure how to eliminate “accidents of birth” from affecting university admission. Isn’t high intelligence also an accident of birth? Certainly no one earns it. What criteria could be used for admission which do not depend upon accidents of birth? If we substitute a lottery than that just replaces one accidental outcome with another. So I do not get it.

@Gregory Connor

Social class is a better predictor of educational attainment, and life chances, than ‘intelligence’ – however one defines the contested latter.

I suspect (as a nonexpert) that intelligence (however it is reasonably defined) probably has some correlation with social class (however that is reasonably defined). But I imagine that this inkling of mine is not PC.


@Gregory Connor

High achievers apparently marry high achieves and that may tend to propagate more.

However as you suggest, what intelligence means needs to be defined.

As I suggested elsewhere, the financial crisis has shown that many perceived intelligent people lacked wisdom or even worse were shown to be stupid.

Greg, I don’t know of any Irish data that speaks to your particular inkling. We have data on educational attainment , PISA scores etc but these are not measures of intelligence. People of above average education often strongly believe that social class is correlated with intelligence. It’s rather self-serving.
It may be impossible to eliminate all accidents of birth but this does not imply one should not reduce those that exist. Otherwise you would be presumably comfortable with discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation..?
There is a widespread, if ill defined, idea that more intelligenct or more able people should get priority in accessing scarce educational resources. Hence the CAO system. Why? Presumably it’s not a normative view. People usually mumble something about “meritocratic ” although that’s not an an argument by itself. Merit is a constructed idea.
If your earnings etc depend on intrinsic and extrinsic factors ( say IQ, education resp.) why give more of the latter to those who got lucky with the former? This is the opposite to what we do with health services – and clearly our health service would be more efficient without all those annoying sick people.
One reasonable argument is that the marginal product of education may be higher for the more able. But do we know that’s true and should that automatically take precedence over everything else?

@Kevin Denny — Thanks for the thoughtful reply and I agree that there are complicated balances to achieve. I am very suspicious of the underlying assumption in popular discussion that the correlation between university admission and social class must be entirely due to discrimination, although I know that is the only PC explanation. I suspect that the technical literature on this (which I do not read or follow) is probably more forthright. The nice-sounding notion of eliminating all “accidents of birth” from having an impact on university admissions sounds wonderful, but when probed more deeply throws up lots of very deep philosophical issues.

I don’t think that’s the popular assumption at all (depending on how you define discrimination I suppose). What’s clear is that if you come from a low SES background the dice is loafed against you. Exactly why is unclear since a whole bunch of things like schools, communities , parents and maybe ones genes are correlated. I’ve tried to shed some light on this myself for the case of a Ireland. The current consensus, I think , is against short-run credit constraints and points to longer run factors .
There are indeed philosophical issues here that we all have to embrace. Words like “fair” “meritocratic ” “ability” get thrown around without much thought. As an aside, cognitive ability probably has a small role, if any, in the scheme of things. Perhaps smart people over-estimate how important it is to be smart?
Economists are as guilty as the rest in my experience. But broadly most people think in general that too much inequality and too much immobility between generations is bad. Governments have policies to address this but , in Ireland, there has been little progress relative to the stated aims for the latter. Why this is so is a good question. I have my own opinions but thats another days work!

I mostly agree with you in that last post, but with a few differences in emphasis and a few points where I do disagree. You state that “parents and maybe ones genes are correlated.” I would eliminate “maybe” from this statement since it seems extremely clear that ones genes and ones parents are correlated in a very strict sense. There is a random selection of genes from between the two parents sets. So just a small quibble there is no need for the modifier “maybe”. Ok that is just a small point.

The other point is a bit larger. You state

“As an aside, cognitive ability probably has a small role, if any, in the scheme of things. ”

Frankly I really do not think that this is true, though I am not sure what is the range intended in the phrase “the scheme of things.” If “the scheme of things” means students obtaining entry into medicine versus students who do not enter third level (you mention these two groups) it is just not credible. They differ on average in cognitive ability and saying otherwise is just not true. It is certainly a very PC statement to make and certainly heartwarming if you like that sort of thing, but not true.

One problem with education participation is that a generation of previous meritocracy makes parental issues more obvious. My father left school at 14, being dirt poor, in a way nobody is now. His family were very smart, but genuinely lacked opportunity. In a different era, my siblings and my cousins all have degrees, and postgraduate degrees in many cases and respectable middle class jobs. Others at school with us did not attend college, despite having similar opportunities, owing to lack of ability or interest. Our children are more likely to attend third level then theirs, but this is not “discrimination”. Interestingly, one cousin adopted several children from problem homes, none of whom went to university despite being brought up in an excellent environment after adoption.

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