Data released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) earlier this week has highlighted persistent inequalities in terms of access to higher education for those from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. The data is based on Deprivation Index Scores (DIS) which measure the relative affluence or disadvantage of a particular geographical area based on data compiled from the census. Using this information, the ‘HEA has analysed the socio-economic profile of nearly all (94%) of the student population on an individual institutional level’ (Maura O’Shea, HEA).
AONTAS is generating data from the CEN census which can support the development of the next National Access Plan for higher education. The survey focuses on identifying community education groups, courses, learner profiles, participation, funding streams and supports, with findings available early in 2021. While data on the exact socioeconomic status of learners engaging in community education is not readily available, community education is generally tailored to meet the learning needs of the local community in which it operates, and community education centres are frequently located in areas that register high levels of disadvantage on the Deprivation Indices. A provider such as Southill Family Resource Centre (FRC), Limerick, for example, is located within a ‘very disadvantaged’ area characterised by low levels of progression into HE. Qualitative and quantitative data from community education centres gathered as part of the AONTAS CEN Census gives credence to the data represented in the Deprivation Indices. Furthermore, it highlights the acute impact that COVID-19 has in terms of compounding this disadvantage, demonstrating the need for sustained support, including funding, for programmes to address the challenges faced and outreach to engage those furthest from education. As Jimmy Prior, Manager of Southill FRC has noted in an interview as part of this research:
“80 percent of the houses here are headed by a lone parent, I would say 80 percent of them are on a social welfare payment, so if they are working, it’s part time work so they’re looking at upskilling. Because we’re local and most of them would know us, or know somebody here, they’re able to ring us and say, well actually I’m thinking of doing a course.”
By virtue of its location, and rootedness in the community, the FRC has the ability to provide increased opportunities for many who may not have considered learning a valid option for themselves and their families.
While a good deal of learners enter community education with no plans to progress into further education, many have reported that their community education experience has nonetheless spurred them on to engage in higher education options. In interviews as part of the AONTAS CEN Census, learners in Roscommon Women’s Network have spoken about their non-accredited courses as ‘transformative’, and having an important role in helping them transition into HE. As one learner noted: ‘Because of the pace that I was able to go at I eventually went into education, I have a First-Class Honours Degree and now I’m working full time and I’m very much part of strengthening the community’.
Roscommon Women’s Network, based in Castlerea, Roscommon, also registers as a ‘disadvantaged’ area on the Deprivation Indices, and it succeeds in supporting learner pathways at a local level, both through community education and into further and higher education by providing tailored options and the necessary supports to engage in learning. Speaking about their experience of engaging in community education at RWN, one learner described how the holistic and supportive nature of their experience in community education, initially at Quality and Qualification Ireland (QQI) Level 2, enabled them to make an unexpected transition into HE:
“I gradually started taking control of my life … I joined the women’s group here. I was coming in my wheelchair. I left school at 11. Most of the women would have been through bad experiences with bad self-esteem. I went to college and I got a degree in Fine Art, and I thought I’d never do it. It has changed who I am, because to me my lack of education had held me back my entire life.”
This learner continues to engage with Roscommon Women’s Network, taking part in their CycleUp club, a non-accredited course where the local women use scrap material to create sustainable items that are then sold to support the initiative. In such a way, this learner’s HE course in Fine Art was not only enriching in a personal capacity but became a resource for the local community. While independently managed community education groups such as RWN make pathways into HE available to learners through a range of non-accredited and QQI accredited courses, others such as Longford Women’s Link and An Cosán make higher education available directly, meeting the needs of the local community by providing higher education courses within a community education context.
Responding to the data recently released by the HEA, Minister Simon Harris, TD, has noted that ‘The higher education student population does not yet reflect the diversity found in the rest of the population in Ireland.’ He notes that ‘this detailed dataset provides policy makers and institutions with a comprehensive knowledge of patterns of access and disadvantage that will assist them in developing and implementing targeted approaches to advancing equity of access.’ One such targeted approach could be found in bolstering community education providers who are strategically positioned to provide these supported pathways into higher education for those who may not have considered it a viable option before.