CHILDREN from better-off backgrounds are snapping up even more college places as the gap between social classes widens.
The latest Higher Education Authority (HEA) figures reveal how the recession, student charges and grant changes are taking their toll on many family incomes.
Sons and daughters of managers and professionals, such as lawyers, engineers doctors and teachers, featured more prominently among first-year college students in 2011/12 than the previous year.
Meanwhile, the participation rates of children of manual skilled, skilled and unskilled workers remained more or less the same over the period, according to HEA data on the 2011/12 academic year.
The growing dominance of children from families in the employers, manager and professional groups is even more evident among the entrants to universities.
The widening equality gap comes as college enrolments surge ahead, which means that children from advantaged backgrounds are taking more of the extra places.
A mix of reduced employment opportunities for school-leavers and demands from employers for graduate skills has pushed college enrolments up by over 15pc since 2008.
Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president John Logue said the latest statistics bore out much of what they were seeing on campuses across the country.
"The deliberate attempts by this Government to create a two-tiered education system, through the increase of fees and slashing of the grant, have resulted in students from lower socio-economic being pushed out of our third-level institutions," he said.
"As we saw earlier this year, some students have turned to their students' unions for basic provisions, others have dropped out entirely and student support services are massively over-subscribed across the board."
Student contribution charges have been rising gradually, and will be €2,500 next September, going to €3,000 by 2015.
The changes in college participation rates among the social classes between 2010/11 and 2011/12 reflect a broad trend since the economic crisis started in 2008.
According to the HEA figures, children of employers and managers made up 18.9pc of new undergraduates in 2011/12, up from 17.9pc a year earlier.
At the same time, the participation of children of higher professionals, such as doctors and lawyers increased from 10.7pc to 11pc. Among lower professionals, such as teachers, the rate went from 8.8pc to 9.3pc.
Participation by children with self-employed parents grew from 7.6pc to 8.4pc between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
There was a slight drop in farmers' children from 7.9pc to 7.6pc in the year, which may reflect a decline in the number of commercial farmers, while there was no change in the proportion of children of agricultural workers at 0.8pc
In universities, children of employers or managers made up 21.1pc of first-time entrants, up from 20pc the previous year, while in the institutes of technology, the same socio-economic group made up 20pc of freshers.