November 6, 2003

Ireland can learn from US university entry programmes that begin at age 11, top American educationalist tells Belfast conference

Press Release 6 November 2003

Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can learn from the American example by starting to prepare their disadvantaged young people for third level education at the age of 11, the US’s leading spokesman for wider access to higher education has told a Belfast conference.

Dr Arnold Mitchem, President of the Washington-based Council for Opportunity in Education, said Ireland, North and South, could learn in particular from the US Department of Education’s federally-funded TRIO programmes, initiated in the 1960s, which now help nearly one million students in 1,200 colleges and educational institutions every year. They begin working with young people as young as 11 and continue their support through to the end of third level education. Over one third of TRIO clients are adults.

Dr Mitchem, who has been a national champion of access to higher education for low income and disabled Americans for the past 35 years, said that the TRIO programmes’ services included the provision of tutoring, mentoring, counselling, and information about university entry and financial aid.

Eligibility for TRIO services is based on class as determined by family income and parents’ educational attainment. 36% of TRIO students are African-American; 19% are Latinos; four per cent are Native American; four per cent are Asian; and 37% are white. Dr Mitchem, who has played a leading role in a 400% expansion of these programmes, said some of the practical approaches used in TRIO programmes, notably those for mature students and those with disabilities, might have particular relevance in Ireland.

Dr Mary-Liz Trant, the head of the new National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education in Dublin, told the conference that before the end of the decade the South “would like to arrive at a point where attaining higher education is a realistic and attractive option for all groups in our society, regardless of their social, economic or cultural background.” She said “a universal perception that there are no social or cultural limits should be actively encouraged.”

She urged that the five different support funds which students can avail of in the Republic should be consolidated. She went on: “Such a consolidation might group several of the funds into an entitlement-based model, where a student could be assessed by a central agency or body, deemed eligible for funding and then be allocated, in a transparent way, financial support for their education.” She emphasised that “underpinning this model would be the principle that those receiving financial support can do so with dignity, and the systems of application and assessment would reflect this principle. Elements of the systems that were deemed to undermine this principle would be identified and eliminated.”

She also urged that the issue of “inequity” in the resources available to different types of third level institution in the South’s “binary” system (i.e. universities and institutes of technology) be resolved, and that “those institutions that have been valiantly coping with less resources should be identified and targeted for a more equitable share of funding.”

Other conference speakers included Mr Samuel Isaacs, Executive Officer of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and Mr David Wann, Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Councils for Further and Higher Education.

The conference – ‘Widening Access to Third Level Education on the Island of Ireland’ – has been organised by the Centre for Cross Border Studies on behalf of the Department for Employment and Learning in Belfast and the Department of Education and Science in Dublin.

This conference is the third in a series of such North/South conferences on higher education in Ireland. The first two, in Armagh in October 2002 and Cavan in May 2003, were on Ireland as a centre of higher education excellence and on international education as a capacity builder for Ireland. The fourth conference, next spring, will be on cross-border co-operation in third level education in other European countries, notably Sweden and Denmark.

Further information from:

Andy Pollak, director, Centre for Cross Border Studies, 39 Abbey Street, Armagh BT61 7EB
Tel. 028 3751 1550 Fax 028-37-511721
(048 from the Republic of Ireland)
Mobile +44 (0)771 504 2122

Ramada Hotel, Belfast
Tel. 028 9092 3500 Fax 028 9092 3600