We should celebrate big number of grant holders in institutes of technology
In my opinion by Paul Hannigan
David McWilliams, in his recent article 'The rich get richer' in this newspaper, made reference to the concept of social mobility. He states: "Upward social mobility, or at least the provision of upward social mobility, is what keeps western societies going forward."
This is no different in Irish society and while McWilliams argues that this mobility is under threat, there is no doubt that over the years it has been facilitated through higher education, and more specifically through the Institutes of Technology.
A recent Higher Education Authority (HEA) report shows that the number of undergraduates in receipt of grants is a lot higher in the institutes of technology than in the universities. In particular, in my own institute in Donegal, 71pc of our first year students received a grant in 2013/14 (the highest in Ireland) compared with 24pc in Trinity College. In this context it is important to note that, in recent years, higher education provision across Ireland has become regionally focussed regardless of institute type.
Richard Curran, again in this newspaper, encourages the need for more equitable access to higher education. He pays tribute to his alma mater DCU for its work in this area. The truth of the matter is that the institutes of technology are, and have been, addressing access to higher education on a daily basis since they were first established 45 years ago. The number of students receiving grants to attend the institutes of technology should be seen as a badge of honour and something to celebrate rather than be seen as the "poor man's" colleges as perceived by some. The opportunities afforded to thousands of Irish students over the last four decades would not have happened if the institutes didn't exist.
All higher education awards in Ireland exist on the National Framework of Qualifications, with programmes being offered from level 6 to level 10 on this framework. While the institutes of technology awards are predominantly at levels 6 to 8, there is no differentiation in the quality of the awards received by graduates from any institution.
I was born in Co Donegal and now have the privilege of working here. In the 1980s I was a recipient of a county council grant to go to college. Without that support I would not have been able to avail of higher education and the personal and professional benefits. In my current role I have seen the people of Co Donegal recognise the benefits of education. This is manifest in two different statistics. The first shows that of the 1996 cohort who started secondary school in the county only 77.5pc progressed to Leaving Certificate. For the 2008 cohort that percentage had increased to 91.1pc, above the national average of 90.6pc.
In addition, the participation rate for Co Donegal students in higher education has increased remarkably. The latest feeder school data published last week shows an 82pc participation rate for school leavers in Co Donegal, putting the county comfortably in the top 10 in Ireland. Letterkenny IT has contributed significantly towards this success.
Recently I attended a 30th anniversary gathering of my graduating class from UCD. This was a real life testimony to the power of higher education with everyone in the room having benefited from their years in college and, as a consequence, their families, their employers and society have also benefited.
There is currently a serious funding crisis in higher education. It seems that Government remains to be convinced about value for money in higher education expenditure. If the Government believes that investment in higher education is expensive they should consider the alternative.
*Paul Hannigan is President of Letterkenny Institute of Technology