Trinity programme shows the best ways to TAP in to talent
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Trinity Access Prog- ramme (TAP), an initiative that offers alternative access routes to Trinity for students from less privileged backgrounds.
Many of the country's third-level institutions and all of the universities now offer some form of alternative access initiative.
In the case of TAP, the scheme works with, and is sponsored by, some of Ireland's largest recruiters of graduates – including several leading law and accountancy firms, Google, Accenture and Nissan.
Many corporations become involved in such schemes as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies.
However, it also fulfils a more immediate need – students who gain entry to college through non-traditional routes make excellent recruits.
Firms engaged in the programme are universally positive about their experience of TAP students, and others from less traditional backgrounds.
"Hunger and a drive to succeed is one of the key things we look for in a new recruit," says Julian Yarr, managing partner at one of the country's biggest law firms, A&L Goodbody. "If you've gotten through university while overcoming obstacles that lots of other students don't face, you definitely have drive."
"Not coming via the easy route, fighting to get here – it shows determination and ambition," agrees Corina Howley, head of corporate social responsibility at KPMG.
Just over a fifth of Trinity's undergraduate places are available only to TAP participants, students with disabilities or mature students. TAP offers two routes of access to Trinity.
TAP starts working with potential candidates from as early as primary school level. They apply for university places through the usual CAO route but are afforded some leniency on points. It's not a free pass, so a candidate must still gain at least 80pc to 90pc of the required points for their course to be eligible.
An alternative is to undertake a year-long foundation course with more flexible entry requirements, and if they achieve a higher than 50pc grade, can compete for reserved places on Trinity degree programmes.
Companies are active in TAP at all stages – some mentor primary school students, some teach interview skills to final year undergraduates.
For companies it helps to fulfil corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals and is seen as a way of "giving back" to their communities. But companies also benefit in terms of employee and client satisfaction.
Patrick Burke, partner at Grant Thornton, says a good CSR policy is crucial to retaining employees.
The millennial generation of those born toward the end of the 20th Century "choose employers based on strong CSR values, and would consider leaving if those CSR values do not live up to their expectations".
"In any business attraction and retention of talent is a key driver of sustainable success," he said.
Over the medium to longer term, as the millennial generation progress through their careers, successful businesses will be those that think and seriously act in terms of commitment to CSR, he said.
"TAP provides businesses an opportunity to 'tap' into the demand for real, meaningful and productive CSR."
A recent furore in the UK over the lack of tax paid by Starbucks demonstrates the damage that not living up to a stated brand promise can cause.
A corporate culture that fosters social responsibility is also helpful to securing business.
"Clients want to work with a business that is responsible in every sense," says A&L Goodbody managing partner Julian Yarr.
There is obvious support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds among some big firms, but TAP students still face a major barrier to securing employment because many Irish companies still screen recruits by looking at their Leaving Cert results.
Given the nation's love/hate relationship with the Leaving Cert and the weight we attach to points, it is not surprising that HR managers still refer to these school exams when trying to sort masses of graduate applications.
This practice automatically excludes grads who, like many TAP participants, have a weaker Leaving Cert but still manage to secure a place in and successfully complete a demanding degree.
"Employers must stop doing this," says Patricia Stapleton, who has a PhD in history and was the first TAP student to gain a doctorate.
"While there are multiple entry routes to university, there's only one exit route – everyone has to pass their degree."
Leaving Certificate results are not necessarily indicative of academic ability. 71pc of young adult TAP participants sitting a law degree between 2005 and 2011 attained a 2.1 result, as opposed to the TCD average of 56pc.
Optimistically, the firms I spoke to all argued that Leaving Cert results are never a deciding factor, or are phasing out the inclusion of Leaving Certificate points in recruitment altogether.
"No one ever gets knocked out on points," says Maura Kelly, head of graduate recruitment at Matheson. The law firm recruits 50pc of its graduates from its summer internship scheme, which has a separate application process for TAP students. Many TAP sponsors have reserved places on their summer internships for programme participants.
Matheson still asks mainstream applicants for their Leaving Cert results. "When you get 500 applicants, the Leaving Cert is a simple, clinical way to screen people, since degrees don't have the same consistency and transparency," says Ms Kelly.
"And once students get past the first screening process, which looks at a really wide variety of achievements, their Leaving Cert results are omitted from the applications seen by partners."
"The points system tells us something, but it doesn't tell us everything," says Orla O'Connor, partner at another major law firm, Arthur Cox. "Our focus is on college results – these are far more telling. And lots of people have an excellent Leaving Certs but poor college results."