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

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill


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Current issues

Recent developments
That lifelong learning has become a Government priority can be seen from the level of activity in the last few years. In 2000, a White Paper was published setting out priorities in the area (Department of Education, 2000). While dealing with more than higher-level education, it confirmed the finding of earlier reports that there very serious barriers to participation being faced by mature students. It promised equality of access and a systematic approach to educational provision, and action on the part-time/full-time fee anomalies. A targeted, higher-education, mature-student fund, to reach at least €12.7m ‘to enable third-level institutions to make innovative strategic shifts towards adult-friendly policies’ was proposed. In September 2000, Minister for Education and Science Dr Michael Woods set up an action group on access to third level education under the chairmanship of Dr Cormac McNamara. Its role was to advise the department on the development of a co-ordinated framework to promote access by mature and disadvantaged students to third-level education. This group reported in May 2001, and called for the establishment of a national office for equity of access to higher education within the HEA (Action Group, 2001). It found particular fault with the piecemeal approach currently being taken:

The work is uncoordinated. It lacks cataloguing, and there is no structure to take responsibility for identification and dissemination of best practice. On an individual level, many disadvantages students are still unable to access third-level places or sustain participation in college, even though they receive significant supports; the supports available may be the wrong mix in their individual circumstances, or it may simply be substantial but inadequate.

A number of very specific recommendations in relation to mature students were made, including: the broadening, simplification and coordination of the procedures for entry; evaluation and improvement of guidance services; improvements in financial support; and provision of childcare facilities. In particular, the report endorsed the setting up of a targeted higher-education mature-student fund, and the setting aside of at least 15% of places for mature students.

The HEA itself has become a vocal supporter of increased access to third-level education for mature students. Among their recent initiatives are:

  • In their submission to the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education, they have proposed a national programme aimed at addressing inequality of access to higher education, and a dedicated equality office to be set up to draw up the policy outline and oversee the implementation of that programme.
  • In December 2000 they began research into the demand for places among potential mature students (Action Group, 2001). This involves surveying all 1999/2000 applicants for full-time undergraduate places (both successful and unsuccessful), for part-time places and participants in access courses in order to get a profile of these groups and make recommendations to improve the provision being made for them (Hayden, 2001).

The taskforce

A taskforce on lifelong learning was established in 2000 by the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and of Education and Science. Its report was published in 2002, and its remit included access throughout life to formal third-level education, but went beyond this to include all aspects of the ‘interrelationship between employability and social inclusion’ and a wish ‘to promote and develop active citizenship’ (Taskforce on Lifelong Learning, 2002). The Taskforce noted a number of key issues which are of relevance to mature students at third level, and set up a subgroup to look at the whole area of ‘Access/Barriers to Lifelong Learning’. They found in common with other sources already referred to that ‘the current fragmentation of information is a serious block to Lifelong Learning’ and they recommended both information provision and guidance.

The NQAI

In 2001 the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) was set up with two principal tasks: to establish and maintain a national framework of qualifications and to promote and facilitate access, transfer and progression (NQAI, 2003a, NQAI, 2003b). Among the groups identified by the Authority who ‘in the past had limited access to education and training awards’ are ‘those with limited levels of basic education, mature learners, older learners, learners who are unemployed or not in the labour force, workers in unskilled or low-skilled occupations, people with disabilities, those living in remote or isolated locations, members of the Traveller community or minority ethnic groups, and refugees’ (ibid, p. 6). The Authority acknowledges that the current structure does not accommodate these groups well and that achieving its objectives will require ‘many significant changes in the systems and structures of Irish education and training’ (NQAI, 2003a, p. 2).

Equality legislation

The setting of a target ‘quota’ of 15% mature entrants by 2005 is an example of affirmative action, and as such is open to scrutiny. This paper does not detail the difficulties associated with affirmative action, other than to note that there are many arguments for and against. In fact many affirmative-action initiatives have been rolled back, notably in the US where the Bakke decision of 1978 allowing quotas under certain conditions has been overturned by Hopwood vs. State of Texas (1996), and the decision of the University of California to end special access (Gallagher, 2002). Recently these issues have again been raised in the US Supreme Court where two separate affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan were ruled on. The court held that a process that allocated 20 extra points on a 150-point scale to undergraduate applicants from minority races was unconstitutional (Reid, 2003); but that a system for assessing graduate applicants to the law school which used race as a factor was constitutional because ‘student body diversity was a compelling state interest’ (Reuters, 2003).

It would not be unimaginable that in a scenario where 15% of places were reserved for mature applicants, unsuccessful ‘standard’ applicants would take recourse to the courts. In this regard it is important that the proponents of affirmative-action schemes can explain how affirmative action differs from ‘arbitrary’, and therefore unfair, discrimination. However, it is possible that even a robust defence of the principles of affirmative action might not be sufficient in the context of the Equal Status Act of 2000. The Act deals with discrimination outside the employment context, including education, provision of goods, services and accommodation, and disposal of property, and outlaws discrimination on the same nine grounds as those covered by the Employment Equality Act (1998) detailed above (Department of Justice, 2002). While many of the cases taken so far have been of the expected type – members of the travelling community who were refused access to public houses for example – a number of unexpected cases have also been taken. Among these is the case where a parent, objecting to a public house insisting that children be off the premises after a certain time, took a case under the age-discrimination section of the Act. It is not inconceivable that this legislation might be used to challenge quotas for mature students.

 


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