Higher or further education - where to next?

Today’s students have never had so many options to choose from

For any parents reading this article, their choices after school were relatively limited: it was generally either college or, as a fallback, going on to a post Leaving Cert or FÁS course. Apprenticeship options were quite narrow.

Today’s students, however, have never had so many options. At third-level, they can go to university, to a technological university (or an institute of technology) or to a smaller public or fee-paying college.

Further education options, meanwhile, have come on in leaps and bounds. The collapse of FÁS – which disintegrated after financial scandals destroyed what was left of its reputation – may have been the best thing to ever happen to further education and training. This is because the new agency that emerged from its ashes, Solas, has completely overhauled the post-Leaving Cert, apprenticeship and traineeship students.

Most importantly, perhaps, this is the first year that students can apply to third-level and further education courses through the same entry portal (CAO. ie">CAO.ie), so we've put together a short guide on the different options for today's school-leavers.


University, technological university, institute of technology and college

These will be the most familiar options for students, and they all provide a third-level qualification, but it helps for students to know how they differ.

University: Widely seen as the pinnacle of learning, universities tend to have a higher CAO points requirement. They run level eight (honours degree), level nine (postgraduate) and level 10 (doctorate) degrees, and their academics are focused on creating knowledge through research. Universities also have a broader mission than just getting jobs for their graduates: they're also about preparing well-educated citizens who can participate in society.

Technological university: The newest addition to Ireland's varied higher and further education landscapes, Ireland's five new TUs – TU Dublin, Munster Technological University (MTU), Atlantic Technological University (ATU), Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest (TUS) and the South East Technological University (SETU) – formed from an amalgamation of various institutes of technology.

Their mission, compared to universities, is quite distinct. In particular, they have very close links with industry, and are heavily focused on work-based learning and preparing graduates for the world of work. But universities have, in recent years, been deepening their links with industry, slightly blurring the distinctions between the two types of university.

TUs offer a wider range of courses than traditional universities, with level six and level seven (ordinary degree) options sitting alongside apprenticeship and levels eight through 10. TUs also have a focus on people who want to upskill and reskill.

Institute of technology: There are now just two IoTs left in Ireland – Dundalk IT and the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) in Dún Laoghaire. Dundalk IT's mission is very similar to that of the TUs, whereas IADT is focused preparing graduates for careers in the creative arts.

Colleges: This refers both to higher education institutions with a particular focus, such as the various teacher training colleges, the National College of Ireland (NCI) which has a business focus, Carlow College which offers specific and focused progarmmes and the fee-paying, independent colleges including Dublin Business School and Griffith College.

Post-Leaving Cert courses

PLCs, which take place in colleges of further education throughout the country, have many benefits for many different types of learners.

"We're seeing growing numbers take a one-year PLC course as a bridge between school and college, and a way of finding out more about a course or subject before committing to a four-year college degree," says Maria Walshe, director of branding, communications and FET strategy implementation at Solas.

“There’s solid evidence that students who spend a year on a PLC course are much more prepared when they go on to third-level, because they have developed research, presentation, writing and reference skills, and they often go on to do better than their peers in exams and assessments. It’s a good time to develop your confidence and take stock of what you really want.”

"PLCs, which are vocationally oriented with jobs in mind, also prepare their graduates for employment: if you want to go into animal care, or work in the beauty industry, or go into design, computers, journalism or indeed many other areas, they can often be the best way to go, and some PLC colleges are widely regarded as the best place to study certain subjects, whether that's film, art or music at Ballyfermot College or Kerry College of Further Education's wind turbine engineering courses," says Walshe.

“PLCs can run for one or two years and many of them have links to third-level courses. This means that someone who didn’t secure the points they wanted for college can, if they achieve certain results (usually a certain number of merits and/or distinctions), access college through a PLC course.”

A pilot study carried out by The Irish Times earlier this year showed that, in one CFE alone – Dunboyne College of Further Education – over 90 per cent of eligible students who applied to the CAO received an offer for a level seven or eight course."


The old model of going to college isn’t for everyone, and apprenticeships have been designed with this in mind. Apprentices still engage in education – perhaps by attending a college campus at a technological university or a training centre for a day a week or a block of class time – with the rest of the learning taking place on the job.

“A big draw for apprentices is that they are paid to learn, whereas there are more upfront costs such as college fees and books with a more traditional college course,” says Walshe.

“A slew of new apprenticeships have been developed over the last decade. The highly valued craft apprenticeships in areas like electrical, engineering, motor mechanics and construction, are a great option for many practical-focused minds who are keen to start earning money and now there are newer options too, including accounting, auctioneering, ICT, food and hospitality, insurance, logistics, recruitment and sales. There are now 64 different types of apprenticeship available across 14 different industries.

"Apprenticeships are based around on-the-job learning, so apprentices do need to secure work, but big changes have been made in recent years to help make this easier, and you'll find a list of available jobs on Apprenticeship.ie."


“Traineeships are courses that vary in duration between six and 20 months, with a minimum of 30 per cent on-the-job learning,” says Maria Walshe of Solas.

“They’re specifically aimed at someone who needs a particular qualification for a particular job, and that person could be a school-leaver or someone who is looking to make a career move. Trainees can progress from some programmes onto a level six or level seven NFQ programme.

“The courses are delivered online, in-person or through a blended model, and because so many of them are geared towards training people for jobs in their locality and community, it means you don’t have to move away from home to advance your career.

“Traineeships cover a wide range of areas and industries including animal science, business, construction, fashion and beauty, finance, hospitality, transport, media, retail, sports and leisure and more.”

For more information, see FetchCourses.ie which currently lists over 110 traineeships.