A review published today by the government reveals a significant increase in the number of beneficiaries of a fund for students with disabilities over the last 10 years.
From 2007 to 2014, the number of students benefitting from the Fund for Students with Disabilities leapt from 3,500 to over 10,000. Figures released recently by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) for the 2016/17 academic year show a continuation of this trend, with over 12,000 student beneficiaries.
Marking the first formal external review of the fund, the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, and the Minister for State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, welcomed the results.
The review was commissioned in 2016 by the HEA in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the fund in supporting access and participation in higher education to students with disabilities. It concentrated on four main areas – financial provision of the fund, HEA models and guidelines, student experience of the fund and educational institutions and the fund.
It further assessed whether the policies, guidelines and practices for the fund are fit for purpose and in line with international best practice, and included a number of recommendations on what aspects of the fund are working well and where improvements could be made. The HEA has committed to establishing a working group in order to oversee the implementation of recommendations in the review.
The fund allocates funding to further and higher education colleges for the provision of services and supports to full-time students with disabilities, who might otherwise be unable to continue with their third-level studies for financial reasons. It is managed by the HEA on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, and is co-funded by the Irish government and the European Social Fund.
In a press statement, Bruton said that ensuring the education system is inclusive and meets the needs of all students was a “key priority” of his. He said that this fund plays “a vital role in ensuring students with disabilities can access and remain in further and higher education” and that he was “committed to ensuring [the establishment of a working group] to implement any recommendations for improvement”.
Mitchell O’Connor, in a press statement, expressed her delight at the completion of the report as the review of the fund was “one of the key actions identified in the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015 – 2019”. With the fund available to students with disabilities attending further and higher education institutions in Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU, she said that the government wants “to ensure that students with disabilities can access and fully participate in their chosen courses and that essential funding is available to ensure that they successfully complete their chosen course of study”.