November 14, 2007

Inertia, Laziness and Sheer Incompetence

Last month’s Note – Why don’t students cross the border any more? – provoked more reaction than any I have done since these columns started in September 2006 (other than Scottish radio stations going gaga about my midsummer notion of a high-speed rail bridge to Scotland!). It was also the first ‘Note’ to feature on the celebrated Anglo-Irish website Slugger O’Toole where it provoked scores of responses.

So here is a flavour of those responses plus a little more factual information. Several parents of Northern students who had failed to gain entry to medical courses in Southern universities echoed last month’s complaint that Southern universities had significantly reduced the number of ‘points’ they award to high-achieving A-level students, making it impossible even for students with the highest grades (4 As) to gain entry to medicine.

This is not a simple picture, and is made more complicated by each Southern university having a different system. Trinity College Dublin, for example, did reduce the points for As at A-level by 20 points per subject some years ago. A TCD admissions officer said this was because they were finding that more people from the UK with four As at A-level were getting in to do medicine at Trinity than people getting the maximum 600 points in the Irish Leaving Certificate exam. So they cut the equivalent points for a top A-level mark, which is unfortunate for Northern Irish students but understandable in an Irish context.

The Republic’s Central Applications Office (CAO) also explained that unlike in the Leaving Certificate, where there are two top grades, A1 and A2, UK A-levels have only one all-inclusive grade A. Thus an A1 at Leaving Certificate is a more exclusive mark than an A at A-level, and allows Southern universities to select top students more accurately for their elite high demand courses.

I received a couple of rather sad messages from Northerners from a Protestant background whose children had wanted to go to Southern universities but had been prevented by the above system. One father wrote after his high-achieving daughter had given up and gone to an English university instead: “I sense that she had a very genuine desire to commit herself to a new vision of Ireland and Irishness, which may now be lost in the practicalities of career and social opportunities.”

One Newry parent noted that the numbers of local students going to university in Dublin were very low given its proximity and excellent transport links to the Irish capital. Noting some leading unionists who had gone to TCD, he said he was “convinced that there is a cadre of people in public life in the North today whose nuanced perspective on ‘the peoples of these islands’ was shaped by their attending universities in the South – nationalists too saw how partitionism was ‘embedded’ in the Republic.”

But the most illuminating – and depressing – response came from a Northern student at a Southern university. This young man wrote that there are four factors explaining why so few of his fellow-Northerners cross the border these days:

  1. Fear of the unknown. Most Northern students are children of the first generation of Northern Irish people to receive free education, and are well-used to hearing talk of Queen’s and Jordanstown and Magee. So why should they deviate from such “a well trodden and proven path”?
  2. Fear of the cost of living. Dublin is contrasted to “bargain basement Belfast and Stroke City which always seem to come out as the cheapest places for students to live in UK ‘cost of student living’ tables.”
  3. Politics and identity. One side in Northern Ireland sees the South as “a different country” and want to complete their education “on the mainland”, while the other sees it as being “the same, but not quite the same, and anyway why make things difficult – it’s easier to stick with the people you know best”.
  4. “Inertia, laziness and sheer incompetence by schools and career guidance teachers and…um…the students.” Schools in Northern Ireland make between zero and token efforts to promote attendance at Southern universities’ open days, and have a complete lack of understanding about the South’s CAO admissions system.

That about sums it up – but isn’t the modern Northern Ireland student’s lack of adventure and curiosity about the fascinating and successful jurisdiction next door deeply dispiriting?

That about sums it up – but isn’t the modern Northern Ireland student’s lack of adventure and curiosity about the fascinating and successful jurisdiction next door deeply dispiriting?

Andy Pollak