More supports must be targeted at disadvantaged communities, and more part-time learning opportunities must be offered to encourage more mature students into higher education, a new study has found.
While the number of people aged between 15 and 64 who have achieved a third-level qualification in Ireland has increased by 5% in the past decade, the study, commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has found relatively low levels of education attainment in specific groups in comparison to overall population levels.
Those specific groups, which were identified in the HEA's 2015-2019 National Access Plan (NAP) to support increased access and participation in higher education, include first-time mature students, students with disabilities, Irish Travellers, lone parents, teen parents, and ethnic minorities.
A review of the NAP in 2018 identified a decline in numbers of mature students and the HEA commissioned this new independent study to identify the reasons for this decline.
The findings, released last night, show that the number of mature students in higher education declined as the unemployment rate fell.
It found that over half of mature students in Ireland attend an Institute of Technology for their higher education and this is due, in part, to the differences in courses on offer.
In the academic year 2018/2019, 6.8% of new entrants in universities were mature students, compared with 12.3% in colleges and Institutes of Technology.
The report said the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant and the Back to Education Allowance are key supports - not just for those in NAP groups, but for all mature students, which half of all mature students who are not in a NAP target group benefiting from one, or both, of these supports.
The study also found that guidance and peer support work well, with 75% of mature students participating in education and training before engaging in higher education, and with over half participating in a FET course, and 21% in a community education course.
The main barriers to access to higher education were financial cost, followed by family responsibilities and commitments, distances, and a lack of flexible study options.
The report has now called for access targets and supports to be focused on disadvantaged communities, and for more opportunities for part-time learning.
It calls for strong national provision of guidance and support for mature students as well as increasing provision for foundation or bridging courses in partnership with further education, and the development of seamless pathways between further education and training and higher education.
Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris, said the report's findings are important.
“They will help us in our review of access policies and supports which seek to strengthen the participation of students from diverse backgrounds in higher education, particularly those who did not follow the more traditional transition routes,” he said.