Half choose college as best route to getting ahead

Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 01:00

EDUCATION:THIRD-LEVEL education is a rite of passage for Generation Next – more so here than in other countries. Half of Irish 25- to 34-year-olds have completed a third-level qualification, far above the OECD average figure of 40 per cent.

That said, third-level education is changing rapidly. Because of budget cuts and registration fee hikes, it is becoming more expensive, more difficult to access, and the prospects for new graduates, at the moment, do not make for pleasant reading.

The much-maligned registration charges have risen every year since 2010, currently standing at €2,250, with further increases expected. Meanwhile, the maintenance grant has been cut by 3 per cent for new undergraduate students and the means test for the grant is being adjusted to take capital assets into account. New entrants into postgraduate courses will not be eligible for maintenance grants, just fees.

Other countries are observing what is happening here, and there is a drive at the moment to attract young people abroad with 740 undergraduate programmes through English being offered by universities in EU countries. Some countries offer free tuition while others offer tuition at a rate well below the Irish university registration fee.

Money is a huge factor in all of this, as evidenced by an almost 20 per cent drop in Irish applications to UK universities this year – a fact that can be largely attributed to the rise in tuition fees in UK universities.

Students will get little sympathy from those who went to college at a time when fees were in place and unquestioned.

However, the recent OECD Education at a Glance report found that we have been getting value for money. According to those figures, male graduates from Irish institutions will pay back almost six times the amount of public money invested in their education through taxes and other savings, while women will make a return of 3½ times the cost of their education. Both returns are well above the OECD average.

In addition, universities themselves are changing. Gone are the days of the academic ivory towers immune to the ebb and flow of the real world. Universities today are business-savvy. They are fighting to attract the very best of college applicants. If you have 500 CAO points or more, you’re in high demand.

The choice facing Generation Next as it enters college is bigger than ever. In the past 10 years, the number of degree courses on offer to undergraduates has doubled to almost 900. This is nothing to do with an increase in places or students, and everything to do with colleges coveting those high-calibre students.

Essentially, colleges in the race for the cream of Generation Next are furiously subdividing their courses. Commerce, a course of 100 places, becomes five courses of 20 places each (commerce and French, commerce and Spanish, accounting and marketing, etc). This way the college gets to take the top 20 applicants to each course, rather than the top 100 to commerce. Applicant 20 from each course is likely to have higher points than applicant 100 for the general course. Entry points are based on the points the last course entrant got. Sub- dividing courses like this often has the effect of inflating the points.

In terms of course choice, 18- to 25-year-olds certainly have an ear to the news and an eye on the jobs market. Arts and social sciences are still by far the most popular subject areas and they make up a huge proportion of the places on offer.

This year, however, demand for science and applied science courses went through the roof, registering an extra 1,400 first preferences on last year, according to the CAO. To put it in context, science and applied science courses registered just under 5,500 first preferences in 2008 – 4,000 fewer than in 2012. A bonus of 25 extra points for passing higher-level maths combined with this demand meant that points shot up. Science, in the academic doldrums for so long, is now a 500-points course in the larger universities.

The fate of graduates has changed significantly since the boom. The most recent figures of 2010 from the Higher Education Authority show 38 per cent of degree graduates had found employment in Ireland while 8 per cent managed to find work overseas. This is in contrast with a 53 per cent Irish employment rate in 2006 and a 5 per cent employment rate overseas.

Well aware of the bleak situation, graduates are increasingly opting for further study – 42 per cent took that option in 2010 compared to just 33 per cent in 2006.

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