By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent
THIRD-LEVEL colleges are still not doing enough to attract students from poor backgrounds or with disabilities, a State agency has claimed.
The Higher Education Authority (HEA) national office for equity of access has also slammed universities and institutes of technology for making their local communities feel excluded.
The office focuses on strategies by third-level institutions to be more inclusive, particularly of groups who do not traditionally avail of higher education. These include young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people with disabilities, who can be deterred by access issues.
While some progress has been made, the office’s 2005 annual report says equity of access remains on the margins in higher education.
"It is not yet part of the day-to-day practical agenda of institutions. This slows progress in attracting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds and introducing inclusive teaching and learning strategies into the higher education curriculum," the report said.
It also points out that higher educational institutions do not always operate as an integrated part of their local communities.
"Sometimes they can be isolationist, with limited opportunities for dialogue and collaboration."
While the number of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds attending college has risen tenfold since the early 1980s, a major Government focus is on improving the participation rates.
Education Minister Mary Hanafin has indicated that part of the criteria for sharing out the €300 million Strategic Innovation Fund will be the progress being made by individual colleges in this regard.
As well as criticising colleges, the HEA’s access office also finds fault with the Government. It cites the maze-like structure of financial support and funding programmes that students must navigate as a significant deterrent to progressing to higher education.
On a more positive note, access office director Dr Mary-Liz Trant said an extra 200 students with a disability had received funding last year - up 14% on 2004.