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Mature students: an examination of DIT’s policy and practice

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill

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The points commission

In October 1997 the then minister for education and science, Micheál Martin, set up a commission to examine the points system. Chaired by Professor Áine Hyland, the commission was charged with reviewing the points system ‘having regard to the necessity of ensuring a transparent, impartial and efficient system for entry to third-level institutions’ (Department of Education, 2002).

The commission invited submissions, published a background document as a basis for public consultative meetings, and commissioned research. The final report dealt with many of the issues of concern, including the impact of the system on second-level students, characteristics of selection systems and the predictive validity of the system. It also dealt in detail with mature students (Points Commission, 1999). In particular it found that:

  • Mature applicants do not typically have access to the types of guidance and support available to school leavers in making decisions about third-level. The commission endorsed an existing recommendation that ‘a comprehensive guidance service for adults be provided’ (Department of Education, 1998). This is especially important where applicants are unsuccessful and require feedback in order to improve their chances in a subsequent application (Points Commission 1999, pp. 104, 114–5).
  • Provision for mature students varies greatly from institution to institution, but that the ‘number of places reserved for mature students in third-level institutions is quite limited compared to other countries’, and went on to recommend that ‘by the year 2005, each institution should set aside a quota of at least 15% of places for students entering at age 23 or above’ (ibid., pp. 109–10).
  • There is a need to question, or at least to debate openly, ‘the pervading culture in Ireland… that school leavers have an automatic right to continue to third-level and that their rights outweigh those of other groups” (ibid., p. 112). The commission felt that this emphasis on entry to third-level directly from school based on a single terminal examination increases the pressure on school-leavers: increased provision for mature students would reduce this pressure even for today’s leavers by holding out the prospect of a real alternative opportunity later on (ibid., p. 113).

Mature students in third-level education in the Republic of Ireland

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) defines a mature student as being ‘at least 23 years of age on 1 January of the year of entry or re-entry to an approved course’. There are additional implications in terms of minimum entry requirements (which may be waived), and also for grant aid – as mature students are no longer assumed to be dependant on their parents (although they may be reckoned to be), and may be assessed on their own income alone. There is a ‘Back to Education Allowance’ available to mature students on Social Welfare (HEA, 2003). The Central Applications Office deals with the applications for most colleges, though some use a direct entry system (CAO, 2003a). In many ways mature applicants have never had so many opportunities in the Irish third-level system. In recent years, a decreasing number of school leavers has meant an increasing number of available courses and places at third-level. This has been reflected in a drop in the overall number of applications to the CAO The CAO figures include mature and other non-standard applicants in the case of most colleges, including the DIT. There has also been a significant increase in the number of courses offered. This means that, even with an increase in the number of mature applicants, the overall number of applicants has actually fallen since 1998, although it has remained quite steady in 2000–2002, as shown in Table 1.

Anecdotal evidence would bear out that non-standard students are often spoken of as filling the gaps left by declining numbers of standard students, rather than as being entitled to those places as of right. Some commentators claim that this interest in mature and other non-standard applicants has more to do with colleges trying to maintain numbers that in offering educational opportunities to under-represented groups.

‘There has been a proliferation of access programmes and initiatives (the cynical might say the declining population of school-leavers makes these a more attractive option to colleges now) but the reality is that these are insufficient to make a real difference in term of numbers’ (Byrne, 2002).

In spite of these developments there is no evidence that there has been a major improvement in successful participation by mature students at third-level in Ireland. In 2000, only 3.9% of entrants to degree courses, and 4.1% of entrants to diploma/certificate courses, were aged 23 or over on 1January that year (CAO, 2000). The following year, 4.6% of entrants to degree courses, and 4.8% of entrants to diploma/certificate courses, were aged 23 or over on 1 January 2001 (CAO, 2001). By 2002 this had changed to 6.0% of entrants to both degree and diploma/certificate courses being 23 or over on the corresponding 1 January (CAO, 2002). This shows steady, if unspectacular, progress.

There is no room for complacency here, however. At this rate of growth it could be 2010 or later before the 2005 target of 15% is reached. In fact, one study has shown that Ireland falls far behind other OECD countries in participation levels for mature students in higher education (OECD, 2000). This study found that just over 2% of new entrants to university in Ireland were aged over 26. On average, in the countries surveyed, almost 20% of new entrants were aged 26 years or over.

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