Our meritocratic education system serves us well

A meritocracy is a social system in which individual advancement is based on personal ability and effort and not on family wealth or social standing. Ireland is a meritocracy, like all the countries of the European Union.

The main driver of meritocracy is the education system where everyone has equal access to education up to postgraduate 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 of late, mainly from the left. While meritocracy in practice undoubtedly has flaws, critics have yet to come up with a superior system.

Obviously, meritocracy is superior to feudalism, or a system accommodating the hereditary aristocracy, or a system in which only primary education is freely accessible 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, critiques meritocracy in an article titled Class and Wealth, not Merit, Rewarded in Ireland’s Education System – published by TheJournal.ie in September 2020.


Lynch points to the most selective third level courses including medicine, finance / business, law, engineering, requiring the highest academic entry points from the Central Application Office (CAO) and seen as leading to the best paying and the most secure employment. These classes are dominated by students from better-off families because, she claims, better-off parents spend far more money than poorer parents can afford, sending their offspring to private schools. selected and purchasing grind and other extracurricular benefits for their children. Lynch’s solution to this “class inequality in education” is to “question the neoliberal capitalist economic model which generates in the first place wealth inequalities”.

Grinds and so on help affluent students get better grades, but only, I believe, to a small extent. It seems highly unlikely that students who diligently attend their second grade classes in school and study hard outside of class but take few or no exams, perform worse on exams than their wealthy peers. who have passed trials. After all, grind teachers are, for the most part, the same people who teach in their classes at school.

That said, the intense multi-layered efforts of well-off parents to help their sons / daughters access the most “desirable” study programs appear to be effective. Of course, well-to-do parents have a right to make these efforts, and regardless of parental support, only the brightest students can achieve the necessary high CAD points. And, while all parents are keen to help their children advance to higher education, the intense concern of the rich in this regard is unmatched among poorer parents who have much less experience. of navigation on the shores of higher education. Of course, this picture will change quickly as the less wealthy get used to universal access to higher education.

Socio-economic origins

Examining the distribution of socio-economic backgrounds of students participating in a selection of postgraduate courses in 2018-2019 is revealing – it was published by the Higher Education Authority in 2019. Figures in parentheses represent – from left to right – the percentage of students. from disadvantaged socio-economic groups, slightly below average, slightly above average and well-off: medicine (4, 19, 42, 35); law (9, 28, 41, 22); engineering (5, 23, 44, 28); chemistry (11, 30, 41, 18); nursing care (10, 34, 42, 15); teacher training (9, 38, 42, 11); and social work / counseling (16, 36, 36, 11).

While wealthier students are significantly over-represented in the top three top-rated courses, students with more modest means are reasonably represented elsewhere. And that image will almost certainly change soon to reflect a more equitable representation at all levels.

For example, there is evidence that many students from low-income backgrounds who are on their way to the highest CAD entry points are reluctant to designate “elite” programs – especially medicine – as their own. top CAD choices. This can certainly be adequately thwarted by career counselors in schools, making sure that all students capable of scoring the best 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 over the past decades in ensuring universal access to Irish higher education. In the early 1960s, less than 5 percent of graduate students went on to graduate (university), today the figure is over 80 percent. In 2006, 27% of 20-year-olds from disadvantaged neighborhoods went to third level; in 2016, that figure was 37%. By comparison, ensuring fair access to all available third-level courses is a relatively small remaining barrier that will surely be overcome soon. And finally, Lynch’s proposal to solve this problem, the dismantling of capitalism, is simply an ideological flag.

William Reville is professor emeritus of biochemistry at UCC

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