Progress in representation of disadvantaged and disabled students at college has exceeded targets.
Higher Education Authority (HEA) statistics show that 3,347, or 11%, of new full-time entrants to third-level colleges in 2014 are categorised as having a disability. This was up from 2,166 who were being assisted by a fund for students with disabilities three years earlier, and slightly above the target of 3,200 for this academic year.
The data published in a HEA systems performance report today also indicates the proportion of first-year students from socio-economically disadvantaged homes has risen significantly over the 20% figure in 2011-12. Their numbers grew from 8,240 to 10,875 in 2014-15 or 26% of all new entrants.
However, representation of mature students among new college students is falling, from nearly 5,700 (14%) to 5,063 (12%). A target of 13% participation by this group had been set for the current academic year.
The statistics emerge in a HEA report on the performance of the higher education system, highlighting various developments against a background of funding and staffing cuts of recent years.
Education Minister Richard Bruton pointed to many system improvements, including Ireland’s recent ninth place in global scientific rankings, coming first in computer science, immunology, and nanosciences.
With the exception of NUI Galway, Irish universities have been slipping in world rankings in recent years. Those falls have been linked to falling budgets and staffing cuts, while student numbers continued to rise.
Acknowledging the public debate around rankings, Mr Bruton said they have too narrow a focus and do not look at a colleges’ whole performance. He praised third-level staff for resilience and innovation, delivering more high-skilled graduates at a time of significant resource constraints over the past decade.
“In addition to this, they have demonstrated a capacity to react quickly to meet identified emerging skills gaps in key areas,” he said.
In October, Mr Bruton announced the first increases in public funding for higher education since the height of the recession. However, the need to provide an extra €600m a year to the system by 2020 is the subject of political debate, over what portion should come from the State, employers, and students, or in what form students might have to pay any increased fees.
Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, overall student numbers rose from 196,000 to 210,000. The proportion of international students increased from 7% to 9%, and is believed to be 13% this year.
Ireland has the EU’s second-highest proportion of third-level students in science, computing, and maths. The higher education sector has won €157m of the country’s €251m share to date of EU Horizon 2020 research funding.
Despite many improvements, the HEA cautions that third-level colleges must continue to be properly resourced and a lack of capital investment reversed. This is necessary, it says, to avoid risks to quality of education, broader access for under-represented groups, and other areas.
“If the higher education system were to suffer an adverse shock on foot of any of these risks materialising, it would likely have longer-term and broader reputational effects beyond Ireland, and thus damage individual institutions, the sector as a whole, and Ireland’s reputation,” the report says.
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