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.