The Cinderella sector

 

THE thousands of school leavers opting for further education in the form of Post Leaving Certificate courses may soon be awarded the national certificate - formerly the preserve of the higher education sector only.

This is proposed in a discussion document from Teastas, the national certification body.

It has caused consternation in the RTCs, which feel that allowing PLC students to study for national certificates may devalue their own existing qualifications, as well as those of people who have graduated already. And it turns on its head the Department of Education's own directive of August 1995, which ordered PLC colleges to phase out certificate, diploma and degree level courses from the current academic year.

"One possible definition is that higher education is identified with qualifications requiring a minimum of three years' academic study following completion of the school Leaving Certificate," the discussion document says. "Further education and training relates to all learning outside the formal second level school system, ranging from basic foundation to National certificate level (or its equivalent)."

More than 17,000 students were enrolled on PLC courses last year. Most PLC courses - run in VEC colleges and in some second level schools - are of one year's duration. The majority of students study for the National Council for Vocational Awards (NCVA) level 2 certificates. However, a number of the larger PLC colleges have developed courses which are of two three or four years duration, which are certified by British colleges and institutes.

The future of these longer courses, many of which are not available in traditional third level institutions, was uncertain following the issuing of the Department of Education directive, which made a clear distinction between further and higher education. But Teastas would seem to have redrawn that boundary line once again.

On this basis, the further education and training sector would cover awards at basic foundation and levels one, two and three. The higher education sector would relate to awards at levels four and five, even though this sector spans levels two, three, four and five.

Sean McDonagh, head of the Council of Directors of RTCs, is quite concerned about these proposals.

"RTCs have been in existence in higher education since 1970. We have a concern not only for our present and future students but also for our former students. Many tens of thousands of our past students are in senior positions in major Irish companies and their qualifications attract a very high regard," he says.

McDonagh points out that the national certificate is part of a larger structure, providing a route to national diploma and degree.

The national certificate has been a higher education award since 1972, he says. "It would be strange in any higher education course to look at the first two years and view them differently. It is part of a higher education structure and cannot be viewed in isolation."

McDonagh notes that the placing of the national certificate within the further education sector is only a proposal by an interim body and says that it will not happen.

The Department of Education's circular, which was issued in August 1995 and, again, in August 1996, stated that VPT2/PLC courses offering certification at certificate, national diploma and degree levels should be phased out. There should be no new intake on to such courses with effect from 1996/97, but commitments to existing students should be honoured to enable them to complete the programme.

"Where such phasing out is impossible for schools for 1996/97, due to commitments already entered into, a new intake, for 1996/97 only, for existing courses will be allowed as an exceptional matter," the circular stated.

While the circular caused an outcry in the larger Post Leaving Certificate colleges, which had developed their courses to these levels, it does not seem to have been put into operation nor does it appear to have been policed.

Jerome Morrissey, principal of Ballyfermot Senior College, Dublin, which offers nine BTEC higher national diplomas (which equate to the national certificate) and a vocational degree, awarded by Thames Valley University in London, gave a cautious welcome to the Teastas proposals, describing it as a "slight step forward". His concerns extend beyond national certificate level to the maintenance of the degree programme, which, he says, is unique in the Republic.

Gerard O'Dwyer, principal of the College of Commerce in Cork which has offered a four year Marketing Institute of Ireland programme for the past five years, seeks to retain all four years of this graduate programme.

"The NCVA is not certifying and has not commenced negotiations with the Marketing Institute regarding certification for any year of the marketing programme... The Marketing Institute programme lasts for a specific four year duration and it would be most unusual and unprofessional for a college to offer only half of the course. . . Failure to offer the third and fourth year of the marketing programmes would create uncertainty and the hard earned and excellent reputation of the college would be under scrutiny from principals, guidance counsellors, students, parents and employers," he says.

The college also offers a three year Montessori diploma. "Refusal to offer three or four year courses would create absolute uncertainty regarding PLC courses, especially since further education colleges have not yet been defined," adds O'Dwyer. The length of a course should not be a criterion for a further education course.

"It is unsound and undesirable to impose a rigid policy on PLC course design. The success of this college to date is rooted in the autonomy it has had over the past 12 years to provide and develop programmes to meet the needs of an ever changing employment market."

"Very often such decisions at central level as set out in the Department of Education circular do not serve local needs," says O'Dwyer.

THE Teastas discussion document was presented at a colloquium organised by Teastas on September 25th. Teastas, itself, was launched in September 1995 on an interim basis - among other functions, it is the authority with full responsibility for development, implementation, regulation and supervision of certification of all non university third level education and all further and continuation education and training programmes.

Chris Connolly, chief executive officer of Teastas, says that the "the intention is to put an intensive work programme into place until the end of the year with a view to developing the basis of legislation as quickly as possible. Teastas will, obviously, be in contact with all of the interests involved. Our job is to advise the Minister."

Jerome Morrissey would like to see some issues addressed this year: "I want to see that further education gets official recognition and a further education authority bill be passed; that maintenance grants be provided for the PLC sector - it is a mainstream vocational education and training area and as such should not be the sole area discriminated against.

"We, in west Dublin, still marvel at the perception that a few meetings between a chamber of commerce and local TDs in provincial towns in the west and midlands is sufficient to secure the provision of a new RTC outcentre or institute. Little research seems to be needed as to where the students will come from to such centres. As Dublin students will not travel outside their own area for further education (and why should they) their local needs should receive some priority."