In line with international trends, higher education (HE) in Ireland has ‘massified’ in recent decades, yet significant socio-demographic disparities continue to exist in terms of the participation of certain groups, particularly those from lower socio-economic and minority ethnic groups, and individuals with a disability. HE systems’ attempts to widen participation have been motivated by both social justice and economic concerns. Research has emphasised the importance of focusing not just on progression to HE, but also on the post-entry student experience in a widening participation context. More recently, research internationally has extended to include a focus on ‘what happens next?’, in terms of progression to postgraduate level, and into employment (including into the professions), of those from traditionally under-represented groups.
This paper will draw on findings from three studies, relating to 1) the undergraduate academic and socio-relational experiences of access and traditional-entry students, based on a three-year constructivist grounded theory study with 45 university students, 2) the postgraduate and employment experiences of former access students, based on a questionnaire (N = 195) and 26 interviews, and 3) the socio-demographic backgrounds of applicants and entrants to the teaching profession in Ireland, based on an online questionnaire (N = c. 4,000).
Processes of privilege and disadvantage, and of exclusion and inclusion, will be highlighted through an examination of the experiences of individuals occupying various socio-demographic positionings in their negotiations with, and through, the Irish school and higher education systems and into employment. In the context of the forthcoming new national plan for equity of access to higher education in Ireland, it is argued that barriers to equality of opportunity and outcome remain deeply entrenched in the Irish educational system, resulting from a complex interaction of culturally-embedded mechanisms of exclusion and wider structural inequalities in society.