New university places lead to sharp fall in uptake of PLC courses

Proposal for extra third level funding and fee cuts to be considered by Cabinet

The creation of thousands of new university places has led to a sharp fall in the number of school-leavers attending more hands-on courses in the further education and training sector, Government officials have warned.

The further education and training sector is crucial in helping to fill urgent skills gaps such as retrofitting thousands of homes to meet climate-change targets.

However, internal records show the creation of more than 5,000 new higher education places in the past two years led to a drop of about 30 per cent in the number of school-leavers opting for post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses.

These additional places were created in response to Leaving Cert grade inflation and record numbers of applications for higher education places.

Briefing material prepared by officials at the Department of Further and Higher Education shows this has affected its aims of ensuring a “balanced” third-level education system.

“The number of starters on PLC courses as reported by Solas declined by 8 per cent in 2020 and a further 23 per cent in 2021, although the latter figure is still provisional. Continuing to increase places in higher education is likely to pull further students from the further education sector,” records state.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris is expected to bring proposals to Cabinet shortly to further increase the number of places in higher education.

Internal records warn that the impact of creating these places needs to be considered against the backdrop of its impact on the further education and training sector.

It says more targeted CAO places will be needed to ensure better alignment with skills needs, sustainable growth and a "more appropriate" balance across the further education and higher education sectors.

Prompt debate

In response, a spokeswoman for Mr Harris said additional places this year will be “targeted at areas of significant demand but also where there are skills shortages. These areas include construction, health, climate and social care.”

The falling number of school-leavers opting for PLC courses is likely to prompt a debate over whether too many students are going to higher education.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet will also discuss a policy paper brought by Mr Harris which will propose hundreds of millions of euro in additional funding for the sector each year.

The policy paper will also propose that the Government should reduce the cost of attending third level for students.

The paper is understood to be the Government’s response to the question of funding third-level education into the future.

It will rule out two of the options to meet the sector’s additional funding needs suggested in a 2016 report by trade unionist Peter Cassells – an increase in student fees and a levy on employers.

This leaves direct exchequer funding as the only source for additional funding needs – understood to be identified as about €300 million annually in an accompanying report also likely to published this week.

Sources said that the amount of additional funding the sector would receive would be part of budgetary discussions with the Department Public Expenditure, though it was unlikely that the €300 million would be made available in one year. Instead, it is hoped that the funding gap would be closed over a period of years.

However, it is envisaged that the amount spend by the State per student will rise significantly over the coming years.

X-REF TO EDUCATION PAGE: ‘Is it time to cap the number of places in higher education?

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