When access to college changes lives


IT STARTED in 1990 with just six students from Ballymun. Now 21 years later, DCU’s Access programme is the oldest in the country and it’s thriving: 170 students entered the university through the programme in September, the largest cohort yet. If they are anything like their predecessors, they will outperform their non-Access peers academically despite entering college on fewer CAO points.

Nowadays access, or widening participation, is a well-known concept across the university sector. Encouraging students from areas of socio-economic disadvantage, students with disabilities and mature students into third level is now something each third level institution actively tries to do.

In 1990, however, it was all very novel. The programme was the first of its kind in Ireland. “The ground work was laid a couple of years before the first students entered the college,” says Ita Tobin, head of access and student recruitment in DCU. “From the beginning DCU had been very aware of its hinterland – Ballymun was right on its doorstep. It was supposed to be a university for all, so staff were wondering why so many people from the local community would pass by the gates without ever considering the possibility of coming inside to study.”

By the time DCU gained university status in 1989, the Ballymun Initiative for Third Level Education (Bite) was almost ready for its first students. Bite was a pioneering project that aimed to assist students from DCU’s immediate hinterland to access a university education. “It was the first time that there was a clear and transparent route for disadvantaged students into higher education, and the first time that these students could get in on a different system,” says Tobin.

Over the two decades, Access in DCU has evolved and developed but the basic ethos of encouraging and supporting students from marginalised communities into third level education, remains the same. During the first years of operation, the service focused on students from north Dublin. Then in early 2000, in collaboration with other universities and higher education institutions, the Access scheme went national. Now students from all over the country apply to various institutions through the Higher Education Access Route (Hear) which is processed by the CAO. To date, almost 1,500 students have passed through the DCU Access service and the intake continues to grow each year.

Currently the service has a number of aspects. There are the financial, academic and personal supports for students who have entered DCU through Hear. DCU also has extensive outreach programmes in north Dublin, cultivating links, not just with secondary schools, but also primary schools and community groups. These outreach programmes aim to expose students to the possibilities at third level and they reach about 6,000 students each year.

“One of the biggest challenges for Access students who come to DCU is to develop a sense that they belong here,” says Tobin. “Confidence is a problem for many students but particularly for ones who enter through the Access service. The contact we have with students before they enter college is particularly important in building that confidence and sense of belonging.” To this end, students are invited to a three-day orientation course on campus in the August before they start college. The aim is to show them around the university and enable them to meet one another so that they begin to find their feet before the start of the academic year.

Care is individualised. Each student is assessed to determine what level of financial, academic and pastoral support they are likely to need. With the right supports the results can be startling. “The Access students tend to be very motivated,” says Tobin. “They have had to fight harder to get here and have invested so much of themselves in their education.”

Despite starting from a lower base in terms of CAO points, DCU Access students have consistently outperformed their peers in terms of academic achievement. Over the 21 years, 90 per cent of Access students have graduated with first or second-class honours degrees as compared with 80 per cent of the general student population who managed to do the same. More than 85 per cent of DCU Access graduates are employed in areas directly related to their degrees. The rate of unemployment is just four per cent.

For now, the programme is growing despite the downturn. Of course, students and parents are now finding themselves in need of greater financial support. “We sit down with parents and try to work something out,” says Tobin. “It’s very difficult and daunting to think about funding a child through third-level education when you’re worried about bread and butter issues like putting food on the table.”

The Access cohort currently represents seven per cent of the overall DCU population and the aim is that the present figure will grow by 40 per cent by 2014.

National funding is hugely important, as is the funding that DCU receives from businesses and industry through its Educational Trust which supports an array of scholarships.

“DCU has a huge commitment to the Access service,” Tobin says. “It’s a part of the identity of the university and there is a huge will to keep things going. There will be challenges when it comes to funding the wider outreach programme but there is a real drive to succeed.”

KIRSTY FARRELL is from Summerhill in Dublin’s inner city. She is in her second year of a Bachelor of Civil Law

“I always wanted to do law. I don’t know whether it was watching films when I was younger or what but I always had a bit of a fascination with it. I’m the first person in my extended family to go to university but I always knew I wanted to go to college. I don’t think it would have been possible without the Access service.

“I studied as best I could for the Leaving Cert and I ended up getting 390 points but you needed 450 for my course so the service definitely opened the door for me. Once I was in, there were all kinds of supports. There was a summer school that was basically a couple of days in August where the Access students were shown around campus and got to meet one another and all of that. I met another person doing my course. It just meant that by the time college actually started, you had already experienced some of college life.

“The financial supports are really important to me. The books for my course are so expensive – they can cost as much as €150 each – but the service always gives me a heads up if any second-hand books are donated. They support you in other ways too. If you’re having a problem they are always there. It’s like being a part of a big family really.

“I’m hoping to go on an internship to Washington DC so I’ve applied for the Washington Ireland programme in the college. Ideally I’d like to do the New York Bar Exam when I graduate. The jobs situation isn’t great here but the fact that you don’t have that division between solicitors and barristers in the US really appeals to me. I researched my degree courses with that in mind before I chose a college course actually.

“At the moment, my course workload is very heavy – first year was a big change from school. Everything is up to you in terms of how much work you do. I really enjoy the independence but it’s a lot of responsibility.

“I put college first. The way I see it, it’s three years out of your life but the impact of those three years echoes down throughout your career. You’re in college to make a better life for yourself so you may as well make the most of it.”

DR DAVID DOWLING entered DCU through the Access service. He studied for a degree in biotechnology before completing a PhD in immunology. He is currently working as an immunologist in the Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University.

“When you’re surrounded by people who have gone on to third level, there’s a lot of knowledge that you almost take for granted. I didn’t have any of that knowledge and that’s where the Access programme really helped me. It was like having a big brother or sister who you could ask all sorts of stupid questions. There’s just stuff that you seem to know innately if you’re from a culture of higher education – like the fact that you can go on and do a PhD or something. That’s not necessarily something that everybody realises they can do.

“I come from a big family and I didn’t grow up in a culture of further education. One of my sisters went to college but she’s a good bit older than me and very few of my friends would have gone to university.

“I got 400 points in my Leaving Cert. It wasn’t spectacular – I was better at science than languages and it showed. I had visited all the colleges and I had talked to different Access officers but in the end I chose to study biotechnology in DCU because I liked that they were very focused on making sure you had the skillsets employers were looking for.

“The learning style of university suited me. I ended up getting an honours degree which I was delighted about. It just goes to show, there were people with 600 points on my course who ended up dropping out after a year or two. Points aren’t everything.

“I went on to do a PhD in immunology in the school of nursing in DCU. I actually finished relatively early – it took me less than four years – and I published four papers in that time which is quite a lot. I had some financial help from the Access service for the first year or two which was invaluable.

“When I graduated in 2009, it was smack bang in the middle of the financial crisis. Here I was, a product of 10 years worth of investment in education, only to find that nobody could employ me in Ireland. I had to go abroad so I applied for jobs in Yale and Harvard. I ended up being offered the job in Yale before the interview in Harvard. Harvard had to either offer me the job or lose me. They offered me the job.

“I love my work. Your level of responsibility is based on your competence. I’m 28 and I’m in charge of million dollar research projects. We’re basically studying the immune systems of babies with a view to producing safe and effective vaccines that can be administered as early as possible. It’s interesting and it’s challenging.

“I think I would have always gone to college, but the Access service allowed me to realise my potential. I did a biotechnology degree rather than a two-year course in sports science. Financially, it allowed me to be a full-time scientist from the age of 18. With a bit of money and support, I was able to focus and I became exceptionally good at what I do. Without it I would have been fine, but with the support of Access, I’m much better than fine. I had two of the top universities in the world fighting over me. That’s the difference it made.”

KEITH GREHAN graduated with a business studies degree in 2008. He is now working as a financial reporter at Citigroup and is currently studying part-time for a masters in business administration with Dublin Business School

“I’m from Cabra originally and I learned about the Access services through school. My older sister had gone to DCU through the Access service so I got an idea of what college was like from her. My younger brother went to DCU as well so they got to know the family fairly well which was nice.

“I actually think if more people in my school had realised what college is actually like, more would have considered it. When you’re in school, you’re sort of forced to go so you assume college will be more of the same. If students were given an insight into what it’s like, they’d be more likely to go.

“Access helped me get my foot in the door. I was 20 points short for my course but they accepted me anyway.

“The Access service was always there for support if you felt you were struggling in a subject. I would have been into them a fair bit in first and second year, but after that I had sort of found my feet. I got a bit of academic support in fourth year as well and I graduated with my degree in business.

“In third year I did work experience with a company and I got on well with my boss at the time so I emailed him to see if there was any work going.

“By this stage he had moved to Citigroup and he actually had a job lined up for me. I was so lucky. By the end of that year everything went belly up and I assumed that I wouldn’t hold onto my job. They’ve kept me on luckily enough and now I’ve decided to do a part-time masters in Dublin Business School. I felt I needed to do that and so far it’s going well. My sister and my brother have both gone on to do masters degrees.

“I was so lucky to get into the Access service. I try and help out as much as I can when it comes to volunteering and talking to students. I think it’s great to be able to pass on your experience. It’s not past anyone to do a degree. With the right supports anyone can do it.”

Access All Areas: What’s the story on acess in other colleges?


Name:UCC plus+ (Providing Links to Under-represented school leavers)

Founded: 1996

What’s the story?UCC has outreach programmes that aim to demystify third- level education for school children. As in other Access programmes, students apply through Hear and once accepted, are supported academically, financially and personally throughout their time in college.

Numbers are on the increase. Last year there were 148 entrants through UCC Plus+ and this year saw the numbers rise to 171. Since 1998, about 1,185 students have passed through the programme.


Name:UCD Access Centre

Founded: 1997

What’s the story?There are currently about 400 students in UCD who entered through Hear. They receive financial supports, peer mentoring and academic support as well as personal support and guidance after entry.

Between students who enter via Hear, students with disabilities and mature students, about 600 enter UCD through the Access route each year. The Access Centre also works with schools, community and voluntary organisations in the Leinster area as part of its outreach programme.


Name:Trinity Access Programme (TAP)

Founded: 1993.

What’s the story?TAP has a continuum of programmes for primary, second level and undergraduate students, young adults and mature students. Numbers are steadily increasing.

There is a college target that “non-traditional” students will make up

22 per cent of first-year entrants by 2014. Completion and progression rates are excellent at 94 and 96 per cent respectively.


Name:UL Access

Founded: 1999

What’s the story?The UL Access programme, like programmes in other institutions, is aimed at students from socio-economic backgrounds which are under-represented in higher education.

This year saw 149 students enter UL under the programme. The Access office provides financial, personal, academic and social supports to Access students.


Name:NUI Galway Access Service

Founded: 1997

What’s the story?The NUI Galway Access Service specifically targets students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with a disability and mature students.

A quota of a minimum of 20 per cent of first years, in all full-time courses divided across these three target groups, is established in the university. To date, almost 3,000 students have participated in an alternative entry route to NUI Galway.

As well as running Access courses for school leavers and mature students, the service has links with schools and provides comprehensive supports for existing students.


Name:Maynooth Access Programme (MAP)

Founded: 1998

What’s the story?Activities of the Access office in NUIM include a mixture of outreach programmes and admissions routes aimed at under-represented groups. According to the MAP website, this academic year NUIM filled 101 first-year places for socio-economically disadvantaged students.

A further 123 first-year students with disabilities have registered with the Disability Office. Mature student entry this year reached over 400 which is the highest number to date.


Name:The Widening Participation Strategy

Founded: 1996

What’s the story?Currently about

26 per cent of the DIT student population is made up of students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and mature students.

The institution prides itself on a long tradition of inclusion. It has comprehensive and varied community and school links within its outreach programme, in addition to the supports in place for current students.

Programmes such as the Ballymun Music Programme and the Computer Learning in Communities are among the more unique initiatives.

*NOTE:Universities collate information differently. Some collect information just on students from marginalised groups such as those from areas of socio-economic disadvantage.

Others combine this information with information on other student groups such as mature students and students with disabilities.