Subject choice and inequalities in access to Higher Education: Comparing Scotland and Ireland

AQMeN research briefing 7. Cristina Iannelli and Markus Klein summarise their recent study which compares the Scottish and Irish education systems. This research analyses the association between school curricula, examination results and university entrance requirements and social inequalities in Higher Education.

Key points:
• There are significant social inequalities in access to Higher Education in Scotland and Ireland. However, the importance of subject choice in reproducing these inequalities varies in the two countries.
• Pupils from working class backgrounds in Scotland take fewer academic subjects – those that facilitate access to Higher Education – than in Ireland. This pattern has remained persistent for the last 30 years.
• Although the level of social inequality in Higher Education entry has fallen over time, it has reduced more in Ireland than in Scotland.
• Social inequalities in entry to Higher Education are mostly explained by subject choice in Scotland. By contrast, they are more strongly associated with academic performance in Ireland.
• Patterns of social inequality and the role of school subject choice varies by type of Higher Education institution both in Scotland and Ireland.

In line with the international literature (Van De Werfhorst and Mijs, 2010), our research shows that social inequalities in entry to Higher Education are reproduced via different mechanisms depending on the institutional context of the education system. In Scotland, students from different social backgrounds differ in the average number and types of subjects studied in upper secondary education and this, in turn, affects their chances of entering Higher Education institutions, in particular the most prestigious universities. In Ireland, instead, a more standardised system of certification at the end of secondary school and a centralised system of allocation of HE places is associated with lower social inequalities in subject choice. Here, students from different social classes of origin differ in their probability of entering Higher Education largely because of differences in school performance.

Education systems, such as the Scottish system, which allow flexibility in curriculum choices, offer another avenue for social inequalities to emerge because more socially advantaged parents have more information and resources for ensuring that their children make the best decisions leading to higher educational attainment and better jobs. This is especially true when HE institutions put a lot of emphasis on subjects as a way for selecting people. Choices are not inherently bad for equality of educational opportunities but they require careful management to ensure that they do not end up reinforcing existing inequalities.

In the Scottish case, our results suggest that, for reducing inequalities in HE access, providing clear information and support in the curriculum decisions in the crucial years of secondary school is as important as improving attainment of more socially disadvantaged young people. On the other hand, in Ireland raising attainment seems to be the main policy lever for reducing inequalities in HE participation.

AQMeN research briefing 7 – Subject choice and inequalities in access to Higher Education Comparing Scotland and Ireland