Access to Higher Education

Time for a New Approach

In August 1968 the Minister for Education, Brian Lenihan, announced the setting up of the Higher Education Authority. Three years later it was placed on a statutory basis. Amongst the general functions assigned to the group was responsibility to promote ‘equality of opportunity in higher education’. Ground-breaking research, which Monica Nevin carried out in UCD, had established that entry to college was largely confined to those belonging to middle or upper class families. So, difficulties with this matter had been well known to Irish educational policymakers.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the Authority did little to address the issue in the early years. It was not until a decade had elapsed that the HEA set about determining the extent of the problem. It commissioned Patrick Clancy and Ciaran Benson to carry out research in the Dublin area. Their report, published in 1979, indicated the difficulties faced by members of particular socio-economic groups in accessing third level education. In fairness, having started the process the HEA continued by commissioning further research.  Dr Clancy assessed the national picture in Participation in Higher Education published in 1982. This was followed by further series of reports by him in which he analysed various cohorts of Irish school students and their patterns of access to college. Since his final study was published in 2001, others have carried out further analyses on similar lines.

Clancy’s reports, and indeed subsequent ones, continued to highlight the problem. His studies identified the issue of the educational experience of young people earlier in the education system as being of significance. In particular, he described various transitions throughout the education system of which access to college, and completion therein, are merely the final two. In a sense securing a third level qualification is akin to a hurdle race. Entry to college is the penultimate obstacle and course completion is the final one. However, starting with a child’s readiness for infant school there are many hurdles to be crossed in the interim. So, early intervention is essential.

Aside from reports commissioned by the HEA the issue of access to third level education was considered in a wide range of official reports in the 1990s. These included Green and White Papers on Irish Education, the Report of the National Education Convention, The Commission on the Points system, the Report of the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education and the Report of the Advisory Committee on Student Support. I recall that the office which I occupied, as principal of a school for whose pupils this was a very relevant issue, contained a plethora of reports on the topic. Without underestimating the work that had gone in to producing these reports the need for concrete steps to be taken was long overdue.

In September 2000, the Minister for Education Michael Woods established an Action Group to consider the development of a coordinated framework to promote access to third level education by disadvantaged students, who are the focus of this article, as well as mature applicants and students with disabilities. They suggested that a national office for equality of access to higher education should be established within the HEA “to draw up policy proposals and to oversee the implementation of the National programme in close liaison with the Department of Education and other stakeholders.”  While the creation of a national office is an idea that obviously had merits, the location within the HEA was somewhat strange and likely to create implementation problems.  The HEA, then as now, had no function in relation to pre–school, primary or post-primary education. 

In any event, the National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education was established within the HEA in August 2003 and produced, in late 2004, an action plan to cover the period of 2005–7.  This was followed by a second national plan to cover the period 2008–13. In the interim a target of 72% of the cohort proceeding to third level by 2020 had been set in the National Skills Strategy released in 2007. Within this average figure the National Access Office, in their 2008–13 plan, specified that all socio-economic groups would have entry rates of at least 54% by 2020. When this target was determined there were a number of socio-economic groups who were seriously under-represented. For example, young people from the socio-economic category ‘unskilled manual’ were estimated to have progression rate 27%. In order to reach the 54% figure interim targets were set to mark progress. These were 37% (2010) and 42% (2013) en route to 54% by 2020. In reality very little progress was achieved and these and other targets were missed by a wide margin. The idea that this group could double its participation rate by 2020 illustrates clearly that the HEA, presumably in consultation with the Dept of Education and Skills, failed to understand the challenges faced by pupils from poorer families and schools serving disadvantaged areas

Missing targets is not a major problem, of itself, provided a detailed assessment is carried out to determine the reasons for the failure and steps are taken to address these issues. There is no evidence of any such analysis contained in the recently released National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education, 2015 – 2019. Of course any such an exercise would almost certainly have focused on deficiencies in provision at the first and second levels of the education provision as well as a failure to provide adequate resources to students at third level. Organisations such as the HEA, which operate under the aegis of the DES, are little more than branch offices of the mother-ship and so, to all practical purposes, are not noted for robust comment on the policies of the Department. In the recent plan the 54% target has been set aside quietly and a new figure of 35% by 2020 has been promulgated in respect of those in the group most under-represented.

This article may be interpreted as a criticism of the personnel who have worked on this issue over the years in the HEA. That is not the intention. In organisational terms their position is impossible. Research by Clancy and others clearly point out that improving access to college depends largely on activities earlier in the young person’s educational experiences. Yes, disparities in access rates to college are a serious problem. Fundamentally, however, they are symptoms of deeper problems and deficiencies in educational provision at earlier stages. A number of factors in the young person’s earlier educational experience have a bearing on the access to college issue. Of these educational attainment is of greatest significance. There is a strong link between parental socio-economic status and attainment levels in school and it begins to have an impact at a young age. This relates not just to the individual student or his /her family but also to the school attended. The challenges facing schools located in deprived areas are many. The result can be to restrict the pupil’s chances of reaching his/her attainment potential because of inhibiting factors within the school. Restrictions on choice of subject and levels at which it is taught are but one example of this phenomenon. So, the pattern of access to college for certain groups is established many years earlier. In order words the odds are stacked against many young people from an early age.

A secondary issue is the question of aspirations including those of parents and teachers as well as the individual students themselves. Career guidance teachers and schools generally are called upon to promote high educational aspirations among their students. Undoubtedly this is important but encouraging high aspirations when a student’s achievement level is disappointing is unlikely to have a significant impact. His/her experiences at primary and second level inevitably impacts on the young person’s aspirations to proceed to further education and this, in turn, affects performance and attainment. In a sense it is a vicious circle.

The adequacy or otherwise of the third level grant system is often cited as a factor in the access to college issue. Though secondary in significance to prior attainment levels an adequate grant system is essential for young people to proceed into and complete third-level education. It has been estimated that at best the grant currently available meets between a quarter and a third of average expenditure. In these circumstances many young people from poorer families even if achieving to their full potential in school may not consider going to college as a realistic option.

In summary, action to improve access to third – level education needs to be taken earlier in the primary and secondary sectors, and indeed at pre-school level. The HEA has no role whatsoever in these matters and probably only limited expertise. Marked differences in participation rates at third-level are a problem that is not caused by higher education providers and so, they are not well placed to resolve it. At best they can make an important, albeit limited, contribution to bringing about improvements.

Clearly these limitations impact on how the HEA and the National Access Office see their role. In preparation for drawing up the recently released plan a wide public consultation process was initiated. As part of that meetings were held with 12 organisations/individuals working in the education field, broadly defined. None of these were operating at pre-school, primary or second level. Even more striking is the response to public advertisements seeking submissions. Fifty eight individuals/organisations responded with three choosing to remain anonymous. Almost fifty of the submissions came from organisations active in the education field. One would have expected to see contributions to the process from all the national education partners including the teacher unions, the various managerial bodies, patronage organisations and Parents Councils at primary or second level. A very striking feature is that only two of these bodies made submission, namely NAPD and ASTI. In addition, and to the credit of those involved, one individual school facing the challenges posed by educational disadvantage on a daily basis, St Dominic’s Secondary in Ballyfermot, also made a submission.  It seems probable that the explanation for lack of engagement in the issue by the first and second level education partners is a perception that the access is a third-level matter. Assigning responsibility to the HEA for access to college obviously contributes to this misconception.

Many would agree serious effort needs to be made to address the issue of access to college and to bring about equality of opportunity in that regard. While resources are often listed as the most important factor in ensuring progress it can be argued that organisational change might have a more significant impact. In particular, the status of the National Access Office needs to be reviewed. It was reasonable in 1968 to assign the question of access to the HEA. The government at that time believed that it had brought about equality of opportunity at primary and post-primary level. Subsequent experiences have illustrated that this optimism was misplaced. The challenges that need to be overcome in achieving a satisfactory progression pattern through the education system to higher education are quite intractable. The HEA has had foremost responsibility for dealing with these in the Irish education system. Progress has been made but significant disparities remain. Huge numbers of people have missed out on the chance to fulfil their full potential. It is reasonable to suggest that after almost 60 years a new approach is urgently needed. To enable it to fulfil its remit the National Access Office should be established on a statutory basis, independent of both the DES and the HEA, located elsewhere, such as in the Dept. Children and the Family, with a separate funding stream. Such a radical change will only come about as a result of strong commitment at political level. In a particularly progressive move Micheál Martin included a provision in the 1998 Education Act making the appointment of a statutory Education Disadvantage Committee obligatory. It began work in 2002 and produced a number of valuable analyses and recommendations. Unfortunately, the existence of an independent voice commenting on educational provision was too much for policy makers in Marlboro’ Street to bear and it no longer exists.

Brian Fleming

Education History © 2017