The end of effective support for access?

On Wednesday of this week I had the genuine pleasure of participating in the opening of DCU in the Community. This is part of DCU’s Civic Engagement Strategy, and in this particular instance consists of premises which we have opened in the heart of Ballymun in North Dublin. For years this area has been one of the most deprived in all of Ireland, with high unemployment and almost every conceivable social problem. Participation in higher education was almost non-existent. And yet, amidst the tower blocks and their decaying infrastructure and lack of basic services, there was always a great spirit, and as I discovered when chairing the educational panel of the Living Dublin Awards, Ballymun had a greater number of community initiatives in the arts and education than almost anywhere else in Ireland.

Since the 1980s DCU (or NIHE as it was then) has pioneered an access programme, designed to facilitate the entry of persons from deprived backgrounds into university degree courses. Initially this focused on Ballymun, but more recently it has been extended to all of Ireland, North and South. Students are given encouragement while still at school to consider third level education, and are then helped through the applications process – and indeed are given some allowance for slightly lower points. They are given a bursary, but more importantly an office in DCU looks after their interests and gives them advice and encouragement when this is needed. Over the years we have developed this to the point where 10 per cent of DCU students enter the university by this route.

During this period also other institutions initiated similar programmes, and all Irish universities have them now (though DCU’s is still the largest). But most of the resources that make these programmes possible are coming not from the state, but from private donors. DCU for example is obliged to raise millions of Euros to fund access for the disadvantaged. As the economy moves into harder times, it will become increasingly difficult to raise such large sums, and there are few signs that the state is taking the challenge seriously enough to fund this national priority. Such funding becomes even more important in a difficult economic environment, as many of the young people concerned will be under pressure to seek employment rather than go to college.

On top of that, the ‘free fees’ framework that gives taxpayer support to kids from Dublin 4 (and everyone else coming in via the CAO system) does not support – at all – part-time students, who are disproportionately from deprived or relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. This, I believe, is a scandal, and should be rectified at once; but probably won’t be.

Unless as a country we take our obligation seriously to provide a quality education to all people, regardless of background, we are failing in our national duty. The time has come to take access seriously; otherwise it will now decline, and before too long higher education may once more be the preserve of the social elite.

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2 Comments on “The end of effective support for access?”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I was born in Ballymun and went to an inner city school. Around 4 people from the entire 6th year (about 100 students) went to university. The reason why more did not consider this route was partly due to economic circumstances, but also due to a general lack of awareness that this was a real option, and that there were some supports in place (slim though they were) to help make it possible, e.g. maintenance grants.

    This lack of awareness extended not just to students, but also to teachers, career guidance officers and parents, and the prevailing attitude among everyone was one of grim subsistence. (This was during the 80s so hopefully things have changed a bit since then!) We need to provide funding for those who need it, and we need to provide encouragement for all students who aspire to become more than the product of their background.

  2. Stephen O'Leary Says:

    This is slightly off topic but I think it’s interesting.

    About 10% of the computer service department is fom Ballymun, none of whom had a university degree upon accession.

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