Exposed: the huge class divide in our universities
The big class divide in third-level education is exposed in new figures showing how students from better-off families take most of the places in the country's universities
New data shows teenagers from wealthier homes are filling the lion's share of the most sought-after honours degree courses, including elite high-points programmes.
The first ever breakdown of the proportion of first year students in receipt of grants in each college, highlights a wide disparity between the universities and the institutes of technology. The figures will now be used help inform a new strategy to level the playing pitch for access to higher education.
Grants are a good measure of third-level access across the social classes, because eligibility is predominantly determined by an assessment of the income of students or their parents.
Grant eligibility income thresholds range from about €40,000 to €65,000 a year, and factors such as the number of dependant children and how many are attending third level also come into play.
Depending on circumstances, grants are worth up to €6,000 a year. Figures compiled by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), based on data supplied by the student grant agency, SUSI, for 2013/14, show that, overall, 46pc of first years received a maintenance grant to help cover their living costs.
However, the breakdown by sector reveals 56pc of new entrants to institutes of technology receive a grant, well ahead of 36pc in the universities. Elsewhere, such as teacher training colleges, the average was 41pc.
In the most extreme example, 71pc of students in Letterkenny Institute of Technology are on a grant, compared with 24pc in Trinity and 28pc in UCD.
New entrants to institutes of technology are also most likely to be in receipt of the highest level of grant support. Among the universities, Maynooth, which has a strong track record in mature students, has the highest proportion of grant-holders.
HEA chief executive Tom Boland noted that almost half of undergraduates were now in receipt of a higher education grant.
He said such support was essential for many of them to ensure they could afford to keep themselves at college.
He said all higher education institutions, in particular the institutes of technology, had played an important role in broadening access to education, which was reflected in the high numbers of students from less well-off backgrounds participating in the institutes with the assistance of a student grant.
While the new data shows up the differences in the social mix of the students in universities and the more regionally-based institutes of technology, the access issue is not only a rural-urban phenomenon.
A county breakdown of grant holders shows Donegal with the highest proportion, at 67pc, followed by Monaghan, Cavan and Leitrim, while Dublin is lowest at 35pc.
Mr Boland said it remained a concern that in some urban areas, particularly in Dublin, levels of participation in education were too low.
He said disadvantaged rural families and communities seemed to place a greater value on higher education and, even though incomes were often lower, there was an emphasis on continued participation in education.
"There is a strong correlation between urban social and economic disadvantage and educational under-performance.
"That is a societal issue that should cause alarm. It requires a renewed focus and fresh solutions, including those developed by higher and further education in partnership with local communities," he added.
Just 24pc of first-year full-time students at TCD are in receipt of student grants