Improving access to higher education?

As has been noted here previously, whatever views one might have on the abolition of tuition fees in Ireland in the 1990s, one benefit that has not particularly flowed from this is improved access to higher education for the under-privileged. While in affluent areas, say in South Dublin, the participation rate is now pretty much 100 per cent, in deprived areas such as Ballymun, Finglas and Coolock (all within quite close reach of DCU) it is still well below 10 per cent. ‘Free fees’ have hardly affected this at all, so the argument in favour of them – that they help the under-privileged – is not borne out by any significant data.

In fact, it may be that the imposition of fees actually helps the disadvantaged. The most recent analysis of participation in higher education in England has shown that, amongst young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, participation has been increasing noticeably, just as fees have been rising. It may of course be that there is no connection between these two developments, but at any rate it tends to show that fees are not a disincentive where there are proper supports.

In Ireland, while we have improved the position of middle income earners, the national effort to improve access for the disadvantaged has only had quite a minor statistical impact. It is vital that we focus on this, because it would be a particular irony if the era of free fees, however long that may still last, were to have entrenched class divides in higher education. Right now that is how it looks.

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12 Comments on “Improving access to higher education?”

  1. Ros Says:

    Yet another example of squandered opportunities and mismanagement in better times. If the re-introduction of fees had been carefully researched and put in place during the ‘boom’ times then we wouldn’t be facing what now seems to be the inevitable imposition of some form of payment, which, given the track record of this government, will probably be announced without consultation the day before the CAO send out the first round offers! Decisions made in haste and when under pressure, be that as an individual or a government, frequently herald disaster. Also, surely there must be someone who can come up with a tailor-made plan for this country rather than trying to ‘copy’ from Australia, Canada, the U.S. etc. Yes, by all means evaluate their approaches to the question of fees, but please try to think for yourselves for once in that big building beside the National Museum!

  2. kevin denny Says:

    “with proper supports” being the key. In fact we had a pretty good system until the mid 1990s as people on low income were exempt from fees, as part of the grant scheme administered by the local authorities. This was the only advantage low income people had. Then the geniuses who wanted (or claimed they did anyway) to “improve access” removed this one advantage by exempting everyone from fees.
    @Ros: I wouldn’t be too hard on the idea of copying plans from other countries. Firstly, the problem is fairly generic so we should be able to learn from other countries experience and what works there, with suitable adjustment, may well also work in Ireland. Secondly, we don’t really have a lot of expertise in this area. The administrators in this area won’t be that familiar with how to create such a system and the small number of academics who work on this topic (like me) don’t either. So re-inventing the wheel is probably not such a good idea.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    depends whose wheel…look at other countries other than the usual ones that are paraded out…

  4. Perry Share Says:

    While conceding that the abolition of fees in and of itself may not directly increase access to HE for at least some formerly excluded groups (and I remain to be convinced on this for all such groups) I would be interested to know what mechanisms are involved when the introduction of fees is said (as suggested in this post) to lead to an *increase* in access.

    I can see that charging fees might increase the pot of money available to spend on higher education and that might permit a political decision to be made to spend some of this additional income on tertiary access programmes, scholarships, investment in pre-school or secondary education &c, but these are things that could be invested in anyway – regardless of whether HE fees are charged or not – for example by not giving tax-breaks to the developers of private hospitals, surplus hotels or ghost estates, or the breeders of horses and greyhounds, not to mention creative ex-Taoisigh.

    It would be interesting to see what the impact of charging (say) €3000 per annum for a PLC FETAC course would be, given that such courses are often accessed by people in more disadvantaged groups. To follow the logic of those who deny the impact of fees on access, one would imagine that there would be little impact, or that such a fee might even increase access. Frankly I’d be surprised if this happened.

    So it might be that there is something about the cultural context of PLC colleges (and probably most IoTs) that makes them more accessible to more disadvantaged students. If so, this is something that those in universities might want to think about.

    Do access programmes, for example, aim to change the potential disadvantaged student so that they can ‘fit in’ to the university, or do they attempt to change the nature of universities to make them more culturally and socially (as well as financially) acceptable to excluded students? Or more specifically, for example, what has DCU done to make the university more like the sort of place that many people from Ballymun, Finglas or Coolock might really want to go to? (not having any sort of go at DCU, you could ask the same question of any Irish university or indeed IT Sligo).

    • kevin denny Says:

      Access programs in general in Ireland aim to increase the number progressing to university/3rd level and helping those who make it. They do so in a fairly multi-dimensional way providing a wide range of activities and assistance at 1st through 3rd level. It would not be their function to change the university in general, per se, which is not to say that such changes may not be desirable.
      I don’t know about DCU’s program (which has the honour of being the first). For an evaluation of the effects of the UCD program, New ERA, see

      On the question of fees, there is some evidence that people value something more when they have to pay for it than when it is free. So it strikes me as an academic that if students had to pay per course they would think much harder about the risk of failing exams.

      • I was just in your (normal) place of work today, Kevin, and heard about the UCD analysis of its access programme; our experience in DCU (not only the first, but by far the biggest access programme…) is very similar.

        I was very impressed more generally with what I found today in the Geary Institute, by the way – it’s really heartening to see such a well managed and functioning community of researchers.

    • Introducing fees puts an end to the diversion of resources from the poor to the middle classes; or at least it gives scope for some of those resources to be steered back to where there is the greatest need. Just look at the current year: middle classes are protected by the promise not to reintroduce fees, grants payments to poorer people are delayed, while grants themselves are reduced by 5 per cent – an absolutely direct redistribution from the poor to the wealthier.

      As for your question about DCU – absolutely, we have gone to great lengths to make DCU feel like a natural place to be for those from around us.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Ferdinand,hope they are “missing me already”, thank you for the kind words.
        Our study is an example of the university using its own expertise. This is something that doesn’t happen a lot and one can see why: it can be better to get outsiders in. But they are also more expensive and may not know much, especially if they are the usual commercial consultants. So I think universities should think harder about tapping into their own experts.
        For example, universities are sitting in piles of interesting administrative data (on students, exam results etc). This can be used for interesting academic research but also to serve the purposes of the university & community generally. Its not a trivial matter to make this happen- we had to put in a lot of work to make the data usable but it can be done. It should be a win-win situation.

  5. belfield Says:

    Trinity also runs an interesting access scheme which focuses on less-well represented secondary schools in the city area. It’s called Bridge2College and is building up a bit of a reputation.

  6. belfield Says:

    Should have said it’s a partnership with Suas.
    www. /b2c.html

  7. iainmacl Says:

    Over the same period as this report, not only were fees taking hold, but levels of obesity increased as did consumption of alcohol. Correlation/causality -that old one. 😉 At least you did point that out.

    The situation in England is more complex of course than just these simple statistics. There are other aspects that are giving some cause for concern there such as the significant rise in youth unemployment and those that are neither in employment nor education or training programmes.That wider context, along with changes to entrance requirements, school qualifications, flexible programmes to facilitate transfer between institutions, the large number of people undertaking degree or pre-degree level programmes in a wide range of colleges of various standing are all factors. What is not being reported is an increase in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the traditional (never mind elite) institutions.

    Other countries (guess which one in particular!! broken record, I am) have high rates of participation coinciding with complete abolition of fees. So causality, is not clear. Of course, though we shouldnt just get hung up about fees themselves, its the total cost of participation (living expenses, etc) that count for students and whether or not they have to take a job (or jobs) at the same time also affects the whole quality and type of experience.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Iain, on certain days each semester, I leave work early since the campus fills up with students getting tanked up. Sometimes they have an ambulance on standy-by. The car-park the next morning is awash with empty cans and other detritus. I find this shocking.

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