Where Next?: Mapping and Understanding the Post First Degree Destinations of Mature Disadvantaged Students in three Higher Education Institutions

Aidan J. Kenny, Dublin Institute of Technology
Andrew Loxley, University of Dublin,
Ted Fleming, National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Fergal Finigan, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Document Type Conference Paper

The study report is currently under peer review, the full publication will be available in December 2009.


Executive summary (draft for An Pobal conference 24/Sept/09, final copy due December 2009). The study explored the post first-degree destinations (employment, postgraduate education or otherwise) of students designated as being ‘mature disadvantaged’ in three Irish higher education institutions: NUI Maynooth, Trinity College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology. This research attempts to fill a noticeable gap in the ‘access story’ which firmly supports the entry of mature disadvantaged students to HE and has devised a range creative, innovative and targeted measures to enable matures students to stay the course but has rarely looked at how these students view HE or what happens after graduation. This is despite the fact that there is a well elaborated, and widely diffused, discourse within access policy which claims that measurable economic benefits result from such measures both for the State and the students themselves. Through extensive research amongst graduates this report outlines the economic, social and personal benefits of participation in higher education based on their stories and judgements. The report also identifies some of the continuing obstacles to access and the barriers to further progression in their career or graduate studies. Through gathering qualitative and quantitative data the study aims to: 1. Map the post-first degree destinations of those students who have entered HE via an access programme or equivalent in the past 7 years; 2. Explore the processes and experiences of these ex-students transition from HE into (or back into) workplace or other arenas; 3. Investigate the ex-students reflections on their motivations to entering HE, expectations and experiences. It is logical to assume that aims 1) & 2) are closely linked, however to be able to adequately describe and explain any outcomes, it is critical that they are located within the lifeworlds of the ex-students and particularly how their experiences of Higher Education may have shaped their destinations after their first degree. Aim 3) is a retrospective component of the study, it enables students to reflect on their experience and evaluate whether their original expectations were realized. The research specifically focused on the: • The relationship between experiences of being in HE institutions and • post degree destinations; • The relationship between type of first degree and ‘choice’ of • destination; • The kind and form of supports offered and provided by HE institutions to help students in their career decision making; • The identification of and relationship between non-HE factors (e.g. finance, family context, position in life-cycle, gender, ethnicity, geographical mobility etc) and destinations; • Short and long-term expectations of career paths; • Perceived barriers to secure graduate employment and the job application process; • Expectations and experience of the type and nature of employment post first degree. The research gathered numerical and non-numerical data. Numerical data was gathered by a detailed survey questionnaire using a sampling frame from which a stratified random sample was selected for interview. The questionnaire yielded significant information that was further explored in individual face to face interviews and focus groups. Though ambitious targets are set by state agencies for mature disadvantage progression to Higher Education (HEA, 2008) and progress has been made the research has found that the reality falls slightly short of the targets, in most institutions. Women outnumber men in accessing HE. Finance is a major factor with many graduating in debt as a result. The state support through BTEI and other grants is essential though not sufficient. The vast majority of students worked while studying. Nonetheless the vast majority, with only few exceptions, have positive experience of their years of study. They deeply value the college experience, the learning, the qualification and, more often than not, the various HE institutions to which they belonged. In part, this is linked to overcoming previous educational exclusion earlier in their lives. For many graduates one of the most important aspects of their experience of tertiary education is that it strengthened their sense of confidence and agency. This included for many the sense that they were better placed to engage in the world around them and in their communities. The effort and sacrifices made by students were considerable and personal determination and focus were the primary characteristics of the stories graduates told. Nonetheless, for most of the interviewees community based education and access programmes were a vital springboard into tertiary education. In college students relied on various supports such as grants, BTEI and access offices. Generally, graduates felt that without all, or nearly all, of these supports HE would not have been a realistic option for them. Although, financial and institutional support were important, and peer support was vital. By far, the most valued resource for these non-traditional students was the support they received from their families. This included the students’ family of origin and in particular their parents who in their early years encouraged learning, curiosity and engagement with questioning and discussion. This support continued through the years of study through financial and emotional support given by students’ own families and their siblings. One of key motivations of students was to be able to bring their learning, and their example, back into the family for their children and their partners. The financial rewards for graduates are not huge although 52% did increase their income. Though levels of unemployment are low among graduates (8%) these figures are higher than expected as a result of information available from the colleges. Many students were focused on using their qualification to escape from low status, unstimulating and low paid work. A degree was a bridge to finding work that was more meaningful, or had longer holidays, more job security and required greater levels of intellectual and emotional engagement. In particular a marked number of graduates are choosing to work and start a career in education. In general this commitment to education for themselves and their families the value placed on learning and the role they see education as having amongst peers and neighbours led us to conclude that a grassroots version of the ‘learning society’ is flourishing amongst mature disadvantaged students. The overall finding is that the experience was worth it and that the escape from poverty though a long journey is significantly consolidated by the achievement of a university degree. However, most of the graduates we met did not come from the most disadvantaged sections of Irish society and if they did had, over time, through family and work, managed to overcome high levels of deprivation before entering HE. Key findings and recommendations: • Higher Education has become increasingly normative in Irish society. Eliminating poverty means ensuring that the broad conditions for decent life are available. This includes access to higher education. • Working to eliminate poverty is a multifaceted process and interventions that enhance the ability of families to encourage, support and value learning, are crucial. Without such measures a commitment to ‘lifelong learning’ is simply rhetorical. • Improving access and increasing participation requires successful targeted activity across a broad continuum of educational spaces from schools to further education to higher education and graduation. • Continue funding for access and support from Adult Basic Education through to university. • The paths from poverty are long, incremental and take time with few guarantees that the journey will be successful. Graduates rightly perceive higher education as an important marker on this journey. The continued support for mature disadvantaged to progress needs to be sustained and enhanced, even in difficult economic times. Investment in education is part of the economic and social infrastructure. Maintaining free fees and the other modest financial supports for mature disadvantaged will yield personal, family, community and social benefits. Even though many of these benefits are not easily measured in economic terms higher education has a role in furthering social inclusion, active citizenship and community cohesion. • Widening participation, particularly for women, requires more comprehensive crèche and childcare facilities for parents. • The issue of career advice before and after degree was highlighted by many respondents. There is a need to enhance specific career supports for matures students. • Ensure wider dissemination of information about financial and social supports for disadvantaged mature students. The HEA should improve data collection and provide more disaggregated data on non-traditional students to evaluate the effectiveness of access policies.