“Failed lamentably”: Trinity Access Programme slated by research student

By Kate Palmer

The value of the Trinity Access Programmes in promoting equal access to education has been challenged by a Trinity postgraduate student. DPhil student Ross Higgins claims the programme and others like it “have failed lamentably in their core objective of opening up college entry.”

Unlike the more traditional student-staff disagreement over an unfairly graded paper, Higgins sparked the debate on a national level. In an opinion piece for The Irish Times, Higgins says programmes such as TAP are “struggling to draw students from disadvantaged backgrounds”. He suggests entry towards higher education should instead follow the “10 per cent rule” from Texas, whereby the top tenth of performers in each school automatically gain entry to a university in the state. This, he says, is a viable alternative to the current participation policy of “tinkering around the edges”, through “mentoring, support and guidance”.

TAP staff Clíona Hannon, Grace Edge and Lisa Keane responded to Higgins’ piece as a “disappointing lack of reference to any of the varied and imaginative responses” by TAP in aiding access to higher education. In a rebuttal published in The Irish Times, they point out that 17% of Trinity’s student body is compromised of nontraditional students. Hannon, Edge and Keane write that 1,000 students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be progressing to higher education this academic year, which they claim is by no means “tinkering around the edge of the problem”.

The TAP staff dismiss the Texas model as inadequate, saying it overlooks the multitude of factors relating to family life, resources, educational facilities and demographics which can affect academic progression.

Currently there are approximately 500 TAP students enrolled in undergraduate studies, with 140 new entrants this year, the greatest intake since the programme began.

Set up in 1993, the principal aim of the programme is to significantly increase third-level participation of those who, for social, economic and educational reasons, have not yet realised their full academic potential. Trinity College has a quota of 15% for students from non-traditional backgrounds, which is planned to rise to 22% by 2013 as the initial quota was surpassed in 2008.

The debate took place in the wake of the 2010 TAP Report, which finds that TAP alumni are defying international trends by securing jobs comparable to graduates that did not receive financial aid. It finds that 75% of TAP graduates are currently employed, mainly in the education sector. Their earnings are in line with national starting salaries for third-level graduates. The report concludes there is “little evidence that graduates experienced widespread disadvantage in the labour market”, even though TAP students generally have few networks to draw upon in establishing a career path. TAP graduates are hailed as a “testament to the success of widening participation initiatives in Trinity College” by the report.

Speaking to Trinity News about the debate, Higgins comments: “The key point is that we all share a common goal … the only question is what combination of different policy ideas will best achieve that goal nationally”.