During the lead up to the recent student union elections Stephen Carty, a candidate for TCDSU president, pledged €5,000 of his prospective salary towards Trinity Access Programmes (TAP). Lynn Ruane, who came through TAP as a mature student, is now coming to the end of her year as TCDSU President. Ruane’s predecessor, Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, made TAP a centerpiece of his long-term strategic plan. This attention has followed significant funding cuts since the recession. However, despite this, TAP has managed to actually increase and diversify its activities to encourage students from low income backgrounds to attend Trinity.
In essence, TAP does two separate but connected jobs. First, it reaches out to young adults from low income families in Dublin and around the country. For example, TAP’s Ronan Smith regularly runs tours of the college campus for secondary school students. The organisation also sends out TAP ambassadors to Trinity-linked secondary schools around Dublin. They tell second-level pupils about their experiences, and encourage those who may not consider college a realistic destination to apply to third level. The organisation continues to extend its outreach through various mentoring programs and event days for prospective students around the country.
TAP’s second task is to support students at a socio-economic disadvantage once they get to college. The financial and cultural barriers to success do not go away once a student has made it onto Trinity’s books. Indeed, informing students of the various disadvantages they have faced due to their particular background is one of the methods TAP uses to buttress confidence.
A set of widely disseminated statistics compiled by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in their plan to increase participation in education reveals students from households where unskilled and semi-skilled workers are the norm are nearly five times less likely to attend higher education than students from households where skilled professionals are the norm. And a graphic shown at the recent TCDSU debate over a motion setting out the union’s opposition to a fees and loans system produced an even starker statistic: 99% of young adults aged 18-20 in Dublin 6 attend third-level education; the figure for Dublin 17 is 15%.
The 978 TAP students who are current undergraduates have come through one of two routes. Some have entered through the TAP one year foundation course – a course for mature students and young adults carried out in the environs of Trinity as preparation to attend college as an undergraduate proper. The other route is through the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), a government funded scheme permitting students at a socio-economic disadvantage to matriculate with reduced points and to receive support once in college.
One person who came through the foundation course as a mature student is the aforementioned Lynn Ruane. Ruane is ever-enthusiastic to speak about TAP which she sees as not just as a source of financial help but a community that allows students reach their full potential. She emphasises that while TAP smoothes students’ transition into their first year, it also “continues to support them till the day they get their degree”. She considers TAP “the best access program in the country” and praises it for extending its outreach far beyond “the Trinity bubble” to working class Dublin. In her own case, TAP contributed financially to grinds she needed for maths which were “crucial” to her progressing through a particular set of exams. Ruane also reinforced the value of TAP’s foundation course, which allowed her to reintegrate after having been “out of education for a while”.
Katie Shortall, a third year English literature and Film Studies student from Ballyfermot, came through the same route as Ruane, and is full of praise for the “incredible” full-time TAP officers. Though having less than a dozen full time staff, TAP has utilised its students to further a continually diversifying set of outreach activities. One of these is an event next month designed to visually highlight privilege that will occur on campus. Shortall speaks about the importance TAP had in clearing “disadvantages and obstacles” to her succeeding in college. Having initially been at a disadvantage because of her background she feels the effect of the foundation course was such she was almost “at an advantage coming into Trinity”.
Casey O’Callaghan is a first year General Science student from East Wall who, after studying a PLC course for a year, entered Trinity through the HEAR route. She has run for the Access Officer position in TCDSU, essentially a position for TAP student representation in the union. O’Callaghan notes “a certain level of separation between students here in Trinity and students like myself”. She has benefitted from TAP’s financial, academic and emotional support and credits TAP as being one of the reasons “why I’m still in college doing as well as I am”. The organisation is her “first point of contact” whenever she’s in a stressful situation.
TAP’s support networks with students like Shortall and O’Callaghan can be seen in the fact the progression rate from first to second year for TAP students is 95%, and 90% of TAP students go on to finish their degree. Both figures are significantly higher than the college average. Lisa Keane, one of the handful of TAP’s full-time staff, is proud of those numbers. She focusses on students after they have entered Trinity, and has a particular interest in a program called Pathways to Law which aids students wishing pursue a career in law.
Coping with funding cuts
TAP’s head of department is Cliona Hannon. She explains how TAP is largely funded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), who transfer money into the college core grant. This funding is “allocated on the basis of student numbers within the target socio-economic groups entering the college” and is thus “ring-fenced” for this purpose. A further 25% of TAP’s funding is raised through “working closely with Trinity Development & Alumni to develop our funding portfolio”.
Keane says the private funding is a big help. Part of her role involves ‘engaging with businesses’ who are interested in supporting the work of TAP. Law firms who participate in Pathways to Law, for example, offer bursaries to every student who comes through that program. They connect these students with networks and offer them “meaningful law-based experiences”.
Asked about Stephen Carty’s proposed salary pledge Keane responded by noting it was positive that the union and those associated with it were “prioritising TAP” but added that those who want to offer the organisation support should focus on doing so in a practical way. She also praised former TCDSU President Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne for having done a “tremendous job” in relation to TAP. Among other measures, McGlacken-Byrne introduced the position of Access Officer to the union.
In spite of the fact TAP has continued to diversify its outreach projects, cuts to the funding it receives from the HEA have had a noticeable impact. Keane says the “reductions come at a time when TAP student levels are increasing” and as a result the Student Assistance Fund (SAF) has significantly decreased in recent years. All TAP students are entitled to the SAF, a payment which has gone from being biannual to a one-off sum in the last three years. The payment most students received for 2015/16 was just €350. Keane feels the cuts have been “detrimental”. Lynn Ruane describes how every year students become more unsure about their bursaries. And although it has not had an impact on her personally, Katie Shortall is aware of the cuts which have affected students such as Casey O’Callaghan.
Cliona Hannon lists some of the supports which TAP can no longer provide: “we used to have capacity to fund student accommodation for those in acute domestic circumstances. We also were able to contribute more to those with children and to those with fees issues.” Hannon is nonetheless proud of the the opportunities TAP can provide in the face of cuts to HEA funding, concluding that TAP has “weathered the storms of the economic crisis well”.
Keane is adamant that despite the cuts, TAP has by no means become “a stagnant space”. She is visibly passionate about the work TAP and its 300 student ambassadors continue to do. More generally, Keane views TAP’s work as part of a “broader revolution” in overall access to education around Ireland. The benefits of this greater access are not just for the disadvantaged students, says Keane, but entire colleges also gain from the “wealth of experience” these students bring.