Plan to provide school leavers with more study options outside CAO points race

Further and higher education may work together to create joint third-level programmes under new blueprint

Students will have access to more alternative pathways to study courses outside the CAO points race under measures to be outlined in a Government blueprint to be published later this week.

The plan aims to ensure there are more avenues for school leavers to study areas such as nursing or law, for example, by starting off in a further education or Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course and transferring to a related university course.

This would be achieved by forging closer links between further education colleges and universities and ring-fencing a proportion of places outside the CAO points system, according to informed sources.

There will also be a greater emphasis on recognition of prior learning on the part of universities, so students will not have to “start from scratch” if transferring from one course to another.


Officials are hopeful the changes may take some of the focus away from the CAO points race and make alternative pathways more attractive to school leavers and mature learners.

While some further education or Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses currently allow students to transfer on to a relevant university course subject to their grades, these links tend to be on an informal basis, while some do not provide any such links.

Under the new blueprint these links would be formalised and set in place rules for all universities and further education colleges to follow.

In addition, further and higher education may work together to create joint third-level programmes and increase the availability of part-time or online programmes in areas where there are skills gaps.

Ireland has one of the highest third level participation rates in Europe with about 65 per cent of school leavers progressing into higher education.

However, we have one of the lowest transfer rates for school leavers going into more vocational courses or apprenticeships in areas where there are acute shortages of skilled graduates or school leavers.

Last May, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris published a policy document, Progressing A Unified Tertiary System for Learning, Skills and Knowledge, which envisages closer links between further and higher education.

On foot of a consultation process with universities and other stakeholders, he is due to publish his department’s response to this, which will provide more details on to provide a “single” system.

It is the latest is a series of policy changes announced by Mr Harris aimed at making apprenticeships and further education more attractive school leavers.

For example, there has been financial incentives for employers to launch apprenticeships, the abolition of fees for further education courses and a move to boost the visibility of further education options on the CAO’s website.

Despite these measures, however, record numbers of students have opted for higher education courses over further education in recent times.

This appears to be linked to the creation of thousands of additional higher education places during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a move aimed at easing upward pressure on CAO points on foot of grade inflation in Leaving Cert results and reducing the use of random selection.

The use of teachers’ estimated grades during 2020 and 2021 led to much higher grades in recent years and concerns that CAO points would climb to record high levels.

Officials say these new higher education places are temporary and, more recently, have been targeted at area where there are skills shortages.

Leaving Cert students’ grades in 2022 matched the record high of 2021 following a pledge from Minister for Education Norma Foley that the grade profile would be “no lower” than the previous year’s inflated results.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent