Universities should guide all learners towards a better future

A key focus of the Department of Education and Skills’ Action Plan for Education 2017 is to improve the educational outcomes for learners at risk of education disadvantage. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 recommends that admissions systems to third-level education provide a greater variety of access routes for school leavers and those completing further education and training.

Higher education institutions have been addressing these problems for a number of years and at University College Cork (UCC), 26% of the total intake of first years in 2016 came from traditionally under-represented areas.

These include students who are socially and economically disadvantaged, those with a disability, mature students, and entrants from colleges of further education. We see an increasing number of students struggle with financial pressures and mental health challenges. The university has introduced several initiatives to help incoming and registered students cope and succeed. To understand how to help all students in the most effective manner, these universities can look for educational consulting services, and get the necessary advice they need.

UCC does not wait for students to register before we start to support them. Primary students participate in our junior conferring tours to give them a taste of what university life is like – we are the only university in Ireland to run such tours. The UCC Plus+ office has outreach activities with schools to attract more students into higher education. One example is our Professor Fluffy programme, which works with primary schools in areas of the city where there are low progression rates to third-level education. It gets young people and their families to talk about college from an early age.

We are very proud of our homework clubs which are run by UCC students – this is an initiative run by many universities around the country and they provide support and guidance to secondary school students.

UCC ensures that every first-year student feels that they belong, from the first day they arrive on campus. We organise a huge range of activities. Fáilte Fest is well established and includes orientation, class parties, tours, interactive workshops, both academic and social, and of course, Fresher’s Fest. This year we will offer Transition to UCC (T2UCC) workshops. The workshops will include health, wellbeing and performance, mastering personal and academic independence, using multiple intelligences in the college classroom and connect your degree to the world of work.

A focus report from the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 found that students entering higher education frequently lack the critical thinking, problem-solving and independent learning skills required for success in higher education. We are addressing that problem with our UCC Skills Centre, opened earlier this year, which delivers core learning skills to students at undergraduate and postgraduate level to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be successful.

Nationally, we know that a positive first-year student experience is crucial to achieving the goals of higher education; failure to address the challenges encountered by students in their first year contributes to high drop-out and failure rates, with personal and system-wide implications. This is being addressed by universities and institutes of technology around the country and we, at UCC, are proud to say that our first-year progression rates are the best in Ireland.

One approach that has worked well involves all new students being assigned a peer support leader during their orientation programme. They help students at key points in their university life and complement other support structures. Establishing relationships with someone on campus, whether academic, support staff or peers, requires a collaborative effort that draws on the goodwill of lecturers, librarians, student support services staff, administrators and peer supporters. We employ a head of the student experience and we are unique among Irish universities in having a first-year experience co-ordinator whose responsibility is to support first-year students.

Participation in the first-year workshops helps us set the pathway for students in terms of their learning. We don’t want students to be focused solely on exams, but encourage them to adopt a philosophy of learning. That is the most important aspect of what we have to offer at UCC.

We have a wide variety of other student support services at the university. The UCC Plus+ office supports undergraduates entering the university from traditionally under-represented areas. These students receive a bursary which is substantial as we have successfully sought philanthropic support for this programme. Students on the programme receive individual meetings with staff who arrange extra help if it is needed.

A wide range of help is available for students with a disability through the disability support service. Some of the students have had disability home care services before their time in university. Therefore, they are individually assessed so that all reasonable accommodations and academic supports can be provided. The university has a dedicated mature student office that offers customised support to help older students optimise their use of relevant services within UCC.

To help students succeed we must reach out at a very early stage to people who traditionally would be under-represented at third-level. We know that not all of our outreach initiatives through UCC Plus+ will lead to a student entering UCC – we are talking about societal change and are realistic about what can be done. To make any inroad at all is a significant achievement because many secondary school students have never seen anyone in their family go on to third-level education. It is about raising awareness that university life is an option.

Our approach to outreach is one of partnership and collaboration. We work very closely with the Cork Institute of Technology on joint initiatives such as our traveller mentoring programme, and work with local employers such as DPS Engineering on the Aspire2 programme and with Johnson & Johnson’s Bridge to Employment programme. On a national level, the Hear (higher education access route) and Dare (disability access route to education) admissions schemes are very positive examples of 17 higher education institutions working together to increase participation.

The end game is not necessarily about the student coming to UCC. We view the homework clubs as a success regardless of what further education or third-level institution the students enter. If the student registers in a different higher or further education institution we see that as a success.

Our UCC Plus+ programme is working towards opening pathways and opportunities for students beyond second-level. One of the initiatives involves secondary school students being invited for an awards nights with their parents. It is about building an awareness that UCC is a public place, a part of the community, and that students don’t have to be intimidated by it. Ultimately, it is about opening up the university to the entire family. It is about people who had only ever passed by our gate entering the campus. It is vital that we continue working to break down any barriers and make higher education more inclusive.