Class gap: More affluent students dominate high-points courses

Trinity College Dublin has lowest proportion of disadvantaged students, study shows

The class gap in higher education is revealed in new figures that show affluent students dominate high-points courses such as medicine, finance and engineering.

By contrast, students from disadvantaged areas are more likely to study courses in areas such as childcare, sport and secretarial studies.

The findings are contained in new research by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which examines the socio-economic profile of tens of thousands of students attending universities and institutes of technology.

The study also reveals striking contrasts in the profile of students attending individual third-level institutions.


Trinity College Dublin has the highest proportion of students from affluent areas (36 per cent) and the lowest proportion of disadvantaged students (5 per cent).

It is followed closely behind by other Dublin institutes, including the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and UCD.

By contrast, Letterkenny Institute of Technology has the highest proportion of students from disadvantaged areas (25 per cent).

Similarly, when measured using average household income by a student's home area, it ranges from almost €57,000 in IADT Dún Laoghaire to just under €36,000 in Letterkenny IT.

In general, institutes of technology were more likely to represent the local community in their student intake, while there was a more affluent student profile in the university sector.

Using the new data, colleges will be rewarded with additional public funding if they admit more disadvantaged students.

This year, for example, colleges received about €42 million for measures to support students from target groups to access and participate in higher education.

Overall, across the higher education system, students from affluent backgrounds are over-represented while students from disadvantaged backgrounds are under-represented.

This class gap is likely to raise questions over whether our system of grants and access schemes is generous enough to support students from worse-off backgrounds into higher education.

The findings are based on deprivation index scores, which measure the relative affluence or disadvantage of a student’s home address.

The report covers all publicly funded higher-education institutions for the first time and 94 per cent of third-level students.

Lack of diversity

Dr Alan Wall, the authority's chief executive, said the figures showed the higher-education student population did not yet reflect the diversity found in the rest of the population in Ireland.

“This detailed data set provides policy makers and institutions with a comprehensive knowledge of patterns of access and disadvantage that will assist them in developing and implementing targeted approaches to advancing equity of access,” he said.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said it was his ambition to ensure third-level education was accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, geography or gender.

“In order to achieve that aim, we must ensure that our policies strengthen the participation of students in higher education, and to do that we need accurate data and evidence,” he said.

He has announced a review of the Susi grants scheme and is planning a series of new targets in a new National Access Plan, which aims to boost the number of under-represented groups at third level.

The HEA’s head of access policy, Caitríona Ryan, cautioned against comparing individual colleges against each other because each institution serves a unique region.

For example, Donegal is categorised as the most disadvantaged county in the State, while parts of Dublin are among the most affluent areas nationwide.

She said all colleges had access initiatives in place to boost the numbers of disadvantaged and under-represented groups, such as students from the Travelling community, students with disabilities and first-time mature students.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent