In 2000, the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education was established to advise the Minister for Education and Science on the development of a co-ordinated framework to improve access to higher education by mature students, socio-economically disadvantaged students and communities and students with a disability.
The report of the Action Group was published in 2001. One of the principal recommendations was that a single, dedicated body was necessary to develop a framework for improved access and that a National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education should be established within the Higher Education Authority. The National Office was established as part of the HEA in late 2003 and the core functions of this office are, in close liaison with the Department of Education and Science and other stakeholders, to co-ordinate, advise and implement policy and funding measures to improve access to and participation in higher education by the key target groups.
One of the first milestones for the office was the development and publication in 2004 of a three-year Action Plan for the period 2005-2007. There have been a number of key outcomes from this plan, including the publication last year by the office of a national framework of policies and initiatives for successful higher education access programmes. This framework, which was developed following a process of consultation and evaluation with higher education institutions, will underpin and inform the work of the National Office and its partners in the higher education sector from 2007 onwards. Implementation and the monitoring of progress will also be linked to the strategic development and allocation of core funding, including access funding, by the HEA and the allocation of increased third level access funding through the new National Development Plan 2007-13.
A number of recommendations by the Action Group on Access were also in the area of student financial support. In 2000, further to a preliminary recommendation by the group, a special, higher rate of maintenance grant for disadvantaged students most in need was introduced. In 2005-06 over 12,500 students were in receipt of this additional support. The special or ‘top-up' rate of grant is part of a wider Third Level Access Measure, under which the National Office also manages the allocation of over €15 million in student funding through the Fund for Students with a Disability, the Student Assistance Fund and the Millennium Partnership Fund.
Since the establishment of the office there have been improvements in the timing and guidelines for the allocation of these funds and in 2006, over 2,000 students with a disability received funding from the Fund for Students with a Disability — an increase of over 330 students (20%) over the previous year. The Action Group also made some recommendations on the administration of the higher education grants scheme. A new Student Support Bill will be shortly brought forward which will provide for a single unified scheme of maintenance grants for students in higher education. This will, I believe, provide for a more equitable and efficient grant administration system, which will facilitate consistency of application, improved accessibility to financial support for students and ensure the timely delivery of grants to those who need them most.
There are clear indications that since the publication of the report of the Action Group in 2001, the combined investment of resources and measures at all levels of the education system is paying dividends and that targets for increased participation in higher education by under-represented groups have been reached and indeed exceeded. For example, participation by mature entrants in full-time higher education has grown from 4.5% in 1998 to almost 10% in 2006. Students with a disability have risen from 0.8% of the undergraduate population in 1998 to a current level of some 2.4%. Surveys conducted by the HEA also indicate that access to higher education by young people from under-represented socioeconomic groups continues to improve. For example, between 33% and 40% of young people nationally from the semi- and unskilled socioeconomic groups currently study in higher education, compared to only 23% in 1998. These targets will be reviewed and new targets developed in 2007, particularly as linked to the implementation of the new National Development Plan 2007-2013.