Posted tagged ‘disadvantage’

Accessing the university

September 1, 2008

This morning I had to undertake one of my more pleasant tasks – welcoming the new intake of access students to DCU. Every year we admit a significant number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds or areas, who will get special financial and personal support while they are with us. DCU’s access programme was the first in the Irish university sector, and is still the largest. It is an important contribution to Irish society, and it provides these students with the education for which they are suited and to which they have an entitlement.

Access programmes such as this have contributed significantly to the growing participation rate in higher education, and more particularly to participation by disadvantaged groups. But it has to be said that this has been achieved not because of the ‘free fees’ programme, but rather in spite of it. Free fees have targeted the main taxpayer resources at the middle classes, and have actually resulted in something of a neglect of the disadvantaged, which the universities have had to compensate for with their own resources or the resources of private donors. It is another important reason why the whole resourcing envelope needs to be looked at again.

In the meantime, however, we remain committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds who have the talent and the ability are able to enter higher education, and DCU will, I hope, remain in the forefront of this effort. Our leadership in this area is something of which I am particularly proud.

The end of effective support for access?

June 13, 2008

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.