Lately, have you noticed an upsurge in business cards with people’s academic accomplishments emblazoned on them? It is not uncommon to come away from a conference with business cards exclaiming extraordinary educational achievements, even though these academic exploits have nothing to do with the job the hyper-qualified individual is actually doing.

The business card is, in reality, a social signaller. So rather than the card telling you that you have just met some bloke called Mick Murphy, giving you the email and mobile of this salesman who might give you a deal on your office’s cloud computing package, his business card bellows that you have just met someone called: Michael S Murphy jnr BA, BSc, ACA, FRM, CPA (NUI).

Quite what all these letters and titles – announced as if the owner were an in-bred duke arriving at a royal wedding – mean is beyond me. Only a tiny percentage of people work in a field that has any remote connection to what they studied in university, rendering most of the letters after their name superfluous from any practical point of view.

But maybe this too is the point. Are Irish people more invested in the status that education and the university conveys than the education and the academic subject itself?

Grind schools

These thoughts struck me the other night as I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic at about 8pm – usually late enough to be able to drive around south Dublin relatively unhindered. It turns out the tailback of Audis, Volvos and Beemers in Stillorgan was due to parents collecting pupils coming out of the Dublin School of Grinds.

The grind school is now a staple of the middle-class Irish education arms race, as parents strive to get their children not just into university, but into the “best” universities.

Something odd is happening to competition for third-level education in Ireland. Despite the fact that the number of university places has never been higher, the competition has never been more intense. This seems counterintuitive.

Previously, competition for university was intense precisely because there were too few places. You would expect that as universities and technical colleges expanded, competition for places would relax. But the opposite has happened – despite numbers sitting the Leaving Cert not having risen dramatically.

What’s going on?

Ireland has a seen a dramatic rise in the proportion of its workforce with a university education since 2000, rising from 21 per cent to more than 45 per cent in 2017. There has been a simultaneous decline in the proportion of those without a Leaving Cert.

We have seen a huge educational uplift, and third-level qualifications have also had a significant positive impact on wages and income. Today, those with a tertiary degree earn on average 56 per cent more than those with only upper secondary education.

So if the average college graduate is doing much better than those with no college parchment, and if we now have loads more places than before, why the neurosis of the grind schools?

Could it be that, because universities have expanded capacity, the status of the general university education has fallen, but the status of the specific university institution has risen? As university education has become more available, the “discerning” class look for ways to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi. The status of the prestige colleges has gone up precisely because of the arrival of newer ones. In hierarchies, contrast is everything.

If this is the case, parents would appear to be interested in the university less for the education it provides than for the status it bestows.

To see if this is true, let’s examine the points system, a transparent ranking system resembling a TripAdvisor for universities – and a barometer for the educational tastes of the Irish middle classes.

How do we explain that the minimum required for English in UCC is 420 points but the same course is 473 points in Trinity, or that history in Trinity is 487 points but 322 points in UCD or psychology is 208 points in Dublin Business School but 554 points in Trinity?

This is partly because populations (and therefore educational demand) are highest in Dublin, and is stoked also by international university rankings. But the points show that there is also an entrenched university hierarchy in the minds of parents, despite the proliferation of places available.

Class system

For secondary schools it is not enough for a school to get a certain number of children into college, it is also crucial that they get them into a specific college. There is a class system embedded into the university system. And it starts not at secondary school but at the primary school that “feeds” the children into the right secondary school, which in turn, “feeds” the teenagers into the right college.

God forbid, there may even be the right creche that feeds into the right primary school, which may explain the Little Harvard chain of creches in Rathfarnham?.

With this intense competition, every little helps, and this is where the grind school comes in to offer the kids a leg up. The schools are expensive. The Institute of Education in Dublin costs €7,295 for a full year, Ashfield College costs €6,495, Bruce College in Cork will set you back €7,450, while Yeats College in Galway comes in at €7,200.

Some families prefer a part-time approach to grinds. Doing some rough maths, let’s say you send your child to a public school and to compensate she goes to grinds in three subjects she struggles with, once a week in each. At €35 for an hour of grind – which is probably the low end of the range – that’s about €100 a week. Doing that every week of the school term (which is probably just under 32 weeks), that works out at about €3,200 for one year.

Take it up to four subjects, and that jumps to €4,480 – and this is on top of whatever people are already paying in voluntary donations or other fees.

With all this expense and competition, is it any wonder that a fella might proclaim his educational conquests on his business card? Who’d begrudge him?