Open letter to Dr Michael Murphy, President UCC
Mon, 9 Jul 2012
Dear President Murphy,
We are writing to express our deep concern, surprise and disappointment at comments expressed in your recent speech to the Cork Chamber of Commerce (20/12/2011, http://www.ucc.ie/en/news/fullstory-144045-en.html ). As staff members in the School of Applied Social Studies we have long experience of working with students from a diversity of social backgrounds. We offer a number of programmes that specifically target mature students and we have developed mutually supportive relationships with a range of community groups and civil society organisations that represent the ‘disadvantaged minorities’ of which you speak. We are thus well placed to respond to some of the issues that were raised in your address.
First, we challenge the inference drawn in your speech that students ‘assisted through social disadvantage, physical disability and lifelong learning support programmes’ are ‘academically weaker’. We wish to affirm our own positive experiences of working with students who come to UCC via non-traditional pathways. They face enormous challenges and often make real sacrifices in order to avail of educational opportunities. They bring a wealth of life experience, critical analysis and informed opinion to the institution. We believe that these students, more than any others, hold ‘a mirror up to power’ both within this university and within the broader society. Furthermore, rather than being academically weak, they have proved themselves capable of achieving and often surpassing very high academic standards. The UCC Graduate Studies Report compiled and published by the UCC Plus+ Office provides a comprehensive analysis of participation and progression of students who entered UCC through access routes from 2001-2008. It clearly shows that 95% of respondents achieved honours degrees, while 15% achieved first class honours in their primary degrees. A majority pursued postgraduate studies, with 11% continuing to PhD level.
Second, Professor Aine Hyland, in her recent letter to the Irish Examiner (04/01/2012, http://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/letters/no-brain-drain-of-brightest-students-178988.html) provides conclusive evidence that the vast majority of Irish Leaving Certificate students continue their third-level education within the Irish system. This evidence exposes the spuriousness of ‘anecdotal’ assertions that ‘our brightest students’ are emigrating to attend university abroad. Such unfounded assertions only serve to generate unnecessary hierarchy and division among students. Although supports for disadvantaged students are still pitifully inadequate, your speech suggests that they detract from the university’s ‘ability to maximise the talents of the intellectually gifted’. This represents an inversion of the true picture of educational inequality. The urgent ‘sociological’ challenge facing us is to acknowledge and redress the cumulative impact of inequality and its reproduction of class privilege.
UCC’s current Strategic Plan makes a commitment to ‘widening participation through an inclusive environment that embraces diversity and equality, ensuring that the objectives of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013 are achieved’ (p18). In the context of austerity programmes which are already felt most acutely by disadvantaged and minority communities, UCC should be seeking to protect the interests of the least powerful in our society. Therefore, in the ‘reinvention’ of the UCC strategic plan over the coming months, it is vital that issues of access, equality and inclusion are afforded even greater recognition and firmer commitments than heretofore.
We look forward to your response to the points raised above.
Staff, School of Applied Social Studies (signatures on original)