Hundreds of additional college places in high-demand courses such as nursing, medicine, law, veterinary science and engineering are likely to be provided this year to help ease pressure on third-level applicants.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris is understood to be preparing a plan due to go to Cabinet next week which would see universities boost the capacity of many high-demand courses by about 5 per cent.
Among the other courses being examined for expansion are post-primary teaching and dentistry.
One higher-education source confirmed that their college has been asked to increase numbers in some of its key oversubscribed programmes.
“We’ve been asked to increase the numbers we take in. Some courses have strict caps on numbers, but we’re looking at our capacity and there is room to increase our numbers,” the source stated.
Officials believe there may be extra demand at home for courses this year due to fewer students travelling to study abroad because of the Covid-19 threat.
In addition, extra course places may ease pressure on CAO points for high-demand areas of study when thousands of students receive their calculated grades on September 7th.
Officials are understood to have so far identified “several hundred” additional college places which should be available in the new academic year, while colleges are continuing to examine the potential for further expansion.
One obstacle is a cap on numbers in some programmes such as medicine and veterinary science, based on the number of clinical placements that can be provided in a given year.
However, the Department of Further and Higher Education is understood to be in discussion with the Departments of Health and Agriculture over the potential to ease these caps.
Another issue is the lack of physical space in colleges for additional students due to social-distancing requirements. Some programmes, such as dentistry, are also limited by the number of dental chairs and related equipment.
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.
Meanwhile, Department of Education officials are continuing to “refine” the system of calculated grades in light of controversy over the system in the UK.
Sources say a greater emphasis is being placed on school-issued percentage marks given to students rather than an algorithm which was linked to the large-scale downgrading of students’ results in the UK.