It’s CAO season and tens of thousands of school-leavers are choosing their higher education courses.
Chances are that most will never stop to think about apprenticeships, traineeships or post-Leaving Cert courses as options.
That’s partly because they don’t feature in the CAO system, which is operated by universities and institutes of technology.
For many students – and parents – securing a higher education course is the only measure of success.
Further education is still seen in the eyes of many as a “second best” choice for school-leavers who don’t get enough points to make it to college.
Some engineering and computing courses in institutes of technology have recorded drop-out rates in excess of 80 per cent
But there is mounting evidence to show that this snobbery at the heart our education system isn’t meeting the needs of students – or, indeed, the economy as a whole.
Latest data from the Higher Education Authority shows a significant minority of school-leavers are dropping out of their courses.
Young men with low CAO points are a particular risk, especially those in demanding courses such as computing and engineering.
For example, some engineering and computing courses in institutes of technology have recorded drop-out rates in excess of 80 per cent.
At the same time, the latest research shows Irish workers are among the most overqualified in Europe for the jobs in which they are working.
This raises questions about the adequacy of career guidance and students’ prior knowledge of these courses.
But it also raises major questions about the fractured, two-tier nature of our education and training system for school-leavers.
Our education system is going to face major challenges over the coming years, such as demographic bulges, changing skills requirements and technological disruption
Further education, potentially, offers many solutions to these problems by providing a more hands-on learning environment which gives students a choice to go into workforce sooner or pursue further study.
However, the ad hoc links between further and higher education, combined with a sense among students that choosing a course is a once in a lifetime decision, means it is bypassed all too often.
A draft Department of Education consultation paper on a “tertiary education system for Ireland” – to be published soon – seeks to address many of these concerns.
It acknowledges criticism that too many learners are being encouraged into higher rather than further or vocational education and that many graduates end up in low-skilled jobs or are overqualified for the work they do.
It also notes that, internationally, there is a growing recognition that university credentials may be “over-emphasised in comparison to other post-secondary options”.
The draft consultation paper notes that our education system is going to face major challenges over the coming years, such as demographic bulges, changing skills requirements and technological disruption.
If we are to meet them head on, it says, we will need a much more cohesive system where further and higher education are more closely aligned.
So, how do we achieve this?
One option under consideration, according to the draft paper, is boosting the visibility of the further education sector with a new enhanced CAO system.
This could manage students’ applications for all types of courses ranging from apprenticeships to degree courses.
Both sectors will have to work together if future education and training needs are to be met
Another is ensuring both sectors are much more closely aligned, so a student could start a course in a further education college and progress seamlessly to a higher education institute.
It also acknowledges that trying to achieve this would involve tackling some considerable barriers.
Industrial relations reform is just one of them. For example, staff terms and conditions vary widely across the different sectors.
Both sectors are also overseen by different bodies – Solas and the Higher Education Authority – which will need to be addressed.
Any major changes, it seems likely, will not happen soon – though time may not be something the education system has on its side.
According to the OECD, three major trends look set to change the nature of work: globalisation, technological change and demographics.
Without a fit-for-purpose education and training system, these trends could make it much harder to upskill workers and meet skills gaps.
There is no doubt that our education system has been very successful until now for our society and economy.
Given the demands of growing student numbers and lifelong learning needs, both sectors will have to work together if future education and training needs are to be met.