Posted tagged ‘Texas’

Accessing higher education

August 25, 2010

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.