Where reputation is everything

Many private colleges offer identical qualifications to public third-level institutions. Just do your research before taking the plunge

Private education colleges – especially those offering English-language course – have come in for a hammering recently. Images of hundreds of devastated English-language students whose colleges had disappeared from under them – along with a sizeable whack of their cash – were beamed into living rooms night after night earlier this year. You couldn’t blame some people for wondering who in the private education sector can be trusted.

Well first off, an assurance. The private higher education colleges are not at risk of similar problems according to Donal Quill, chairperson of the Higher Education Colleges Association (HECA), an association of private providers of quality higher level education. However, he says that when considering a private college, first and foremost, the reputation of the college should be taken into account.

“Ask the question: has the college been around for a long time?” he says. “Are the courses accredited by the QQI [Quality Qualifications Ireland] or another good accrediting body?”

Quality assurance

Accreditation is something we talk about in relation to education, but what does it actually mean for courses in private colleges, or any college for that matter?

Colette Harrison of the QQI explains, "Colleges are not obliged to look for accreditation from the QQI or any other body. Anybody can open a college and start offering courses." Accreditation, therefore, is the quality assurance measure that says a particular course meets particular standards.

“Courses that are QQI-accredited are worth the same, whether they are offered by private or public colleges,” Harrison explains. “A course at level eight on the National Framework of Qualification, is worth the same no matter what college offers it or how it is presented.”

QQI accreditation also comes with certain assurances, which is good news for anyone worried about the idea of paying money upfront and seeing it disappear in the event that a college or course gets into financial or other difficulties.

“Essentially, course providers must have adequate protection for learners,” Harrison says.

“If a provider or a particular course runs into trouble, existing students have to be sorted out with an equivalent course. HECA members provide cover for one another in that respect.”

The accreditation issue is one which all students, whether they intend attending a public or a private college, should be aware of, according to Harrison.

“Everyone should be asking themselves who is accrediting their course, who is the awarding body and what the course leads to, regardless of what college they are considering,” she says.

“All colleges market their courses in what they believe to be the best light. An arts degree is an arts degree no matter how it is packaged. Students need to ask what they will have in their hand at the end of the course.”

Quill, who is also financial director at Dublin Business School (DBS), stresses the importance of looking at the whole college and the supports and college activities that are on offer – as you would with any institution.

“In DBS we have more than 30 years of experience dealing with first-year students straight out of school and we know the kind of supports that are needed for students making the transition into college,” he says.

Students can apply to courses in private colleges through the CAO and many do. Others may not have considered the private college option until CAO offers time. Often, students who may not have got the course they want find there is an equivalent course in a private college and, depending on availability, it is sometimes possible to apply for a place through the CAO’s vacant places facility.

Essentially, the way the vacant places system works is that if there are still places available on a course after offers have been made and waiting lists exhausted, they are made available to any applicant who meets the minimum requirements of the course. If you want to apply for a vacant place, you must log in to the CAO website and follow the procedures there.

The process is similar to the change of mind procedure but you are not allowed to re-order your original courses. You are just adding vacant places courses to your list. Needless to say, and this is something the CAO always cautions, you should put your choices down in order of preference.

Naturally, fees are the huge distinguishing factor between public and private colleges. Students at private colleges are faced with fees of €5,000 to €6,000 per year for a full-time undergraduate degree.

These attract tax relief of 20 per cent up to a maximum amount of €7,000 and after the initial payment of €2,750 (the amount of the student registration fee in the coming academic year).

But let’s return to the most important point: ensuring that you are choosing a reputable and reliable course. Harrison recommends making sure that the course you are looking at has appropriate access, transfer and progression opportunities. This all links in to the accreditation and the qualifications framework again.

For example, if you go away to college in Griffith College Dublin, but something happens that requires you to move back home, you want to make sure that you have the opportunity to transfer into an equivalent course closer to your home. You also want to know you will be able to further and progress your study if you wish to do so.

“It all comes down to choosing a reputable college whose qualifications are on the National Qualifications Framework,” says Quill. “Research is essential.”

Student profile: Daniel Geraghty (19) from Waterford. Studying business studies in DBS

“Business studies in DCU was what I was hoping for after the Leaving Cert last year. It had been 420 points the previous year and I got 435 so I should have been okay. As it turned out, the points jumped by 20 points to 440 and I didn’t get an offer of a place.

“I thought I’d have to repeat. I considered taking an offer of financial maths in UL but I did a bit of research on it and it wasn’t really what I wanted. It was too maths focused and I really wanted a business rather than a maths focus to my degree.

“It was my Dad who asked me whether I’d consider looking at the CAO’s vacant places to see if there was anything that suited. I didn’t really know much about vacant places if I’m honest, but I went on the site and I saw that there were places on the business studies course in DBS.

“I had a look at the website and read a bit about the course. There were all sorts of areas of business you could specialise in and it looked great so I applied. It just meant putting it down on my CAO list and after that, I got an offer of a place. This was straight after the first-round offers. It was great. It meant I was off to college rather than having to spend another year hanging around Waterford. I was really delighted.

“To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect of DBS. I mean as a private college you don’t know as much about it as you would about another college. The college itself is small and friendly. The classes are great. I’m in with 30 people rather than 100 and it means that it’s easier to get to know the lecturers and your class. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the course is. It’s actually really good and the lecturers are excellent. They take care of you.

“I got student accommodation out in Santry, which was perfect. Living away from home is class. Dublin has a lot of student life. There are societies and things in DBS but I guess not as many as you’d have in a bigger college.

“I’m very happy with my choice. I’d highly recommend anyone check out vacant places before deciding to repeat. I’m happy I did.”

Student profile: Julie-Anne Glennon (36), studying computer science in Griffith College

“I worked in the UK and Ireland for a number of years but I found my career had stalled somewhat. I was working for the Make a Wish Foundation but I was struggling to see a way to progress my career or to move forward.

“In the end, I decided I needed to go back to college. I did a lot of research and found that computer science would be something that would sustain me.

“There are so many opportunities in the sector at the moment, I thought that it would be a good route to take.

“Cue lots of research, and Griffith College came up time and time again, especially in relation to computer science. I wasn’t coming to it completely fresh. I had done some website development for Make a Wish and I had become the person that people would ask for advice when they wanted to do something. I guess I developed an interest that way.

“It was immensely scary to go back to college after so long out of education. I have to admit it took me a good few weeks to get my head around the reality of being a student. You’re so used to working, coming home and switching off, it takes ages to get used to studying all day, coming home and studying again.

“The idea of doing maths was daunting, but I found that once I got into it, everything I had learned in school came rushing back.

“For me, the decision to choose a private college had as much to do with the quality of the course and the facilities as anything else.

“As a mature student I was going to be paying fees anyway. It’s a huge financial commitment but hopefully it will pay off.

“The fact that the college is small is an advantage. There are only about 8,000 students which means the campus is easy to get around and the lecturers are easy to talk to.

“I have one year done and another three to go. It’s an enormous commitment but it’s very well worth it.

“ I’ve gone from last year when I was in a situation with no prospects and wondering what I was going to do with myself, to this year where I’m overwhelmed by the opportunities that I’ll have. It was definitely the right decision.”

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