On June 6th, approximately 177, 000 students started the Leaving Cert,the controversial jewel of Ireland’s education system. Every year the Leaving Cert is criticized for its archaic use of rote learning and every year the academic dominance of girls suggests that the Leaving Cert is gender imbalanced.
For those applying to medical school there is the added pressure of the Health Professionals Admissions Test (HPAT),which is usually taken 4 months before the standard exams. Success in both the Leaving Cert and the HPAT is necessary for those wanting to go to medical school as an undergraduate and avoid the costly postgraduate fees. A high score in the HPAT can add 300 points to Leaving Cert results.
It was hoped that the HPAT would single out good potential doctors rather than just good academics and address the issue of gender imbalance in education. As Professor of Academic Medicine and Director of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning at Trinity College Shaun McCann said, “The pendulum has swung too far in favour of females”.
But gender imbalance is a subjective issue. The educational dominance of women is not reflected in their role in the professional world. The Central Statistics Office report, “Women and Men in Ireland in 2011” showed that while Irish women tend to be better educated than their male counterparts, men still overwhelmingly dominate senior and managerial positions.
According to the report he Education and Health sectors employed the highest proportion of women in 2010. In fact, women account for four out of five employees in the health sector but only occupy 36% of managerial positions. In primary school education, 85% of teachers are women but only take up 53% of managerial positions.
The vast majority of civil servants are men and they dominate the top positions. 82.4% of Secretaries General, 83.9% of Deputy and Assistant Secretaries and 69.4% of Principal Officers are men. The sectors with the highest proportions of men in 2010 were Agriculture, Construction and Transport.
The HPAT is a gender and demographics conscious exam. Candidates are required to state among others their gender and ethnicity. The worrying insinuation of this is that an unbiased test is strategically analysing the candidates pedigree not their individual quality.
It is also unclear to some if a two-and-a-half hour exam on reasoning and problem solving can really determine who will make a good doctor. Professor Bill Powderly, Head of Medicine and Medical Science at UCD has admitted that he could not see a difference in quality between the first years who had taken the HPAT and the students from before its implementation.
What is clear is the economic barrier that the HPAT poses to entering medicine. The inevitable tutoring and grinds industry has sprung up to prepare candidates for the test. These courses are expensive. Two years ago, one college was charging €280 for a two-day seminar while candidates this year have reported paying €900 for grinds. And then of course, there is the fee of €95 just to register for the exam.
has sprung up to prepare candidates for the test. These courses are expensive. Two years ago, one college was charging €280 for a two-day seminar while candidates this year have reported paying €900 for grinds. And then of course, there is the fee of €95 just to register for the exam.
One of the most vocal critics of the exams is Minister for Health Dr. James Reilly who, in January of this year, termed the test “grossly unfair” and called for it to be axed. He added that if a person who has scored well in the Leaving Cert wants to study medicine then “he or she has bloody well earned the right to do so”.
In 2009, the first year of its implementation, the exam did impact the gender ratio. Men secured 48% of places with women getting 52%. This was a stark contrast to the 2008 offers, which gave 60% to women and only 40% to men.
But the trend was reversed by 2010, with women again getting higher marks on both the HPAT and the Leaving Cert, illustrating that the exam can be prepared and coached for as much as many other tests. The students who cannot afford to pay for the extra help have been the real victims of the HPAT.
If the medical establishment does find the gender imbalance in favour of women so objectionable perhaps a healthier solution would be to help boys improve their CAO points rather than hide behind an inefficient exam that excludes and discriminates against poorer citizens. The HPAT is fine, if we want all white, male, middle-class doctors.