School leavers will be able to start more than a dozen degree courses outside the CAO points race from next year in areas such as nursing, computer science, engineering and business.
The move is part of a drive to create alternative pathways to third level without the need to secure high points. It also aims to forge closer links between further education colleges and universities and reduce student dropout rates.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris is due to outline 13 new courses that will begin from September 2023 where a student will commence their degree in a further education college before transitioning to a university.
The courses will cover culinary arts, music technology, sustainability, performing arts, computer science, finance, future media production for visual and virtual media platforms, industrial laboratory science, sustainable engineering technologies, business logistics and supply chain management, general nursing, and computing business.
A second batch of courses is due to commence in September 2024.
The structure for these degree courses will start out in a further education college before transitioning to a higher education location.
The courses will be assigned to certain regional Education and Training Boards (ETBs) and universities. For example, the nursing programme will be rolled out in Galway Roscommon ETB, Mayo Sligo Leitrim ETB and Donegal ETB in partnership with Atlantic Technological University.
Each course will be specific to one region. For example, the nursing course will be in the west/northwest, while future media production is a partnership between City of Dublin ETB and IADT (Institute of Art, Design and Technology) in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.
The pathway to accessing these courses will be determined in 2023. However, it is expected to mirror the existing application process for further education and training which tends to require the completion of the Leaving Cert or Leaving Cert Applied rather than CAO points.
Mr Harris is also expected to confirm the establishment of a “unified tertiary office” in the Higher Education Authority to help create closer links between further education colleges and higher education.
A director post for the office is due to be advertised on Friday and two regional co-ordinators will be appointed in every region to drive this work.
In all, €2 million has been set aside for the initiative, according to a spokeswoman for Mr Harris.
While some further education or Post-Leaving Cert 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.
Nursing courses at further education level, in particular, have until now had very limited options to transfer to a university course.
The plans are also understood to involve 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.
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.
Tuesday’s announcement represents his department’s response to this and it is expected to will provide more details on plans to provide a “unified” system.