‘Obsession’ with third level means further education bypassed

Incoming Solas chief hopes to include vocational ‘taster’ courses in secondary schools

Andrew Brownlee, the new chief executive of Solas, the further education and training agency, wants to include vocational ‘taster’ courses in secondary schools. Photograph: iStock

Andrew Brownlee, the new chief executive of Solas, the further education and training agency, wants to include vocational ‘taster’ courses in secondary schools. Photograph: iStock

 

The obsession with university education in Ireland means many school leavers are bypassing more suitable vocational routes, according to the new chief of the State body for further education and training.

Andrew Brownlee, who takes over as chief executive of Solas on Monday, said higher education has played a massive and positive role in the transformation of the country.

However, he said he is concerned there are in sufficient vocational pathways and options for students at second level.

“We have a cultural issue in Ireland where there’s an almost obsession with people going into higher education. And I think there is an opportunity now to see if we have that balance right,” said Mr Brownlee.

About 60 per cent of school leavers here progress to higher education each year, one of the highest proportions in the European Union, while comparatively few enter further education and training.

However, Mr Brownlee – formerly a senior official in the Higher Education Authority – said further education offered a valuable route into employment or into higher education without having to make a four-year commitment.

Sometimes a one year post-Leaving Cert course or 18-month traineeship can help in deciding what the best option is

“We need to start getting that message across. I do think it’s the right option for a much more significant group of school leavers than are choosing that at present,” he said.

Outcomes for further-education courses were excellent, he said, with 90 per cent of graduates either in employment or in others forms of education.

“A 17- or 18-year-old doesn’t always know what the right option is. Sometimes a one year post-Leaving Cert course or 18-month traineeship can help in deciding what the best option is.

“Maybe it’s higher education or something else – but they don’t have to make that four-year commitment. I think we have a real offering which we can make more of in the next few years.”

He said Solas is exploring the idea of offering “taster” courses for further education and training courses during secondary school.

There was a similar model in Scotland, he said, where such modules formed part of the equivalent of the Leaving Cert.

Another area Mr Brownlee wants Solas to explore is whether further education options could be included in the Central Applications Office course preference process. They could gives students much greater visibility of college courses and further-education options when deciding on career options.

Overall, Mr Brownlee said more work was needed to make the links between further-education courses and higher education clearer. At present, about one-in-five students going into institutes of technology have come from the further-education sector. While many further-education courses offer routes into certain third-level courses, this isn’t always clear or consistent, he said.

Reform agenda

Mr Brownlee signalled that wider reforms will be needed to “unleash the full potential” of the sector over the coming years. He said there were more than two dozen types of programmes on offer which could be simplified.

One criticism levelled at further-education colleges is that they mirror the secondary school year and close for the summer. Mr Brownlee said Solas will examine ways to ensure they are open for longer and meet the need for more up-skilling and “bite-sized” courses.

“We’re going to look at how we develop a more flexible, year-round approach and how to use technology to deliver year-round courses . . . and find ways to ensure our facilities are open throughout the year and can service needs at different points in time.”

He said Solas will work closely with trade unions who, he said, were “very important stakeholders”.

“They are committed to the future of further education and technology as well and they recognise the need to develop and chance. Teachers and instructors are critical stakeholders in moving this forward.”