Levelling the playing field in higher education

tommy cooke

Professor Tommy Cooke speaking at the Widening Participation launch

10th November 2010

The DIT ‘Widening Participation’ strategy document and web pages were launched at an event in Aungier Street on Friday 5th October.  Professor Tommy Cooke, head of Community Links, welcomed Dr. Mary Canning, Deputy Chair of the HEA, who officially launched the strategy.  The event was attended by colleagues and students from across DIT, as well as community workers and teachers from inner city schools.

brian norton

Professor Brian Norton speaking at the Widening Participation launch

Speaking at the launch, Professor Brian Norton welcomed the strategy and congratulated the many colleagues from different areas of the organisation who had developed it.  He said “Education is a right and we must prepare to educate every individual to their highest achievable level.  The strategy that we are launching today is about supporting students to overcome obstacles, whether of socio-economic disadvantage, physical ability, age, or ethnic origin.  DIT aims to provide an environment in which all students have an equal chance of reaching their potential, graduating successfully and improving their employability.”

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Sarah Loughlin, final year BSc. in Marketing, from Leitrim speaking at the Widening Participation launch

Following the President’s remarks two current students and one graduate, all of whom had progressed to higher education through the DIT Access Service, spoke about their experiences.  Each of them described how higher education had seemed to be beyond their reach for various reasons until they were made aware of the possibility of entering DIT through this route.  One has already graduated in the Sciences with a PhD; one is in her final year of a degree in Marketing, with grade averages at the top of her class; and the third is a mature student who graduated from the Mature Access Foundation programme and is now taking a degree in Spatial Planning.  Their stories, though different, had common themes of personal satisfaction in what they have achieved, and an appreciation for the opportunity to prove themselves and for the support that had helped them to do well.

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Helen McMahon, 1st year Spatial planning student, speaking at the Widening Participation launch

Dr. Mary Canning, Deputy Chairperson of the HEA, formally launched the strategy document and the supporting material on www.dit.ie/wideningparticipation .  Echoing Professor Norton’s comments on the right to education, Dr. Canning commended the students for their personal journeys, and DIT for the support it offers to students to level the playing field.  She said equity of access to higher education is important both for individuals and for society, and that a student’s innate ability and study output should be the only measure for participation and not social background, physical ability, race or where a person lives.  The DIT Strategy, she said, reflects best international practice and as well as national objectives in Ireland.

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Ray McCue, PhD. speaking at the Widening Participation launch

In concluding, Professor Cooke thanked the entire Widening Participation committee for their work, and in particular Julie Bernard of the Access Service who had done so much of the initial work and Dr. Rachel O’Connor, Campus Life, who had co-ordinated the launch.

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Dr. Mary Canning, Deputy Chairperson of the HEA, speaking at the Widening Participation launch

The Strategy Document can be downloaded from the DIT website at this link.

Some key points:

  • Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) has a 120-year tradition of providing education opportunities for a diverse range of students and continually seeks to remove barriers to participation in higher education.  
  • The ‘Widening Participation’ strategy aims to ensure equality of opportunity for students with a disability, mature students returning to learning, students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students from all ethnic groups.  The objective was to embed the concept of ‘education for all’ as a standard across the Institute rather than creating exceptions for people from specific backgrounds.
  • The Widening Participation strategy was developed by a group in DIT representing every area of the organisation, from the academic to the student services. 
  • DIT has matched or exceeded its ‘Widening Participation’ targets for 2010 and some of the achievements include:
    • Mature students intake into 1st year for 2010 accounts for over 15% of 1st year student  cohort up from 10%  in 2009
    • The DIT Access Service currently works directly with 60 schools, both primary and secondary
    • Programme of activities in 13 inner city schools includes working with students from 1st-6th year through a series of workshops and providing support to individuals and their families (particularly when they are applying to college)
    • Activities for all schools include Shadowing Days, College Open Days, Art Portfolio Preparation Courses, Culinary Arts Experience, etc.  Exam Support is also provided, including Intensive Ordinary Level Maths Revision Course, Sponsorship of Easter Revision Tutorials, Supervised Study, Gaeltacht Scholarships, etc.
    • All teaching staff in DIT are required to complete a Postgraduate Diploma in Third Level Teaching and this programme includes modules on supporting students within the ‘Widening Participation’ target groups.
    • Each year the Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre in DIT provides seed funds for projects to support changes in teaching practice that aim to enhance student learning, including for Widening Participation  target groups.  For example, HEA SIF 2 funding was used to establish Teaching Fellowships for this purpose.
    • The ‘Students Learning with Communities’ programme involves DIT students and staff collaborating with underserved community partners. Together they design course-based projects that meet the needs of communities and the discipline-specific learning needs of students. These collaborations (involving over 100 community partners and almost 1,000 DIT students in 2009/10) help DIT and local communities to work together, widening participation in DIT.

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