In 1980 3% of socio-economically disadvantaged school-leavers entered higher education. According to the most recent national survey data available for 1998 — Clancy 2001, that figure has risen to between 20 and 30% of school-leavers from the most under-represented groups. While this represents a significant improvement it is below the current average participation rate of 54% for all young people.
A recent sample survey of 10% of entrants to higher education in 2003 carried out on behalf of the HEA is providing indications that the participation rate of socio-economically disadvantaged groups has increased further since 1998-37% for the most under-represented unskilled group in the 1998 report. This report also indicates that admission rates to higher education from all counties in the state and 17 of the 21 Dublin postal districts, including many districts with areas of concentrated disadvantaged, have risen since 1998. It is also clear, however, that while there is welcome improvement, some counties and districts have admission rates which are below the national average and it is here that we need to continue to focus our efforts. A full study of access in 2004, currently being carried out on behalf of the HEA and scheduled for publication later this year, will give a more comprehensive review of both the social background of new entrants and trends in admission by county or postal district of origin.
Improvements in participation rates reflect the outcome of how State funding measures have over the last decade increasingly focused on improving the progress and performance of young people from areas of socio-economic disadvantage, firstly in primary and second level education then in the transition to further and higher education.
Measures directed at improving participation in higher education include the establishment in August 2003 of a National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education within the HEA as a co-ordinating unit to lead work nationally on achieving equity of access to higher education, co-ordinate funding and resources, and monitor and report on progress.
In December 2004 the national office published a three-year action plan for the period 2005-07, which sets out a range of practical steps which need to occur so that more opportunities are created for groups who have to date been under-represented in the sector, such as socio-economically disadvantaged school-leavers. This will include arrangements so that all disadvantaged regions, schools and communities, in particular those with low levels of representation, are linked to access activities and programmes in at least one higher education institution in their region.
A priority area for action in the plan is evaluation of access programmes which have been established in higher education institutions to ascertain what strategies and partnerships work best in achieving equity of access to higher education for all under-represented groups. This work has commenced and building upon the outcome the national office will develop and support the implementation of a national framework of access policies and initiatives for each target group, including young people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas.
The national office also manages a number of funding programmes to widen access and support the participation of under-represented groups in higher education. These include the HEA strategic initiative funding, improving access, through which €7.3 million is ring-fenced annually for widening access programmes in HEA funded institutions. This scheme has supported a range of pre and post-entry actions and interventions on the part of 11 third level institutions towards increasing access as well as supporting the subsequent participation and completion of students from disadvantaged areas, including work with primary and second level schools, extra tuition, further education links, foundation courses, direct entry arrangements, learning support and financial support.
A review of the scheme was published by the HEA in October 2004. Towards a National Strategy — Initial Review of HEA Targeted Initiatives to Widen Access to Higher Education, provides an overview of the outcomes and impact of initiatives to date and also identifies where further progress needs to occur. There are similar access programmes in the institute of technology, non-HEA, sector which will be reviewed as part of the overall evaluation of access programmes currently under way.
A number of other funding programmes have also contributed to increased participation by young people from disadvantaged areas including the student assistance fund which provides financial support to students who require additional support to enable them to fully benefit from their third level studies —€5.6 million was allocated under this fund in 2004-05; and the millennium partnership fund for disadvantage through which €1.85 million was allocated in 2004-05 to 68 partnerships and community groups.
In addition, my Department provided grants of approximately €460,000 in 2004 to specific projects such as the Ballymun initiative for third level education; Clondalkin higher education access project; the accessing college education project, based in Tallaght; the Limerick community based education initiative; the Trinity access programme; the Blanchardstown area partnership; the northside partnership based in Coolock and the Wexford campus of the Institute of Technology Carlow.
The national office will be monitoring and reporting on progress in implementing the action plan and reaching national and institutional targets on equity of access to higher education.