Students who first complete further education courses are significantly more likely to graduate from third-level degree courses, new research suggests.
Solas, the umbrella body for the further education sector, says the latest data shows that up to 75 per cent of students with a foundation in a Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course who move on to higher education complete their degree.
By contrast, only 50 per cent of students who enter higher education directly with 300 CAO points complete their degree.
Andrew Brownlee, chief executive of Solas, said the figures showed the strength of the further education sector, which is becoming an important route for entry into higher education.
About a quarter of first-year students in institutes of technology or Technological University Dublin are graduates from Post-Leaving Cert courses.
Mr Brownlee was speaking at a seminar organised by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals on the “FET (Further Education and Training) college of the future”.
Solas has produced a draft strategy on FET sector to be published soon which will set out how it plans to evolve the sector over the next five years.
Mr Brownlee said learner feedback has been generally positive, employment and progression outcomes are strong, and employers are highly satisfied with the quality of FET graduates.
However, he said the sector has to change to ensure that it can meets the future needs of the economy and society.
This, he said, will include simplifying its structures and learning pathways, facilitating easier access and building a more powerful identity within communities and potential learners.
The aim, he said, is to ensure a greater share of school-leavers choose further education or an apprenticeship as their first destination, and will have the option of transferring seamlessly to higher education.
"We want to send out the message that FET is for everyone. It is available in every community in Ireland, and offers every individual, regardless of any previous level of education, a pathway to take them as far as they want to go," he said.
Dr Rory O'Sullivan, principal of Killester College of Further Education, said the sector has been a huge success story despite being underfunded.
He called for a new system of funding the sector which is less bureaucratic and wasteful, and which ensured students were better supported when they needed it.
One idea which could boost access, he said, was to give students the option to undertake a two-year PLC course and complete two additional years at higher education.
Dr Anne Looney, executive dean of DCU's institute of education, said this could be a "game changer" for boosting access to high points courses such as primary teaching.
William Beausang, assistant secretary at the Department of Education and head of the tertiary division, said FET will have a key role to play in meeting skills needs of the country, especially in areas such as lifelong learning and upskilling.
He also said the education system after second level was too “tiered” and that it was important to ensure the further and higher education systems are more closely integrated.