Stem opportunities via another route

Science and engineering proving popular among those undertaking PLCs

Over the past decade, attitudes towards science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) have completely transformed. With people across the country feeling the pinch when the last recession hit, many school leavers chose to undergo education in a field with positive employment prospects. As a result, the popularity of Stem courses rose, and so too did the CAO points requirements.

Most Level 8 science degrees require at least 450 points, with some universities seeing the CAO numbers topping 500 for these programmes. Engineering has also seen a stratospheric rise, with most Level 8s now requiring more than 550 points.

Those rising points become a barrier for many who would like to pursue a career in the sector, but for whom the Leaving Cert did not go as well as planned.

That’s where further education comes in, with most post-leaving cert colleges now offering courses in the fields. Science and engineering, in particular, are proving to be popular among those undertaking PLCs, with this rise being forecast to continue.


Ciaran McNulty, deputy principal at Colaiste Dhulaigh, said the Dublin college offers two one-year science courses, which have proven to be a popular choice in recent years.

“One is done with DCU. We set exams, we send them to DCU, we bring them through that syllabus and then if the students get a merit, which is 65 per cent or more, they can get access to first year in DCU,” Mr McNulty said.

“The other science course we do is a QQI course. They do eight QQI modules, which is when the grade you get on a QQI module can be turned into CAO points. You apply then through the CAO and then hopefully you’ll be given an offer.”

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There are places left over on a degree programme for those who complete QQI courses, though Mr McNulty said it was important prospective students know that they are allocated through a lottery-like system among people who have the same grades.

Donnchadh O’Mahony, a guidance counsellor at Loreto College, Stephen’s Green, said these courses tend to require a high proficiency in maths, which is why further education can be beneficial.

“I know we’re trying to push people into these areas, but I suppose they are very difficult from an academic standpoint. Students tend to find there isn’t a huge amount of interest in it because it is very difficult,” he said.

“With engineering, you’ve got applied maths, physics, higher levels maths is generally required for any of the engineering really. For science, it’s the same, you want a very good level. All first-year science courses have an element of maths to it.”

Further education is a good stepping stone for those who are interested in studying science, in particular. Most Leaving Cert students have only done one of the three science subjects for their exams, but most university science degrees have modules in chemistry, biology and science.

Doing a PLC first means students can have a basic knowledge of all three subjects before being examined in them at third level.

“Not all of the students would have even done science before they come to us. Most would have done one or two in the leaving cert. So if they put their head down, they get a lot out of it,” Mr McNulty said.

Further education

While the vast majority of students who come through Dhulaigh proceed to university, it isn’t the only option for those who choose to study in further education.

According to Mr McNulty, participants on the engineering course often then decide to undertake an apprenticeship.

“They would come to us and do the engineering technology course. They dabble in all the fields of the trade, and then they’re introduced to companies. Then hopefully they’ll get an apprenticeship, or they can go and apply for university,” he added.

Apprenticeships are very beneficial in these fields, according to Mr O’Mahony, who described them as “very hands-on”.

“We need to recognise in Ireland: what way do I learn best? Is it a hand-on approach, a theoretical, lecture type of approach, or do I want to be in the workplace learning from other people?” he said.

“It’s not just your regular apprenticeships anymore; it’s not just your blue-collar construction. Now you can do it in science, in engineering, finance, everything.”

For those who do proceed into third level, the degree programme options are quite varied after completing the course.

For the pre-university science course, successful students can gain a place on one of more than 12 courses, including environmental science and technology, analytical science, chemical and pharmaceutical science and biotechnology.

For those completing preliminary engineering, a place can be found in common-entry engineering courses, mechanical engineering and data science, among others.

Mr McNulty added: “It’s open throughout the country as well from Athlone to TU Dublin to Galway. You’ve probably over 300 courses that would allow you entry through the QQI.”

Attitudes towards further education have changed in recent years too. Previously seen only as a default when insufficient points were earned, they are now increasingly being seen as positive pathways for students, regardless of their leaving cert results.

“It opens routes for people who may have just missed out, because of the pressure or because of illness or whatever it is,” Mr McNulty said.

“It’s becoming more of a choice. Guidance counsellors are now telling people to apply for PLCs as well. Sometimes it’s as a backup, sometimes it’s because they want to do a course such as hairdressing or floristry, a one-year course that will get the student employment.”

College life

Mr McNulty said doing a PLC in these fields before pursuing it at third level “slowly introduces you into college life”.

“The positive thing again with further education is generally the class sizes are small. Particularly if a student was not sure if they were ready for university, you’re in a class with 20 to 25 students so it’s a nice atmosphere, the teacher gets to know you straight away from day one,” he said.

“It’s with that, there’s encouragement there, information whether they need a little bit of learning support, we can provide that. We’re dealing with a smaller number, so we can put the likes of learning support really quickly.”

It also allows students to try the subjects without committing to a full-time, four-year degree, he added.

“Sometimes it’s maybe a good idea to give something a year. It lets them check out whether it’s definitely the route for them before going into university. And obviously, it’s a cheaper option because fees are way less.”

Mr O’Mahony agrees. “Some students have this sort of imposter syndrome. So if you give it a year, there are no real repercussions if you drop out or don’t like it. Whereas if you sign up for a four-year Level 8 degree, and drop out, there are repercussions both financially and academically.”

He said this is particularly true of engineering, which people wouldn’t have studied at secondary school.

“It also helps you decide what areas in the sector you like and excel at, and you can then decide if that’s an area you want to go into.”

Full degree

Further education, and Level 6 or Level 7 degrees, also allow some individuals to work in the area without having to do a full degree.

“Absolutely after your Level 6 or 7, depending on the role you’re going for, you can go into that area to work. Many people do, and you can always go back to do the next level later on,” he added.

And while students are becoming more open to the idea of further education, so too are universities and institutes of technology.

Mr McNulty said: “What the universities have been telling us is that generally the students that come through us because they were studying something they like, they’ve been doing assignments and doing research, and generally end up being in the top one-third of the class when they go into universities.”

Even abroad, the recognition of QQI courses is expanding, according to Mr O’Mahony.

“More and more universities in the UK and Europe are taking QQI applicants, so even if Ireland doesn’t work out for you, or you don’t get a QQI place on one of the courses in Ireland, then so many students can take up a place in the UK or Europe.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times