Grant changes hit poorer students

Changes to student grant eligibility may be compounding the reduced likelihood of poorer people who live further from college going to third-level education, researchers claim.

They say the Department of Education should review the distance from college that students must live to qualify for higher grant rates, after it was increased two years ago from 24 to 45 kilometres.

The research paper by experts from NUI Galway, University of Limerick and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) concluded that travel distance is not an important factor in deciding the participation of all school-leavers in higher education.

But they found longer distances were linked to lower participation for students from lower social classes, with the likelihood of attending college falling by 2.7% for every extra 10km living from college.

So, a less well-off student who lived 50km from college was 13.5% less likely to go to third-level than if he or she lived next to a college. The study presented to a Higher Education Authority (HEA) conference on college access also found more pronounced distance effects for lower-ability students from poorer backgrounds.

One of the authors, ESRI researcher, Selina McCoy, has previously found that people on the margins of qualifying for grants have some of the lowest third-level participation rates, and the latest study said different grant rates that depend on travel distance acknowledge differences in college costs by distance.

“It can be argued that the stricter spatial criteria may be further disadvantaging those living further from a [college] and the cut-off distances should be reviewed,” wrote authors John Cullinan, Sharon Walsh (both NUIG), Darragh Flannery (UL) and Ms McCoy.

“One possibility would be to consider introducing a number of distance cut-offs in a staggered distance-based payment system,” they suggested. Under the changes introduced by previous education minister Mary Coughlan in 2011, around €50m a year is being saved on grants. Students who live nearer college only get 40% of the amount paid to those who live at least 45km from their place of study, meaning a difference of more than €3,500 a year for those from homes with the lowest income levels.

As well as social circumstances, the conference heard about issues affecting participation of students with disabilities, mature students and other groups. The HEA reported that targets set in 2008 for student numbers in four disability categories are already passed or well on the way to being met, and mature students account for one-in-five third-level entrants last year, with a new national access plan due early next year.

“Tackling barriers to education among a range of under-represented groups requires us to deploy our resources differently.

“Technology makes this increasingly possible, bringing into reach an open world of education where classrooms are defined by bridges that connect rather than walls that divide. In this way, access becomes less a lottery and more a matter of choice,” HEA chief executive Tom Boland said.


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