Tough decisions ahead over college options in coronavirus era

Prospective students have a lot to consider before deciding on third-level choice

Getting this year’s 60,000-plus Leaving Cert students through an assessment process, which will enable them to progress into the promised land of further and higher education, seems now to be but stage one of a still very uncertain process.

I am not calling into question in any way the capacity of our second-level teachers to accurately assess their final-year students, and for the Department of Education and Skills (DES) to turn these percentages into the grades required to apply for further educational and third-level places. What I am alluding to is the transformed nature of the options available to this year's college applicants.

Until we are declared totally free of the coronavirus, or until a vaccine becomes universally available, college life as we in Europe have known it since students gathered in Bologna in Italy in 1088 AD and in Paris "la Sorbonne" 1160 AD, will not return.

Europeans did not create the university model, the oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is in the Islamic world in the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco.


It is hard to get our minds around the fact that this rite of passage, leaving home, securing accommodation, grappling with self-directed learning, mastering a discipline, forming life-long friendships and intimate relationships, which will shape and mould who you become, is incompatible with a coronavirus world, in which the virus is still present.

Universities in Ireland and elsewhere are scrambling to put in place structures which can operate safely in the autumn. Large numbers of students in lecture theatres are absolutely out, even if social distancing measures are reduced to one metre. Thousands of students mixing freely around the campus are also out, as are the face-to-face reality of most clubs and societies.

The core of student’s university life, the lecture, will for the foreseeable future be delivered online, as will many of the tutorials which enable students to reflect upon and deepen their understanding of their new knowledge.

Where a physical presence is an integral requirement of a course in disciplines such as the physical sciences, medicine, paramedical programmes, nursing, engineering, architecture etc, students may end up attending college in rotation, in small groups or pods, to limit the transmission of infection and facilitate contact tracing where a virus case is identified.

Given this reality, it is inconceivable that many students will want to incur the costs of on campus accommodation, when physical attendance will only be required sporadically. Commuting to your college, or overnighting occasionally when required, may become the norm for most third-level students.

Whatever this new normal is, it is not the university experience that students have enjoyed for over a thousand years. It is more akin to the online models offered by organisations such as the Open University and MOOC's such as Alison, an Irish world leader in online learning.

If the agenda for those hoping to secure a place at a preferred university was simply to master a body of knowledge, then signing up for an online course would win every time. But as outlined above, the learning bit is but a small element of what drives most students to universities all over the world, and to move between them through Erasmus programmes during their studies.

So, where does that leave the 70,000-plus applicants who initially applied for a college place in the pre-coronavirus world of the dying days of 2019 as they reflect on the choices facing them as the finalise their choices in June 2020?

They can still proceed with their initial plan to secure a place on their preferred CAO course in their preferred college, as originally indicated in their initial course choice list.

Due to the uncertainty over what the coming 2020 academic year will bring, many applicants may alternatively decide to defer attending college next year, out of a desire for a return to a more pre-coronavirus experience.

If this happens, competition for places this year will diminish, and the CAO points required may plummet, resulting in applicants securing places on programmes they would not normally aspire too.

Furthermore, in that scenario, the applicants who hold back in 2020, will when they apply for their desired course once the crisis is over, hugely inflate the numbers seeking to secure places, driving CAO points requirements through the roof in that year.


Applicants may attempt to have it both ways, securing a place in 2020, but seeking a deferment from the college until 2021.

Colleges traditionally offer deferments to all applicants, but this won’t happen in 2020 if numbers seeking deferments escalate. The totality of Irish third-level colleges want and can accommodate approximately 46,000 new first years each year. Ending up with 36,000 first-year students in 2020, and 56,000 in 2021 cannot be accommodated.

Colleges are not of course entirely in control of this process. They may choose to restrict the number of deferred places offered, but applicants can simply walk away from their offer in September and apply anew to the CAO in 2021 instead.

Many students who have a specific area of knowledge or study in mind, but who would benefit hugely from a preparatory pre-university year, both in terms of their knowledge of their subject matter, and their level of maturity and capacity to engage successfully in self-directed learning, may decide to consider a one-year QQI level 5 or two year level 6 award, offered in their local or regional Further Education colleges.

Following completion of their programme they can proceed to third-level study with a far lower possibility of college drop-out, according to data published by the Higher Education Authority, than those who proceed directly to college from school.

Many aspiring students may alternatively opt for an online course, over the more traditional university, which is scrambling to move their programmes online, on the basis that the quality of course delivery is proven and that the programmes were designed for online delivery from inception.

The methodology of delivery, support, and assessments, are of the highest quality, as providers such as Open University or Alison have been in the business of delivering learning through this model for many years.

Another option for aspiring college applicants would be to focus your third-level course choices on institutions which have a pre-coronavirus culture of delivering a significant proportion of their content online.

The National Institute for Digital Learning in DCU is a world leader at the forefront of designing, implementing and researching new blended, online and digital models of education.

“DCU Connect”, their online platform, offers a series of humanity and IT programmes originally designed for online delivery. All Irish third-level colleges have elements of online programmes, but not to date as part of the delivery of their core functions.

Alternatively, many of the European universities, teaching programmes through English, which growing numbers of Irish students have been attending in the past six-eight years, have for many years built online delivery into their programmes. Details on

Overshadowing all of this uncertainty is the reality that jobs to raise money for college will be very hard to secure this year. Furthermore, if aspiring students decide to put off attending college in 2020, in the hope of finding a job for the year, the opportunities to secure employment in the present environment may be very poor.

Having come through the past three stressful months, the aspiring first year undergraduates of 2020, now have a few short weeks to consider all of the options outlined above before they finalise their course choices in the weeks ahead.

Whatever choices they now make, prior to their CAO course choice deadline on July 1st, they can reconsider their options in August/September when the choices become real. Hopefully, by then we will be far clearer as to what life will be like for all of us in the autumn.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times