Family, education, and barriers

A personal story of how family philosophy impacts attitudes to higher education.

When my grandmother was sixteen, she received the highest secondary school grades in Ireland and was offered a scholarship to attend Trinity College Dublin for any degree course she wanted to take. Her father was a primary school teacher with a passion for education, so nothing could have made him happier. He went to the local bishop to ask for permission for her to go, since they were Catholic and the university was Protestant, permission was required.

The bishop said “Go ahead, send your daughter to Trinity but don’t expect to have a job anywhere in the country afterwards”. At the time, and for decades thereafter too, women were not allowed work. So this choice would result in the whole family becoming destitute. With nine children to feed, the choice was clear – she would not go to university.

Her father lamented the choice he was forced to make, but my grandmother never begrudged him for it. She cherished how much he supported his family’s scholastic ambitions. This was something she embodied in her own life with her own six children.

The Marriage Bar was finally lifted in the seventies and my grandmother swiftly joined her husband to become a primary school teacher. Each one of her children were prepped from childhood to assume they were going to university, that going to university was the most normal thing in the world and was the height of importance. Two of her children, my aunts Mary and Bríd, went on to complete higher degrees and teach at university level.

My grandmother Paula watching me steal her fur stole

My own mother carried on the tradition of the push to normality of going to university. It was also assumed that I would go, though we did disagree strongly on what subjects I would study (a story for another day!). Eventually I went to Trinity College Dublin and my grandmother rejoiced – finally that decades-old wound that prevented her from going was somehow slightly soothed by my joining the institution.

Of course, it was easier for me to go to university than for others. Foremost in my mind are the fact that degree fees were abolished in Ireland as part of the nationhood-setting aspirations of the Republic and I had unwavering family support. Some of my peers were not so lucky. One close friend was perpetually harassed by her family about the frivolity of her degree. She was mocked relentlessly about wasting her time, not putting effort into the family business, with endless demands to put her studies aside to do more shifts on the job. She was the first in the family to go to University and the family culture was at the opposite end of the spectrum to mine – they were lovely and supportive about everything except university which was seen as an ivory-tower enemy of the normal working person.

My time at university in the UK working on widening participation (WP) projects opened my eyes further to these types of barriers. Our metrics and methods for understanding WP concerns can’t really capture localised family dynamics and competing pressures like the example above. Likewise, outside the barriers of WP, we can’t know the types of anti-University dialogue students are exposed to from their loved ones.

Why is this important?

We need to understand that the demands we place on our students are received in different ways, because of their unique lived experience. If that fact is recognised, then we can begin to moderate our expectations and the way that we communicate with students about their obligations to their curriculum work. We can also think about how to communicate the value of not just our subjects, but the whole university experience, so that students like my friend have the vocabulary to express the value in what they chose to study.

Right now, universities are under politicised ideological attack. Value(s)-based thinking and supporting students to have the ability to articulate the benefits of their studies, of research-rich universities, and the myriad of creative ways that universities contribute to society is going to support their long-term commitment to higher education.

Our graduates are our future, so we can ask – how will they speak about university once they leave? Do they carry a passion for education into their personal life, like my grandmother did for her children?

Every one of our students has the potential to become a champion for education, so we need to ask ourselves, how am I inspiring that attitude? How am I ensuring that first-gen students in particular are aware of all the University opportunities available to them (within and beyond the curriculum)? Together, we are all part of one big community with shared passions and we have the power to shape the graduates of the future to become caretakers of the next generations of students.

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