Geographic inequalities in higher education accessibility

Update: Now open for comments. (Novice error!)

As Leaving Certificate students take their seats this morning to start their final examinations, it is timely to consider how where they live (and often where they were born) can impact on a range of higher education decisions and outcomes and why these might matter for their futures. According to previous research, Ireland has reasonably good overall geographic accessibility to higher education institutions (HEIs) in terms of travel distance, though there are large areas from which an individual would have to travel, say, 75kms or more to their nearest HEI. These areas tend to be more rural with relatively low population densities and with a finite number of HEIs some inequality in access is of course inevitable.

But not all HEIs are the same. If we distinguish by type of HEI, then the pattern of geographic inequality is very different. In particular, if we consider distance to nearest university as another measure of accessibility, then geographic accessibility inequalities are much more pronounced, with relatively poor access in much of the south-east, south-west, west, north-west and along the border.

Such inequalities matter for a number of reasons, particularly in terms of the impact of geographic accessibility on whether school leavers progress to higher education and, if they do so, where and what they choose to study. Indeed, this is the focus of an on-going programme of research I am conducting jointly with Darragh Flannery (UL) and Sharon Walsh (NUI Galway). For example, this paper showed that greater travel distances were associated with lower participation rates for school leavers from lower social classes, all else equal. It also highlighted how these distance effects resulted in differential higher education participation rates across social classes and that the effects of distance were most pronounced for lower-ability students from poorer backgrounds.

Importantly, distance also matters for where and what students study, suggesting possible inefficiencies in matching students to courses. For example, a separate piece of work found that geographic accessibility plays an important role in determining outcomes relating to HEI type, degree level and field of study, with students living further from a university much more likely to study at an institute of technology (IT), all else equal. The paper argues that these decisions are important in terms of future labour market outcomes such as employment rates and earnings for school leavers.

The pursuit of equity in access to higher education is claimed to be central to education policy in Ireland. Although much of the focus has been on narrowing the social class differential in participation, spatial factors are now finally being acknowledged as a potential barrier to access.  In a consultation paper on the development of a National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019, the Higher Education Authority highlighted the strong geographic dimension to higher education participation.

At present, one of the main policy responses to address inequities in access is the ‘student grant scheme’, which includes maintenance grants, fee grants and postgraduate contributions. The maintenance grant scheme is a contribution towards a student’s living costs and eligibility is based on meeting certain criteria based on parental income levels and means, as well as travel distance from a student’s chosen HEI.  Thus, the grant system explicitly acknowledges the potential impact that travel distance can have on higher education related decisions.  The current grant eligibility limit for the so-called adjacent (partial) grant is 45kms or less (up from 24kms in 2012), while the non-adjacent (full) grant applies to those living more than 45kms from the approved institution.  Thus, two otherwise comparable students, one living 50kms from her chosen institution, the other living 250kms away, would receive the same financial aid.

The results from our studies suggest that consideration should be given to establishing a more flexible or stepwise higher education grant system, with progressively higher payments for those living further away. As it currently stands with a single distance cut-off of 45kms, the maintenance grant system does not take into account that significantly longer travel times could have important implications for students in terms of financial costs, but also in terms of their available time to engage in paid employment to perhaps support their studies. Of course, any revised system would need to be carefully designed in order to avoid unnecessary transaction costs, as well as imposing perverse incentives for students to travel further than necessary.

Finally, one area of current policy likely to impact on geographic accessibility is the proposed consolidations in the Irish higher education sector, with a number of ITs to be possibly amalgamated into new technological universities. In a paper published last week, we used a variety of techniques and measures to consider the effects of the proposed re-structuring on both the level of, and inequalities in, geographic accessibility to university education.  Overall we found that the north-west and areas of the west, south-west and border are poorly serviced in terms of absolute and relative accessibility to university education both pre- and post-policy reform.  These areas consistently remain in the bottom quintile of each measure of accessibility considered, implying that the impact of the reforms for those regions will be negligible.  On a more positive note, we did find that the percentage of the 17-19 year old cohort (a good proxy for the population of school leavers) who live more than 100kms to their nearest university would fall from 14.5% to 7.9% post-reform.  However, the same analysis showed that there would remain a significant minority living more than 150kms from a university.  Overall we concluded that “the reform will do little to remove geographical impediments to university participation for those that are most disadvantaged [currently] from a spatial standpoint.”  This assertion is also supported by the inequality analysis, which shows little improvement in overall geographic inequality in university accessibility across Ireland as a result of the consolidation reform.

So, as Leaving Certificate students take their seats today, it is worth stressing that the choice set facing many of them in terms of their higher education opportunities is very much a function of where they live. For resource-constrained students in particular, the distance impediment is not adequately addressed through current policies. Unfortunately, changes to the grant system rarely feature in the debate around the financing of higher education. Any move to an alternative financing system would provide an ideal opportunity to address this issue.



Author: John Cullinan

John Cullinan is a lecturer in economics at NUI Galway. He is an applied economist with research interests in health, disability and higher education.

8 thoughts on “Geographic inequalities in higher education accessibility”

  1. The suggestion for a stepwise grant system seems sensible. It might also make sense to link it to travel time rather than road distance. Now that SUSI insist on an eircode from each applicant the calculation should be straightforward.

    Second, I am not sure that the policy implications from your 2013 ESR paper are as wide-ranging as you suggest. Geography matters for children of low-skilled workers, with low points, who live some distance from a HEI. This is quite a specific group of school-leavers (1,000 a year?) and I would think a carefully targeted policy response is needed.

    Third, and related to the above point, is that the drop-out rate for this group is also very high. One would need to consider the relative merits of stimulating participation versus measures to improve retention.

    There is also the whole issue as to the benefit of third-level education to those in the fourth quintile of the ability distribution at all. Evidence from the US is that it is not very high. This is a group that did not have access 30 years ago in Ireland and it would be interesting to see what difference has been made.

    1. @ Examiner
      All good points. First, using travel time makes sense, the difficulty is that public transport availability is important in this regard and this can be difficult to model accurately. Second, geography matters for all school leavers from lower social classes, but effects are most pronounced for the low achieving ones. Therefore the numbers impacted by distance effects are likely larger than you state. I do take your point about targeted interventions however and think access programmes have a role to play here. Third, absolutely, retention is a very important issue. There is little point in having high progression rates for disadvantaged students if retention is low. Again, access programmes are likely to be effective here. Fourth, a different issue than I am addressing in my work, though I would state that it shouldn’t be the case that low ability rich kids have higher rates of progression than low ability poor kids. According to our work, distance, and the associated costs, is one of the reasons for this. Simple policy measures can help overcome such disparities.

  2. Last time I looked, the participation rate in higher education was higher in most rural West/North-West counties than it was in Dublin. This was because in Dublin the participation rate for certain postal districts associated with lower socio-economic status was extremely low. Given that greater Dublin (30% of the population) suffers less than anywhere else from the distance factor I would argue that you would have to be careful about the policy response.

    There is an obsession with equality in terms of higher education which I think is misplaced (I’m not acusing you of this!). Research on this topic for decades has stressed the importance of early intervention, and if things go wrong at primary and secondary levels no amount of reform of higher education student support is going to be all that successful. Some of the newspaper stuff on this topic is really pathetic

  3. @ John Sheehan
    Without getting into too much detail, I have some issues with the earlier work that looked at county level progression rates both in terms of how they were calculated and how differences in them were interpreted. Those studies were generally based on aggregate-level data which, in my opinion, is problematic for this type of work. That is because they mask considerable within-county heterogeneity in geographic accessibility. For example, Letterfrack and Moycullen are both in County Galway, but differ significantly in terms of distance to nearest HEI. We use individual-level data which allows for precise geo-referencing and a continuous-space analysis. Furthermore, our individual-level data also allows us to control for a whole range of individual, school, area and other confounders which was not the case in previous analyses.
    One likely reason for why some more ‘rural counties’ have relatively high progression rates is the higher proportions of students from farming backgrounds, who typically have high rates of progression to third level – grant entitlements are likely a factor here. Once this is controlled for, the distance effects are evident. This is another example of why using individual-level data is likely to be more informative.
    Your point on early intervention is, I think, very well made. There is considerable evidence that socioeconomic disparities in progression and other outcomes disappear once CAO points are controlled for. This suggests that policies to target the social gradient are much more challenging if implemented when students are older. Early intervention is, I think, likely to be much more fruitful in this regard. That is not to say however that addressing the distance effects that we have identified is not important – if anything, this looks like an easy win to me in this area.

    1. Thanks, John for the reply. However the within-Dublin problem still concerns me. Any policy initiative based on distance from an HEI will make no contribution to what is the most glaring manifestation of inequality in higher education and which I think deserves priority. In Dublin 1, 10 and 17 Higher Ed participation rates were less than half the national average in 2013. There are pockets within these districts, much larger in population terms than Letterfrack, where the position is probably much worse.

      Maybe some of the most problematic urban communities have problems that are virtually beyond solution or which require tacking a much wider set of issues (drugs, organised crime, etc).

      I have no doubt about the validity of your methodology and conclusions. My main worry is that there are more glaring problems which might get overlooked.

      Your use of individual-level data, precise geo-referencing and continuous-space analysis, as well as controlling for the range of individual, school, area and other confounders to which you refer, might be extremely useful if applied within, say, Dublin 1, 10 and 17. If distance from HEI is not such an important factor in Dublin, then all the more important to identify other possible relevant factors

      1. Absolutely John, distance effects are only one (small) part of the story and my policy suggestion is designed only to address these. There are certainly many other problems relating to access to higher accessibility such as those you allude to, and these have been the focus of a considerable amount of previous research by others. Inequalities driven by area, peer, neighbourhood, parent and family influences etc. require alternative policy responses. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Hi John

    I have a concern that your work seems to have a pro rural bias. The idea that you would include a control for farmers on the basis their children are likely to go to third level is odd. Would you also suggest a control for urban kids whose parents work in financial services?
    How many young people can only get the smaller grant because they live within 24 km who would otherwise be entitled to the larger one?

    I believe a system with more gradual steps (2 is too few) based purely on their economic situation and regardless of demographics would produce the best results in terms of inequality and improving access of lower socioeconomic groups. Would you have any objections to this? Obviously lower socio ecomic groups in rural areas would benifit from this also.
    That along with the fact the children of PAYE workers are discriminated against in favour of farmers and other self employed are the major issues in this area that require investigation. Given the lack of information on the big issues why tinker at the edges?

  5. Bandon, the biggest town in West Cork and the gateway to the region from Cork City, saw its population grow 40% to 6,600 in 1996-2011. The population was unchanged at 4,700 in 1991-1996.

    There is a big difference between a dormitory town of a big urban area such as Bandon and say Skibbereen, Bantry and Castleownbere where most graduates do not reside in their native area.

    There are less young role models and outside of tourism and fishing, as Ireland has a small manufacturing base, there are less examples of young local people who have succeeded in establishing a manufacturing business.

    Ireland with about 4,200 manufacturing firms (foreign and Irish) have the second-lowest number in the OECD area. Luxembourg is last with over 800. Denmark with a population of 1m more than Ireland has about 15,500 manufacturing firms according to OECD data for 2012.

    Indigenous fish processing is about 5% of total catch in Irish waters and an estimated 80% of exports are commodity traded.

    Then there is agriculture with more farmers over 80 than under 35 (and an outdated short-term conacre system) and the lowest turnover of agricultural land in Europe — in France where agricultural land prices are about of quarter of Irish prices (among the highest in the world) there are incentives for young farmers.

    Coupled with the foregoing, the Irish vocational educational system is a joke — rebranding technology institutes as technology universities, is a cosmetic move — and dual educational systems in Europe, much more comprehensive than traditional apprenticeships systems, have coincided with low youth unemployment in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark.

    Fine Gael/ Labour promised 50,000 apprenticeship places in their general election programmes but they were afraid of stating that business should pay.

    New politics indeed. The independents seem to have nothing to say beyond keeping the parish-pump tuned up.

    In short, young people from low-income families are short-changed by a system where they are far from a priority for the elite while politicians are pressured by the well-heeled to provide funding for example for scientific research that in a decade has produced little from billions of euro spent (no wonder the Government keeps mum about the pathetic patenting data) while Ireland has the worst apprenticeship system in Western Europe.

    Household joblessness, understood as people under the age of 60 living in households with no one with jobs, was as high as 15% in the boom year of 2007 and at 23% in 2014 — this is part of what I call the Hidden Ireland and what also comes to mind is the 60% of the private sector with no occupational pension. Just think why it’s an non-issue for politicians, senior civil servants, academics and of course the business sector that has the lowest corporate and social security taxes in Europe?

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