University not the be-all and end-all

Is accepting a college place through the CAO today always the best option?

It is worth taking time to think about your post-school options as there are a myriad of routes into quality employment, not all through the CAO.

Considering your local PLC college as your first choice?

Many Leaving Cert students and parents see the option of studying for a level 5/6 award in a post leaving cert (PLC) college, under the auspices of the local Education and Training Board (ETB) as being an indication of failure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

PLC programmes offer many young people, and those not so young for that matter, a set of skills which will secure them entry to quality employment in a wide range of industries, travel, hairdressing, beauty, to name but a few.


Students who need to develop a quality portfolio of work to support an application to courses in areas such as Arts, Design, Architecture, and so on, invariably do so through a local PLC portfolio preparation programme.

PLC programmes, taught in colleges where class sizes are never more than 30 plus, where teaching staff know every student, but where students have total freedom to come and go as they wish, are perfect environments for many students who find the transition from the totally cosseted world of the second-level school, to the world of total freedom in third level, hard to navigate. That is why up to 20 per cent of students on many CAO programmes drop out each year.

Many students who may feel the prospect of third-level college daunting today, will after a year consolidating their skills in a particular subject area at PLC level, go on in a year’s time to blossom in University or in an IT.

All PLC colleges have associations with third-level institutions so that the smooth transition of students from one to the other can take place at the end of the one- or two-year programme.

All further education (FE) colleges are still taking enrolments and students can go on to any college website to apply online. Classes start in early to mid-September, so there is plenty of time to find a course. Some colleges hold open days over the coming week, so check out your local colleges’ websites. Assessment and certification for FE courses are based on both work during the year and exams at the end.

What subjects are offered at PLC colleges?

In the south Dublin region, Blackrock (BFEI) offer a two-year level 6 advanced certificate in business. On successful completion, students gain advanced entry to the second year of the level 7 bachelor of business in enterprise at the nearby Institute of Art Design and Technology (IADT), Dún Laoghaire. There are similar arrangements for its certificate in web design and digital media course.

Also at BFEI is a one-year level 5 applied psychology course which has progression option to level 8 courses in applied psychology at IADT, Dún Laoghaire and the Waterford Institute of Technology. Graduates also have the option to progress to the second year of a three-year honours BA counselling and psychology at the University of Wales.

As with many FE colleges, BFEI offers a one-year level 5 courses in computer science, graphic design and interior design course. Graduates can apply through CAO for degree courses in UCD, IADT, DIT, IT Tallaght and ITB, Blanchardstown.

BFEI are one of the FE colleges offering the new accounting technician practicum course in conjunction with Accounting Technician Ireland. This is an alternative to a full-time programme whereby you can earn while you learn. Trainees will work in an accounting firm four days a week and attend lectures at BFEI one day a week over two years.

In the City of Dublin Education Training Board (CDETB) area, Rathmines College has a long tradition in business, marketing, accounting, media, office administration and computer programming. It also runs a liberal arts access course where students can move to arts in UCD and Maynooth University. Courses are at level 5 and 6, with the latter giving direct advanced entry to second year of degree programmes in various colleges.

One interesting point to bear in mind is that someone wishing to get an accounting qualification doesn’t have to do a business degree first. A primary degree is not a prerequisite for entry to professional accounting. Rathmines students can take an ACCA diploma in accounting and business with three higher level H5’s plus two O6’s grades at ordinary level in the Leaving Cert.

After completing this programme and a research project, student get a BSc in accounting from Oxford Brooks University in the UK. Rathmines also has employment orientated programmes in medical and legal administration, retail and security studies or Logistics and Distribution with almost guaranteed employment. The fees in Rathmines College are €460, or €210 with a medical card.

Similar programmes are offered by FE colleges in every county in the country. For details of your local FE colleges and the courses they offer go to and to see links from those courses to CAO programmes where reserved places are allocated to students transitioning from FE to HE.


Apprenticeships are the new kid on the block when it comes to educational opportunities for young people. Over the past year an insurance apprenticeship programme has been in operation through IT Sligo, in which students spend four days working in a firm and one day studying online at IT Sligo. There are also a series of apprenticeships in the polymer processing and medical devices industries.

Over the past year, 120 accounting technicians with major firms have been engaged in what is in fact an apprenticeship programme, but has not yet got formal sign off, so it was operated under the strange sounding name of a "practicum". It is now hoped that it will be able to operate as a fully recognised apprenticeship in the coming year. The programme has been in operation in a link-up between the industry body, Accounting Technicians of Ireland, and several education and training boards, in Dublin city and county, Cork, Cavan, Monaghan and Wicklow. Participants have spent four days a week in the workplace and one day a week in a college, such as Coláiste Íde, Finglas, Blackrock FE Institute, Rathmines College of FE, Bray Institute of FE, Monaghan Institute and Cork College of Commerce.

In Dublin's IFSC, apprentices will in the coming academic year have the opportunity to work in an international financial services company for two years, and study at the same time, with annual salaries of €23,000 and €32,000. The IFSC is offering two programmes, one called IFC Associate Level Apprenticeship, a Level 6, higher certificate, aimed at school-leavers or those who have completed a Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) business course. There are 30 places and apprentices will be paid €23,000 a year.

The IFS Specialist Level Apprenticeship is aimed at graduates of all disciplines. It leads to a higher diploma in financial services analytics, a Level 8 (honours degree) qualification, with a starting salary of €32,000. There are 50 places on this programme. The National College of Ireland in the IFSC is the co-ordinator and will manage recruitment. Interested candidates should apply by expressing their interest on

Meanwhile, two new apprenticeships in information and communications technology (ICT) are planned, with about 250 places nationwide. Both will be for two years and will lead to a Level 6 award. One is the ICT Associate Professional Network Engineer Apprenticeship, which will have modules in areas such as network operating systems, networking technologies and internet server management. The other is the ICT Associate Professional Software Developer Apprenticeship, which will cover topics such as systems analysis and design, software applications testing, web development and website software, and software design fundamentals.

Fastrack to Information Technology (FIT), an industry-led initiative, is the coordinator and will manage recruitment. Interested candidates should apply by expressing their interest on the FIT website at Salaries are not finalised.

Since the demise of the Fáilte Ireland courses in the early noughties, there has been an increasing shortage of qualified staff in the area of food and beverages. To address this crisis, the Irish Hotels' Federation and the Restaurants' Association are offering a two-year commis chef apprenticeship leading to a Level 6 qualification, with 112 apprentices nationally to be recruited on its first intake. Early October is the planned starting date and recruitment will be through local employers advertising their positions. Kerry ETB is the co-ordinating provider, and there will be five partners: Cork ETB, Galway-Roscommon ETB, Limerick and Clare ETB, City of Dublin ETB and Cavan Monaghan ETB.

Private colleges

The private education sector has a wide range of courses still available, either through vacant places on the CAO or by direct application to the college. Fees are about €5,000-€6,000 and tax relief of €400 can be claimed.

Given the high points requirement for Law degrees in many Dublin region universities, many average-to-good students consider degrees in private colleges such as Griffith and DBS. In Griffith College, the Law programme involves students in clinical practice through the college's Innocent Project which reviews cases where miscarriages of justice may have occurred. In the recent past, students were responsible for having the murder conviction on Harry Gleeson, who was executed in the 1940s, overturned.

Griffith also offers a film degree covering direction, production and editing of film and TV, and a four-year computer science degree with a six-month work placement, which has virtually a full employment record.

Dublin Business School (DBS) has a range of other level 8 degrees which may be attractive to those looking for alternative routes into disciplines such as BSc in computing, BA in psychology, and a BA in business accounting and finance.

Study through English in Europe

Although the application deadlines have passed for many continental European degrees , they are still open for a wide range of courses for entry this September, particularly in the Netherlands. A wide selection of these programmes is on, together with application deadlines and fees.

Studying in continental Europe is a fantastic opportunity, but I would hesitate if I was yet to celebrate my 18th birthday. European universities are relatively easy to get into because of the lower birth rates EU countries have experiences in the past 40 years.

But successfully completing first year can be a real challenge, as very high standards are demanded, in what are some of the top-ranking universities in the world. So, constant and intensive commitment to the programme is essential if you want to make it into second year, and on to graduation. All degrees secured in EU universities are automatically recognised by the regulatory bodies in Ireland under EU law.

Fees in many continental EU countries are low to nonexistent and students can have access to low interest loan schemes once they establish their residency.

Repeat Leaving Cert

Repeating is very much a last option for many of this year's Leaving Certs. The numbers doing so in publicly funded schools have dropped by over 50 per cent in recent years. If you believe that you will substantially improve your performance in a second shot at the exams, you can do so in the public-school system, for example at the CDETB in Rathmines, Plunket, Pearse and Ringsend colleges. There are also private providers such as the Institute of Education in Dublin, Bruce College in Cork, the Tutorial in Limerick and Yeats College in Galway.

If you are considering repeating, unless you had a specific reason why you missed a significant amount of time in school over the past year or so, there needs to be a major change in your approach to all aspects of study and exam preparation if you are going to improve on your result from this year. As the saying goes, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.

Take a year out

Not everybody is ready to go directly to college after the Leaving Cert, particularly if they are under 18. If so, do not go off to college course just to be with your friends or to feel part of the group.

There are many creative ways to spend a year, including volunteering at home or abroad, while you figure out what you really want to study in college. Step back and reflect at leisure.

It’s far better than charging in and dropping out after a few months. With the economy improving, you will have little difficulty securing a job, which will enable you to put aside some savings to fund you through college next year, when you have figured out what you really want to study.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

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