We must still address disparities in access to higher education

The success of many schools in helping most of their students get a place in third-level institutions is highlighted in today’s Feeder Schools supplement inside today’s Irish Examiner.

We must still address disparities in access to higher education

But like a recent Higher Education Authority (HEA) report, it also provides an insight into the imbalances in Irish education. That study last August showed wide disparities between counties, and between different postcode areas of Dublin when it comes to the proportion of school-leavers going to college.

Whereas just 41% of young people from Laois and Donegal go on to higher education (although more from the Ulster county may be attending Northern Ireland colleges), the figure is as high as 60% for counties Galway, Leitrim and Mayo.

Only 15% or 16% of 18-to-20-year-olds from Dublin 17 and Dublin 10, respectively, go to third-level. But the participation rate is 99% for young people with a Dublin 6 address and 84% for Dublin 4, far higher than the Dublin and national averages of 47% and 51%, respectively.

It will be of little surprise, then, to see that some of the schools with the highest and lowest level of college attendance tally with those postcode addresses. But the wide variations are far from exclusive to the capital.

This data should remind policy-makers that years of free higher education — aside from ‘student contributions’ now headed for €3,000 a year — have failed to fully rectify social and geographical imbalances in our third-level student populations. Many of the reasons for that are embedded in communities and have little to do with the performance of individual schools, where for many, the real success is to bring even moderate numbers to sit the Leaving Certificate.

A range of policy changes that might or might not influence the future of these patterns are due to be introduced. Many are being made at Department of Education level, but some are part of the ongoing work of colleges to find additional student selection systems to supplement the Leaving Certificate points race.

Today’s feeder school figures are published during College Awareness Week, an initiative of the HEA, National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, and the Confederation of Student Services Ireland to promote the benefits of going to college for students of all ages.

But a small-scale study among adults in parts of Dublin with the lowest college attendance rates showed this week that, rather than financial barriers, high numbers who did not attend third-level simply were not interested in college. Despite the work already taking place in schools, among teachers and guidance counsellors, fewer than half of Leaving Cert students at around 100 schools go on to third-level each year. While many thousands go on to post-Leaving Cert courses, apprenticeships or training, others are more interested in just finding work.

There is clearly work to be done at schools level, particularly around guidance provision, but society and parents will have to be brought on board more to help make higher education an ambition for more than just those with certain addresses.

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