Are we sending too many young people to third level?

Too many students with low points are falling through the cracks of the system

Almost a quarter of students from Trinity College Dublin (above) and UCD are from fee-paying schools. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Almost a quarter of students from Trinity College Dublin (above) and UCD are from fee-paying schools. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


The fact that we send more students to third level than any other country in the EU is often seen as a badge of honour.

The proportion of school-leavers going on to higher education ballooned from about 10 per cent in the 1960s to well over 60 per cent nowadays.

Ireland now has the highest proportion of young people with third-level qualifications across the EU.

But a new study released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on the volume of of students failing to progress beyond their first year of college highlights a flipside to this achievement : are we now sending too many to higher education?

Overall, some 5,800 students – or 14 per cent of all new entrants to third level – did not move on to their second year of their course.

These are encouraging figures when set against higher education systems across Europe.

Despite a decade of falling investment by the State in the sector – with reduced staff-to-student ratios and depleted student support services – third level colleges have managed to reduce non-progression rates overall in recent years.

However, dig a little deeper and there are alarming numbers of students who have scored lower Leaving Cert points and are falling through the cracks in the system.

Higher certificate

For example, half of all students studying higher certificate courses in construction at institutes of technology failed to make it past their first year. These numbers reached as high as 80 per cent in some institutions. There is a similar pattern in engineering and computer science.

This is undermining the self-confidence of young people and has a huge cost to the individuals, their families and wider society.

These figures also raises questions about the adequacy of careers guidance and challenges us to reconsider the suitability of third level for a significant minority of school leavers.

Surely, many of these students would do better in other options such as apprenticeships or further education?

We all learn in different ways. We are not all suited to traditional academic approaches. Apprenticeships, for example, offer excellent “earn and learn” options with on-the-job experience, decent starting salaries and high chance of employment.

However, they still suffer – wrongly – from a status problem. Parents – and students – - remain obsessed with third level to the detriment of other options.

There is a big job of work ahead on the part of policy-makers, guidance counsellors and the media in promoting these alternative options, boosting their standing and encouraging more students to consider them.

Glaring inequities

These latest non-progression figures also highlight another stark side to the education system: how glaring inequities in society extend into academic performance.

Students from disadvantaged schools are almost twice as likely to fail to make it past their first year in college compared to those from fee-paying schools.

For all our talk of promoting access and equality, it is clear that students from more affluent backgrounds have a significant advantage over those from less-well-off homes.

There is also evidence of a class divide across many of our universities and institutes of technology. Almost a quarter of students from Trinity College Dublin and UCD are from fee-paying schools. The comparable figures for Athlone IT, Galway-Mayo IT and IT Tralee, for example, are below 1 per cent.

Geography is, of course, a factor given that most fee-paying schools are in south Dublin.

However, at IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght, between 4 and 8 per cent of students are from fee-paying schools.

Education, we know, has a unique capacity to break down cycles of disadvantage. If anything, our system seems to be replicating privilege.

The Government has spoken often about its aim of building a fair and compassionate society. The rhetoric of equality, however, can flow freely off the tongue.

While there are various strategies to improve the representation of working-class young people in higher education, they are modest by any measure. Much more ambition will be needed to tackle this class divide, backed up by proper funding and political will.