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Access to third level education: challenges for equality of opportunity in post celtic tiger Ireland

Nicola Maxwell1 and Claire Dorrity2

  1. Cork Institute of Technology
  2. School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork


There are numerous barriers to third level education, all of which are well documented. While several initiatives are taking place locally indicating a range of responses from community education to further education to third level, a number of gaps remain which continue to contribute to educational inequality in Ireland. A number of issues warrant attention; the need to move beyond a ‘deficit model of disadvantage’; to address educational inequality in a framework that challenges the language of disadvantage; the need to recognise the complexities and range of supports required to tackle educational inequality; and the need for more collaborative and interactive consultation processes in representing communities that are persistently marginalised. The aim of this article is to address a number of the above issues and to document some emergent themes from research currently being undertaken within Cork city. The research is being conducted through the Strategic Innovation Fund ‘Connections Project’ at UCC with a focus on adult non-traditional learners. It is one of four strands of the project. The research findings to date reflect the view of recent literature pointing to the need to open up the debate on the value of community education.

In a global order where advanced skills and numeracy are required for economic, social and political participation, one is confined to a state of powerlessness, dependence, and lack of control if one is deprived of education. (Baker, Lynch, Cantillon and Walsh, 2004: 141)


The purpose of this article is to highlight the key issues and barriers to education presenting specifically for adult non-traditional learners in Cork city. The article is divided into three parts the first of which will give a broad overview of the literature in the area of educational inequality and outline the various debates currently taking place around the conceptualisation of ‘community education’ and ‘adult education’. The second part of the article will outline the qualitative aspect of this research which is being undertaken in the Cork city area with key stakeholders and adult non-traditional learners. The latter part of the article will outline the issues emerging from the research and address the challenges posed in responding to the current economic crisis. This part of the article will focus on how current political ideology coinciding with a growing corporatism within education may serve to further marginalise those who have already been persistently marginalised by an unequal educational system. The pursuit of corporatist values is viewed as hindering innovation and leading to contradictory elements in the nature and purpose of education itself.

The article is not intended as an in depth analysis of educational inequalities spanning across all institutions but rather is representative of what is currently taking place in Cork city, highlighting the range of complexities associated with accessing education at local level. The findings are based on a small scale research project, which aims to provide an indication of the range of problems that persist for adult non-traditional learners with regard to accessing education while also addressing some of the gaps highlighted by participating groups and organisations. The theoretical perspective of the article is driven by recognition of the need for a fundamental restructuring of the education system and a radical shift in how we approach educational disadvantage (Spring, 2007: 8). It calls for a more joined up way of thinking and the need for a more coherent and shared perspective between education providers at all levels. This means creating a space for action through developing relationships and respectful dialogue that is inclusive of the diverse perspectives of all actors (Zappone, 2007: 18).


This article is informed by a Freirean model of education. The philosophy and values presented by Freire offer a truly transformative approach based on an understanding of education that places value in learning through enriching people’s lives with better, more elevated, and informed perspectives from which to view their social world. The article offers a critical perspective of the education system and argues that the current system is increasingly determined by structures that deem points as more salient than a willingness to learn. In essence, the current education system encourages a competitive and market based approach which has replaced more meaningful models of learning. Drawing on Dunne’s (1995) analysis of the education system in Ireland, Murphy (2007: 307) notes:

In a system where the need for points seems to have replaced the need to learn, the connection between learning and the world to which it refers seems to have become increasingly fractured.

Addressing lifelong learning and equity of access requires redressing important ideological and practical issues relating to educational inequality in Ireland. Despite a number of policy responses and access initiatives during the period of economic prosperity, there remains a continued divide between those who access education and those who do not. O’Connell, Clancy, and McCoy (2006) note that while there has been continued expansion in access to higher education since the 1960s, such expansion has not been to the benefit of all groups in society. They argue that there remain deep rooted social inequalities in participation and attainment rates which highlight wide disparities in educational participation despite a succession of targeted policies and initiatives. Furthermore, Smyth (1999) argues that while there has been an overall increase in participation since 1979, the gap between professional and working class students who complete the Leaving Certificate has not changed to any great extent. Additionally, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) points out that participation rates within third level institutions are significantly lower for those coming from low income backgrounds (HEA, 2005), while Hannan and Ó Riain’s (1993) study indicates a strong link between levels of educational attainment and social mobility.

Further research highlighting issues relating to inequality in education points to social class differentials in participation rates in higher education, with little change in participation patterns over the past decades (Clancy, 2001; Conway, 2002; Lynch, 1999; McCoy and Smyth, 2003; O’Brien and Ó Fathaigh, 2007; O’Connell et al, 2006; Smyth and Hannan, 2000). Research conducted by McCoy and Smyth (2003) indicates that even with the abolition of fees in 1996, social inequalities in access were actually greater in 1998 than at the beginning of the 1980s, highlighting that despite targeted interventions, people coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to enter higher education. Much of the research to date points not only to barriers at higher education level but sees inequalities in education as deeply entrenched in an educational system that systematically places some at a disadvantage over others (Clancy, 2001; Hannan and Ó Riain, 1993; Lynch, 1999; MacVeigh, 2006; Smyth and Hannan, 2000). Early work by Drudy and Lynch (1993) on differential participation patterns, points to the long term effects of inequality as one of the key indicators of performance levels from as early as the beginning of primary school. Furthermore, there is strong evidence to suggest those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have less positive experiences of the education system than those who do not (Clancy, 2001). Moreover, Baker et al. (2004: 145) state that

Given the competitive contexts in which educational goods are distributed and the feasibility of using economic capital to buy educationally relevant social and cultural capital, it is evident that those who are best resourced economically are best placed to succeed educationally.

Research undertaken on participation rates at third level also indicates that students entering professional faculties such as law, medicine and dentistry are disproportionately represented by those coming from middle and upper class backgrounds with little change to entry patterns for those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Clancy, 2001; Lynch, 2006). This suggests that despite interventions, economically generated inequality continues to be a major factor in inequality of outcomes for those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education (2008-2013) highlights the continuing under representation of lower socio-economic groups in higher education and continuing spatial disadvantage and suggests that ‘success has been more limited in improving educational outcomes for people from areas where we find concentrations of poverty and disadvantage’ (HEA, 2008: 26).

From a policy perspective, Smyth and Hannan (2000) argue that the problem with state policy formation, particularly from the 1960s to the 1980s, was that it was more concerned with expanding participation rates rather than on addressing social class inequalities. Focusing on changes that took place throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they argue that efforts were made to reduce educational disadvantage but that such efforts were based on a ‘deficit model of disadvantage’. This model located the problem in under performance rather than addressing wider structural inequalities (ibid.) and the widening gap between rich and poor. This view is echoed by Gilligan (2002) in the action plan produced by the Forum on Primary Education Primary Education: Ending Disadvantage. The action plan addresses a number of concerns with the ‘deficit model of disadvantage’, its negative implications, and its failure to consider the complex levels of disadvantage experienced by marginalised communities (ibid.).

The policy contextToC

National initiatives have been designed to meet the large scale disparities in education participation rates through a number of targeted policies. In 1991 the OECD Review of National Education Policies: Ireland report highlighted a weakness in planning and decision making within the Irish context. The White Paper (1995) Charting Our Educational Future laid the foundations for evaluating education policy and practice and reflected a shift towards lifelong learning ideals. One of the core aims was an attempt to attract mature students and adult non-traditional learners into third level. The 1997 Universities Act and the 1998 Education Act give weight to equity of access; the Education Act (1998) also acknowledges that inequities in the education system have given rise to the under representation of those coming from disadvantaged communities.

A number of policy initiatives were also instigated between 1997 and 2003, notably the National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) 1997 (Government of Ireland, 1997), the revised NAPS (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, 2002), and the National Action Plan Against Poverty and Social Exclusion (2003-2005) (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, 2003). All three documents were directed at promoting social inclusion, including educational disadvantage. Moreover, the strategies acknowledged educational disadvantage as something that was multi-dimensional in nature requiring a more integrated and holistic approach (MacVeigh, 2006). Employability was viewed as the route away from disadvantage emphasising the need both for remedial and preventative measures to be introduced to address the problems arising from disadvantage (ibid.).

The OECD (1997) International Adult Literacy Survey yielded important information on the scale of adult literacy problems in Ireland, revealing a staggering 25 per cent of adults had literacy problems at level 1. Furthermore the number of adults at the lowest level was higher than any other country with the exception of Poland (Bane, 2007). These statistics revealed an insight into the severity of the problem in Ireland and proved significant to the development of the Green Paper (1998) Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning by the Department of Education, followed by the White Paper (2000) Learning for Life. Both these documents were welcomed by a broad range of actors involved in the provision of education across sectors. The White Paper was viewed as a watershed for adult education, particularly those coming from marginalised communities and as central to advancing the opportunities for adult learners (O’Brien and Ó Fathaigh, 2007). In addition, centralised structures such as the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion and the Social Inclusion Unit in the Department of Education and Science were established and a number of local partnerships emerged to address educational disadvantage and support communities at local level (MacVeigh, 2006).

The impact of policyToC

As already reviewed, while participation at third level from lower income groups has increased over time, their participation rates, relative to their counterparts from other groups remain unacceptably low and there is a notable persistence in educational inequalities by social class (Clancy, 2003; MacVeigh, 2006). While there have been numerous policy initiatives put in place, this does not appear to have resulted in improving the percentage of those from disadvantaged communities accessing third level. A number of arguments have been put forward for why this is the case. Firstly, the removal of university fees in 1996, viewed as a move towards promoting greater access for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, has given rise to investment in second level education for middle class families, transferring the inability to compete on the same terms for educational resources from third level to second level education (Lynch, 2006). Secondly, an evaluation of access programmes in 2006 found that access is yet to be considered a central part of developmental strategies within third level institutions. This evaluation also highlighted concerns about the co-ordination between access services and the broader range of student supports required to improve access (HEA, 2008). Thirdly, many of the aspirations of the White Paper on Adult Education are yet to be realised, particularly in relation to the importance of community education and the role of community providers in promoting access. Waters (2006) argues that while the White Paper was a welcome policy development and significant in its acknowledgement of the community sector, its failure to resource and follow through on its commitments has been disappointing. Bane (2007) also argues that the White Paper promised much but has delivered little. Symptomatic is the thinking on the establishment of the National Adult Education Council. Bane (ibid.: 130) argues that the White Paper

presented an opportunity to put in place a body that was genuinely representative and that could have been an organic development. Unfortunately it seems that the council will be established in the way that all councils are established: those at the top will make the decision about the kind of council that is best for the rest, the kind of powers (limited company for example) that it will have and most importantly what agencies and bodies need to be consulted on what needs to be done.

Here Bane agues for the need to involve communities in collective decision making processes that would give real power to communities, ensure accountability, and give weight to community based representation. This would not only bring about more innovative and flexible approaches to education but would also restore some of the dynamism that has been stifled, in contrast to the more administrative regional educational structures that currently prevail (ibid.). To date there has been a failure on the part of third level institutions to engage with local communities on issues relating to educational inequality, despite a strong focus on developing access strategies and initiatives targeting socio-economic disadvantage. This has resulted in a number of missed opportunities. As acknowledged in the National Plan for Equity of Access 2008-2013 (HEA, 2008: 69):

Given the multi-dimensional and cumulative nature of educational disadvantage, it is clear that strategies that rely solely on one agency (e.g. the higher-education institution) to affect change will have limited success. Acting alone few agencies can take responsibility for the pursuit of greater social inclusion, but by joining with other agencies, strategies can be devised to ensure that the significant challenges are addressed in a comprehensive meaningful way.

The plan clearly refers to the need to achieve greater access through involving communities in the design and delivery of joined up services and the creation of locally responsive services that cater for flexible approaches to learning and a diversification of entry routes to third level (ibid.: 70). This, in essence, leads to a further debate on the role of community education and its significance to widening access to third level. Within this debate it is argued that both adult education and community education, while often used interchangeably, have key distinctive qualities, goals and ideals, and more importantly questions are raised about whether adult education can be reflective of community needs (Cork Anti-Poverty Resource Network, 2006). While adult education and lifelong learning are increasingly used as a normative tool for individuals reaching their full potential, it leaves community education much less easy to define (ibid). Adult education in this instance is viewed as an individualistic approach where the focus is on the self as opposed to community. Community education, in contrast, is viewed as a process of communal education placing community empowerment at its core. These different approaches to community and adult education have been highlighted in the Green Paper (1998) which acknowledges that community education is subject to a number of approaches and definitions. While the Green Paper recognises that community education is often viewed as an extension of second and third level education at community level, the approach adopted in the Green Paper emphasises the role of community education as an interactive process with active involvement from communities in the decision making process at both local and national level. Following on from this approach the White Paper on Adult Education (Department of Education and Science, 2000: 113) states that one of the key characteristics of community education is its

rootedness in the community not just in terms of physical location, but also in that its activists have lived and worked for many years within the community, have a deep knowledge and respect for its values, culture and circumstances, and an understanding of community needs and capacity.

It also contends that the collective goal, social purpose and political orientation of community education is

to promote critical reflection, challenge existing structures, and promote empowerment, improvement so that participants are enabled to influence the social contexts in which they live (ibid.)

Aontas (2004) also acknowledge a key difference in a community education approach and of the two definitions outlined in the White Paper it gives its support to the more radical definition of community education. This definition views community education as a ‘movement and catalyst for social change’ (ibid.: 18) which goes beyond a service delivery model of education and is rooted in an ideology of resource redistribution, empowerment, capacity building and social change and action. While Aontas recognises the ‘strong connection’ between adult education and community education, it stresses a fundamental difference between the sectors in that community education sets out to have a transformative effect on society. It views participants in community education as equals in the education process and sees it as a means of endowing individuals with the ‘capacity for social action, a sense of collective empowerment and an ability to tackle social justice’ (Cork Anti- Poverty Network, 2006: 19).

Yet despite this thinking about the conceptualisation of community education, it remains that adult and community education continue to be terms used interchangeably, particularly at institutional levels on matters relating to widening participation. Furthermore, while a structure of community education networks has been set up that clearly defines community education as a separate model from adult education, with recognisably different expectations and outcomes, this distinction often remains absent from debates on access and participation at institutional and policy levels. The White Paper acknowledges the role of community education in the ‘pioneering of new approaches to teaching and learning in non-hierarchical, community based settings’ (Department of Education and Science, 2000: 110). A more pressing question for community education, according to Bane (2007) should not be how much community education has influenced the system but how much the system has invaded the territory, and imposed its restrictions, regulations, and bureaucracy, causing community education to lose much of its flexibility, autonomy, and spontaneity. A similar view is posed by Cork Anti-Poverty Resource Network (2006: xviv) who argue that

the relentless process of institutionalisation, more and more levels of accountability, increasing pressures for facts, figures, statistics, is now such, as to push into second place any local community energies related to organising together and learning together in a community education context so as to effect changes in our lives and that of our communities.

While there has been a growing discourse on the need for equality of access and wider participation, Gilligan (2007) argues that the growing consensus on ‘disadvantage’ may overshadow some of the fundamental problems with our education system and leave such problems unexamined through a failure to question whether the same system can suit all. This argument not only gives cognisance to the position outlined by the Cork Anti-poverty Network but also goes further to argue that the hegemony of those controlling the system needs to be questioned. Gilligan (2007) highlights a systemic trend whereby successive generations from higher socio-economic groups benefit from higher education. Simultaneously, the inequity of access to education and the social and economic structural inequalities contribute to continued education attainment differentials between different socio-economic groups which have remained relatively unchallenged. The language of educational ‘disadvantage’ therefore requires not only an analysis of ‘disadvantage’ but also demands that the language of ‘advantage’ be clarified. Local initiatives at community level demonstrate the complexity and range of responses that give weight to and underpin such understandings of inequality.

Local initiativesToC

There have been a number of initiatives at local level that have sought to promote access through more progressive models of learning at community level. One such initiative was Making Education Work on Cork’s Northside (1996). Its aim was to promote alternative access opportunities through promoting community involvement and fostering greater co-operation between third level institutions and other educational agencies operating on Cork’s Northside. The study revealed that there has been ‘a persistent imbalance between socio-economic development on the Northside of Cork city and the rest of the city’ (Forde, 2000: 63). It made a number of recommendations in relation to promoting access including, a lowering of the points requirements for some courses, increasing the intake of mature students, flexible learning models, and the provision of a range of courses providing skills for the economic regeneration of the area (Forde, 2000). Some efforts have been made to improve access through the development of the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) and the UCC Plus initiatives at University College Cork (UCC) and the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) initiatives at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), and mature student participation has increased. There is, however, little evidence to suggest that the percentage of adult learners coming from the most disadvantaged communities is on the increase.

Other initiatives that have sought to tackle educational inequality are the establishment of the Cork City Learning Forum (2003) and the founding of the Social Inclusion Unit (Education Section) which is committed to tackling educational inequality locally. The Cork City Learning Forum was developed under the auspices of the Cork City Development Board; it meets twice yearly and incorporates three working groups – lifelong learning, access and participation, and economic aspects of learning. Other research undertaken by Cork City Partnership indicates specific problems for ethnic minority groups accessing education in Cork. This research revealed lack of access to information, constraints posed by habitual residency conditions, lack of progression routes and a dearth of fast track options into higher education as core problems for immigrants (Cork City Integration Strategy, 2008). The Traveller Visibility Group also highlights barriers for members of the Travelling community and is currently working with third level institutions in trying to formulate mentoring programmes designed specifically for Traveller needs.

The Cork Anti-Poverty Network action research study Amongst My Own in a Working Class Community (2006) has highlighted the value of community education and argues community education works at local level through action based research that involves local people in participatory research on issues that affect their lives. It is the ‘process involved’ that ensures a process of conscious building and awareness raising through local community development initiatives. This planned and organised approach provides a structured environment where attitudes, skills and knowledge can be developed that can in turn address the inequalities in communities (ibid.). When community education is activated through practice, resourcing, and facilitation, there is then the potential for change (ibid.: 16).

The studyToC

The research is a collaborative project between UCC and CIT under the aegis of the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) programme. Its remit is broad in that it seeks to address access and barriers to third level education for non-traditional learners from backgrounds of socio-economic disadvantage. The project began in April 2009 and is due to be completed in mid-2010.

Study description and methodology

The qualitative data incorporates an initial scoping exercise reviewing relevant literature and recording interviews with education providers at all levels. A wide range of literature on educational disadvantage was consulted. A number of interviews were conducted with community educators, the Vocational Education Committee (VEC), further education and third level education providers. A number of focus groups were undertaken with adult non-traditional learners providing insights into both individual and collective experiences within the education system. The rationale behind using both approaches was to provide a comprehensive picture of the issues relating to non-traditional learners and to capture the complex social and economic conditions that inform the core concerns of communities, education providers and adult learners. Overall the research was divided into four stages: Stage 1 involved gathering and reviewing relevant literature addressing issues related to barriers to education for non-traditional learners. Stage 2 sought to capture the views of actors working within institutes of education and gather the perspectives of non-traditional learners who are attempting to enter or are currently within third level education. The data has been drawn from the following sources: semi-structured interviews with personnel within UCC, CIT, Cork city VEC, Colleges of Further Education, statutory providers and community organisations, and focus groups with non-traditional learners. Stage 3 comprised the quantitative aspect of the research as drawn from Census data and other local sources. (The quantitative data will be included in a report due for publication late 2010). Stage 4 incorporated a number of focus groups with individuals engaged in courses across the education spectrum.

Findings of the research to date

Overall the research was viewed positively and welcomed by all participating organisations. A number of themes were common to all participating organisations including funding, access to information, progression routes, flexibility, co-ordination and collaboration, and the need for alternative models of practice. The current economic climate and the impact this has on the provision of education at all levels also emerged as a key area of concern. Some themes were organisation specific and reflected the scope and capacity for delivery and reform. A number of interviewees pointed to multiple and overlapping concerns; however, this article will limit itself to the results of the qualitative data concerned with the community sector.

Community perspectives

The current study indicates educational inequality derives from social inequality and that education plays a pivotal role in reinforcing/challenging inequality. To combat a re-intensified cycle of disadvantage, respondents highlighted the need for more cohesive structures, creative programmes, radical change, and an examination of the many deep rooted inequalities that exist within the education system at third level. For community advocates and agencies working in communities of disadvantage, the current situation reflects a ‘power imbalance’ between established educational institutions and excluded groups. As noted by the Cork Anti-Poverty Network:

There is nobody articulating community needs.

Research suggests that there is little or no social mobility and disadvantage has become entrenched for certain sections of the community; experiences of education play a significant role and education as an institution plays its own role in maintaining rigid structures which hinder meaningful access to education. Some respondents point to third level education as being framed as an individual pursuit rather than a community orientated approach. They argue that the barriers faced by individuals are structural, social, and cultural and are, as such, created and sustained by communal and social relationships which are inherently unequal. In this sense, an individualistic approach to education works against addressing wider issues of educational inequality and exclusion. Despite this, community groups and activists have attempted to address these issues but the absence of collaborative processes and representative structures impede progress and render community groups voiceless.

At the same time, the concentration of socio-economic disadvantage in certain sections of the city serves to focus the spotlight on areas which are often assigned the term ‘disadvantaged’ signifying dysfunction and disconnect from social norms. Respondents at community and institutional level highlight how education as an institution holds a privileged, elitist place in Irish society. It therefore confers social status on individuals which can confirm a person’s place in society or elevates individuals to a social position at odds with the cultural and social norms of the community in which they grew up:

There are issues from communities of disadvantage: there are cultural issues about the value of education. A lack of people accessing education places a drain on communities. Those who do access education most likely will migrate out of communities (CIT interviewee)

Most students at university are arriving from a lifetime of advantage and even they have problems but what about the people who don’t feel they have the advantage, their education (non-traditional students) is not a luxury, it comes from a place of conviction (Adult Guidance Centre interviewee)

The research highlights how the migration of educated individuals from areas of socio-economic disadvantage intensifies the chasm between communities of disadvantage and educational institutions, and reinforces the sense of isolation and exclusion that some communities feel from dominant social institutions. Respondents have drawn attention to the need to conceptualise the debate regarding access and barriers to education in terms of class and class inequalities and for the state and third level institutions to reflect on the role they play in perpetuating education as a social arbitrator.

Community education providers and statutory organisations such as FÁS recognise, and are attempting to address, the complex social issues associated with poor educational attainment and related unemployment, with some success. However, they point to psychological dimensions of inequality that are often omitted from discussions and analysis of unequal outcomes:

Many don’t see third level as an option – it’s often expressed in practical terms e.g. funding and affordability but mostly the barriers are psychological e.g. self-esteem, the way people talk (accents) and so on (FÁS interviewee)
People’s choices are limited as they see it – the choices they make are based on limited self-belief (FÁS interviewee)

While many studies have previously focused on educational inequality, few have enacted the full complexities of power dynamics, particularly in relation to the psycho-social dimensions of inequality. For many communities experiencing disadvantage, the prospect of accessing further or third level education is not considered. Reflected in this pattern is a degree of alienation where families and individuals face daily challenges in the area of childcare, drug addiction, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour and rising rates of suicide among young males. In addition, poverty and social exclusion reduces their capacity to participate fully and equally in society. Such cycles of oppression become internalised where intergenerational patterns of behaviour emerge (Waters, 2007). Similar sentiment was clearly expressed in this research by community organisations and those who work closely with them. As stated by the Cork Anti-Poverty Network:

The concerns of people in communities of economic disadvantage are not access to third level. The issues for such communities are helplessness, fear, and drugs.

This was also reflected by others who argued that until the psycho-social dimensions of inequality are recognised within structures of access at institutional level and addressed within an holistic framework, the capacity for change cannot take place. Along with this, individual supports are required, which are often multi-faceted and reflective of a complex range of factors. These supports are not currently being provided within mainstream education and reflect a major imbalance between those who access education and those who do not. This research highlights that if supports are provided, then this must take place in a more enabling environment in the context of collective community development.

Response to recession

There are a number of educational initiatives being developed at all levels to respond to the present economic circumstances. While this has been viewed as both worthwhile and necessary, a number of concerns were raised in the research on how this might impact on educational initiatives targeting marginalised communities. Responses to the recession within third level colleges and statutory agencies are viewed by some participants as part of a pro-active strategy to address lengthening dole queues and prepare for the enhanced post-recession knowledge economy which will require increased and flexible skill sets from those in and those seeking to re-enter the labour market (see also O’Connor, this issue). Respondents from the community sector, and agencies and institutions closely aligned to that sector express concern about the current focus on short term skills training and educational programmes which deflects attention from addressing access to education as an element of social exclusion. Anecdotal evidence to date indicates there is increased interest in education from mature students with skills seeking shelter from the recession and prepare themselves for the post-recession era. While retraining and education is necessary in the current economic climate and integral to the knowledge economy, this must not deflect from issues relating to access and participation for non-traditional learners. However, the empirical research to date has highlighted that in already marginalised communities, opportunities to access education are apparently becoming more remote as existing places are usurped and/or directed at those with existing qualifications/education. Even statutory agencies such as FÁS are now finding themselves under increased pressure to develop courses that are designed to respond to the current economic crisis. These initiatives, in effect, shift the emphasis away from targeted communities and displace resources directed at alleviating inequality. As noted

The focus now is on short-term skills training rather than addressing social exclusion and poverty. … People are now returning to college who have recently become unemployed – this can further disadvantage those who are already marginalised. (FÁS interviewee)

This type of sentiment was expressed by a number of respondents interviewed who pointed out that funding cuts are hitting community based courses and education, which may have provided the first steps to accessing education for already marginalised communities. This is further compounded by a dramatic increase in registration fees which in effect re-introduces a fee system even before the proposed government re-introduction of third level fees. In essence, this is deterring prospective non-traditional students who are not in a position to access financial capital to support their education. Affordability and pre-access supports thus combine to create an environment where those without financial, social and cultural capital remain embedded in a system where social inequalities prevail.

Gender issues

During the course of this research, questions about the participation rates of men and women in education were fielded in interviews. It appears there has been little systematic analysis of the role gender plays in education at local level. At all further education levels, it was noted that there are gendered patterns of study and course selection. Statutory providers such as FÁS also find gender patterns in their course take-up, particularly in relation to literacy programmes where women outnumber men. Similar gendered patterns emerge at community education level; the VEC has recently identified unemployed men as a particularly vulnerable group and difficult to access, but are currently developing initiatives that address the low participation rates for long term unemployed males.

Respondents pointed to continuing structural barriers for women with regards to accessing education. Lack of and/or affordability of childcare, insufficient part time learning opportunities, and consequent lack of funding and compatibility with caring responsibilities and expectations of women within the home are cited as the principal barriers for women accessing education (see also Murphy, this issue). Where women do access education, support structures emerge as important sources of sustenance; the camaraderie and spirit of women’s groups are considered important in buoying individual women towards their goals. The picture for men is just as difficult and many respondents cited barriers to education for working class men as being particularly complex. From the interviews undertaken, there is evidence of change in men’s role in society: for instance, respondents have indicated that men are increasingly facing the same dilemmas as many women in effectively combining caring responsibilities with accessing education. There is also some anecdotal evidence that the current recession has provided an opportunity for reflection and has the potential to change the gender profile of courses as more men apply for traditionally ‘female’ courses such as social studies:

The recession and the loss of construction jobs etc has given people an opportunity to consider doing something they like rather than doing work just for the money (Adult Guidance Centre interviewee)

Nevertheless, several respondents pointed to deep seated concerns about men from disadvantaged areas who have found themselves disenfranchised and alienated. Without the anchor of stable work and the decline of traditional work sectors such as manufacturing and now construction and trades, it appears many young men are unmoored and without the supports, structures and/or paths into education which might ameliorate the effects of their exclusion (see also Harford, this issue). This is particularly prevalent in Northside wards, many of which are now experiencing second and third generation early school leaving and consequent unemployment, lack of social mobility and limited access to related life chances.

Wealth, class and poverty

As uncovered during this research process, discussions regarding access for under represented groups at third level cannot be complete without consideration of the complex relationship between social class, wealth and poverty. Access policies have broadly been concerned with the alleviation of ‘financial and educational constraints’ of under represented groups and have, for the most part, overlooked the social and cultural capital deficits that students from lower socio-economic groups have to contend with (O’Reilly, 2008).

Respondents raised these issues highlighting that all entrants to further and third level are not equal. The sentiment expressed by many respondents is that the third level sector has a duty to fulfil the expectations it creates. For example, in taking on mature students with little formal education; adequate practical and pastoral supports are required to sustain students through their third level education. For the third level sector to claim it supports academic talent requires it to also broaden its own aspirations, and seek out and nurture talent from all sectors of society through recognition and support of alternative paths to education. The chasm that currently exists between community education, further education and the third level sector requires bridging. As community activists and others working in the community sector have highlighted, the initial steps to education for individuals living in areas of disadvantage is often through participation in community schemes while progression to higher education remains out of reach except for the occasional individual whose ties with their community are strained by their achievements. As respondents have highlighted, the power imbalance that currently exists between the third level sector and the community education and other sectors militates against co-operative arrangements between education providers and re-enforces, from community and other perspectives, the superior position third level education occupies in society. Overall, there is a need for porous boundaries between all actors across the education sector in order to realise the full range of talents in society, issues of equity and access to education need to be addressed to balance advantages and life chances to actors across the social spectrum.

Concluding remarksToC

The research indicates that fostering lifelong learning requires redressing both important ideological and practical issues relating to educational inequality. While there has been a number of policy initiatives designed to address educational inequality, the gap between those who access education and those who do not still prevails. While participation rates have increased at third level, there is little evidence to suggest that this has been of benefit to all groups in society. Economically generated inequalities continue to be a major factor in inequality of outcomes in education. Educational status continues to be a significant indicator of ability to access the labour market, of social mobility and of equality of access to life chances (O’Connell et al, 2006). While much research has focused on access and barriers to education for school leavers from backgrounds of socio-economic disadvantage (Clancy, 2001; Lynch, 2006), far less has focused on non-traditional or mature learners.

In addition, the current recession and growing unemployment - which has affected both professional and manufacturing sectors - tends to direct policy interventions towards the recently unemployed. These interventions, while a necessary part of the ‘knowledge economy’ strategy, do not address embedded structural issues which prevent access and erect barriers to education for already marginalised sectors of the population. There is a danger that this focus on re-training and addressing the needs of the recently unemployed will deflect attention and necessary resources from those previously excluded from accessing education. This along with proposed cuts in education and community development reinforces the ideological divide that exists between community education and policy formation.

The research has highlighted that one way of addressing this issue is through more robust consultation and representation mechanisms across all sectors. The emerging rationale for access initiatives must coincide with fostering more inclusive and collaborative processes that will in turn inform the policy context and delivery of educational reform. Now more than ever, access initiatives need to explore ways in which the third level sector can reach out to communities. One way in which this can be achieved is through developing strategies in conjunction with community organisations. A logical way forward is to find ways in which community education, further education and third level education can be brought together in a more democratic process. In light of the current context in which access and participation is situated, there is an opportunity to agree on fundamentals such as cohesive co-ordination, meaningful communication, and to consider the very nature and purpose of education itself. This process invites all parties to think deeply about new modes of integration that can help us arrive at shared understandings, converse across difference, and encourage joined up thinking, representing a real opportunity to put an end to educational inequality for all.

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