Poorer Protestant men ‘under-represented’ on degree courses

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Protestant males from low-income backgrounds are under-represented on degree courses in Northern Ireland.

That is according to a Department for the Economy report on higher education.

It also found that students from the most well-off backgrounds were twice as likely to enter higher education as those least well-off.

“Little progress has been made in increasing the number and proportion of qualifications gained by the most disadvantaged students,” it said.

The report also suggested the Covid pandemic had “exacerbated” financial hardship and “wellbeing issues” for students.

One unnamed Higher Education (HE) provider said the number of their students with mental health conditions had almost doubled in the past five years.

Another said their students were “presenting hungry”.

Some success

The Understanding Widening Participation in Northern Ireland report has just been published.

It examined how universities and colleges have fared in attracting more students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups over the past decade.

It was commissioned by the Department for the Economy (DfE) and carried out by CFE Research.

Under a 2012 strategy called Access to Success, all universities and further education (FE) colleges in Northern Ireland have to have an individual plan for widening access to higher education.

A decade on, the report looked at those plans and whether more students from under-represented groups, like those from low-income backgrounds or with disabilities or from a care background, had taken degree qualifications.

It found there had been some successes.

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All universities and six FE colleges had a wide range of outreach activities to try to attract more students from low-income backgrounds and other under-represented groups.

They offered financial support, like bursaries and scholarships, and ran mentoring and support programmes.

Students were less likely to “drop-out” from university or college in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK, although the numbers rose in 2021-22.

There had also been a significant rise in the number of students taking foundation degrees, for example, which can help people in work return to higher education.

However, more than half of the universities and colleges in Northern Ireland were not meeting their targets to attract students from the lowest-income households from any background.

But the report noted that Protestant men from the lowest-income backgrounds remained particularly “underrepresented”.

Back to GCSEs

Previous studies have also highlighted the problems faced by some Protestant boys from poorer families in education.

However, the DfE report said that, more widely, higher education “enrolments by Roman Catholics are considerably higher than for Protestants” and the gap had increased in recent years.

In 2019/20, for instance, over half of students (51%) taking degree qualifications in Northern Ireland were from Catholic backgrounds, compared to fewer than a third (31%) from Protestant backgrounds.

“These trends suggest that little progress has been made to increase access to HE for Protestant students, and this should remain a priority in a future approach,” the report said.

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Concerns about the cost of degree courses and fear of debt were also barriers for some students, according to the report

However, the problems in attracting Protestant males into higher education could be traced back to GCSEs.

“In each year from 2015/16 to 2018/19, the attainment of Protestant Free School-Meal Entitled (FSME) boys was less than half that of Roman Catholic non-FSME girls,” the report said.

“For example, in 2019, 37.9% of Protestant FSME boys gained five or more GCSEs (A*-C) including English and maths, compared with 85.3% of Roman Catholic non-FSME girls.”

Roman Catholic non-FSME girls are the highest-achieving group.

The report said concerns about the cost of degree courses and fear of debt were also barriers for some students.

Some were also not aware of funding and financial support they might be entitled to.

More-targeted approach

The pandemic was also “perceived to have exacerbated” some barriers to students remaining in education and what they achieved, including “financial hardship in particular”.

“Our students are presenting hungry, they’re presenting with economic barriers to their education and learning which are real challenges that are difficult for us to address,” one unnamed FE college told the report’s authors.

“HE providers point to an increase in the number of students with wellbeing issues, which have also been exacerbated by the pandemic,” the report continued.

“For example, one HE provider reported that the number of mental health declarations at their institution had almost doubled over the last five years (from 6% to 11.4%).”

The report said that increase in demand was putting a strain on some support services.

In conclusion, the report suggested a number of further actions to improve access to higher education for disadvantaged students.

It said there needed to be a more-targeted approach to help lower-income and disabled students into higher education and to help them while they studied.

It also said there was a need for “a more robust evidence base” on what strategies worked in Northern Ireland and a need to increase access to HE for some students in rural areas.