Mind the gap: the stark class divide in access to third level

Students from disadvantaged areas are still much less likely to progress to higher education. The challenges have been identified, but how do we go about bridging the social divide?

Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne at Gonzaga College in Dublin 6; and Deirdre McAdams in Ballyfermot, Dublin 10. Photographs: Nick Bradshaw, Dave Meehan

Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne at Gonzaga College in Dublin 6; and Deirdre McAdams in Ballyfermot, Dublin 10. Photographs: Nick Bradshaw, Dave Meehan


Why do almost 90 per cent of students in Donnybrook go to college but just 16 per cent in Darndale?

The reality in Ireland is that going to university can involve crossing some of the deepest ravines of the social divide. Despite “free fees”, we have failed to significantly narrow the participation gap. Can a new national access plan make any real difference?

The contrast between the numbers going to college in affluent and disadvantaged areas of Dublin is stark.

The National Access Plan for Higher Education 2015-2019, published by the Higher Education Authority, aims to boost the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at third level by 1,500 over the next three years. The plan is also aimed at increasing numbers among under-represented groups such as those with disabilities and mature students who have never been to college.

It will, the report says, be achieved through measures including mainstreaming the delivery of equity of access, gathering more data and evidence on access, and building coherent pathways to higher education.

The funding problem

The HEA has outlined the challenges, but it does not commit any ring-fenced funding to tackle it. Instead, it says any solutions “will have to take place within the context of overall financial resources available for higher education”.

In a sector starved of resources and in the midst of a growing funding crisis, it is hard to see where the money will come from.

Cliona Hannon, director of the Trinity Access Programme, says the right to higher education tends to be framed by the myth of meritocracy, rather than addressing deeper socio-economic and cultural issues.

“Low-income students are in families most of whom have limited formal education, with limited financial resources, in areas where there are few role models progressing to higher education,” she says.

“They are more likely to see the impact of poverty, they have a higher rate of special educational needs and there are many more students from other countries in their schools, so teachers have to factor all of that in a classroom dynamic.

“We measure all of them by the same yardstick – the Leaving Certificate – even though there are people who go to schools like Gonzaga, have huge family cultural capital, extensive extra tuition out of school and plenty of intelligence to begin with, as well as a strong diet, routine and a network of ambitious, higher-education-focused friends.

“Outreach is not enough: how can we reach in to the school community and work in partnership with them?”

The last strategy led to significant increases in participation by mature students and those with disabilities.

However, despite the introduction of “free fees” 20 years ago, and a range of access plans, there has been no significant narrowing in the participation rate across the social divide.

All third-level colleges are now setting targets and risk losing funding if they don’t meet them. But those targets can involve increasing the overall number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than improving access in each faculty.

With the right kind of support, however, there can be dramatic results. St Joseph’s in Rush, which is linked in with Trinity’s access programme, has seen its third-level progression rate go from just 15 per cent to 85 per cent over the past decade and demand for places soar.

Guidance counselling, school planning, connections with Trinity, building a culture of role models, a focus on improving learning, involving and listening to students: these are all factors behind the improvements, says Patricia Hayden, the school principal.

Every Deis (disadvantaged) school is linked to an individual higher education institution.

Hannon believes that a nationally co- ordinated outreach programme could achieve even more. But, she cautions, adversity is not always a barrier and, although Deis has improved access, the “disadvantaged” label can be stigmatising.

“There are lots of kids who faced huge adversity and we still got them to third level.”

‘Everyone in my year expected to go to college’

Secondary school: Gonzaga College, Dublin 6
Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne (23), is a fourth-year medical student at Trinity College Dublin. He is a former president of Trinity students’ union and was actively involved in supporting the Trinity Access Programme

"Why are fee-paying schools so effective at sending people to college? There is greater subject choice, and people are encouraged to take on eight subjects. If a school doesn’t – or can’t – offer applied maths or physics, students who are strong at maths can’t play to their strengths.

“In my year, everyone expected to go to college, and it was expected that we would. In my school, I bounced off my peer group. It’s understated but it’s a really valuable asset; there were a few of us who hoped to go on to study medicine, and we helped and supported each other.

“My parents both did arts in UCD and they went on to be secondary school teachers, so I couldn’t pull the wool over their eyes. They came from education and they know how important it is.

“It’s often said that the Leaving Cert is fair in that, on the day, everybody is given a number and sits the same exam as everybody else.

“Strictly speaking, yes, you are playing the same game, but, depending on where in the country you’re doing that exam, there are different sets of rules.

“Often, the people who could bring about or enact real change – the people who could mitigate the class issues – tend to be those who benefited the most from the system.

“There’s often a tendency to forget how we got there, and to assume we did it by ourselves, through hard work, and not because we had every advantage and opportunity. We forget that there are equally bright young people who have the odds stacked against them.

“It is not an act of charity and kindness to get the kids with the most potential into Trinity, regardless of where they’re from: it’s in the college’s own interests.

“But there is a wider, sectoral issue. Look at the most recent pre-election budget, where over €800 million was set aside for USC and tax cuts, compared to only an extra €144 million for education. The problem is not a mystery: years of underinvestment in education, from preschool to third level and beyond.

“We talk so much about having a world-class and equitable education system. Let’s start to show it’s more than just talk.”

‘People from Ballyfermot don’t usually go to Trinity’

Secondary school: Assumption, Walkinstown
Deirdre McAdams (22), from Ballyfermot, Dublin 10, is a fourth-year medicinal chemistry student at Trinity College. She entered college through the Trinity Access Programme and later became a Trinity Scholar on account of academic excellence

‘People from Ballyfermot don’t usually go to Trinity College. College is expensive. There were exceptions but, after school, some of my friends were expected to contribute to the household and they had to go out and get a job.

“I loved school, and I knew that I wanted go to college and study science. I wanted to do physics for the Leaving Cert, but my school didn’t have the facilities. We had really good teachers who urged us to go to college, but the class sizes in my school were big. There was only really one teacher who could take on higher level maths, and in some subjects students were encouraged to drop down to ordinary level.

“In more advantaged schools, those problems can be solved by taking grinds, which often makes a school appear to be doing better than it actually is. Grinds just weren’t done in my peer group: not only were they quite expensive, but also there was a social stigma attached to doing them.

“There was a girl who lived in my estate, and also attended my school, who had done the access programme foundation course. She was my role model. When I started studying here, there was so much support from the access programme: a writing resource centre, a laptop lending library and a mentor. In my first year, I went to her and explained that I got some grief from some students over my accent. It had been something I feared before I went here – that I wouldn’t fit in – but thankfully those people were a tiny minority.

“Now, I go out and give talks to schools about my college experience. Small world: it turns out that a classmate of mine is living with one of the girls I visited in school; sometimes, they need just need motivation.

“We have to target children younger. I first came here when I was in sixth class in primary school as part of a tour organised by the Trinity Access Programme. When I went to second level, I always remembered that experience.

“In some areas, people don’t know anyone who goes to Trinity, so why would they go? One day, I hope it won’t be strange for people from all sorts of backgrounds to go to college, whether that be members of the Travelling community or people from Ballyfermot and other areas with low progression rates to third level.

Dublin 1... 23%
Dublin 2... 26%
Dublin 3... 60%
Dublin 4... 84%
Dublin 5... 47%
Dublin 6... 99%
Dublin 6W... 82%
Dublin 7... 41%
Dublin 8... 28%
Dublin 9... 55%
Dublin 10... 16%
Dublin 11... 28%
Dublin 12... 37%
Dublin 13... 36%
Dublin 14... 76%
Dublin 15... 47%
Dublin 16... 79%
Dublin 17... 15%
Dublin 18... 58%
Dublin 20... 32%
Dublin 22... 26%
Dublin 24... 29%


Source: HEA figures for 2011-2012

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