Cabinet to hear plans for 1,000 new college places

Third-level capacity to be increased in response to Covid-19 pandemic

The number of college places is to increase by more than a thousand this year with a particular focus on high-demand areas such as health and education.

Under plans to be brought before Cabinet on Tuesday by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris, each third-level institution will receive a quota of additional places. This quota will be based on their most recent intake of undergraduates.

The initiative is a response to the expected higher demand for college places this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials expect many students who had planned to study abroad will now apply for places in Ireland.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is also expected to cause many young people to go on to third-level education instead of going straight into the workplace.

It is understood the capacity of many high-demand courses will see an increase of about 5 per cent.

Third-level institutions have already been instructed to find room for increased capacity in their oversubscribed courses.

Limiting factors

Post-primary teaching and dentistry are expected to see an increase in capacity, along with veterinary and other medical courses.

However the amount of expansion which can take place in many of these courses is limited by factors such as training facilities in third-level institutions and the number of clinical placements for doctors, nurses and vets available for graduates every year.

Another challenge will be accommodating extra students while still abiding by the strict social distancing rules which are expected to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Officials said they are being careful to avoid “unbalancing” the third-level system by attracting more students into degree courses at the expense of further education and other sectors.

High-growth areas

Mr Harris’s plan for 1,000 new college places is in addition to the already-announced 1,415 new places being introduced under the Human Capital Initiative (HCI). The HCI aims to create more college graduates in identified high-growth areas of the economy where there is a dearth of skilled labour.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet meeting will also hear plans from Minister for Education Norma Foley on how Ireland will avoid repeating the mistakes made in the UK in assigning calculated grades to Leaving Cert students.

It is understood Irish officials have refined the calculated grades system in light of controversy in the UK where disadvantaged students were found to have been disproportionately downgraded compared to students in better-off areas.

The changes here include assigning a much greater weight to estimated marks for individual students and assigning marks in the form of percentages rather than grade bands, which officials say will allow for greater accuracy.