21 December, 2018 - Minister Mitchell O’Connor welcomes the findings of Progress Review of the National Access Plan and priorities to 2021 published today

Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, T.D. today announced the publication of the Progress Review of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education and the priorities to 2021. The plan has an overall vision to ensure that the student body in higher education reflects the diversity of Ireland’s population. 

Equity of access to higher education continues to be a national priority for the Government and the Department of Education and Skills. The publication, in 2015, of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019 (NAP) was a key statement of on-going commitment to ensuring students from groups who have been identified in the plan can have the opportunity to fulfill their potential to participate in higher education The plan’s targets areconsistent with the Government’s Action Plans for Education and among other areas highlight the importance of supporting learners at risk of educational disadvantage and learners with special educational needs. 

The Minister said, “I am delighted to launch this publication, noting the significant achievements to date in advancing the participation of students from a diverse range of backgrounds in our IOTs and universities across Ireland.  I particularly welcome the achievements of students with disabilities and students who have come to higher education from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Today, we are hearing first hand from a diverse cohort of students who have taken advantage of the myriad of supports available to them.”   

The Minister continued, “I want to preside over a higher education system that truly reflects society as a whole.  An education system that doesn’t differentiate between abilities and disabilities.   An education system that doesn’t see colour, race or socio-economic background.   I want all our institutions the length and breadth of the country to be committed to creating learning spaces that truly reflect the diversity in Irish society.  Campuses that welcome growing diversity and social mix”. 

The Progress Review acknowledges a number of significant positive developments and characterises the first phase of implementation of the NAP as a period of achievement and investment. A major element of both progress to date has been the increased investment in new access initiatives since the original publication of the National Access Plan. The Government has committed more than €16m in funding over three years as part of the Programme for Access to Higher Education Fund (PATH). 

The Minister added, “It is important that we build on the achievements of this plan, and I acknowledge the considerable progress that has been made and I welcome that some of the targets set for supporting students from all backgrounds have been exceeded, other key milestones include the development of an Access Data Plan to support an evidence-based approach to policymaking in this area, an increased focus on lone parents and the incorporation of the concept of ‘student success’ into the Higher Education System Performance Framework”.

Notwithstanding these important achievements, the report outlines that key challenges remain, including difficulties in meeting targets set for the participation of mature students and Irish Travellers. 

The Minister said, “There are some excellent initiatives and programmes in place to widen access and to support students to access and to succeed in higher education. But we can do more. Much work also remains to be done in improving pathways for students from further education to higher education, deepening our understanding of barriers and in enhancing the partnerships between further education and higher education institutions to develop access and foundation courses if we are to achieve the goals of the Plan.” 

The report make sixteen recommendations across seven themes for the second phase of NAP implementation, including an extension by two years to the term of the NAP to 2021 to allow the implementation of the Access Data Plan and to ensure that the new NAP can have more accurate targets based on data from the new data plan. 

Priority is given to actions that are related to the challenges identified for the second phase of implementation of the NAP, including the building of pathways between FET and HE, further research into first time mature student participation, the embedding of access and foundation courses within further education institutions, and to further advancement of the mainstreaming ambition. The report includes an implementation plan which will be commenced with immediate effect. 

In conclusion, Minister Mitchell O Connor said, "I wish to thank everyone who has contributed to achieving the goals set out in the National Access Plan. Students, families and all stakeholders have put in tremendous efforts to achieve the results we are now seeing. Improving equity of access to higher education is a priority for the department of Education and Skills and for all education partners.  This Progress Review highlights the major progress to date and the work that remains to be done. I am confident that it will serve to continue the significant efforts underway to realise a truly diverse and equitable higher education system”. 

Further information on the Progress Review are available at www.education.ie and www.hea.ie




Notes for the Editor 

A copy of the Report can be found here: https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Policy-Reports/progress-review-of-the-national-access-plan-and-priorities-to-2021.pdf 


The third National Access Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education, 2015-2019 (NAP)[1] was published in December 2015.  Equity of access to higher education is a national priority for the Government and the Department of Education and Skills (DES), recognising that while there has been significant increases in groups that historically had very low participation rates, there remains some considerable gaps and some groups continue to be underrepresented in higher education. 

The overall strategy in relation to equity of access as set out in the overall strategic framework are articulated in National Access Plan. The vision of the current National Access Plan is to ensure that the student body entering into, participating in and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland's population. The NAP identified five priority goals for delivery over the period of the NAP.  Within each goal there are a specific set of objectives and actions that will contribute to the delivery of each goal. 

The five goals are as follows:

  • To mainstream the delivery of equity of access in HEIs.
  • To assess the impact of current initiatives to support access.
  • To gather accurate data on access and participation and to base policy on what that data tells us.
  • To build coherent pathways from further education and to foster other entry routes to higher education.
  • To develop regional and community partnership strategies for increasing access, with a particular focus on mentoring. 

Critically the Plan identifies the target groups that are currently being under-represented in Higher Education, which includes entrants from socio-economic groups that have low participation in higher education, Irish Travellers, Students with disabilities, First time, mature student entrants, Part-time/flexible learners and further education award holders. The Plan contains targets to increase participation rates by each of the identified groups.

Building on successive national access plans, the current NAP was developed following a major stakeholder consultation process which sought to deepen our understanding of the barriers and identify potential innovative interventions for these groups that had persistently low participation rates. It contained a commitment to undertake a review of progress in the course of the Plan’s implementation and this report presents the outcome of this as a Progress Review. 

Outline of process 

The Progress Review was managed by the HEA in close consultation with the Department of Education and Skills and the National Access Plan Steering Group which oversees progress on the Implementation of the NAP.  A Consultation process was facilitated involving a stakeholder consultation, a student consultation and one to one consultation meetings with key stakeholders in NAP implementation. 

The Terms of Reference for the Review covered two areas: 

  • A review of progress in respect of the goals, objectives and actions in the NAP, and
  • A review of progress in respect of the targets for increased participation set out in the NAP.

[1]National Access Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education, 2015-2019