More than 70 per cent of students do not get beyond their first year of college in some higher education courses, new figures show.
The scale of these drop-out rates comes as some senior academics question whether many students who are unsuited to higher education are being shoehorned into college.
The Irish Times has obtained figures from third-level institutions which show individual progression rates for courses between 2015 and 2016.
Overall, about one in six, or just over 6,000, students did not progress to second year. Computer science, construction and business courses recorded some of the highest levels of non-progression.
In general, university courses have the lowest drop-out rates (between 10 and 12 per cent), while they are about twice that in institutes of technology.
The highest rates of non-progression are concentrated among higher certificate (level six) and ordinary degree (level seven) courses at institutes of technology, which typically require relatively low points in the Leaving Cert.
Many of these courses – such as software and computer games development – also have a maths-intensive curriculum.
Courses with non-progression rates of more than 70 per cent include computing with software development at IT Tralee; computing and games development at IT Sligo; industrial physics at DIT; and computer forensics and security at Waterford IT.
Non-progression rates in computer science courses are of particular concern to policy-makers, given a severe skills shortage in the information and computer technology (ICT) sector.
More chances for disadvantaged students
Overall, drop-out rates in Ireland have remained relatively steady in recent years, despite the rapid expansion of the higher education system. Irish figures are broadly comparable to many other European countries.
Research indicates that students’ prior academic attainment is one of the strongest factors behind high drop-out rates. Others include choosing the wrong course, financial difficulties and health or medical issues.
Ireland has one of highest proportions of young people in Europe going into higher education, with almost 60 per cent of all school-leavers attending universities or institutes of technology.
By contrast, there has been a dramatic fall in those doing apprenticeships or training.
Senior academics, at an Oireachtas committee last month, expressed concern that students who are totally unsuited to higher education are being shoehorned into universities by their parents due to a "snob value".
However, Dr Jim Murray, director of academic affairs at the Technological Higher Education Association – the umbrella body for institutes of technology – rejects this. He said the growth in the number going to institutes of technology has played an important role in more disadvantaged students accessing higher education.
“I wouldn’t like to say to anyone that you shouldn’t go to higher education. In the institute of technology sector, less than 50 per cent of our intake is from the Leaving Cert class of that year.
“Many are mature students or come from further education or access routes [ie people with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds].”