Universities will be required to tackle high dropout rates and boost outcomes for vulnerable students under a four-year Government access plan for higher education to be unveiled shortly.
The National Access Plan 2022-2026 will aim to increase the number of students progressing to college from groups such as Travellers, single parents, people with disabilities, care-leavers, students from disadvantaged areas and mature students.
In a significant change, it will also focus on improving graduation and employment rates among underrepresented groups, instead of simply focusing on the numbers progressing to college.
This is in response to data showing that students from poorer backgrounds and those with disabilities are at a higher risk of dropping out compared with others.
For example, the proportion of students who failed to complete the first year of their college course was 9 per cent in 2019-2020. These rates were highest among disadvantaged students and those from poorer backgrounds (12 per cent), and lowest among affluent students (7 per cent).
The aim of the plan, due to be published by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris at the end of August, is to make higher education more inclusive and representative of the wider population.
“The plan won’t just measure access — such as did someone get into college — but what happened when they got in the gates, what was their college experience like, did they get a job, what they did got on to?” Mr Harris said.
“So, it will measure much more the journey rather than the commencement of the journey.”
Boosting student numbers from under-represented groups forms a key part of performance agreements that universities are required to meet in exchange for State funding.
A review of the current national access plan, which ran from 2017 to 2021, reported mixed results.
While there was evidence that the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds improved, young people in those communities continued to face barriers accessing university.
For example, in 2019-2020, 10 per cent of the student population came from disadvantaged areas compared with 20 per cent from affluent areas.
In high points courses such as medicine, just 4 per cent of students came from disadvantaged areas.
Only 55 students in the country came from “extremely disadvantaged” backgrounds.
Among students with disabilities, the trends were positive with a sustained increase in participation rates.
In 2019-2020, just over 12 per cent of new entrants were students with disabilities, exceeding the original national access plan target of 8 per cent.
However, the higher education population of students with disabilities still falls below the wider population.
For students who are Travellers, there were marginal improvements, but numbers were still “disappointingly low”, the review found.
In 2019-2020, 48 new entrants who were Irish Travellers, compared with 25 in 2012-2013.
In the case of mature students, participation rates also fell significantly behind the access plan targets. Just 7 per cent of full-time new entrants were mature students in 2019-2020, compared with 13 per cent in 2012-2013. This fell well below the target of 16 per cent.