College choice can seem confusing, but it’s relatively straightforward compared with the mountain of options in the adult- and further-education sector, which encompass a diverse range of learning opportunities for over-16s.
This is a sector where courses about local history are taken purely out of interest, where adults take classes to improve their literacy and numeracy skills, where mature students go to college, where 17-year-olds sit with 42-year-olds on Post-Leaving Cert courses taken with an eye to employment.
Diversity is the sector’s real strength: further and higher education caters for everybody. Still, figuring it out can be particularly challenging for those outside the secondary-school system, who don’t have the benefit of a career-guidance teacher on hand to help them make the transition.
Until recently there has never really been a central information point around courses and opportunities. Last month, however, fetchcourses.ie was launched. This long overdue online information hub, with more than 4,000 further-education and training courses, was developed by Solas and Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI).
I decided to scout around the website to see if Fetchcourses really stood up to its claims. I started with a vague desire to do some kind of course (I didn’t specify which) around engineering, manufacturing and construction, and was given 343 options. I narrowed this down again to evening-only courses: 104 options.
Community education courses in Galway, Dublin North and Roscommon? All there, laid out clearly and comprehensively. How about hairdressing in Kerry? No bother: four choices.
I thought to test the system by looking for a part-time dance course provided by the local ETB in urban Cavan. Zero results. So that was too specific, but when I looked up dance courses nationally I got seven results.
As well as lists of courses, the site contains useful, clear and concise information about the types of full-time course, including Post-Leaving Cert study, the vocational training opportunities scheme (VTOS), Youthreach, bridging and foundation courses, community training centres (CTCs) and more.
There is also a trove of detail about part-time programmes, including adult literacy, English classes for speakers of other languages, community education, and evening and blended-learning courses.
Fetchcourses also provides information about grants and supports, along with sources of further information.
Overall, it is a simple site to navigate, with a sleeker, uncomplicated and visually more appealing design than that of the other major online course portal, Qualifax.ie. One improvement that could be made is the addition of a search bar that would allow users to fill in the course type (adult literacy, PLC, community education and so on), but it doesn't really hit the site's functionality.
"Through the ETB network, further education and training in the form of PLCs, traineeships, adult or community education or Specific Skills Training courses, is embedded in every community right across Ireland," says ETBI secretary general Michael Moriarty.
“Yet, to date, the huge opportunities offered through further education and training have remained one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets. Fetchcoures is a very significant step to communicating the rich diversity of options we offer to learners.”
How to fund it
Money is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a major barrier to accessing adult and further education, but support is available.
Many of the available grants are heavily focused on jobseekers moving into education or training. In most instances, evening courses, particularly those that aren’t geared towards a qualification, have to be paid for; the fees are usually relatively small but could still be a struggle on a tight budget.
For those in pursuit of work, Springboard has been one of the most successful and important initiatives. This offers more than 180 free, part-time and intensive courses in areas where there are skills shortages, including construction, ICT and international financial services. Completion leads to higher certificates and degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Eligible participants can hang on to their social-welfare income payments. See springboard.ie for more details.
Momentum also offers course opportunities to those who have been out of work for at least a year. They focus on areas of skills shortage, including construction, tourism and transport. See momentum.ie for details and eligibility requirements.
The back-to-education allowance and the back-to-education initiative are the most familiar supports. Unemployed people can return to education and maintain existing social protection payments, and it's open to others in receipt of certain allowances as well. Check at your local Intreo office for eligibility details, or online at welfare.ie.
Childcare is another huge obstacle to accessing adult and further education, particularly for women. Some community education centres, such as Longford Women's Link and An Cosan in Tallaght, have invaluable on-site creches. Subsidised childcare places may be available on some courses, including those offered through the back-to-education initiative
There are also a number of supports, including allowances and grants, for adults with learning, intellectual or physical disabilities who wish to return to education. People who are disabled and wish to become self-employed, for instance, could transfer to the back-to-work enterprise allowance. Again, check at your local Intreo office for details.
Finally, mature learners – that's anyone over 23 – who want to return to full-time college might be eligible for the Susi student grant. For some reason that nobody can adequately support or stand over, part-time learners are not eligible for any financial assistance; it's been this way for years and it affects women most of all, because they're more likely to be tied down by caring commitments and therefore unable to enter full-time courses. To check if you're eligible see susi.ie
Don't forget: If you're doing a course for credit in Ireland, check that it is QQI accredited. It is a useful quality mark and means your course has been vetted by experts. Employers will also place more value on it.
Adult education: Courses explained
Plunging into a third-level degree, particularly for the quarter of students who don’t fit into Ireland’s narrow Leaving Cert system, isn’t always wise. Return-to-learning courses provide a basic grounding in college life and academia and can lead to full- or part- time degree courses. Third-level access offices will provide more information.
Adult literacy and numeracy: Take the First Step is a new campaign aimed at helping adults to improve their reading, writing, maths and computer skills. A survey by the Central Statistics Office for the OECD Adult Skills survey found that nearly 18 per cent of Irish adults have the lowest literacy skills; they may be unable to read a basic text. A quarter of us may be below level one in numeracy, meaning we can't do basic maths calculations. This is intergenerational: parents who have literacy difficulties might struggle to support their children with their reading and writing, meaning these kids often fall behind. The National Adult Literacy Agency runs excellent courses to help adults, and more than 50,000 adults are on literacy courses nationwide. There is also a distance-education service for those who can't attend classes. If you, a friend or a family member struggles with literacy, call the support line on 1800-202065.
Apprenticeships: Rising numbers of students are being funnelled into college, but it's really not the right fit for everyone, and more vocational courses can actually lead to better salaries and employment opportunities. In Switzerland, for instance, 70 per cent of 15- to 19 year-olds go on to apprenticeships. In Ireland the type of apprenticeships on offer is growing, with options in cheffing, medical devices, accounting and software development, to name but a few. Some IT apprenticeships offer a quicker route to the same career than a college course; see solas.ie.
Community education: This takes place outside the formal education sector and is, as the name suggests, a chance to provide learning opportunities in local community settings. The new fetchcourses.ie website is a particularly useful source of information.
Distance and online learning: This is an excellent option for those who want or need to learn from home. DCU and DIT have expanded their course offerings, while established providers such as the Open University and Kilroy's College also offer accredited courses.
Interest and evening courses: All around Ireland people attend courses in their local community. Some are offered through university adult-education centres; many other take place in community schools. Subjects are as diverse as flower arranging, literature, archaeology, art, computers, physics, maths, film and, of course, languages. They are hugely popular, offer a great social outlet, and prove the value of learning for learning's sake.
Open learning: This is a very interesting initiative from UCD Access and Lifelong Learning. It allows students to take a module in one of the university's courses alongside mainstream students; they can pay €325 per module without an exam or €500 for a credit. These students get full access to library, tuition, tutorials and an IT account.
Post-leaving cert courses: By far the most popular option in the adult and further ed sector, these are vocationally oriented training courses that take place in colleges of further education. Quality has improved, and for some jobs, especially those in major areas such as computers or more niche areas such as animation, employers place as much – if not more – value on PLC graduates. More details from your local ETB or fetchcourses.ie.
Workplace learning: Education never ends in today's workplace. We constantly need to keep up with developments in our profession, or reskill if we want to switch to a different role. Good employers should offer support (including financial assistance and time off) to workers who want to learn more; ETBs offer a number of initiatives. More details from your local ETB or fetchcourses.ie.