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Stark contrast between Ireland's richest and poorest college students revealed by new study

The study breaks down the socio-economic composition of Ireland’s student body.

Image: Shutterstock/Syda Productions

IRISH THIRD-LEVEL students are twice as likely to be from affluent backgrounds than disadvantaged ones, according to a new report by the Higher Education Authority.

The study, a socioeconomic profile of Ireland’s student body, highlights the gap between Ireland’s rich and poor when it comes to participation in and progress through the higher education system.

It reveals that some 20% of students are from the most affluent parts of the country compared to just 10% from the most disadvantaged.

Those contrasts are more pronounced in colleges in Dublin and Cork compared to regional institutions and ITs in other parts of the country.

Using a deprivation index score, the study reveals that Trinity College Dublin (36%), University College Dublin (35%) and the Royal College of Surgeons (33%) have the highest shares of affluent students among all third-level institutions in the State.

But at 5%, these three colleges have the joint lowest share of disadvantaged students.

Meanwhile, at 25% of its student population, Letterkenny IT has the highest concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with 10% nationwide.

The figures are strongly influenced by geographic considerations and catchment areas.

Donegal, for example, comprises some of the most deprived local electoral areas in the country, according to 2016 census data, while Dublin contains the most wealthy.

But the report also reveals stark contrasts within the system itself.

Students from wealthier backgrounds dominate high-points courses such as medicine and law. By contrast, just 4% of medical students are from poorer parts of the country.

Disadvantaged students, meanwhile, are better represented in childcare and youth services, social work and sports-related courses.

Commenting on the release of the report, Dr Alan Wall, chief executive of the HEA, said that its findings show that more work has to be done to improve socioeconomic inclusiveness in Irish education.

“The higher education student population does not yet reflect the diversity found in the rest of the population in Ireland,” he said.

“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.”

Deprivation index

Based on admission figures from the 2018/19 academic year, the report uses  Deprivation Index Scores (DIS) to profile the socioeconomic makeup of Ireland’s higher education student population.

It’s a measure of affluence or disadvantage in a given ‘small area’ within the country using 2016 census data from each individual local electoral area.

Rather than just focusing on income levels, the DIS takes into account a range of factors — dependency levels, employment rates etc — to arrive at a holistic profile of a given area.

HEA researchers then use these scores to analyse the socio-economic profile of the student body by institution and course, which are then given individual DI scores.

Screenshot 2020-12-04 at 15.45.20 Bar chart showing the socioeconomic breakdown of each college.

The lower the number, the higher the volume of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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When all Irish third-level institutions are taken together, the mean score is 2.2.

Letterkenny IT (-5.1); Waterford IT (-2.3); IT Carlow (-2.3); and IT Tralee (-2) have the four lowest scores.

Trinity (+5.7); RCSI (+5.7); and UCD (+5.6) scored the highest, indicating a higher proportion of students from affluent areas.

It’s the second annual report of its kind and provides a more accurate view than last year’s installment. In 2019, Trinity College declined to participate in the study, citing privacy concerns.

Researchers also believe it to be a more accurate information-gathering technique than the old Equal Access Survey (EAS), which relied on outdated information, for example, asking students to identify their father’s occupation.

Simon Harris, Minister for Higher Education, said that the study will be used to craft the government’s new National Access Plan for third-level education.

“This is a really valuable and important piece of work,” he said.

“We must ensure that our policies strengthen the participation of students in higher education and to do that, we need accurate data and evidence.

“This is the second year of such data collection and I believe it will be an excellent resource to us as we prepare our new National Access Plan. I want to thank the Higher Education Authority for its work on this report.”

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