Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has today launched a new seven-year plan to increase participation in higher education among disadvantaged groups.
The National Access Plan, 2022 to 2028, identifies three “priority groups” for whom it aims to increase equity of access to third level education, these being students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, members of the Traveller community, and students with disabilities.
€35 million will be provided by Harris’ Department to reach its targets.
Speaking at today’s launch, Harris called the new plan, the fourth of its kind, “the most ambitious plan for access to higher education”.
He continued: “The statistics don’t lie. It is clear those from disadvantaged areas have a lesser chance of accessing higher education than those from more affluent areas.
“There are a number of new groups who we have never put a focus on before including those in the care system and those with intellectual disabilities. Today, that changes.”
The priority group identified from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, includes specific reference those who have experienced homelessness, are survivors of domestic violence, have experience of the care system, are carers, and who have experience of the criminal justice system.
The plan aims to increase progression to higher education among this cohort from 42% to 54% by 2028.
Secondly, the plan seeks to more than quadruple the number of members of the Traveller community who proceed to higher education. Currently, only 1% of those from an Irish Traveller or Roma background hold a third level qualification, compared to 55% of the general population.
It is hoped that by the end of the plan, 150 members of the Traveller community will begin higher education annually, compared to 33 in 2020/21.
Lastly, the plan notes that although previous targets for access to higher education among people with disabilities have been met, the percentage of students with disabilities still does not reflect the wider population.
The plan aims to increase the number of new entrants with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, from 12.4% of the student population to 16% by 2028.
Harris added: “We want a truly inclusive third level system where neither your background nor experience has a bearing on your ability to attend or succeed in higher education.”
He highlighted that the plan not only hopes to increase access, but also “for the first time ever” puts “a very specific emphasis on participation and successful conclusion of higher education.”
Success of the plan will be monitored based on performance indicators in four key areas: flexibility within higher education, diversity across programmes and levels, access and participation for priority groups, and student success and engagement.
Earlier this year, Harris announced Strand 4 of the Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH), including funding of €12 million to improve third-level accessibility for students with autism and intellectual disabilities.
The National Access Plan forms part of a wider shakeup of the higher education sector in Ireland. The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022 will continue its way through the legislative process when the Oireachtas reconvenes in the coming weeks.
In May, Harris published Funding the Future, a framework for the funding of higher education going forward which includes a reduction in the student contribution charge.
Though reducing the cost of higher education has been a key aim of his tenure as Minister for Further and Higher education, Harris today said that he cannot reveal whether Budget 2023 will include a reduction in student fees.”