How might Covid-19 affect students’ third-level choices?

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation but how will course choice be impacted?

The arrival of Covid-19 on Irish shores triggered a sea-change in how education was delivered here but over one year on, we asked how it has impacted student choices as they look to decide what courses to apply for through the CAO.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation, says Mark Rogers, registrar at UCD. "Looking at the CAO first preference trends, students are very interested in subjects that have an interface between different disciplines: For example: Sustainability (DN240) offers modules in social sciences such as public policy and law as well as in engineering and science such as energy, climate change and environmental biology. Another area for the future is Computational Social Science (which can be selected via DN700) and [has] modules including programming and politics."

For years, the digital divide – which describes the gap between those with access to communications and internet technology and those without – has limited access to services for many. While some inroads may have been made to bridge this gap, the increased reliance on digital technology means demand is likely to continue to grow. This, in turn, is likely to lead to the creation of more roles in the area.

“The world will be different post-pandemic,” says guidance counsellor Donnchadh O’Mahony. “For instance, e-tailing (electronic or online retailing) has taken off and will be a particularly big part of life for the class of 2021. E-commerce and digital marketing are careers for the future, while psychology graduates with maths would be very valuable for their ability to problem-solve and to look at human behaviour.”


Huge impact

Covid-19 has doubtless had a huge impact on society and while an end to the pandemic may be in sight, the economic impact is likely to last for some time yet.

According to the ESRI, the sectors worst affected by the pandemic were wholesale and retail trade, accommodation and food services along with construction and industry. The hope, of course, is that any downturn will be temporary and the economy should be recovered by the time this year’s third-level entrants complete their courses.

As the world has watched the race to find a vaccine for Covid, it should not come as much of a surprise that interest has also grown in biotech and related areas. The pharmaceutical industry is one to watch.

"The race to bring out vaccines for Covid-19 reminded me of the space race between Russia and the US," says O'Mahony. "Billions are being spent on research, and that's not going to change. Pharma firms based in Ireland don't just want pharmaceutical or science graduates; they'll also want people to run their finance operations or to work on digital marketing."

Another area of interest is sustainability. With a new climate bill committing Ireland to reduce carbon emissions by 51 per cent by 2030, and eventually for Ireland to be carbon neutral by 2050, there are massive opportunities in the green economy. “These opportunities will be in the public and private sectors,” O’Mahony predicts.

Careers related to sustainability can be found in urban planning, landscape architecture, geology, environmental consultancy, environmental science, air quality and more.

Data science

Data science has been also been a major growth area in recent years. “These courses have sprung up in the last few years, as higher education institutions work with their industry partners to see what is relevant.”

Indeed, O’Mahony advises students to check out the new courses section of the CAO website. “This will give you an idea of what kind of graduates industry needs and where the new areas of jobs growth might be.”

With so much focus on business and science, students who are more interested in art and humanities might feel a bit left behind.

“The humanities – meaning the subjects in a traditional Arts degree such as English, history, languages, film studies – will always be popular and valuable to students who want to expand their minds and their expertise in the subject areas,” says Rogers. “Arts and humanities have a very important role in wider public life and graduates are to be found in influential and leadership positions throughout society. The teaching of humanities subjects at university level provides a wealth of invaluable transferable skills, including research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, creativity, and communication.”

O’Mahony adds that the entertainment industry is growing as a result of the proliferation of streaming platforms, creating opportunities for writers, creators and producers. One major success story for Ireland is its animation industry, with a number of studios – most notably Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny – making a big international splash.