Ireland’s exam-based university entrance system

My hosts in Ireland have four children, the youngest of whom is just graduating from high school. He is studying like a demon for a high-stakes “Leaving Certificate” exam. All of the responses are to be written out (i.e., it is not multiple-guess like the SATs). He will spend 10 days taking exams, typically one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Who could possibly have time to grade these? “The teachers do it during their summer vacation,” he said.

Results don’t come in until August at which point the student is informed of his or her university assignment. In other words, the young learner potentially has only one month in which to move, find an apartment, etc. (most students select universities close to their parents’ houses and continue to live at home)

There is no room for an admissions committee looking at auguries. There is no preference for children of alumni. There is no preference for children of big donors. There is no way to bribe an athletic coach because there is no preference for sports potential (though my hosts thought that there was some preference for athletes who’ve represented the country at international events).

How can they run a university admissions system with no special provisions for those who have suffered from adversity? They apparently can’t! Ireland has the “HEAR scheme“:

The scheme aims to improve access to college for school-leavers from socio-economic backgrounds that are under-represented in third-level education. Under the HEAR scheme a number of third-level places are allocated to school-leavers on a reduced points basis. To be eligible for the scheme you must meet certain indicators or criteria related to your financial, social and cultural circumstances…

There are links from the above web page explaining the criteria, but essentially your family has to be on welfare (a low bar; roughly 40 percent of residents are on some form of welfare) and/or your parents have to either not work (“housewife”) or do an unskilled job. Skin color or ethnic background is not a factor.

What does welfare look like in a society that is, on a per-capita basis, now much more productive than the U.S. (CIA Factbook ranking)? A retired police detective explained that he rents a small-town house to a “town council” for 750 euros per month on a 10-year lease. They’ll likely buy it from him when the lease ends. The town gives it away free to a family with five children in which neither parent has ever worked. “I know the family; nobody has worked for the past three generations,” said the former policeman. “Once they get on social welfare, why would they?” (I also learned that the front-line officers in Ireland who deal with day-to-day issues don’t carry guns).

Welfare bureaucrats occupy an office in the nicest part of what the guidebook says is the nicest seaside village in Ireland (Kinsale):

What does college look like for those who score high? (or who score reasonably high and have parents who don’t work?) Dodging tourists at Trinity College:

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all,” from Oscar Wilde is supposed to inspire the young scholars. Does that exclude most scientific and engineering advances? What is “dangerous” about Katherine Clerk Maxwell‘s equations? Are today’s T-shirt decorations not worthy of being called “an idea”? How about the “waves can propagate through a vacuum (without ether)” concept of Margaret Hemingway and Imbella A. Birdsall, confirmed in the Michelson–Morley experiment. That’s not an “idea”? Or it is somehow “dangerous”?

9 thoughts on “Ireland’s exam-based university entrance system

  1. The 15th century harp is barely visible in the library photo. The Trinity College harp is their equivalent to the bald eagle for US. Irish are very intimidating, but a room full of them might sound different.

  2. Katherine Clark Maxwell, Margaret Hemingway, Imbella A. Birdsall? Who were those people and what was their contribution to society? To the best of my knowledge, they were some unapologetically straight, married women who nurtured the white privilege of their boorish husbands. They were not even queer! They might have indulged in a reactionary pseudoscience of so-called physics, a cult of inequality and racial oppression.

    My hat’s off to Oscar Wilde who was openly gay and persecuted for that. Uh… what else did he accomplish? never mind: opposing the Victori-Nazis and moving to Europe to protest Brexit should be quite enough.

    • Who were these three female humans? (not to say “women” since we don’t know what their gender ID would have been in an enlightened society, though as they were accomplished perhaps we should claim them as “women achievers”?)

      The short answer is that they were physicists whose innovations were appropriated by men (though perhaps in an enlightened society their husbands would have identified as “women”).

  3. Reading this weblog someone might be misled into thinking that STEM was profitable instead of a gateway to low-pay indentured servitude. Why not emphasize the profitability of marketing degrees?

  4. Ireland is much more ethnically homogeneous than the US, and never had to develop a subjective admissions system designed to keep WASPS in and Jews out the way Ivy League colleges felt the need to.

    If the admissions system were changed to no longer discriminate against Asians, you would end up with something like Caltech (40% asian, 27% white, 18% black and latino, 9% international, 5% multiracial), thus effectively more than halving the white student population, and that’s clearly a political non-starter. Just see what extremes some parents went to to get their kids into USC, a school that was widely considered a mediocre pay-to-play diploma mill just a generation ago).

    • Fazal: That’s 119%! I always knew that those Caltech folks were ahead of MIT and now we know why! They are giving 119% while MIT is giving only 110%.

      (Agreed on USC. Slightly above-average kids in my 1970s high school would have laughed at the idea that it would be a challenge to get into USC. The world has changed!)

  5. What is “dangerous” about Katherine Clerk Maxwell‘s equations? Are today’s T-shirt decorations not worthy of being called “an idea”?

    You’re getting into word definitions, which is sometimes useful, but often a waste of time. I wouldn’t refer to equations that describe the natural world as being ideas. On the other hand, some of those t-shirts claim that the equations were part of God’s efforts to create light. So it could be reasonable to refer to them as His ideas.

    Maxwell’s Equations must have been part of the body of knowledge required to develop nuclear weapons. So we’d have to say that they can be extremely dangerous.

    • Vince, you may find it amusing to attempt to trigger Phil by referring to Maxwell’s equations as God’s ideas and capitalizing the pronoun “His” when referring to Him. But there are those of us who remember another time in Phil’s life when he– to frame the matter simply– seemed so much happier. Let us remember that Phil, from so long ago, and look with tolerance and compassion upon the Phil who seems compelled to rebut ideas (that word again!) that the rest of us are blessed with the ability to ignore. That blessing comes to us, not through our own virtue, but through God and His grace.

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