The vision of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019 (National Access Plan) is to ensure that the student body participating in, and completing, higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland’s population. Goal 3 of the Plan is to “gather accurate data and evidence on access and participation and to base policy on what that data tells us”. The HEA’s recently published Spatial and Socio-Economic Profile of Higher Education Institutions in Ireland arises from the implementation of this goal and the publication of a data access plan in 2018. The report enhances understanding of how socio-economic background and levels of disadvantage have impacted on rates of participation in higher education.
The findings in the report show the extent of diversity of the student population in our higher education institutions as well as the diversity of the institutions. This is the first year this type of data is available so it is only possible to establish trends when more years of data become available.
This report is not the only source of data in relation to the socio-economic background of our higher education student population. The socio-economic data where we have an established trend shows that there are improvements being made in access to higher education from target socio-economic groups. Specifically, the Progress Review of the National Access Plan published in December 2018 showed an increase in participation by people disadvantaged by socio-economic backgrounds in the following groups:
Non-manual worker group: 23% in 2012/13, 27% in 2016/17
Semi/unskilled manual worker group: 26% in 2012/13, 36% in 2016/17
It is also important to recognise and acknowledge that higher education is not the only option for school leavers. Further education, apprenticeships and progression to the labour market are all equally important, valid and worthwhile alternative options.
A number of initiatives are in place to support increased participation in higher education by under-represented groups including those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and communities e.g. Student Assistance Fund, HEAR, and the more recent PATH Fund.
The report provides a key evidence base that will help policymakers in the HEA and Department of Education and Skills as well access services in higher education institutions to develop a better understanding of the levels of socio-economic disadvantage in our communities and regions. In particular, the data in the report will support institutions to develop more targeted approaches to widening access in their regions.