Trinity access scheme bucking trends, says report


STUDENTS FROM disadvantaged backgrounds who enter Trinity College Dublin through its access programme are bucking international trends by securing comparable jobs to the wider student body and pursuing further studies.

They are also attaining academic results similar to those of other students, dispelling the notion that widening intake to include students from lower socio-economic backgrounds lowers academic standards at the college.

These are the key findings of a major report on the experience of students who have taken part in the Trinity Access Programme over the past decade. What Happened Next? The Employment and Further Study Experiences of Trinity Graduates of Trinity Access Programme 2002-2008found three-quarters of graduates are in employment and almost 80 per cent say they achieved their ambitions following graduation.

Most graduates are working in the health and education sectors in lower professional roles, which reflects other studies showing that lower socioeconomic groups are still under-represented in higher professional roles, for example in law and medicine.

The report found 57 per cent of the 171 graduates interviewed had pursued further studies or professional development courses. Twelve individuals are pursing studies to obtain a PhD degree.

The Trinity programme was set up in 1993 to widen access to under-represented socio-economic groups, ethnic minorities and Travellers at the college. It works with schools, community groups and businesses to try to encourage new admissions. Entry is facilitated through special foundation courses for mature students and reduced points admission scheme for these students.

Since the programme was established in 1993, some 323 students have graduated and 435 students are taking courses. Last year Trinity increased its target for attracting students from under-represented groups from 15 to 22 per cent of new college entrants.

The report found dropout rates for undergraduates in the access programme is lower than the national average with 89 per cent of undergraduates during the 2008/9 academic year remaining at the college. The national average retention is 83.2 per cent.

It concludes that past fears that academic standards at the college could fall have not been realised.

One in 20 access graduates received a first class honours degree compared to three in 20 in the wider student body. However, access students achieved a higher percentage of second class honours degrees – 52 per cent second class first division and 37 per cent second class second division – than the wider student body. It achieved 55 per cent second class first division honours and 22 per cent second class second division.

International research has indicated that graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, who typically are the first in their families to attend university, are often not as successful as graduates from higher social groups. A 2003 British study suggested they earned on average £1,500 less than their counterparts.

However, the report on the Trinity programme found no major income disparity between young graduates from lower and higher social economic backgrounds. But it shows mature students tend to earn less than young graduates when they enter the workforce, achieving an average starting salary of €20,000 to €27,999, compared to €28,000 to €35,999 for younger graduates. There is also evidence that mature students find it difficult to attain employment equal to their education attainment, says the report.

Cliona Hannon, head of the access, said the results of the study highlight the great success in widening participation policy at the college over the past 15 years. But she warned funding cutbacks and the recession could threaten the college’s ability to meet its target for attracting new entrants from lower socio-economic groups.

She said the student assistance fund was cut by 21 per cent in 2008 and private donations had dropped by 20 per cent over the past two years. Students from poorer backgrounds are now also unable to get both a maintenance grant and the back-to-education allowance. “At a time when there will be more people than ever in need of our programmes, there will be less and less available to deliver,” said Ms Hannon.

Case studies: Students' studies

Monica Finnerty(27) demonstrates some of the challenges that disadvantaged students on its access programme have to overcome to enter college.

The second youngest of a family of seven children growing up in the working class suburb of Ballymun, her mother and father separated when she was young. She was raised by her father until he passed away when she was 14 years old. Her sister and brother left Ireland shortly after and she completed school while living alone from the tender age of 17.

“I was doing my leaving certificate, paying all the bills and my school didn’t give me any direction in terms of going to college. But I came to an open day at Trinity found out the information on the access programme and phoned the office about a hundred times to try to get in,” she said.

Her perseverance paid off and she was accepted on an access course, which eventually led to the award of a Trinity College degree in social work in 2008.

“I am very comfortable with were I come from but my self esteem did take a bit of a hammering when I first entered the classroom with people mainly from South Dublin who all seemed to know each other,” she said.

She was one of just three students in her class to have a job organised before she graduated courtesy of the networks she built up while on her placement.

Surviving financially at college was a big challenge. Monica got a grant and won an access programme bursary from Trinity and a Bank of Ireland scholarship.

Sean Coleman(26), who grew up on Dublin’s Pearse Street is training as an apprentice solicitor.

“I was the first of my family to go to college, although my parents always pushed me to go on to third-level education,” he said.

Sean benefited from Trinity’s access programme because his school – Marian College – is a partner of the college. He studied English and Philosophy at TCD and went on to complete entrance exams at the Law Society.

“The law can be class-based but it is also dynastic, particularly with barristers following in the footsteps of their fathers. The law is still very much the preserve of south county Dublin. And I think the access programme helps to shake this up a bit,” he said. Sean also benefited from an access programme bursary.

Eddie Phipps(56) was also the first person in his family to get a degree. He left school at 15 and became an electrician, he got married to Rosemary at 22 and had five children. He worked for more than 20 years at the Semperit tyre factor in Ballyfermot and was made redundant when it closed in 1996.

“I’d never been into Trinity’s campus in my life when I lost my job. But a friend at St Andrews Resource Centre told me about the access programme and I went in and applied,” he said.

Eddie took a one-year foundation course for mature students and went on to study Business Economic and Social Studies, graduating with a second class honours first division in 2002.

“It was really tough at times but college built my confidence and self-esteem,” he said.

He went on to to study teaching and secured a job in a school in Cabra.