The proportion of older students starting third-level courses has fallen instead of increasing in the past three years.
The statistic on college access for ‘first-time’ mature students is contained in a Higher Education Authority (HEA) review on progress with targets to widen participation. It also shows only tiny increases in numbers of Travellers progressing to third level.
Despite above-target improvements in third-level participation by students with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds, Higher Education Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor said meeting targets on mature students and Travellers remains a big challenge.
When a national plan on equity of access to higher education was published three years ago, 19% of new entrants at third level were ‘first-time’ mature students, aged 23 or older the year they began college. But instead of moving towards the 2019 target of 24%, the proportion has fallen back to 16%.
The figures include those on part-time or other flexible course provision, but the worsening position is largely down to the situation on full-time programmes. The target three years ago was to increase mature students from 13% to 16% of all full-time students, but they now stand at just 9%.
The 2015 target on Traveller education was to more than double the numbers at third-level from 35 to 80 by 2019. But the HEA review shows the number has only risen to 41.
The report said that realising targets on Travellers and mature students, among other access categories, would be more difficult than in other areas. It said progress under some headings must be considered in the context of the significant impact of wider social, cultural, and economic factors on the third-level sector.
“For example, the target for full-time mature students will be impacted by a full employment economy,” it said.
The Irish Examiner this week reported statistically significant rises in employment rates among lower-educated people in the last four years, particularly for those educated only to the equivalent of Junior or Leaving Certificate levels.
The progress review said Traveller numbers at third level will be affected by numbers of Traveller students leaving school before the end of the second-level senior cycle, suggesting a need for earlier interventions than those within the control of the higher education sector.