How to choose your further education course

Pathways range from PLCs and degrees to apprenticeships and traineeships

Choosing a college course is one decision – where to do it is a whole other question. But, with Covid-19 upending so much about further and higher education, it’s one that students should consider carefully.

Róisín O'Donohoe, public relations officer with the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, works at Belvedere College in Dublin. "Students should bear in mind that, as in any other year, there are a range of options open to them," she says, pointing towards post-Leaving Cert certificates (PLCs), ordinary and higher degrees ranging from level five to level eight on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). Many of these courses provide pathways directly into work and on to degree courses.

“Students need to consider that we don’t really know whether there will be a traditional Leaving Cert or predicted grades for the class of 2021,” says O’Donohoe. “We saw a variance in the CAO points this year because of calculated grades, leaving some students happy and others disappointed. We don’t know if the points will be higher than you might have hoped for so, this year, it’s a good idea to be extra conscious of the pathways that could lead to your course of choice.”

Ms O’Donohoe says that, whatever route a student chooses, there will always be opportunities to take a different course or career path. “The idea of going into college, getting a degree and coming out into a career that you stay in for the rest of life is old and outdated. These days, graduates often retrain, upskill and move careers.”


So, just how many further and higher education options do students have?

Post-Leaving Cert courses

These provide vocationally-based training to school-leavers and adults – meaning that the courses are largely, but not entirely, geared towards employment opportunities. Usually full-time, they run for one or two years.

The number of courses is wide and varied and they include horticulture, computer game programming, sports therapy, animal care, animation, childcare, beauty therapy, computer software, retail studies and much more. One big benefit is that, with so many colleges of further education in cities, towns and villages, students rarely have to travel too far to study.

Many provide routes into third-level or give students a taster of a college course including areas such as pre-nursing, pre-university arts and humanities or pre-university science.

Ms O’Donohoe says that she is increasingly seeing high-achieving students opt for PLCs. “It’s a chance to dip your toe in the water for a year and see if you really want to make a four-year commitment, but it’s also a good way to transition between school and college and to pick up some independent-learning skills.”

Figures show that about 20 per cent of PLC graduates go on to higher education.

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Apprenticeships, once largely confined to trades such as carpentry, motor mechanics and plumbing, have taken off over the past decade, with numbers rising from a low of 1,200 in the depths of the last recession to about 20,000 today.

Offering qualifications from level six through eight on the NFQ (and with postgraduate level nine and 10 apprenticeships being rolled out), these give students a chance to earn money while they learn on the job.

Alan McGrath, director of apprenticeships and work-based learning at Solas, the further education and training agency, says the range of apprenticeships is broad and varied and includes but is not limited to:

– Biopharma: lab analysts and lab technicians

– Construction: geodrilling, plastering, plumbing, carpentry and more

– Finance: accounting technician, insurance practitioner and more

– Hairdressing

– ICT: cybersecurity, software developer and more

– Auctioneering and property services

“Being an apprentice means you’re an employee, which has to be attractive in the context of high youth unemployment. And when you finish the course you’ll be coming out with significant workplace experience.”

Rates of pay vary from one employer to another.

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Heavily orientated towards skills shortages and labour needs, graduates of traineeships stand a good chance of securing employment.

"These courses can last from six to 20 months with about 30 per cent of learning taking place on the job," says McGrath. "The training and courses take place locally and there are facilities in communities across Ireland. And if a trainee enjoys their course and wants to study more, there are progression routes to levels six, seven and eight courses.

Pharmacy, legal studies, horticulture, storytelling and documentary-making and engineering technology are among the many options available.

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Level six/seven degrees

Once referred to as diplomas, these are “ordinary” (as opposed to “higher”) degrees. Primarily offered in institutes of technology and technological universities, they are usually three years in duration and can be a progression route to a level-eight course – often simply by adding on a year.

The CAO points requirement tends to be slightly lower, so they can be a good bet, and students are strongly advised not to ignore the level-six and seven sections of their CAO application form.

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Level eight degrees

These are the courses that will be most familiar to school-leavers, with level- eight-higher degrees offered in colleges, universities and institutes of technology. You will find plenty of coverage about them in today’s Irish Times open day coverage.

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Your college choice checklist

Whatever course you choose, and wherever you choose to do it, guidance counsellor Róisín O’Donohoe says these are the questions you should ask when doing your research:

– How will this course be assessed? How much is based on practical work versus the written exam and how much is project-based?

– What will I learn on the course and how is it taught?

– If I’m doing an apprenticeship, will there be practical assistance in finding a placement and a job? What is the established recruitment process and what are the established career paths out of the apprenticeship?

– Where do your graduates typically go?

– If I am doing a level-five course, are there links to level-six and seven courses? Do those level-six and seven courses have links to level-eights?