GUEST POST: Darragh Flannery (UL)
In the context of the media coverage related to spatial differences in higher education participation (as outlined in this HEA report) some in this forum may be interested in on-going research conducted by myself, in conjunction with colleagues in NUIG and the ESRI. Our findings to date have been published in the Economic & Social Review (paper available here) and Applied Economics (paper available here). A brief summary of some of our findings and my thoughts on the issue are below. It is worth mentioning that the data used in our research comes from the School Leaver’s Survey (SLS) in 2007 (the SLS was unfortunately discontinued after this year). While our data is obviously dated, I would be confident that the conclusions of both papers are still relevant and possibly even more pronounced today.
The first strand of our research (ESR paper) examined the impact of travel distance to nearest higher education institute on overall higher education participation, controlling for factors such as CAO points, gender etc.. Specifically, we wanted to see how the impact of travel distance may vary according to social class. The results showed that travel distance has a significantly negative impact on participation for those from lower social classes and that this impact grows stronger as distance increases. We also found that the distance effects are most pronounced for lower ability students from these social backgrounds and make some policy recommendations.
The second strand of our research (Applied Economics paper) took a slightly different angle and looked at the impact of travel distance and social class on the type of higher education a young person in Ireland may pursue. So instead of looking at the potential impact that spatial factors might have on whether a young person goes to higher education or not, we wanted to look at how these factors may influence whether students go to a university/non-university, pursue a level 8 degree or not, and the field of study they choose. We found some evidence that spatial factors played a role, but social class was found to be a more powerful determinant. For example, even with the same CAO points and similar geographical accessibility to a university, those from a ‘low’ social class had virtually zero chance of pursing a medical degree compared to someone from a ‘high’ social class. Again we discussed some potential policy options, such as a more flexible higher education grant system and consideration of more affirmative action policies such as social class quotas.
Given the fact that it did not feature at all in the previous National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013, it is good to see spatial accessibility and its relationship with social class being mentioned by the latest HEA report as a possible driver of variation in higher education participation. However, I do think it is important that the debate does not stop at the rather broad view of the impact this may have on going to higher education or not. Instead, I would think it is important that we delve deeper and investigate more specific outcomes such as the impact social class/spatial factors may have on more specific outcomes such as field of study and longer term labour market outcomes. This is especially relevant in the context of income inequality and social mobility issues.