The effectiveness of supports and services in third level education for students experiencing social disadvantage
It is widely acknowledged at a national and international level that supports and services that are provided to higher education providers contribute to improved social and educational outcomes for those young people who are socially disadvantaged. For this reason, In Ireland, it has become an important policy issue over the last two decades. Successive governments have developed policies based on the findings of research conducted into participation, retention and progression into third level education for young people who are socially disadvantaged. The recent downturn in our economy has impacted on government funding that was aimed at securing essential resources for socially disadvantaged young students, which in turn has required third level institutes to become more innovative in the provision of these supports and services. This research explored the effectiveness of both the formal and informal supports and services provided by Athlone Institute of Technology, as AIT has a large volume of students that are grant assisted. The research strategy was qualitative, involving semi structured interviews with support and service provider educators and with the young students who are socially disadvantaged that access them. It explored their views and opinions on the effectiveness of these supports and services, and whether they contributed to a more positive third level experience. More importantly, it was able to identify possible future recommendations for the provision of supports and services in AIT. Thematic analysis found that the provision of supports and services in AIT was overall a positive experience for the young people that accessed and availed of them. It supported them with financial assistance which otherwise would have jeopardised their participation. It improved their self-esteem, confidence, general wellbeing and also provided a social outlet. More importantly, all the young people that participated in the research study will be continuing and progressing in their chosen course. The thematic analysis also found that the support and service provider educators of third level supports and services in AIT were, despite being financially constrained, enthusiastic, dedicated and professional in ensuring that those identified as in ‘need’ would be assisted immediately and continuously throughout their third level journey. Therefore, this research study proves that the supports and services provided by Athlone Institute of Technology was effective in making a difference to the third level experience of young people socially disadvantaged. This research has provided evidence that these services support young people in participating and remaining at third level. Therefore its contribution to improved or better outcomes for young people socially disadvantaged is an important acknowledgement. Recommendations for future support and service provision at AIT include greater collaboration and links between national, secondary and third level education providers in targeting disadvantage at earlier stages of the lifecycle that would offset future need. In addition, the most crucial recommendation suggested were more adequate levels of funding and staff resources.
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