How we teach our children: Third level is not for everyone but there are a number of alternatives

Alternative routes to training and careers can no longer be a Cinderella service, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray

THERE’S a €600m hole in the budgets needed for third-level colleges to maintain standards. An expert report last year told us this is the minimum amount need to allow colleges keep up the quality of education they provide for the students paying to be there.

Some pay the full €3,000 undergraduate student contribution, or have some or all of it paid for them by taxpayers through grants agency Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI). Others are paying much higher postgraduate fees, or have scholarships to attain PhD qualifications.

The latter groups are some of the fortunate ones who have managed to make it through the rigour — academic, personal, and financial — of getting through a primary college degree, perhaps starting with certificate or ordinary degree (level 6 or 7 qualification) first.

But almost one in six — more than 6,200 — of those who entered higher education in September 2012 did not register for the second year of their courses. A conservative estimate of the cost to taxpayers is that at least €50m was invested in the year, or part of a year, they spent in college. Between the cost of grants and fee contributions for the half of undergraduate students in college today, and the Government’s payment of colleges, there are surely questions to be answered.

Incidentally, this is only an estimate because it has not been examined by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) or the Comptroller & Auditor General, despite the desperate cries for extra money from the third-level sector.

For many students, the right supports when they get to college — for instance, meeting standards of maths or other academic elements of a course — might be enough to ensure they progress. Others might need greater financial support.

For many others, as evidenced from HEA data this year, they were admitted to college on relatively low Leaving Certificate results. Many of the lowest-performing 40% of 2012 school leavers, who achieved 300 college-entry points or less under the Central Applications Office (CAO) system, got a place in a third-level college.

But nearly one in three with 255-300 points who did secure a place in a publicly funded college dropped out before second year. These results are achievable by barely passing six higher-level Leaving Certificate subjects, or having a mix of these and high grades in ordinary-level exams.

How we teach our children: Third level is not for everyone but there are a number of alternatives

Those results are not to be sneezed at, and represent a significant achievement for many . But the rigours of a college programme leading to even a level 6 qualification should perhaps need more.

The Department of Education and its slew of ministers in the past six years have slowly begun to turn around the public perceptions of alternative pathways. A target of 14,000 new entrants to apprenticeships has been set for 2020, double the current numbers, largely to be achieved by a new array of training schemes in sectors like medical devices, the insurance sector, culinary, and financial services.

Other training schemes are also being encouraged, with Solas taking responsibility for this but still having quite a low public profile for itself and its brief, having replaced Fás a number of years ago.

But these areas of education and training remain the brief of a minister of state at the Department of Education, taking the full attention of the cabinet minister of the day when time comes to issue a press release or attend a photocall.

It is symbolic of the prestige given to these sectors, long dubbed the Cinderella of Ireland’s education system, that further education does not get its own budgetary heading within the Department of Education.

Despite all the plaudits they confer on the successes of the sector, successive education ministers have been happy for further-education colleges to survive on budgets of secondary schools, despite being expected to offer work-orientated courses. And worse still, while government policy of recent decades has been to continue to push up the proportion of school leavers going on to third level, the last number of coalitions and minority governments have overseen falls in the proportion and actual numbers of students who can do a further-education programme after the Leaving Certificate.

Ironically, it is for financial reasons and difficulties maintaining standards that some universities have begun limiting their intake. While the HEA has not gone as far as recommending student numbers be capped, it did take the first steps almost a year ago towards considering such a move.

How we teach our children: Third level is not for everyone but there are a number of alternatives

A restriction on new entrants to third-level colleges was dismissed by the report of Peter Cassells, but by pushing down the overall proportion of school leavers going into higher education, it might put more focus on alternative routes to training and careers.

Shane Cassells, a member of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee, says the high dropout rates need to be addressed if some students are simply going into the wrong type of third-level courses. He questions whether some are driven into courses to which they are not suited by a school system more concerned with interests other than those of their students; or by colleges that simply want “bums on seats”.

“If one in six drop out by the end of first year, it’s certainly of no benefit to them. And it’s a big financial cost to the State,” says the Fianna Fáil TD.

“You’ve got a situation where you’re not getting the right advice, and kids are going down the wrong path. You’ve got young adults progressing into third level but they’re going into courses they are blatantly not suited to. Thousands are dropping out in first year, and we should be looking at further investment in our ETBs and their programmes.”

The HEA’s head of skills, engagement, and statistics, Vivienne Patterson, says there is a value to keeping third-level participation rates high, but not necessarily by direct entry from students immediately after Leaving Certificate.

“The link between further education and higher education is very important. But it hasn’t been utilised to full extent,” she says.

She points out that capping intake might not be an option for some colleges, largely due to funding issues. “The more students they bring in, the more funding [they get]. Some institutions may be bringing in more private funding.”

Nonetheless, the numbers accessing third-level on the back of a further-education qualification — such as a Post-Leaving Certificate course — are rising. In 2015, 7% of new entrants to full-time higher education came by this route. It is still low, but it is up from around 5% a few years ago, a proportionately significant increase.

How we teach our children: Third level is not for everyone but there are a number of alternatives

“The higher education and further-education sectors need to talk to each other more regularly, and the further education offering needs to be enhanced,” says Ms Patterson.

Awareness and public perceptions remain the further-education sector’s big difficulties, something Solas has been working on through interaction with guidance counsellors and other initiatives. An online database of further-education providers and courses has been set up at fetchcourses.ie but even with increased visibility, there are wider issues. “It also requires a change in the mindset of parents, that not all jobs need a third-level degree, and going straight into higher education doesn’t necessarily suit everyone,” says Ms Patterson.

Work is also under way by the HEA, Solas, the Department of Education, and others to create a more comprehensive online system where students can find direct links from different further-education courses to third level. “We’re talking about a database where someone can go in and see, if they’ve done a further education course, they can go on to this university to do, for example, a particular business programme,” says Ms Patterson.

Despite all these alternative routes, and their increased promotion, the rising population coming up through schools mean targets will be kept high for third-level participation rates. While private colleges may help, Ms Patterson’s message in respect of those publicly funded through the HEA is blunt: “We’re not going to be able to take all the numbers.”

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