We need to get rid of the the "snobby" obsession with university as the only pathway for school-leavers, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has said.
A broad conversation is required on how we move young adults from secondary school to their desired career pathway, he said.
"I think we should drop the snobby attitude in this country . . . that everyone should be funnelled straight from secondary school into university. It's not on and not right. We're behind the curve in relation to things like apprenticeships," Mr Harris told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education.
New apprenticeships offer degree and even master’s level qualifications in areas with acute skills shortages, Mr Harris said.
However, many families continued to believe that they were “for other people”, he said.
He said he was particularly struck by a recent opinion article in The Irish Times by Trinity College Dublin provost Dr Patrick Prendergast, who wrote that university was not for everyone.
"I met a CEO of a bank in Germany a few years back who came through the bank as an apprentice . . . it's about a diversity of pathways," he said. "There are so many routes to getting where you want to get to nowadays."
Mr Harris said a new apprenticeship scheme – where businesses are paid to take on apprentices – has been successful, with over 800 taken on so far.
“There is so much more we need to do in this area. A college degree is no longer a pathway to secure employment,” he said.
“We must all continue to upskill and learn and ensure we are upskilling in the areas of potential and future employment.”
Mr Harris also confirmed that 424 students whose Leaving Cert results were upgraded due to errors have received new CAO offers.
These students represent about 7 per cent of the 6,100 Leaving Cert students whose results were upgraded on foot of coding errors discovered in the past fortnight.
He paid tribute to higher education institutions and education authorities for their “can-do” attitude in ensuring all these students could take up these new college offers in the current academic year.
In relation to almost 8,000 students who received higher grades in error, he said there was a long-standing practice that students were not downgraded for mistakes that were outside their control.
In response to questions from Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire on whether these inflated grades may have squeezed some students out of their chosen courses, Mr Harris said this would involve reopening the entire CAO process, which would not meet with public support.
Separately, Mr Harris said he wants to “settle the question” of a sustainable funding model for the higher education sector next year.
There are still dinosaurs there, they come in all ages, shapes and sizes, they need to be called out
An economic analysis of funding options is being conducted by the European Commission and is due to be published next year.
“My own personal view is that we should be trying to move, in terms of ambition, towards where undergraduate courses are an extension of the education system we have at primary and secondary – and then look at how we financially support them beyond that,” he said.
Mr Harris also highlighted his concern at the “shocking” level of sexual violence being encountered by students at third level.
“There are still dinosaurs there, they come in all ages, shapes and sizes, they need to be called out and we need a zero-tolerance approach.”
Overall, he said the new department which he heads up has a huge opportunity to shine a light on issues that have not got the attention they deserved.
While the economic aspect of the department was central to future-proofing the economy, he said the social inclusion element was also crucial.
He said it was not right that the only option for school-leavers with Down syndrome in many cases was a HSE daycare place or that 16 per cent of the adult population lack basic reading skills.