5 Sep 2022

AONTAS welcomes the prioritisation of new adult learner cohorts in latest National Access Plan 2022-2028

National Access Plan: A strategic action plan for equity of access, participation and success in higher education, 2022 to 2028

The new National Access Plan was launched last week by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD, with the goal of “investing in positive outcomes for all.”

The plan, which will extend from 2022 to 2028, is billed as “a strategic action plan for equity of access, participation and success in higher education.” AONTAS has long advocated for increased ringfenced support and funding for people who experience disadvantage in accessing education or university. The new plan lists priority groups, including people who have been or are in the care system, have experienced homelessness, and people with intellectual disabilities or different abilities.

AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless, who attended the launch of the new plan, said that AONTAS welcomes the prioritisation of these groups and will continue to work with the Department and other stakeholders on this. AONTAS's advocacy work prioritises learners furthest from the system or those seldom heard. When the public consultation process for the access plan took place in 2021, AONTAS developed a submission. We called for public investment in community education, the provision of Access Officers in Education and Training Boards (ETBs), integrated tertiary education with clear pathways and support systems for learners across all levels, a learner-informed approach, targeted financial supports for priority cohorts, funding for part-time learners, increased diversity in higher education to include learners from under-represented groups, and stronger data collection and metrics to monitor students’ educational journeys.

We are pleased to see many of our recommendations included in the latest plan, or in process as part of new policy developments such as the Funding the Future of Higher Education policy.

We are particularly pleased to see the recognition that, according to Minister Harris TD, “there remains significant barriers to access” and that “the new plan aims to support inclusion and diversity in our student body” and to recognise “the needs of vulnerable learners, the most marginalised and those with special and additional needs.” The Minister states that the plan will “continue to target and support students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, students with disabilities and students from the Irish Traveller community.”

This is a positive development as, according to the submission AONTAS made last year, “learners from lower socio-economic groups are under-represented in third-level education, with an average of just 10%.” AONTAS also found that “the degree programmes with higher-paid incomes such as medicine and economics are attended by affluent and marginally above-average income learners, with only 4% of disadvantaged learners in medicine and 5% in economics respectively (HEA, 2020)."

AONTAS recommended that “there must be parity of esteem between the different areas in adult education”, including Further Education and Training (FET), and community education. The FET route to higher education, through the Quality and Qualifications Ireland levels, must be seen as an equally promising and attractive route to traditional Leaving Certificate process.

AONTAS welcomes the specific naming of the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Working Group in the new plan, which states that the group, “represented by key stakeholders and led by AONTAS” was “essential in developing suitable responses.” The MED Working Group, which was led by former AONTAS CEO Dr Niamh O’Reilly, “identified issues affecting marginalised learners and offered high-level solutions.” This included a learner support system, training in IT, grants for childcare, outreach and Learner Voice, counselling and guidance, and peer support.

The Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund is named in the new Access plan as “an allocation of €8m in 2020, additional spend of €6.85m in 2021” specifically “for community education.”

As a member of the Steering Group for this new plan, AONTAS has been working with several key stakeholders to advocate for the needs of our members and learners, particularly Travellers, refugees, and lone parents. We held a webinar with our members in advance of the submission in 2021 to gather their ideas and ensure our submission was led by those working in adult and community education.

The evidence-based research we conduct through the National FET Learner Form, and our Learner Voice work, means that we can reflect the needs of learners to policymakers, and help shape policies like the new National Access Plan.

Our programmes and promotional campaigns have long worked to highlight the achievements of members and learners of all abilities. We welcome the announcement that in this new plan, “ring-fenced funding of €3 million a year has been allocated to 2025 so higher education institutions can implement universal design and inclusive practices on their campuses, and enhance opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities in higher education.”

AONTAS will continue to work with the Department and other key stakeholders as this plan is implemented. We continually attend meetings and discussions, and make recommendations based on inputs from our members and learners. We will continue to advocate for increased support for Further Education and Training, and community education.

Click here to read the highlights of the new National Access Plan and to download the full plan.

Click here for the AONTAS submission to the public consultation in 2021.

Written by Dr Kate Smyth, AONTAS Communications Officer.