DCU - A Leader in Widening Participation

In this piece, Dr Claire Bohan, Director of Student Support and Development, explains DCU’s long history of commitment to widening the participation of underrepresented groups in higher education and its ambitious plans for the future.

Since its formal establishment as a university in 1989, DCU has always been a leader in widening the participation of underrepresented groups in higher education in Ireland. For those who might be unfamiliar with the term widening participation, how would you describe it?

Widening participation (WP) is about ensuring that the diversity of society is reflected in our university population, and that sectors of society who would not ‘naturally’ look to progress to third level, are provided with the impetus and support to do so.

We know from Higher Education Authority (HEA) data that there are communities currently underrepresented in higher education, such as mature students, Further Education students, students with a disability, students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students who identify as Irish Traveller or Roma and ethnic minorities. At DCU, Widening Participation means actively engaging with underrepresented communities at three stages:

  • Pre-entry: working directly with communities to raise expectations about higher education and to provide information on available supports.
  • Transition: providing tailored transition / orientation programmes to help students settle into university life.
  • Post-entry support: targeted support, particularly during first year, to make sure that the student is settling in and keeping up with their studies.
Can you tell us about DCU’s journey from establishing Ireland’s first university Access Programme in 1990 to more recent initiatives to ensure the student body increasingly reflects our diverse society?

Widening Participation has always been a core part of our DNA. Our founding Governing Authority recognised that DCU’s north Dublin neighbourhood includes some of Ireland’s most socially and economically disadvantaged areas and was determined to make DCU accessible to the local community. In September 1990, six students entered DCU through a scholarship programme that would later become DCU’s Access Programme. We take great pride in how it has grown since then and that it has now supported over 4,200 students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds across Ireland to pursue their dream of higher education.

Yet establishing Ireland’s first Access Programme was really just the beginning of our Widening Participation journey. At DCU, we are always looking to continually improve access to education for all groups in society. We keep a close eye on societal issues and trends and closely examine our student intake to learn from our interventions.


Our Autism Friendly University initiative is a good example of this. Over the past 20 years, children with autism have increasingly entered mainstream primary and secondary schools, and this ‘peak cohort’ is now moving on to third level. At DCU, we realised that universities needed to be better prepared to meet their needs. So, in 2016, we collaborated with AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity, on research to identify the specific barriers that autistic students may face in higher education and to recommend solutions. The research culminated in 8 Principles for an Autism Friendly University, which we committed to embed through a 43-point action plan that is now at an advanced stage.

In 2016, we also became Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary, which helped to raise awareness of the barriers to education for students living in Direct Provision, and prompted other universities to follow. We have awarded 38 Scholarships to University of Sanctuary students since then, and will offer 10 more in September 2021.

You mentioned DCU’s designation as Ireland’s first Autism Friendly University in 2018, what has been the impact of that initiative so far?

The last three years have brought significant improvements to the university environment, which have helped autistic students settle into university life, but which have also benefitted the general student body. Some highlights have included introducing an autism awareness-raising week, staff training and the establishment of the world’s first Neurodivergent Society, to address stigma and lack of understanding, which can prevent students from disclosing their diagnosis.

We have certainly seen results, with the number of students disclosing their autism diagnosis doubling from 35 in 2016 to 81 in 2021.


We also developed a new webpage and toolkit for autistic students, which outlines in clear detail what university life will look like in order to take away the anxiety and stress of the ‘unknown and new.’

Once on campus, sensory overload from noise, lights, crowds, smells and navigating large open plan spaces can be overwhelming for autistic students. To address this, we installed three Sensory Pods with support from the Lions Club of Ireland. We also worked with Dr Magda Mostafa, a globally recognised leader in architectural design, to create the world’s first Autism Friendly University Design Guide. This will help us to build with autism in mind in the future, but it also shows we need to invest significantly to adapt our existing buildings, which we are currently seeking philanthropic support to do. A big priority is to create a network of escape spaces where students can remove themselves from the excessive stimulation in order to recalibrate before returning to daily life on campus. These will all be built using Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept which promotes a fully inclusive learning environment and provides an effective framework to improve the learning experience of all students within the mainstream teaching environment.

What has DCU learned over the last 30 years about what works to support students from underrepresented groups?

We are constantly re-examining and re-evaluating our Widening Participation initiatives. We track registrations, progression and completion, constantly asking ourselves what we can do differently and better – and trying to identify gaps in our work. Over the years, we have learnt that:

  • The earlier we can work with underrepresented groups the better – hence, DCU’s comprehensive Access outreach programme, where we embed our activities in the school environment.
  • Underrepresented groups need role models from their own communities. Both our Access and Disability Services employ “student ambassadors” to support outreach and post-entry activities.
  • Tailor-made orientation is crucial as it allows students to come on campus before the wider student group arrives, to feel comfortable in this new environment, and to meet others from similar backgrounds.
  • Having access to a designated support officer on entry is key, a trustworthy person the student can meet on a one-to-one or small group basis.
  • Having access to funding, especially for basic needs such as technology or travel, can make the difference between being able to attend college and engage, or not. The funding we receive from private donors to provide Access scholarships is a huge help in this respect. However, we know there is an unmet need for financial support for some mature and Further Education students and are looking at this.
  • Monitoring and early intervention is crucial, so we meet our students regularly to ensure they are settling into first year, although the need for comprehensive support can sometimes continue right through until final year.
  • Providing employability supports can improve career prospects and social mobility after graduation, such as our Access to the Workplace Programme, which provides summer internships that help Access students to build their networks. We are now also piloting the initiative with some students with disabilities who may face barriers to meaningful employment for different reasons.
Widening participation initiatives support a diverse group of students from Access and mature students to students with a disability. How does your approach vary to supporting each group?

There are certain key principles that guide our work with all underrepresented groups. For example, adhering to Universal Design for Learning principles, which means that where possible, all our services are mainstreamed and accessible to all, such as our Writing Centre, Maths Learning Centre, Exam Support, Counselling and Health Services.

While there is huge diversity within each student cohort, we would also see certain common challenges.

For example, mature students may struggle with family demands and confidence in their academic ability. To address these, we introduced an Academic Writing Week and Maths Revision week prior to semester beginning for mature students, together with life coaching that allows them to focus on their motivation, goals and potential barriers to success.


With Access students, their specific needs tend to relate to the need for additional funding and a support officer who believes in them and their ability. For students with disabilities, needs also vary, but we would commonly see that supports such as assistive technology, occupational therapy, a personal assistant, a quieter exam venue or additional time to deal with exams, can be a massive help.

It is clear that innovation and progress are constant features of Widening Participation at DCU. What is next for Widening Participation at DCU?

Our goal is that diversity simply becomes what we are and do. By design, we should be a university that is accessible to all.

In the future, our vision is that additional supports will only be required for a very small cohort of students, as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) becomes more embedded in all aspects of university life, and that our funding models will allow for much more flexibility in study mode.


However, our vision is a costly one, as UDL requires significant investment in technology, support staff and changes to the built environment.

We will also continue to address inequalities as they arise and put our focus on emerging barriers to education. A current focus in this regard is work to ensure that more students progress from Further Education colleges into DCU. We are working to simplify this process and to build a support framework to help these students progress successfully.

Finally, we hope that our students will carry a deep commitment and understanding of diversity and inclusion from DCU into the workplace – and that our workplaces see opportunity in that diversity.