Colleges may face funding cuts over access targets

Catríona Walsh, Private Residential Tenancies Board, left, and Laura Harmon, president, Union of Students in Ireland, with students at the launch of the USI Accommodation and Finance Guide Picture: Conor McCabe

Third-level colleges could have funding cut if they do not meet new targets to improve access for disadvantaged, disabled and mature students.

Despite progress in the last five years, many Higher Education Authority targets for participation by under-represented groups have not been met.

Irish third-level participation rates are among the EU’s highest, at 52% of 18 to 20-year-olds, up from 44% in the lifetime of the HEA’s 2008-2013 national access plan.

However, while their numbers have risen, much in line with a rise in overall numbers, mature student representation among full-time entrants only increased from 12.8% to 13%, against a HEA target of 20%, and a less ambitious target of 16% has now been set for 2017.

The proportion of students from homes with parents in the non-manual work socio-economic group was targeted to increase from 27% to 42%, but only reached 30%. For those from semi-skilled and unskilled family backgrounds, participation rose from 33% to 36%, far short of a 45% target.

The HEA is suggesting various ways to improve participation in these categories but less ambitious increases than those in the previous plan are being set.

“We are disappointed at the level of increase for many groups, but we’re really looking forward now as there are some communities and areas in the country where disadvantage is really significant,” said Caitríona Ryan, head of HEA’s national access policy office.

As part of recent agreements on their future direction and structures, all publicly-funded third-level colleges have agreed targets for widened access with the HEA. Along with other targets under headings such as research, community engagement and meeting societal skills needs, their performance will be closely monitored.

“All institutions have set themselves access targets, but the targets we are setting now are about stretching institutions even further,” Ms Ryan said.

She said there are distinctions between urban and rural schools in the DEIS disadvantage support scheme, with higher participation by those from rural DEIS schools, which tend to be more representative of the social mix in an area.

An ESRI report last week emphasised the direct link between the social mix of a school attended by students and their likelihood to attend third-level, which was lower for students at schools with more disadvantaged pupils, even for those who were not less well-off.

A big emphasis of any new plan will be better information for school students, with teacher training proposed to address their role in shaping student expectations.

“Consideration also needs to be given to the role of guidance and mentoring in second-level schools in raising aspirations and assisting in course selection,” says the HEA consultation paper.

A new 2014-2017 access plan is to be published by the end of the year, but responses to the HEA proposals will be accepted up to September 30.


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