Booming economy means more options for graduates

Why would a graduate consider starting a postgraduate programme when employment prospects are looking so good?

The challenge to third level institutions in making the case for postgraduate studies has become progressively more difficult as the economy improved in recent  years.

The challenge to third level institutions in making the case for postgraduate studies has become progressively more difficult as the economy improved in recent years.


Graduates in Ireland considering their career options are doing so in an economy which saw a 1.5 per cent or 35,300 increase to 2,410,100 in the labour force in 2018.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February 2019 was 5.6 per cent, down from the revised rate of 5.7 per cent in January 2019 and down from 5.8 per cent in February 2018. The seasonally adjusted number of persons unemployed was 135,100 in February 2019, down from 136,800 when compared to the January 2019 figure and a decrease of 1,600 when compared to February 2018.

The youth unemployment rate in Ireland has dropped to 13.8 per cent in February 2019, a fall of 0.1 on January 2018.


For Irish graduates the looming cloud of Brexit uncertainty is still casting a shadow over the ongoing positive picture of employment opportunities but hopefully, the UK government has run out of road to kick the can down. Whatever the final shape of the withdrawal agreement, there are still years of negotiations ahead to agree the nature of the EU-UK economic relationship. Graduates securing employment in the ever-growing multinational sector may not have too many concerns relating to these negotiations, but those seeking or gaining employment in companies operating in our domestic economic sector, which has traditionally traded heavily with the UK, will spend the next few years in a continuous state of uncertainty. The contrast in security of employment, and salaries on offer between the rapidly diverging fortunes of these two sectors of the Irish economy will be of major significance in the career planning of graduates.

Do postgraduate levels of education increase employability?

Why would a graduate consider starting a postgraduate programme when employment prospects are looking so good in general? International and local research shows that higher levels of education increase employability as well as salary. This trend is most evident in degree programmes which impart a specific skill set, where high CAO points, or equivalent qualification, are an entry requirement.

Conversely, many graduates from programmes where CAO points requirements are modest, find themselves competing in employment markets which in the recent past were the exclusive preserve of school leavers. Some of these students who secure modest academic outcomes, which preclude their advancement to postgraduate studies, or who drop out prior to the completion of their initial course choice, do not experience any income premium over and above school leavers.

Do graduates always receive a postgraduate premium?

The belief that moving up the education ladder always improves your employability and salary prospects is based on what is known as the “graduate premium”.

The “premium” is often referred to as the “return on investment” in higher education.

As the EU and Irish economies strengthen and employment opportunities for undergraduates increase, the challenge for colleges to make the case that continuing onto post graduate level will lead directly to an improvement in their employability and salary over a lifetime is becoming more difficult.

Why are graduates turning away from teacher training?

When graduates who met the entry requirement for post primary teaching explored their postgraduate options back in 2012-13, they decided that despite the year of post graduate training required, the costs involved, the income forgone, and the poor employment prospects for their undergraduate qualification in the labour market, that applying to qualify as a registered teacher made sense in terms of a return on their investment in higher education.

There were three applicants for every available teacher training place, allowing colleges to select the most suitable candidates to train as teachers, and guaranteeing a supply of qualified teachers across the entire curriculum.

In 2019-20, current graduates of the same disciplines are facing a dramatically transformed range of choices. The economy has recovered enormously in the intervening six years, and their undergraduate degree, while still qualifying them to apply for teacher training, will also in many cases secure them a €30,000 plus initial salary in employment within the wider Irish/EU economy.

The qualification needed to become a recognised second level teacher has now doubled in length to two years with fees of €15,000 on average for the “Post Graduate Master’s in Education” (PME).

Current undergraduates considering this scenario, have decided in most cases that foregoing their existing salary, paying fees of €15,000, and funding accommodation/living costs over that two-year period, makes no financial sense and offers no postgraduate premium - even if considered over lifetime’s earnings.

Application numbers in the current years for the PME are at a level where there are fewer than one application for every two places available, and this does not even take account of the suitability of those applicants for a career in teaching. The absence of a postgraduate premium through teacher training is leading to major teacher supply gaps across a wide range of Stem and language disciplines.

New challengers

The challenge to third level institutions in making the case for postgraduate studies has become progressively more difficult in the past few years. The percentage of undergraduates remaining on to pursue postgrad studies has fallen to under 30 per cent from a high of 40 which was the case immediately after the economic collapse of 2008/9.

The advent of online learning programmes specifically targeted at undergraduates has also created challenges to providers of traditional postgraduate programmes. These “micro credentials” or “Nano-degrees” are offered online by MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) providers such as Irish online education platform Alison. com, Udacity and EdX (a collaboration between MIT, Harvard and other leading universities).

The completion rates of programmes offered indicate that most users who successfully complete programmes already hold undergraduate degrees and rather than spend additional years studying at postgraduate level choose instead to take these micro courses, which allow them to take online exams at a lower cost.

Are graduate students continuing to postgraduate studies?

The trend of increasing enrolments to the higher education system continued in 2017/18, with 231,710 full-time, part-time and remote students enrolled in HEA funded institutions in 2017/18. This represented an increase of 2.7 per cent on the previous year.

There are just over 10,000 students engaged in full-time and part-time postgraduate research in HEA-funded institutions, with 80 per cent of these students enrolled full time.

At 38 per cent, the greatest increase in graduates in 2017 was in Information & Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Natural Sciences, Mathematics & Statistics compared to 2012.

Employment rates for all graduates were up in 2017, the latest figures available from the HEA, with increases observed in both employment in Ireland and employment overseas. As expected, higher qualifications are associated with higher employment rates and often higher earning potential.

Consistent with previous years, graduates in the Education field tend to fare best in terms of labour market outcomes. Many of these graduates emerge from Initial Teacher Education programmes and a large proportion are employed in Ireland. However, despite some improvements, such graduates find it difficult to secure permanent positions.

Labour market outcomes for ICT graduates also continue to be favourable, with higher rates of employment and higher average salaries than most other graduates, nine months after graduation. ICT graduates also have the highest proportion of Honours bachelor’s degree graduates and are amongst the highest proportion of Masters’ and Doctorate graduates, employed in Ireland.

Lower rates of employment and lower earning potential are evident in the Arts and Humanities and Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics fields for level 8 graduates, but employment prospects improving considerably for graduates in these fields who obtain level 9 and 10 qualifications.

Are postgraduate studies still worth it in the long term?

As exemplified by the turn away from the PME, graduates are highly sensitive to any changes in the benefits of pursuing postgraduate studies in specific sectors. However, from the results of the most recent analysis of graduate outcomes, notwithstanding the rapidly changing environment in which our third level institutions operate, it is clear that postgraduate studies remain very popular, and provides those that commit further years of study to it, with increased employment and salary prospects.