The current target of 72% participation in higher education by 2020 is well on its way towards delivery, with around two-thirds of those of school leaving age currently going to college. Around €500 million more every year will be needed to reach the target, which will not come from tuition fees in the lifetime of the current government.
But aside from the financial implications, UCC president Dr Michael Murphy believes the quality rather than the quantity of students should be the focus.
A major problem for all colleges remains the high dropout rates of students either leaving or changing courses within the first year of entry. In UCC’s 2009-2012 strategic plan launched this week, a target has been set to increase the rate of student retention beyond first year from 89% to 93%.
“The difficulty sometimes for those who drop out or change to other courses is that they don’t have a clear understanding of the nature of the career they have chosen before they arrive, or sometimes it’s the difficulty of the curriculum,” Dr Murphy said.
He said steps to improve students’ knowledge of courses before they start university is important.
“In some programmes where demand has fallen, students are coming in with academic abilities that are not sufficient for the particular course,” he said.
Dr Murphy said he hopes this will be considered by the strategy group.
“A participation rate of 72% is not the same as saying everybody has the aptitude to go to university or that the system will have the capacity to take on all these people. We’ve got to think very carefully about what proportion of the cohort will have the academic aptitude,” he said.
Higher Education Authority chief executive Tom Boland said in June that college entrants have been spoon-fed in preparation for the Leaving Certificate. But, he said, many third-level academic departments are collaborating with this learned behaviour.