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Class and perception. August 31, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

I’ve often pointed to perceptions as a driver of interactions with the state. An obvious example that we’ve discussed previously is that of Third Level where perceptions and a culture of non-attendance at universities has had some impact on participation levels by those from working class backgrounds.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently whose eldest had got just finished their exams and been offered places in both UCD and TCD. They were going for the former, even though it was much further away from where they lived, because they thought it ‘less snobbish’. Perhaps so, perhaps not. But an anecdotal example of the power of perception.

And on that thought, who reappeared in the papers recently but Dr. Kevin Denny. It’s cropped up here and here. Denny is an economist at UCD, and it is he who wrote a report last year entitled ‘What did abolishing university fees in Ireland do?’. It has been interpreted in the Sunday Business Post and elsewhere as arguing that:

The abolition of third-level fees has not achieved the stated aims of its sponsors and its defenders – the opening up of university education to children from poorer backgrounds.

At the time I noted that this ignored the general impacts of free fees on the entirety of the third level sector including ITs and so on, and that there might well be cultural perceptions about universities which could counteract increased ease of access through abolition of fees.

Anyhow, there was a letter from him in the Irish Times from Denny a few weeks back which took to task a comment made by the head of the CAO:

In his report to the board, CAO director Paul McCutcheon, who is also registrar at the University of Limerick, warns “the possible reintroduction of third-level fees may reduce applicant numbers”. He also says the increase in emigration may reduce applications to the CAO.

To which Denny responded:

In your report (“CAO fees in spotlight”, Home News, August 13th) the CAO’s director stated that the reintroduction of third-level fees threatened to reduce applicant numbers. This is unlikely for several reasons. The international evidence tends to suggest that university fees do not deter students and this is mostly based on the US experience where tuition fees are substantial.

For Ireland, the evidence shows that the abolition of fees in the 1990s didn’t change the socio-economic background of university students. Low income students qualify for the higher education grant and this would presumably remove the disincentive effects of university fees for those most likely to be affected.

Unfortunately once more Denny ignores third level beyond the university sector and now throws in US experience – which strikes me as being radically different both in terms of education and societal structures to this state. I’ve read a fair bit of Denny’s research subsequently and I think he’s genuinely informed by a sense of equity, but his concentration on the Universities and his lack of interest in the rest of the HE sector and in factors – such as perception – beyond fees/no fees seems to me to constrain his approach unnecessarily. Perceptions genuinely matter – key research on the take-up of universal social provisions as against targeted provisions demonstrates this time and again.

Anyhow, while still on perceptions consider the editorial this week in the Irish Times on the effects of the recession. Referencing a recent letter to the IT from MP MacDomhnaill who is unemployed and struggling with mortgage repayments it noted that while Joan Burton had urged MacDomhnaill to contact the SVP and other organizations. It argues:

They may well be right, but this is hardly good enough. The preservation of citizens’ basic welfare and dignity should be the cornerstone of any civilised State. It is imperative that our social security system actively works to protect those most in need. But too often those in need feel they are kept in the dark over their entitlement to forms of basic social assistance, or must navigate through a maze of bureaucracy in order to qualify for their entitlements. Unlike many other jurisdictions, we still do not have a system which automatically links citizens to all of the welfare support they are eligible for.

Very true, and it also notes that:

There is, rightly, an aggressive focus on welfare fraud. But we should be equally vigilant about ensuring those in need of welfare assistance get the support they need. If the safety net of the welfare system begins to weaken, there is a danger that our sense of social solidarity will unravel as well. Social assistance is a right, not a privilege. And no citizen should feel any sense of shame about asking for what they are entitled to.

But… there’s an issue here of that self-perception when some people interface social welfare structures.

For further evidence of this consider an interesting piece by Conor Pope in the Irish Times recently on middle class perceptions and how they shape interactions with the state and social services of one kind or another was very telling.

Pope notes, and you know – some of this is tooth-grinding stuff for those of us who’ve willingly used such services over the years, seeing them as part of a broader social and societal contract which is our right, that:

Too many people feel embarrassed about not being able to pay their debts – but the uncomfortable reality is there are tens of thousands of people in the same place.

He continues:

Many of the New Poor are resolutely middle-class and have this idea that contacting the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) or the St Vincent de Paul Society for help is a degrading step and one which is beyond them. So they soldier on and lead lives that are increasingly miserable and stressful.

Now, as evidenced by the recent research published in The Experience of Unemployment in Ireland: A Thematic Analysis [available online] it’s certainly true that some parts of the welfare state are far from welcoming, but MABS doesn’t strike me as one of those.

As Pope also notes:

This attitude needs to change. Both organisations have been stressing since the recession first took hold they are there to help anyone, no matter where they live or what their background, and there should be no stigma attached to making contact with them.

This clearly isn’t an anecdotal experience. These attitudes do exist and arguably they exist even more broadly in the self-described middle class because there’s relatively little experience of interacting with such services. One cannot help but have a sympathy with anyone in this position, but one cannot also help having a certain degree of impatience. It reminds me of Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative party leader who was made redundant in the 1980s and unemployed for five months. He didn’t use welfare. Why not? Not that long back I mentioned a similar perception on the part of some who don’t join unions, and to my mind it strikes me as all of a piece. Misplaced pride, a distortion of a self-reliance and so on. And a lack of a sense that these are as Pope puts it…entitlements.

It will help people to draw up a list of priorities, maximise their earning potential and claim everything they are entitled to from the State.

There’s a bit of a paradox here though, because there’s also a phenomenon where certain services or provisions are accepted without question by the ‘middle’ classes. Child benefit is one such, there are others, but I’d very hesitantly hazard that that is a function of position. It’s one thing to accept child benefit, or whatever, when times are good and one’s perception of relative class position is assured, quite another to have to go to a social service when times are bad and one’s perception of relative class position is thrown into question. That too though is bound up in a web of perceptions.

Pope says interacting with the services still provided “[is] better than living a miserable hand-to-mouth existence”.
It surely is. But given the way the net of social provision is being holed that’s not necessarily a choice between two distinctly different states of being.


1. Tomboktu - August 31, 2011

I was talking to a friend of mine recently whose eldest had got just finished their exams and been offered places in both UCD and TCD. They were going for the former, even though it was much further away from where they lived, because they thought it ‘less snobbish’.

Two colleagues say other wise. One went there, and her experience was that cliques from Dublin fee-paying schools were very snobbish. And an older colleague, a few years ago, was doing some checking when his daughter was preparing her CAO application. His network of contacts said pretty much the same thing. (The woman went to DCU in the end, based on the degeree she wanted to pursue.)


sonofstan - August 31, 2011

Definitely – UCD is a lot more insular, and, if you’ll excuse the expression ‘up itself’ than TCD, despite the latter’s rep. – a larger proportion of students in Belfield come from private schools, and worse, from the same private schools, which means they have no need to make new friends when they get there, so if you’re an outsider that’s how you’ll stay.

Trinity gets far more foreign students, and a lot of Northerners – still – and it has a much better alternative access system to encourage applications from mature students/ students who didn’t finish second-level.


WorldbyStorm - August 31, 2011

You’ll get no argument from me on that.My own limited experience of both was insufficient to come to a fixed conclusion though I did a post grad in UCD and found various groups of lectures pretty welcoming, but thd general student body fairly cliquey.


sonofstan - August 31, 2011

Post grad’s much different, thankfully.


Michael Carley - August 31, 2011

I went to Trinity (1988) because it meant only one bus from Tallaght rather than two to UCD. From what I can tell of UCD, I made the right choice, whatever the transport arrangements.


dmfod - August 31, 2011

It’s also full of incredibly posh failed Oxbridge applicants from England slumming it for a few years before going back to their stately homes and bohemian pan-European types who went to schools for the children of diplomats. This at least makes it a bit more interesting than wall to wall rugby shirts in UCD, especially as those kind of people think everyone Irish is just as much of a delightful peasant, which tends to make the D4 types a bit less obnoxious.


Ghandi - August 31, 2011

Definately agree from my experience in Blackhall, UCD D4 crowd very noticable and clannish, also up their own ar….s. For myself I went as a mature external student to University of London.


2. Tomboktu - August 31, 2011

One key difference between cjild benefit and other DSP payments is that it is universal, not means tested. Unlike the dole, you don’t have to justify yourself, don’t have to be available for directions from a State official (“we have decided you shall attend the 13-week FÁS course on subject x at location y“) to retain it.

The other day, I was looking at syllabuses used in some US universities on poverty and the law. In one of them, the second or third class into the semester is given over to completing an application form. I thought that was an interesting exercise: actually going through the experience of applying for assistance.


3. Crocodile - August 31, 2011

Interesting that social cachet – or snob appeal – should be considered an attraction at second level and a deterrent at third. If we’re to believe what we read.


irishelectionliterature - August 31, 2011

Second Level Parents decide.
Third Level, Children decide ?


Crocodile - August 31, 2011

I don’t have a 12 year old myself but I’m told they often call the shots these days – and teenagers’ choice of college can be heavily influenced by guidance counselling in schools.


Ghandi - August 31, 2011

Crocodile, you’re lucky if you get to 12 before they start calling the shots, I’m sure WBS would agree, 12 months perhaps?


WorldbyStorm - August 31, 2011



4. dmfod - August 31, 2011

Anyone else think the IT editorials are getting slightly less obnoxious since Kennedy left? Obviously at best a noblesse oblige perspective though – the opening sentences set my teeth on edge in their assumption no reader will have personal experience of hardship:

“FROM TIME to time we get a jolting glimpse of how the grinding effects of the economic downturn are impacting on the lives of ordinary families. MP MacDomhnaill’s letter to this newspaper last week was one of those moments.”


sonofstan - August 31, 2011

You get that tone in all the English broadsheets as well though: my personal perennial teeth grinder is the Guardian ‘Work’ supplement at the weekend which always acts on the assumption that ‘work’ is a phenomenon confined to offices, or occasionally places like hospitals or schools – never a factory or a building site, or a call centre or…..you get the picture.


5. steve white - September 10, 2011

you nearly get the impression that implementing free colleges places resulted was disastrous somehow, it wasn’t.


WorldbyStorm - September 10, 2011

That’s a great way of putting it.


6. Student Demonstration Time… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - November 16, 2011

[…] universal provision in terms of disincentivising access to services such as education, as addressed here, it is this which further reinforces the inequities apparent in such […]


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