‘It may be time to cap university places’: Can school leavers be convinced to ditch CAO points race?

As CAO deadline looms, Government is sending mixed messages to school leavers over future career and study options

When Hannah Dowdall found out she had secured enough CAO points to study primary teaching in university, there was no high-fiving or Champagne corks popping. Instead, she began to panic.

“I felt as though I was lost,” says Dowdall from Navan, Co Meath. “I didn’t want to commit to a course that I wasn’t 100 per cent sure about … I sobbed to my dad. l told him that I didn’t think I was ready for college. I didn’t want to let him down.”

Her father, who had previously completed a further education course, suggested a Post-Leaving Cert course to broaden her horizons. She took his advice. Looking back, Dowdall says the pre-university primary and teaching programme in Dunboyne College of Further Education was the best decision she ever made.

She says she had time to discover her true passion for adult education, complete work experience in the classroom and develop skills around report writing and referencing.

“It’s not really said out loud, but there is a view among teachers and students that further education is for people who didn’t get the points,” says Dowdall (21). “There’s still a stigma around it. You wonder, ‘will people think I didn’t do well in school.’ Now I know that’s not the case.”

The Government is hoping more school leavers will have a similar change of heart over the coming months.

While much attention is focused today on the CAO deadline for course choices at 5pm on July 1st, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has been leading a policy charge to boost the standing of the further education and training sector.

Policymakers worry that an “obsession” with going to university means school leavers who would flourish in a more hands-on learning environment are being deflected from considering more vocational options such as PLCs and apprenticeships.

Ireland sends more school leavers to university — about 60 per cent — than almost any other EU member state; this is about twice the rate of Germany. Ireland, by contrast, sends far fewer students to vocational routes.

Harris’s work has involved expanding apprenticeships, forging closer links with higher education and ensuring school leavers are exposed to both college and further education options on the CAO’s website.

“This will change the conversation at kitchen tables across the country — one that reflects education is for everyone and there is no right or wrong choice, just different ones,” he said recently.

Most observers believe there are a range of social, historical and economic factors behind the stigma around vocational options — but does it really matter?

Yes, says Tom Boland, former head of the Higher Education Authority, and Ellen Hazelkorn, professor emeritus at Technological University Dublin, who run the education consulting firm BH Associates.

They argue that Ireland needs a much more balanced tertiary (or further and higher education) system to provide for the wide range of skills that our society and economy needs. There are, for example, urgent skills gaps in construction and areas like retrofitting, which cannot be filled by higher education.

Despite strong employment and earnings potential, Boland and Hazelkorn say further education, and many of the careers which stem from it, occupy a much lower status in society compared to Germany and many other European countries.

They have floated a bold policy idea: capping the numbers going to higher education. They acknowledge it would be radical, but say it could be a “game-changer” if introduced as an element in a wider strategy to rebalance provision.

One senior education source, who declined to be named, conceded that there is an uphill battle to convince school goers over the merits of further education. “We haven’t won the culture war yet — there is still a tendency to say, ‘that’s what my mum says I need to study’,” said one source.

Another says vocational routes will continue to be seen by many parents and students as second best until employers like Google start hiring from the sector.

However, Andrew Brownlee, head of Solas, the umbrella body which oversees further education and training, argues that there has never been a better time to opt for a PLC course or an apprenticeship.

Big tech firms

Fees for courses are being abolished from this September, while apprentices are paid from year one of their courses.

He notes that big tech companies such as Microsoft have started to hire from the further education pool. There are also new apprenticeships in areas such as software and cybersecurity.

“We’re in a time of uncertainty and disruption … so now is the perfect time to consider further education as a way of trying out a subject or discipline that may interest you,” says Brownlee. “It can be just a one-year commitment which can take you to a range of exciting sectors, or a platform for entry into higher education.”

Increasingly, says Brownlee, some of the big tech firms are looking for recruits with creative and practical skills and who can be “moulded” to suit their needs.

“Mindsets are starting to change,” he says.

As for Hannah Dowdall, she is in no doubt about the benefits of further education.

She says she it gave her crucial breathing space and helped her develop a range of essential skills which are now “second nature”. She is now studying to become an adult educator at Maynooth University.

“If I had gone straight to college, I would have become extremely overwhelmed, and I doubt I would be where I am today,” she says. “I gained a newfound motivation for education and confidence in myself and what I wanted to do. I continued and obtained a KBC Maynooth academic scholarship through Dunboyne College, which was something I never in my wildest dreams would have ever thought I could ever achieve.”