CAO Q&A: economic prospects drive shifts in college course preferences
Increase in applications for engineering, science and agriculture/food courses reflects changing economy
The number of students sitting the Leaving Certificate will grow from 52,000 last year to 54,000 this year. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
What is contained in the latest CAO figures?
The Central Applications Office figures released today show there has been an increase of 1,940 college applicants since the equivalent figures last March. This increase is accounted for by the increase in the numbers sitting the Leaving Certificate in next June, which will grow from 52,000 last year to 54,000 this year.
Today’s CAO statistics are not the final picture of the application pattern among the 17 categories of degree programmes on offer this year. More than 6,000 applicants have not yet indicated course choices and are under no obligation to do until the July 1st deadline. Given the pattern of previous years, a further 6,000 applicants will register applications on or before the May 1st deadline, increasing this year’s application number to 79,000.
Who are the 73,091 individuals who have indicated their interest in securing college places this year?
Fifteen per cent, or 11,079 of them, are classified as mature applicants, being 23 years of age or older (born on or before January 1st, 1991). The number of mature applicants, which increased initially after the economic downturn in 2008, has in the past four years dropped back due to a combination of factors: emigration in this age group, cutbacks in funding support for mature applicants and increased employment opportunities in the past two years. With 47-48 per cent of mature applicants securing places each year, they are likely to secure about 6,255, or 13.5 per cent, of the 46,149 places available.
In 2013, 15,767 applicants presented Fetac qualifications, and represented 20 per cent of overall applicants. Unfortunately only 3,033, or 6.6 per cent of the 46,162 successful CAO applicants, secured college places based on Fetac awards. This should be an issue of huge concern to policymakers in the Department of Education and Skills.
There a disconnect between the numbers hoping to secure CAO places through taking post-Leaving Certificate courses leading to Fetac awards and the numbers of places provided by third-level colleges.
Every year, for example, thousands of Leaving Certificate students who apply for level-eight honours degree nursing programmes, and fail to secure them due to the high points requirements, take pre-nursing PLC programmes. More than 400 of these students each year secure perfect scores of eight distinctions in their Fetac awards. However, only 92 places out of 1,660 are on offer to PLC candidates. If this happened to hundreds of Leaving Certificate students who secured 625 points but failed to secure college places there would be national uproar.
Apart from about 1,000 students from Northern Ireland and the UK, and similar numbers from the rest of the EU, the remaining 44,000 CAO applicants to date, plus the 6,000 expected to apply by May 1st, sat the Leaving Certificate last year or are sitting it next June. Seventy per cent of them will secure college places next August, based on previous years’ figures.
What do the initial statistics published by the CAO today tell us about changes in application patterns?
First, a health warning: the CAO has advised that all 40-plus institutions have reviewed the classification of their courses this year, which has led to the reclassification of some courses. Certain courses, for example in the fields of computer science and technology, that were previously classified as within science have been reclassified as engineering programmes. This complicates any comparison of last year’s CAO application figures with this year’s.
That said, several things are clear from the figures. Applications to science programmes, which have doubled since 2008, have maintained their attractiveness to applicants. Numbers are up more than 10 per cent at levels six and seven and up at least slightly at level eight (allowing for reclassification of some science programmes as technology courses).
Application numbers for engineering programmes are up more than 10 per cent, but again this increase may be affected by course reclassification.
The increase in popularity of agriculture and food programmes has continued this year – applications have risen at level eight by more than 12 per cent again. First-choice demand for business programmes at level eight is up 5.5 per cent, reflecting the recovery in the economy.
The biggest recovery has been in the field of construction. In 2008, 563 applicants made a construction-related course their first choice, leading to 240 applicants securing places. Following the collapse in the construction industry that year, the number of level-eight applicants in the March 2013 figures had dropped to 133, rising to 195 by the end of the application season last September. In 2012 only 137 construction-related places were taken up at level eight throughout the third-level system.
To date this year 312 applicants have chosen a construction-related course as their first preference. Given the pattern of previous years, this should rise to more than 400 by next September, equalling the 2009 numbers. This recovery in interest is also evident in the figures for levels six and seven, where the increase is more than 100 per cent. Reflecting this trend, first-choice applications to architecture are up 15 per cent.
The overall message from these figures is that there is, as always, one principal factor driving changes in the choice of courses: the perception of employment opportunities on the part of students and parents.