The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education (NAP) 2015-2021 identifies the target groups that are currently under-represented in higher education. These include entrants from socio-economic groups that have low participation in higher education including students with disabilities and Irish Travellers.
The Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) Fund is the funding mechanism supporting the NAP to enable innovative responses to support target groups’ participation and retention in higher education. The PATH fund was confirmed as a permanent fund in 2020 and has a current investment envelope of €33.9 million over the period 2016 to 2022, across the three strands, PATH 1 - Initial Teacher Education, PATH 2 - The 1916 Bursary Fund and PATH 3 - The Higher Education Access Fund.
Consultations on the next National Access Plan will commence early 2021.
A Progress Review of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education and the Priorities to 2021 was published in December 2018. The review has shown that there has been significant increases in participation rates since work began on implementing the NAP. The most considerable progress toward realising the targets of the NAP has been achieved amongst the disabilities target group. The target of 8% that was set for the lifetime of the Plan has been exceeded by the Progress Review stage. A new target of 12% has been set for 2021.The overall participation rate has increased to 10.5%, and targets have equally been surpassed in respect of two of the three categories of disability. There has been a 88% increase in participation by students with physical or mobility disabilities, while participation rates by deaf students or those hard of hearing has increased by 48%. Participation by students that are blind or that have a vision impairment has increased by 53%.
The Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD) supports participation by students with a disability in full-time programmes of further and higher education. The FSD is one of the main funding sources supporting participation by students with disabilities in approved further and higher education courses in Ireland. It also supports students from Ireland to study on approved courses in Northern Ireland, the UK and other EU countries. The actual level of support to be provided to individual students is decided by each HEI who carry out a needs assessment to determine the types of supports and accommodations needed. The 2020 allocation to the fund is €9.6m which is expected to support circa 14,000 students.
While increases have been recorded throughout the target groups, the Traveller group has not progressed as was anticipated by the NAP. In response to the lower than anticipated progress for Travellers, an Action Plan to Promote Traveller Participation in Higher Education was developed and published in late 2019. The plan was developed in consultation with Traveller representative groups, and aims to support and advance Traveller participation in higher education. It will work within the context of approaches to retention and transitions of Travellers across the education spectrum. The gathering of precise data in respect of Traveller students is complicated by the reliance on self-identification. However, it is anticipated that the new Action Plan, which contains nine key objectives and sixteen priority actions, will encourage Travellers to progress to higher education and have the confidence to self-identify and promote their Traveller heritage. Reporting on progress on the actions commenced in September 2020 and demonstrated that PATH Funding of €1.5m has been targeted at Travellers over first three years from 2017 to 2020, high success rates of 70% among Travellers applications to the 1916 Bursary Fund and dedicated PATH 1 and PATH 3 projects.
More recently on the 12th of this month I announced ring-fenced funding of €300,000 for targeted supports to address the implications of COVID-19 for Traveller transfer to and progression within higher education. The funding, which has been secured through the Dormant Accounts Fund, will help ensure expected increases in Traveller participation in higher education remain on track.