University College Dublin – Dublin, Ireland

Access has been synonymous with University College Dublin (UCD) since its foundation in 1854. Twenty-one years ago, individual leadership coupled with a pragmatic “can do” attitude identified a need for cohesive student access support in UCD, and thus began the development of strategic inclusion and specific under-represtned student support in the University. In 2009, UCD created the first Access and Lifelong Learning (ALL) centre, bringing separate activities and functions together, and this became the official name of the University’s access office. Access and Lifelong Learning aims for UCD to be a University for All, where all students, regardless of background or circumstances, are welcomed, valued, and have a sense of belonging. Access and Lifelong Learning supports students from a range of underrepresented groups, as identified by Ireland’s National Access Plan, including disabled students, mature students, low-income students, students with experience of the care system and/or homelessness, members of the Roma community, Irish Travellers, and students who are Refugees, Asylum Seekers and those given Leave to Remain. The University has set a target of 35% for access student representation at undergraduate level. Specific under-represnted group targets are also laid out in the National Access Plan.

In the last two years, UCD Access and Lifelong Learning have carried out many activities with regard to equitable access, inclusion and diversity, including;
Support of Change Teams with programme and professional areas to use the Toolkit for Inclusive Higher Education Institutions to complete workshops and develop action plans for a variety of inclusive initiatives across teaching and learning, student support, the physical campus and the technological infrastructure.
Professional development and capacity building initiatives for faculty and professional staff both in UCD and in the tertiary sector nationally in the areas of Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning.
Communications campaigns and public promotion (e.g production of media content)
Further enhancement of student supports for underrepresented student groups including the UCD ALL Welcome, Assistive Technology mainstreaming, Scholarship Programmes and Financial Supports and Outreach programmes.
In addition to the activities to support inclusion the office also implements legislation, strategies/ action plans, recommendations and guidelines and preventative programmes to remove barriers which students may experience and counter/prevent potentially exclusionary practices in the University.
The last innovative practice/tool introduced to ensure inclusion, diversity and equal access was the publication of the book “Making Inclusive Higher Education a Reality: Creating a University for All”, written by staff in the UCD Access and Lifelong Learning centre to help inform the sector of the importance of an inclusive higher education system. Furthermore, the current development of a student partnership programme to get students involved in advocacy will further embed inclusion, diversity and equity in the University, and strengthen the student voice.

The motivation for establishing the Access and Lifelong Learning office was the vision to have a cohesive unit to mainstream equity and to embed access and inclusion in the University’s policies, practice, and systems. Access and Lifelong Learning has responsibility for widening access to the University and ensuring participation by diverse student cohorts. The factors which indicate that this support office is a successful one is extensive positive student feedback and consistent ongoing funded projects to improve equity and inclusion in the University.
UCD’s Access and Lifelong Learning office is governed by national policy, as accordance with our National Access Plan and is grounded in UCD strategy including; Rising to the Future (UCD 2020), Equity, diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2020-2025, the Education and Student Success Strategy (UCD 2021), and the requirements of the Performance Compact agreed between UCD and the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
UCD Access and Lifelong Learning is one unit with multiple services including student support, disability support, outreach and engagement and the University for All project team, to name a few. The office structure consists of; A Director, a Deputy director, disability support specialists, outreach specialists, occupational therapists, assistive technology specialists, mature student advisors, access student support and campus accessibility officers, a learning support tutor, operational support personnel and project managers. Diversity, inclusion and equality are explicitly mentioned in the strategy of UCD, UCD Access & Lifelong Learning and other University policies. Decisions about curriculum programme design are made by other University bodies and academics; however, the Access and Lifelong Learning centre can be consulted when new programmes are being created or changed. In addition, other activities in the centre such as student and staff projects to improve inclusion etc. are carried out by the University for All team, project managers, and other members of staff within the office itself. The office is part of local, regional, national and European networks. The benefit of being involved in multiple networks is the improved dissemination of information, and the sharing of ideas to help constantly improve different areas of the programme.
Moving the conversation beyond merely access to a point where inclusion is everyone’s business. Achieving buy-in from university leadership to establish KPIs and embed mainstreaming inclusion within institutional strategies. Providing data that was presented in an accessible way to leadership, staff and faculty was a key part of this.Not only could we capture information about access student cohorts but that these could be tracked and presented to the university in a way that they could understand. The establishment of the University Widening Participation Committee (chaired by a senior academic) and associated reporting structures was vital for making colleagues sit up and take responsibility for inclusion. Convincing colleagues that a ‘student is a student’ and there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ student. Broadly the work of the unit is now embedded in UCD and we are in a sustainable position for now. The short timeframe for spending funding as well as turnaround time for submission of proposals is problematic and not always sustainable. Usually the intention is that the projects funded become mainstreamed which is fine in theory but this takes time, and often longer than the required timeframe. Shifting national priorities as well as university leadership can impact on our work and effect scope creep. There is an allocated annual budget which comes centrally from the university for the unit. Support for students with disabilities are funded from the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) Fund for Students with Disabilities (FSD) annually. The HEA also has various PATH funding initiatives to address specific barriers to higher education or for specific access to student cohorts. These are usually in line with the National Access Plan’s goals. Additional funding comes from Erasmus+ projects as well as Rethink Ireland and private donors for projects like Pathways to the Professions and Think Again Scholarship. Relatively stable for central funding and the FSD. The other funding is for shorter deadlines and there is no guarantee that work or projects can continue on beyond the funding point although in most cases, plans are put in place so that these can be sustainable or a case put forward for additional funding.
UCD has a formal quality review process where every unit undergoes reviews every seven years. This model comprises four key elements; the preparation of a self-assessment report, a site visit by a review group which includes both internal (UCD) and external experts (both national and international), the preparation of a review group report, and finally the agreement of an action plan in order to effect improvement. The University’s strategic approach to quality reviews ensures that members of each unit come together to reflect upon their achievements and goals in all aspects of their work and how these different areas of activity impact upon one another. UCD Access and Lifelong Learning has a formal evaluation process, compiling both quantitative and qualitative data. The Institutional Research Office in UCD transforms institutional data into valid and useful information to promote informed planning and decision making in the University. The Access and Lifelong Learning centre compiles data using figures collected from student admissions and access routes to education, participation, progression, outward mobility, completion, graduate outcomes and graduate programmes. However, while this data only provides part of the picture of students’ journey in UCD, the metrics provide a good indication of the progress of access and inclusion in the University. The office also gathers qualitative data through surveys, focus groups/ panels, and workshops and implementation plans. Information gathered by both qualitative and quantitative methods are disseminated through a myriad of data publications and case studies with regular reports being made to higher authorities.

Access and Lifelong Learning

Dublin, Ireland