Simon Harris: ‘Our country is obsessed with CAO points’

Minister says we have allowed a culture to develop where university is seen as only gateway to career success

The scale of Ireland’s success in third-level education over the past 50 years has been transformational for this country. From a country where half of the population did not finish second level in the 1970s, we are now leaders in the European Union for third-level qualifications. Successive governments, leaders and change makers had the foresight to champion access to education and today we are seeing the rewards of that vision.

However, in spite of that educational success, another reality exists which cannot be ignored or dismissed. I see this in my visits to schools and colleges around the country meeting students and staff and hear it in my engagement with business leaders across the country. Somewhere along the way, we have created an unhealthy and disproportionate pressure on our young people to excel in written State exams.

At school and societal level, there is an over-emphasis on the Leaving Certificate. Our country is obsessed with CAO points. This has meant our young people are forced to focus about the points they need, rather than the career they desire. We have allowed a culture to develop where all too often university is perceived to be the only gateway to personal and career success. That pressure cooker for young people is evidently placing the wellbeing of our young people at risk but it is also leading to significant skills shortages in key areas of our economy and society.

There is also often an equally narrow narrative that third-level education is for school leavers only; that our tertiary education system is to be accessed once in a person’s lifetime. This is clearly not the case. It simply cannot be. In the Ireland of 2022, the world of education is changing. And so are the needs of learners and employers. The time is now to respond to these changes. We are undergoing an age of transformation and we need to use this moment to make progress.


Last May I published a policy platform: Progressing A Unified Tertiary System for Learning, Skills and Knowledge – a new vision to create a third-level system that places the learner at the heart of all we do.

For the past six months, we have been on the expertise and experiences of people in the field to extend and deepen this policy approach. And today, we are publishing our Department’s response - as a cornerstone of a substantial agenda for change. There is significant consensus that we need to create a system where a learner is in a single system which responds to their individual talents, ambitions, and motivations.

In real terms, that will mean the nurse doing a PLC (post-Leaving Cert) course not having to move to the UK to access higher education and employment

—  Simon Harris

Whether it is a three-year degree, or a three-week short course, every step has to counted and recognised. We are not starting from scratch. There are examples of good collaboration across the system but most are built on personal relationships, rather than embedded foundations. Our first step is to create a single hub of information for third-level access, where entry requirements and transition opportunities are understood and not hidden away.

It means accessible information on how to access and navigate the system for current and future learners and it means access to guidance and support along the way. Last week, my department held the first meeting of a new working group designed to make this happen. This will be led by my department but will include our quality regulator, QQI, our higher education and further education partners. It is essential if we are to end the view that there is only one pathway available to you to reach your ambition and goal in life.

This new policy will also mean diverse education and training opportunities for all learners and researchers, with clear and extensive pathways. It will mean movement between further and higher education seamlessly.

In real terms, that will mean the nurse doing a PLC (post-Leaving Cert) course not having to move to the UK to access higher education and employment or the student studying bio-pharma in further education having a direct route to employment. It will mean joint further and higher education courses where the time is split between both. It will mean apprenticeships becoming the heart of the technological university agenda and more masters and phD apprenticeship programmes. It will mean bringing our research sector closer to both our further and higher education sectors.

Because the truth is we have to act now. We are facing serious skills shortages. There is a global war on talent and Ireland will be left behind if we don’t act now. We also know education is the greatest tool to tackling disadvantage. A truly open and inclusive education system can transform the lives of those who need it most. It is our shared ambition to co-create a more unified system that is highly participatory, open minded, wide-ranging and responsive. One that is flexible and agile enough to respond to the needs of the economy but importantly recognises the challenges learners face.

We have secured funding under Budget 2023 to start this process. Today, we will be announcing joint further and higher education programmes. Ireland’s success to date in expanding access to tertiary education provides an opportune moment to relook at our post-secondary system. We have now agreed what needs to change in the system if it is to continue to serve our social and economic needs in a rapidly changing world. Only by working together towards a common objective can we effect real change. Acting now will ensure a better future for our young people, for our economy and society.

Simon Harris is Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science