Accessible Higher Education no matter where you come from- Learning from the Trinity Access Programme

European Education Summit, Brussels

25th January 2018


Good afternoon,

Thank you for inviting me here today.

Let me start by defining what we mean by ‘accessible higher education’ or simply ‘Access’ as we refer to it in Ireland. I don’t want to presume that everyone is familiar with our use of this term. At its broadest, access refers to all groups under-represented in higher education.

Universities should set targets for the inclusion of all of these groups. But since each group is under-represented for specific reasons, it isn’t a question of one approach fits all. For instance, improving access for students with disabilities is about managing the physical environment and introducing enabling technologies. It’s not helpful to collate this approach with the different requirements for other under-represented groups.

In Trinity College Dublin, our Access Programmes are aimed at socio-economically disadvantaged groups. There may be overlap with other under-represented groups, but the focus in the programme is on combatting socio-economic disadvantage – and that is what I will talk about today.

I’ll to go into some detail on the Trinity Access Programmes. But let me start by saying why I think access to higher education is a vital issue which needs to be prioritised by universities.

For some, access to education is a human rights and a social justice issue: we all deserve the opportunity to realise our potential through education. For others, access is primarily an economic issue: if students of potential are losing out on the opportunity to develop their skills and contribute maximally to society, it’s an appalling waste - at the private level of the individual and at the public level of society. In a competitive world, they say, no country can afford to waste talent.

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Whichever viewpoint you prioritise, access is important. But it’s not a simple thing to achieve. Access is sometimes seen as an issue most pertinent to countries like Ireland with so-called ‘selective higher education systems’, where the number of places is limited and awarded competitively on the basis of strong performance in high-school exams. The issue is seen as less crucial to the so-called ‘open admissions or ‘guaranteed right to admission’ for all who achieve above a pre-defined level, systems similar to those in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium.

However, the assumption that ‘open admissions’ also guarantees opportunity across the board isn’t borne out by analysis. EU data on this is uneven but, for instance - since we’re here in Belgium - you may be familiar with research done by the Flemish region which indicates that students from lower socio-economic groups and from migrant communities are very poorly represented within Flemish universities. To quote from the 2014 European Commission Eurydice Report:

the Flemish system highlights a paradox that a mass higher education system, designed to be open and accessible for all, actually continues, in reality, to serve primarily the needs of the same profiles of students as in the past.’ (1)

Additional EU data tells us why, and of course these reasons aren’t particular to the Flemish region. Data capturing retention – that is, the extent to which students complete their courses – indicates that ‘drop-out rates tend to be higher in ‘guaranteed right to admission’ systems.’ (2)

There are a number of reasons why students might fail to finish their course, and more research has to be done on this across Europe, but where data is available, social factors are always indicated. And this isn’t just because students from lower socio-economic groups face greater financial impediments – it’s a question of culture and mindset. 

If your parents and grandparents are university graduates, and if the school that you attend routinely sends pupils to university, then you will be habituated to the idea of university from a young age. You know what’s expected of you and college life holds few surprises.

This isn’t the case if you’re coming from a family, school, community or region where no-one attended university. Yes, you might get a place at third-level but if the university doesn’t provide specific supports, the likelihood is that you will feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliar environment, a feeling compounded by seeing other students in their element.

This is why the European Commission has stressed that improving educational attainment requires a dual focus: it’s about bringing more people from diverse backgrounds into the system, and it’s about ensuring that, once in, students stay the course (3) .

If universities don’t pay attention to both these requirements, then we are failing in our ‘societal imperative to expand opportunities to higher education’ (4) .

It’s not just society at large that loses out from this failure; the individual university is also affected. If you’re only bringing in, and retaining, students from certain communities, regions and schools then there will be conformity on campus - conformity of social background and conformity of thought. Students learn as much from each other as from their professors. If they aren’t being exposed to other experiences and mindsets, then they have less opportunity to develop into the kind of independent thinkers who make a difference in the world.

We owe it to ourselves, our students and our societies to ensure that our campuses are diverse and multifaceted, and reflective of different societal backgrounds.


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Now let me turn to what my university is doing to address this matter. The Trinity Access Programmes came about as a result of in-depth research. In the early 1990s we began to monitor, track and analyse where our students were coming from; how they coped with college life; how often they dropped out, and why. This research enabled us to build up a comprehensive picture. We found that:



  • First, the Irish college entry system, which is determined on grades alone, is ostensibly a level-playing field but doesn’t take into account the disadvantages which certain students face. For instance: an expensively educated student who gets 400 points in the end-of-school exam may be less determined and creative than a student who does not enjoy the same advantages and gets 350 points. But the Irish university entry system is an algorithm which only recognises the academic achievement, not the story behind it.
  • Second, we found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds who did manage to get enough points to come to university were more likely to drop out from their courses because they found the environment unfamiliar and unfriendly.


In short, we found that, even if the system wasn’t consciously designed to favour middle-class students coming from educated backgrounds, in practice that is what it was doing. It meant that significant potential was being lost.

We set about combatting this by a dual focus on entry and retention. In 1997 and 1999 we inaugurated the Trinity Access Programme Foundation Courses, with one course for mature students – defined as 23 and older – and one for young adults - both courses being only open to those coming from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Entry to the Foundation Courses isn’t determined by performance in the end-of-school exam. Young adults are drawn from secondary schools which have links to Trinity – typically teachers and career guidance people spot students of potential and put them forward - while mature students have generally spent a few years in adult education and are identified as prospects by adult education providers.

The entrants – both mature and young adult – choose one of four streams to go into: Science, Social Sciences, Combined Science and Social Science, and Arts. For a year, they study core and elective modules, and are assessed through end-of-year exams and continuous assessment – they do not do the State examinations. All going well, they then enter university proper, proceeding to the degree course of their choice.

As well as teaching, the Foundation Courses put focus on social activities, mentoring, internships and general student supports. There is increasing emphasis over the year on developing students’ independence and self-advocacy skills.  Crucially, these supports continue once students progress to the degree course.

The Foundation Year is demanding. It requires significant commitment. Care is taken to select students of outstanding potential and ambition.

The Foundation Year isn’t about helping all socially disadvantaged students – that’s a task well beyond us. It’s about identifying those with aptitude for higher education who might otherwise fall through the gaps, and then giving them the advice and support to enable them to continue through to graduation.

When assessing the success of the Foundation Course, we look at rates of completion, progression and retention.

Since 2009, 73% of mature students have completed the Foundation course, 93% progressed to doing a degree, with 90% graduating.

For the young adults, 93% completed the course, 93% progressed to a degree, with 96% graduating (5) .

These are excellent figures. In fact, the figure for retention of Access Students is the same as for students who enter college through the general admission route. This graph shows the progression of students coming through the Foundation year from 1999 to 2016:


As you can see, the numbers rise steadily. We currently have 900 undergraduates across the four year degree courses, who entered through the Foundation Year. Graduation figures begin in 2003/04 – reflecting when first cohort of Foundation Year students completed their degrees - with graduation figures remaining proportionate to entrance figures.

The success of the Foundation Courses is directly responsible for the increase in numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students on campus.

The benefit to individual students and their families and communities is, of course, huge. That goes without saying. But I want to focus on the benefit to the college.

Our aim is to expose students to a diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and mindsets in the belief that they will grow through such exposure. This belief has proved justified.

As an example: one of the students who came through the Foundation Year – a single mother who left school at fifteen – was elected President of the Students’ Union in 2015. In that role she strongly engaged students with social justice issues like housing, migration, minority rights, and climate change. She had a major impact on campus and, while still a student, was elected to the Senate, the upper house of parliament, in 2016 and is now using her talents on the national stage.

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The Foundation Year has been so successful that other Irish universities have now set up similar programmes, and in 2016 Trinity began partnering with Oxford University to pilot the programme there.

As you may be aware Oxford draws a large proportion of its students from a small number of private schools. About 7% of British schoolchildren are educated privately, rising to 14% for the final two years of school – but 45% of Oxford students went to private school (6) .

In Oxford, the individual colleges have a lot of autonomy to drive initiatives. The Principal of Lady Margaret Hall is Alan Rusbridger. When he first took over as Principal in 2015, he was unhappy with the admissions situation, and began to research international best practice, which is how he came to us in Trinity. Impressed with the Foundation Year, he arranged for the Director of the Trinity Access Programmes, Cliona Hannon to be seconded to Lady Margaret Hall to pilot the Foundation Year there.

This has been a resounding success. It is now on its second cohort, and two other Oxford colleges are now also looking to pilot the Foundation Year.

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In Trinity we’re proud of our international reputation in access and we’re constantly looking to build on this. Inspired by the success of the Foundation Year, we set up in 2014 another alternate admissions route which is broader in scope: it is open to all Irish students. The aim is to attract creative students whose potential isn’t being measured by exams – it’s open to all because there are also, of course, middle-class students whose aptitude isn’t measured by the current exam-based general admissions system.

This alternate route takes into account the applicant’s performance compared to others in their school. Although open to all, such contextual and comparative analysis does benefit those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A student who comes top of their class in a school of low educational attainment can now be strongly considered for college, even if they haven’t obtained the academic points required for the course.

The first students entering through this alternate route are now in their final sophomore year and have yet to graduate, so data on this is preliminary, but initial signs are excellent: the drop-out rate of those coming from the alternate route is actually lower than for those from standard admissions (7) , perhaps because students on the alternate route feel particularly lucky to be in college and demonstrate more commitment.

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So that’s a brief overview of what we’re doing on access in Trinity and with our partners internationally. We do also have other schemes underway – including working with an ever-increasing range of secondary schools and community groups to develop strong ‘college-going cultures’ and innovative approaches to teaching. Of course, the younger we can get kids ‘college-ready’, the better.

Let me close now by considering some of the lessons that might be drawn from the Trinity Access Programmes.

First, start off by asking why you would want to implement an access programme. Is it for ideals of social justice, for self-interest? A combination of both? Often social justice is self interest. Because where there is insufficient equality of opportunity and people’s potential is wasted, then frustration inevitably mounts and eventually spills over to affect the whole country. It’s in any institution’s self-interest to take an interest in the stability of the region and the country it is located in.

Articulating the reasons why you’re prioritising access brings clarity, and will help with designing a distinctive, coherent programme, and persuading partners to come on board.

Secondly, research, tracking and monitoring is essential. In Trinity, we have, from the start, proceeded on the basis of solid evidence, rather than presumption, and set realistic and measurable targets. (8)


We are now monitoring not only entry and retention rates, but also the employability performance of graduates coming from disadvantaged groups.

My final message is that universities cannot go it alone. Access is a societal issue - success depends on the coming together of many stakeholders: government, institutions of higher education, schools, industry, community groups, and alumni.

The Trinity Access Programme works closely with secondary schools and community groups, with alumni who act as mentors, and with Google and other corporations.

Access isn’t simple. Progress takes time. You will always encounter unforeseen obstacles. But improving access is hugely rewarding.

As Cliona Hannon, the head of the Trinity Access Programme, has said:

“Each student who progresses through to graduation changes their own story, changes the University’s story, and changes the stories told within their own schools and communities.”

As heads and senior staff of universities, we should all have the confidence to say that we want and welcome changes to our story. It doesn’t matter how good our stories are - if our institutions don’t change, they won’t survive. A 21st century university should be dynamic, diverse, multifaceted, and should seek potential across society and not merely in well-worn places.

Thank you

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(1) European Commission, Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe, Access, Retention and Employability (Eurydice Report 2014), p.24

(2) Ibid, p.32

(3) European Commission, Communication on Modernising Europe’s Higher Education Systems (Eurydice, 2011)

(4) Ibid, p.7

(5) TAP Foundation Courses Quality Review (2015), Fig.15 p.29


(7) Feasibility Study Data 24.01-2018

(8) Eurydice (2014), p.16

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