On the 4th of July, the Irish Government published their National Action Plan (NAP) for Increasing Traveller Participation in Higher Education. The plan was originally launched last November by TD Mary Mitchell O’Connor in TU Dublin, on World Access to Higher Education Day.

The plan is part of a wider scheme in place since 2015, aiming for greater equity in access to Higher Education and more diversity in the student population. The overall plan has been slowly increasing participation across the board, but this latest release lays out a more detailed plan for prospective students from Traveller backgrounds.

The plan lays out various steps to support Travellers in Further and Higher Education access. The release states there was a 74% increase in Traveller participation from 2013 to 2018 with existing measures to increase participation. However, the raw numbers are still low with the 2018 statistics counting just 61 students from Traveller backgrounds. The existing initiatives under the NAP, known as the Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) set out funding to increase Traveller representation in Teacher Education and more generally fund students with financial difficulties. This latest release seeks to add more detailed objectives to build on the current PATH strands.

“Community and Regional engagement” are highlighted in the first three objectives, meaning a more cohesive and inclusive approach within the community to increase participation. The plan highlights the need for “Teachers with a personal understanding of the challenges that are encountered in participating in higher education.” An emphasis is placed on co-operation between the Department of Higher Education and Traveller representative groups to “develop an interagency approach within existing structures to increase Traveller HE participation”.

The plan also mentions the need to “build coherent pathways” from schools to further and higher education and support school completion for Travellers by “promoting a ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘diversity’ in schools that will address and break down the cultural barriers that impact on Irish Travellers achieving their full potential in society” through agency co-operation. Furthermore, this section of the plan mentions the importance of supporting mature students and facilitating the transition from higher or further education to the workforce.

The third block of objectives falls under the umbrella of “Developing Access Data”. The release conceded that the government had difficulty in measuring participation of Travellers in Higher Education as they rely wholly on self-identification. As such the plan must address this lack of reliable data through measures such as encouraging completion of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Equal Access Survey (EAS) and re-evaluate targets for participation with this new data.

The final objective states the need for improved student supports through a “Student Success Strategy” that will take into account the needs of all students, including Travellers. Additionally, the whole plan is supposedly built to fit into existing supports for Travellers in education. Overall, the plan is an overarching strategy to increase the number of students from traveller backgrounds in Higher Education with an emphasis on cooperation between education providers, traveller representation groups and various government agencies in each objective.

Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre said in a statement to The College Tribune that the Action Plan is “ is a good start […] but these need to be urgently reflected in second, first and early years education provision through the National Strategy on Traveller Education sought since 2006”. They also stated that a recent study into the implications of COVID-19 on Traveller Higher Education “raises a number of immediate considerations and gives a picture of the current concerns of Traveller students, prospective students and graduates as well as Traveller organisations from all over the country”. They highlighted the “need to consider mature and women Traveller students” with the current phase of the Action Plan.

Ann Jaffray – Reporter