Accessing higher education

Last week the Irish Times published an article by a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin, Ross Higgins, which made a case for action to address the under-representation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds at Irish universities. He argued that existing access programmes (actually, he only specifically mentioned the TCD one – by no means Ireland’s largest – but that’s Trinity for you) had under-performed:

‘Trinity College Dublin deserves praise for its access programme to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education. But, sadly, this programme and others like it have failed lamentably in their core objective of opening up college entry.’

The solution proposed is an adaptation of the so-called ’10 per cent rule’ applied since 1997 in Texas, under which the top 10 per cent of each final year class in high schools (i.e. secondary schools in our system) are guaranteed access to university.

First, the comment on access programmes is highly questionable. They may not have reached their full potential, but they have hardly ‘failed lamentably’. The largest such programme – that run by DCU – accounts for 10 per cent of the annual intake and has been hugely successful in changing attitudes in some of the schools and communities that have benefited from it. There has been research into the UCD access programme conducted by the Geary Institute which has also shown the impact of that university’s programme. The throw-away comment on such programmes suggests that some further research on the available evidence might be useful.

As for the Texas ‘10% rule’, I must confess I am not convinced it would work. In Texas itself, where the law was passed in order to advance racial equality of opportunity in higher education, the impact was not clear – indeed there was initially almost no evidence of increased participation by the key disadvantaged racial groups, whiole at the same time university presidents complained that it had in some cases removed almost all discretion as to whom to admit.

In Ireland it is difficult to see how this particular initiative would work. The key issue is not a reluctance of universities to admit disadvantaged students, but the effect of socio-economic disadvantage on expectations and choices. Furthermore, the Texas ‘10% rule’ does not provide students with support or resources, the lack of which is the main inhibitor right now.

Ensuring an appropriate socio-economic mix in our universities is clearly an appropriate priority, but it is not easy to achieve. It requires careful collaboration with schools and communities, starting at primary level,  and significant resources so as to make higher education a realistic option for students. The by far most appropriate tool for achieving this is the access programme, but this needs to be properly resourced. This is where our challenge lies.

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5 Comments on “Accessing higher education”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I was very annoyed by that stupid comment by Ross Higgins about the access programs failing lamentably since it is inaccurate & unfair (& disappointed that the IT would not publish my short letter pointing this out). People who are thinking of engaging with that program (e.g students, potential funders or teachers) might be wrongly put-off by the article.
    I find it bizarre and irresponsible that a PhD student with no obvious expertise in the area should feel free to dismiss out of hand something that has been shown to be effective & to pluck out of the air one particular & fairly random idea.
    The question of improving access to university for young people with low SES backgrounds is very complicated but there is a great deal of research internationally and some useful work nationally. I suppose thats the advantage of being a PhD student: you think you know everything & are blissfully untroubled by the need to actually know what you are talking about.
    I wonder would the Irish Times publish an article by a PhD student which disses say, a treatment being used for diabetes while advocating his/her pet theory?
    The idea that you can simply transplant some program from Texas to here (even if it has been shown to be effective there, which is unclear) is silly.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Given the hoo-haw lately about the points. I looked at nui,g, nui,m, ucc tcd and yourself, in where you have total control over access and where there is little or no academic component. These, the courses you run that have exemption from requirement of the professional bodies.
    The one I looked into was Accounting. And in most the minimum entry requirement was a 2:2 or higher.
    Why is this. Why if you find the points so useless do you perpetuate the system. And why are you doing the work of the Bodies.
    None of them would look at someone with a Pass Degree from the ITs. And the truly laughable situation in this is that most of any cohort that the Uni’s put through their hands end up in the UK.
    So access, my eye.


  3. Of course access courses/programmes work. Ask anyone who has benefitted from one. They mean the world to particular people or at best a small minority.

    Access is about providing opportunity. It is a product of a belief in equality of opportunity. However, many who hold that belief condemn or at least have grave misgivings about anything that smacks of equality of outcome; they fear that the latter threatens liberty. The problem with believing in equality of opportunity while opposing equality of outcome becomes apparent when one considers why people from poor families don’t go to uni in any great numbers.

    Ferdinand is spot on when he says, “The key issue is not a reluctance of universities to admit disadvantaged students, but the effect of socio-economic disadvantage on expectations and choices.” To this he adds that a lack of money while at college inhibits the student whose family cannot help out. Yes, socio-economic disadvantage determines expectations, ambitions, plans and dreams – and often frustrates an exception who develops a dream.

    I fear any kind of access programme which permits entry to those with a lower level of attainment. Such notions patronise the poor, introduce two types of student and in all likelihood guarantee high failure rates. However, as I’ve said many times here, there are already many students who despite success in their Leaving Certs are insufficiently educated to make best use of a degree level course. Until such time as we’re prepared to tackle shortcomings in primary/secondary education and get over our political fear of addressing inequality, perhaps the 10% quota isn’t such a bad idea.

  4. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I reckon, on a few points, that Ross Higgins is onto something. He just chose the wrong approach.

    Arguably young people in the lower SES categories dont consider university education as a career path that way the way other SES groups do, in the sense that they feel less motivated to try and go to college.

    “Their parents didnt go to college, Their older brothers and sisters didnt go to college, Why would they go to college”

    These older brothers and sisters might be barmen, salespeople, shop workers, and hairdressers and so forth, working since they were 18.

    Things are changing. Some of these “older brothers and sisters” are now enrolling in part-time degree programs to enhance their career prospects. It is tough going, and they dont get a lot of support.

    I reckon that increased support might see more enrolling; turn this trickle into a flood.

    This will inevitably influence the perceptions of the younger siblings, a peer pressure to go to college that probably doesn’t exist now.


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