Educational disadvantage persists
Money still the key to third-level access
BY MICHAEL PIERSE
The 26 Counties' thriving economy has relied heavily on attracting high-tech multinationals, and this in turn has increased the number of people in third-level education in recent times. But more third level students has not led to any radical change in the way colleges and universities have traditionally reflected the divisions in our society. While more and more young people are being encouraged to continue on to further education, the low percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds remains largely unchanged.
At present, statistics show that fewer than 2% of third-level students are from poor backgrounds, while 16% of the population generally belong to lower socio-economic groups. Eighty-five per cent of the approximately 3,500 young people who leave full-time education, with no formal qualifications, have working class backgrounds. A young person whose father is in a professional or managerial occupation is seven times more likely to attend a third-level college than one whose father is an unskilled or semi-skilled worker. In the constitution of their student body, though not necessarily in their ethos, universities and colleges reflect the unfairness of the status quo.
Statistics show that fewer than 2% of third-level students are from poor backgrounds, while 16% of the population generally belong to lower socio-economic groups
Colm Jordan, Education Officer with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), is adamant that Dublin government policy has not supported the willingness of university and college authorities to combat the glaring inequalities in access to third level.
``The initial government reaction has been to increase places rather than access,'' he says of their attempt to meet the demand for a more highly skilled workforce. While the number of people from poor backgrounds in third-level education has increased in recent times, their percentage as part of the wider student body has remained very low.
Jordan believes that the provision of a `top-up' maintenance grant for disadvantaged students would increase their prospects of third-level access. At present, the costs of a prospective college education are daunting for those who are less well off, he says. ``Grants are totally insufficient, even the terminology they use - maximum `maintenance' grants of £50 a week are not going to maintain anyone.
``USI is calling for a top-up grant of £1,000 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The government have so far been humming and hawing about this. If they introduce the top-up grant, then at least it will signal a willingness to make real changes for the disadvantaged.''
In 1995, the 26-County government White Paper on Education aimed to have 500 places set aside for students from disadvantaged backgrounds by the year 2000. But even this very modest aim has not been met. While colleges pledged to provide 330 places in the `98/'99 academic year, only 97 were filled. The poor performance of a respected institution like Dublin
City University, which set a quota of 50 places for disadvantaged students and only managed 27, seems admirable in comparison to the four places secured by Trinity College, as against a quota of 70. These figures are for `98/'99.
When An Phoblacht contacted Dr PJ Drudy, who heads the Centre for Educational Access and Community Development at Trinity College, he made a strong case for the university's recent record in this area. ``It wasn't known that Trinity was involved in access,'' he says, ``but we are making efforts to increase awareness of what we're doing.''
Trinity is currently running three programmes to fill their 70 reserved places for disadvantaged students, and it plans to initiate another in the near future. The Trinity Access Programme, which begun in 1993, has been working with 11 second level schools to try to encourage young people into third level education. This project, which aims to encourage students who think that third level is `not for me', is now being widened to take in a total of 70 schools.
Trinity's Young Adult Programme (YAP), which began last year, is now providing 25 places for students who did not do well in their Leaving Certificates but who have an ability to go on to further education. YAP is a pre-university course which acts as a bridge for students, provided they pass continuous assessments of their progress over a one-year period.
The Mature Student Programme aims specifically at those mature students (over 23 years) who were not given the opportunity of a university education, and allows 25 students to take a degree course each year.
Approximately 80 students now avail of these courses, and Drudy hopes to expand the Trinity College projects to more schools throughout the country. He has also proposed to site a new `Community Education Centre' in Dublin's Pearse Street, running some of the programmes already on line, together with other projects targeting adult illiteracy and young teenagers who are dropping out of school.
Trinity has become an example of how a little enthusiasm, backed up with the necessary funding, can make a real difference in the lives of disadvantaged students.
Mike Egan, of the Centre for Life-long Learning in DCU, says that the university has a ``well developed'' access programme, although he believes that ``at Leaving Cert level you're only tinkering with the system''. The North Dublin Access Programme, of which DCU is a part, aims at positive intervention in the education of children at an early stage. The Darndale Breakfast Club, in which Egan is involved, gives breakfasts to pupils at primary school level. ``The project, which is run under the aegis of the Saint Vincent de Paul, has definitely had a positive effect in terms of childrens' concentration and attendance,'' he says. While free meals for children of social welfare recipients are provided throughout the Six Counties, the same for pupils in the 26 Counties has not been forthcoming.
While Egan was involved in the campaign for free third level education, he believes in retrospect that the demand was ``a retrograde step in terms of advancing participation in colleges and universities''. While the campaign's success meant that many students are now entitled to a no-fees education in third level institutions, he thinks that the removal of fees should have been ``tailored'' according to the background of the student. Free fees, he says, has largely benifited those who are already well off.
Egan's work is about finding ways in which ``learning can be promoted'' in the local community. He cites the `North Dublin Loves Learning' public awareness campaign, carried out around St Valentine's Day this year, and proposals for a new village centre in Darndale, which would facilitate different agencies working in an `integrated approach' to learning, as examples of how universities can take part in promoting education in their areas.
However, while college authorities seem willing to expand their projects as far as possible, DCU's outreaches to Dublin North and Trinity's outreach to Pearse Street don't nearly reach far enough. Much more funding needs to be aimed at those who are most disadvantaged and at every level of their educational and social development. Ultimately, this is the responsibility of government. How about it, Michael Woods?