There is help for students from disadvantaged backgrounds
Outreach programmes provide support for students facing financial, cultural and educational barriers
Gary Gannon: “When students from disadvantaged backgrounds go to Trinity or other universities, we often feel like we don’t fit in.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Adjusting to college can be tough and not all students will make it past their first year. Research from the Higher Education Authority suggests that almost one in five students from disadvantaged schools did not progress beyond first year.
This compares with an average of 14 per cent of all new students and just 10 per cent of students from fee-paying schools.
Why is this happening? We asked some experts about the financial, cultural and educational barriers facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds and how can they be surmounted?
Gary Gannon works in outreach for the Trinity Access Programme (TAP) and is also a Social Democrat councillor for the Dublin north-inner-city area and a candidate for the party in the Dublin Central constituency.
His first encounter with third-level was when he was working as an apprentice plumber at Griffith College Dublin. He grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Drumcondra in north Dublin where it was rare for people to go to college. At Griffith, he saw that students were enjoying college life, so he quit his job and entered into a one-year college preparation course at the Marino College of Further Education. From this foundation course, he entered Trinity College and studied for a BA in history and political science.
“I’m out of college since 2012, and one of the things I immediately appreciated the most is having my Sundays off,” says Gannon. “When I was in college, I worked Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays and I missed out on simply sitting down for a meal with my family. I had to give up playing football and the hobbies went out the window. I couldn’t be a burden on my parents as they didn’t have the money. I had the added pressure of really trying for that high 2.1.”
Students can also struggle when there are delays with the Susi grant or if they don’t get all the right documents to Susi straight away.
Every year, DIT produces a cost of living guide, with outlines of the cost of housing, travel and other day-to-day student expenses. This year’s guide shows that the average monthly rent has increased from €427 to €430, with the average figure in Dublin projected to be €541 compared to €508 last year. For a student living away from home, the overall cost of living is €11,829, which includes €1,521 for food, €1,215 for travel, €3,000 for a student charge and €684 for a social life and other miscellaneous expenses. Students living at home, unsurprisingly, can expect to have fewer outgoings, with their average annual cost of living for 2018-19 coming to €6,780, including €540 for food and €1,215 for travel.
Olive Byrne, programme manager of the UCC Plus access programme, says the annual Susi grant – a rate set by politicians – has failed to keep in line with inflation. “The most frequent grant is full maintenance which comes to just over €3,000 a year. This doesn’t come close to covering the cost of accommodation, and there’s a €2,000 shortfall before the student has even bought books or paid their bus fare. There is inadequate support for young people going to college from low-income households.”
Figures from St Vincent de Paul show that 780,000 people live in consistent poverty in Ireland, with children and young people particularly at risk.
“We know of families where the parents go without so their kids can go to college,” says Byrne. “The Susi grant needs to be looked at again, even if it was just to cover the cost of accommodation. We have students who commute for two hours a day to get to college because they can’t afford accommodation, and they have to sacrifice their college experience. There are students who not only can’t afford to eat on campus; sometimes there isn’t anything in the fridge that they can use to make a packed lunch.”
UCC Plus and other college access services rely on donations which they use to help alleviate the financial burden for the most affected students and to provide emergency funding and supermarket vouchers. “Outside this, a lot of students are means tested and fall just outside the parameters. We try to have as much flexibility as we can to help students and encourage them to talk to us or to the student budgetary advisory service. Some students are returning to education and may be in debt: we can’t help with mortgage arrears but we do make sure they have food and a bus pass to get to college. Sometimes we refer those with bigger financial difficulties to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service or the local St Vincent de Paul.”
Access offices such as UCC Plus run orientation schemes to welcome and outline the sources of support for students, and they provide budgeting advice and support. “At the start of the year, we organise an exercise where they get a budget and have to cook an evening meal and breakfast for three days, which helps students see where they can get cheap ingredients and that cooking with housemates and buying collectively is a good money saver.”
Byrne also says that the cost of living in Dublin or Cork is higher than in smaller towns like Tralee, but that the student grant doesn’t reflect this. “The 1916 bursaries, which provide €5,000 for 200 students, have made a huge difference to those students, but there are over 55,000 students sitting the Leaving Cert and these once-off bursaries don’t help them. We need proper investment in Susi.”
“When students from disadvantaged backgrounds go to Trinity or other universities, we often feel like we don’t fit in,” says Gannon. “You expect that, at any moment, someone will tap you on the shoulder and tell you that you don’t belong here. When you meet people with doctors and barristers in their family, privately educated with a very different accent to you, it can be intimidating. Those cultural barriers can be enormous. Now, with group messaging like WhatsApp, students can tend to stick with their familiar peer group. Trinity does a good job by organising social evenings for students on the access programme and by organising mentorship programmes.”
Making new friends can be a challenge for students from all backgrounds. “We encourage students to make a connection to the college from the outset,” says Noel O’Connor, director of student development at DIT with responsibility for the college’s access programme. “We have medical centres, a chaplaincy and student advisory service, counsellors, sports officers, clubs and societies and over 1,500 students involved in volunteering. In DIT, we organise orientation for students from access programmes a week before everyone else; it’s really important that they feel supported and a sense of belonging.”
“If you’re the first from your family or estate to go to college, that can be a difficult transition,” says Byrne. “You don’t have a sibling or friend who can reminisce about their first few months in college, and you have to get to know how the system works. That’s why we bring the students on campus before term, giving them the chance to make connections and friends, and we get second- and third-year access students to come in and talk about their experience to them. We get the clubs and societies involved in events with us, and they encourage the new students to join and get involved: societies mean you don’t have to go out and spend a load of money, and it’s where you can build a network of support. We’re trying to mitigate the sense they may have that they don’t belong here. They do, and we want them. Our retention rate is on a par with the general student population.”
“Students from wealthier backgrounds may want to study English and they know they can go on to do the FE1 later and get into law, but students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have access to that information,” says Gannon. “If they’re struggling with maths, they can’t just shell out on grinds, putting them at a further disadvantage. And if they do get to college, it is free at the point of entry but they might not be able to afford the textbooks or, again, additional grinds.”
It’s about getting students familiar with the new system, where learning is self-directed, and supporting them along the way, says Byrne. “But some science students may be coming without having had the chance to do two or three science subjects because of resources in their school, and we provide support for them.”
The Skills Centre at UCC, run by Kathy Bradley, fills in where students can benefit from this additional support. “It grew from the access service but is now something that all students can access – it helps them with study, writing and exam techniques which can give students that much-needed boost,” says Byrne.
What needs to change? “We need more than just investment,” says Gannon. “The Trinity Access 21 looks at ‘college for every student’, so everyone has the same opportunity. We look at what fee-paying schools are doing and see if it could be replicated for all students. Proper guidance from first year and conversations about education at home happen for young people in fee-paying schools. We also look at the rounded approach to education in these schools with access to sport and drama as well as volunteering opportunities and smaller class sizes. We need these nationally. They wouldn’t cost a fortune but would make a substantial difference.”
What is HEAR?
The Higher Education Access Route is a scheme offering college and university places on reduced points to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Students also get extra supports while in third-level.
It is means-tested. If you’re from a family with three or fewer dependent children where the family income is below €45,790 (or €50,325 for a family of four to seven children), you can qualify. The income limits are extended by €4,670 for every sibling or parent enrolled in full-time further or higher education.
While applicants must meet income criteria, medical cards and means-tested social-welfare payments are also considered, as are applications from students who have completed five years in a Deis (designated disadvantaged) school and applicants from neighbourhoods that have been designated as disadvantaged, very disadvantaged or extremely disadvantaged.
For more information and a list of participating third-level institutions, see AccessCollege.ie/HEAR.
If you run into problems in college or if you have some queries that you need answered you can always contact your students’ union.
Students’ unions do a lot of work on issues relating to education, while welfare officers can direct students to counselling services, help with crisis pregnancies, financial problems, accommodation and other issues. SUs organise events and nights out. And they often run subsidised shops and produce campus newspapers.
The benefits of HEAR
- Reduced points: Once minimum entry and specific programme requirements are met, HEAR applicants can be offered places on fewer points than are required for other CAO applicants. This varies from course to course.
- Focused orientation programmes to familiarise students with third-level and organised social gatherings.
- Mentoring and one-on-one meetings with student advisers.
- Additional financial assistance when available and advice on scholarships and grants.
Profile: Bolu Muheeb (age 20), 3rd year Biological and Chemical Science, UCC
“My parents came to Galway when I was young. I was about eight or nine years old and my mother wasn’t working at first.
“In my Leaving Cert year, I realised that I wasn’t as privileged as some of the other students. I was bad at maths and I wasn’t able to afford €35 an hour for grinds. I had to work extra hard and ultimately I was ecstatic with my D3 in maths, and thrilled that I got into UCC, but I knew it would be a particular financial burden to live away from home.
“It hasn’t been easy and managing money is a real challenge. When I was in secondary school, I told myself that I would be fine once I made it to college. But when I got here, the work quadrupled. I had to get a job as soon as possible because there was just no way I could live off the Susi grant alone.
“So my first college job was working from 7pm to 4am helping students get home safely. In the morning, I had lectures at 9am and my health was deteriorating from the lack of sleep. I got a job in the library and I’m also a peer support leader helping other students integrate into college.
“I work 11 hours a week to make about €400 a month. I barely make enough money to pay rent and feed myself, let alone buy any medications I need. Between college and employment, I have to work from 9am to 10pm almost every day and it’s hard to stay on top.
“I’d simply be lost without the support of the UCC Plus access programme. They are so supportive and they make me feel comfortable when I have to go to them for help. But I can still feel ashamed to ask for money for food, or for a €20 voucher.
“For students who rely on Susi and their job, I can’t quite explain how we do it. I get the very cheapest that I can. If I have to eat the cheapest food, I will. We are told that college is the best time of our lives but my focus is all on the future. I don’t really have the same college experience as I can’t afford to go on nights out. For clothes, I rely on whatever my parents can get me, or I get them at Christmas and on my birthday. I save whatever I can if I ever get a bit extra, so that I can keep a bit extra for when I’m not working as much. I’d advise students to avail of the free counselling services on campus if they are finding it tough.
“I have no choice but to keep going. I know my reality: my friends can rely on their parents, but my parents don’t have that money. If I drop out of college, I would be on the dole and wouldn’t have the same opportunities so I hang on because hard work will make tomorrow better for me.”