Alternative route to third level

What you need to know about alternative routes you can take to third-level

Many people thinking of FET hesitate for fear of missing out on the “college experience”. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Many people thinking of FET hesitate for fear of missing out on the “college experience”. Photograph: iStock/Getty


The traditional route is to get your Leaving Cert and go straight to third-level. It’s also the most prestigious - but is it really better, or does that prestige come from familiarity and snobbery?

We know that about a quarter of all students don’t neatly fit into the demands of the Leaving Cert. We know that, for many reasons, not all school-leavers should or can necessarily go straight to college - and, even if they can, it mightn’t be the right call for them. And we know that, these days, many mature students and lifelong learners have other options.

Earlier this year, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris announced plans to let students choose their CAO and further education options at the same time, saying that many families discount FET options due to a “snobbish attitude”; work is now underway to create a single application portal.

Andrew Brownlee, CEO of Solas, the further education and training (FET) agency, says that we need a culture change to ensure that everyone gets the education they need.

“[The new portal] will not close off further education, apprenticeship or traineeship options, because the application process for these is open all year around. We have 61 apprenticeships in operation - a number growing by the week - so there are lots of options.”

Over the past year, Solas has worked to ensure that learning continued through the pandemic.

“We have tried to keep the show on the road,” says Brownlee. “By and large, we have kept up the same activity levels as 2019 and before. Students have missed out on on-site learning, particularly classroom delivery and the social benefits of being on campus, but we’re now moving to a phase that, although the Covid-19 virus will be around for a long time, the vaccine rollout should mean that learners will get the ‘student experience’ that they’ve missed for the last 18 months. And the fact that PLCs and apprenticeships generally have smaller class sizes gives us added confidence that we will get back to normal.”

Many people thinking of FET hesitate for fear of missing out on the “college experience”. But graduates of the courses, as profiled on these pages, say that FET was a positive and happy experience for them.

“Any of the graduates who come through these courses say that the sense of community and the friendships they make are as strong as at any university or institute of technology,” says Brownlee. “Because a further education campus might have 1,000 or 2,000 students, compared with 10,000 or more, students get close to their peers.”

FET, says Brownlee, is for everyone, from all socio-economic backgrounds. “The days of a block of education starting when you are 17 or 18 are gone. Everyone will have to upskill and reskill throughout life, and they want the education that is most relevant when they need it.”