Increasing levels of participation in third level institutions is a priority of Ireland’s Department of Education and Skills. With skill shortages seen in vital economic sectors, this is of paramount importance to build a generation of skilled human resource for the nation.
Equity of access to higher levels of education for pupils from every socio-economic background is a core objection of the Irish education policy and will serve towards fulfilment of this intention through greater social integration and broadening of participation of disadvantaged social and demographic groups, along with people with disabilities, in higher education. The National Access Plan is a guidance document orchestrated by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) that lays out policy measures aimed at such outcomes. This is an integral part of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, which is the central education policy document of the HEA.
The National Access Plan 2015-2019 considers not only the establishment of new policies directed at more inclusion of target groups but also proposals for improvements in existing policies. It takes on consultations from all affected parties and puts together directive points from these dialogues, along with assessing the participation data and recognising key problem areas and possible causes for them. Considerable geographical and socio-economic discrepancies in participation rates are seen. It is also found that sensory disabilities are about 10% more likely to keep pupils out from post-secondary education as compared to mobility-related disabilities. Even as mature student numbers have grown, currently at 13%. Action is required to mobilise more participation especially in under represented groups. Irish Travellers see relatively low rates of higher education, composing a mere 0.1% in higher educational institutions. The scope of the National Access Plan covers five broad goals pertaining to access initiatives in Higher Education Institutions and their assessments, data development of such measures and more integration of associated agents. However, it does not cover specific policy suggestions and is only a directive layout.
The Plan recognises the need for dynamic education policy-making to be in tandem with the changing demographics of the country along with reconfiguration of funding and financial supports available to students from under-represented groups. Guidance about available opportunities is a critical information support to students. Community level measures can be introduced to encourage families to send their wards to post-secondary institutions.
All-round inclusion of under-represented students is to be encouraged not only at the point of entry but also throughout the educational years until completion and supports must be available till the point of employment. Equality of opportunity in upper levels of education is imperative for sustained national economic growth, as it ensures representation of all socio-economic and demographic groups in higher education and promotes progress of the nation through a more educated and successful society. There is thus a requirement for more action to promote access and much potential in terms of policy-making remains unharnessed.