Reaching the top by the private route


For a long time, the private option was seen as a less challenging or academically rigorous version of third-level, but hard work and innovative thinking has changed that view, and now colleges like Dublin Business School, Griffith College and IBAT are considered at the forefront of student-focused and industry-specific learning.

EVERY YEAR it seems the clamouring for college places gets louder. Public universities and institutes of education don’t have infinite space, but for many, a third-level qualification is an absolute essential in today’s job market. Unsurprisingly, the private sector was quick to fill the gap and now there is a wide variety of colleges in Ireland, all hoping to provide students with the leg-up they need to get started in a career.

What this means is that education in the private sector is thriving and is one of the rare success stories in recent years. “First of all,” says Cliona O’Beirne, head of admissions in Dublin Business School, “if you look at our portfolio of courses, there’s something for everyone. We have developed programmes in conjunction with industry, but we’re also developing programmes in new areas where we see a need, such as cloud computing and social media. We’re very innovative, we work with industry to get these programmes to market to keep pace with student and business need.”

The private sector encompasses new and old – IBAT, one of the newest players on the scene, has only been operating for around eight years, while Dublin Business School, now something of an institution, will celebrate 40 years in 2015. Its beginnings were in professional accountancy, but it quickly expanded to offer a broader range of courses. “We’ve been around a long time,” says O’Beirne. “Our roots were in professional accountancy, and we also have traditional programmes like journalism, psychology – we’ve got the same professional recognition as the public sector colleges.”

Likewise, Griffith College, in operation since 1974, places great store on the value of monitoring industry trends. Diarmuid Hegarty, president of the college believes it’s vital to think as long-term as you can when considering your future career.

“People need to be thinking four, maybe even six years ahead. If you’re doing a three-year accountancy degree, you’ll have to do another three before you fully qualify. Ask yourself: what’s the state of accounting likely to be then? When you make your choices, you shouldn’t look at the market today; you need to look further.”

Accreditation in the private sector shouldn’t be a concern. Most are fully accredited by FETAC and qualifications gained in these colleges are as valid as those from any public university. In some cases, private colleges have been well ahead of their public competition: “We were the first to be recognised by the Kings Inns – even before the institutes of technology,” notes Hegarty.

If potential students had concerns about course recognition in the past, those days are long over, according to O’Beirne. “The key thing is that it’s a realistic option for students, especially for high-demand, high-points courses. The outcome is the same: they’re eligible for postgraduate study; we’ve got recognition from the Teaching Council – we’ve got all the same things as the public sector.”

At the beginning, most private colleges specialised in business courses of one type or another. This is still a cornerstone of the private sector, but it is now only one branch of a growing tree. “At the moment, the most popular courses are the likes of psychology and film and media,” says O’Beirne. “Marketing and event management continues to be popular,” she notes, but is quick to flag the private sector’s record on innovation: “We’re also seeing a rise in the likes of cloud computing because that area is really up and coming.”

All very well, you may be thinking: but what about the financial cost? Students at private colleges are ineligible for free fees, which is a major stumbling block for many. But as O’Beirne notes, “free” in the context of third-level education is a moveable feast, and the public sector isn’t quite as gentle on the wallet as it first appears.

“Obviously fees are the big decider – or not. Some people pick here because they’d prefer a small university. Our fees are €5,200, but there’s tax relief on that after the first €2,000. So the gap is closing, when you consider the registration fee in State universities is now around the €3,000 mark.”

Regardless of how good any institution is on an academic level, the importance of the social aspect can’t be underestimated: if you’re going to spend years and a great deal of money and effort in one place, you’ll want to make sure it’s a fun place to be. On this issue, private colleges feel they are shoulder to shoulder with any public institution. “We are in the culture capital,” says O’Beirne. “There’s a very vibrant social scene. We’re slap bang in the middle of the city centre – there’s so much to do. Personal development is an important part of third level; it’s not just about the academics.”

Dylan Madden BA Photographic Media at Griffith College

DYLAN MADDEN has just graduated from the BA in photographic media in Griffith College. He was voted news photographer of the year at the student media awards last year.

When I left school I went straight into a job working in a photography studio. I built up a lot of experience there and in other photography and design-related jobs before deciding to go travelling. I spent some time travelling around Australia and south east Asia and when I got back, I found that when I was applying for jobs, I’d have the necessary skills, but not having a qualification was a problem.

Going to do a degree was something I had always thought about and I figured it would make my life easier jobs-wise to have that piece of paper. Obviously I needed to pay the bills so I had no choice but to work full-time. That was what brought me to Griffith College. I was able to study for my degree in the evenings while still holding down my job. There wasn’t any entry exam. I just applied and then found I was tested as I went along. It’s definitely not a course for someone who sees photography as a hobby. It’s for people who are looking at it as a career.

Working and studying was very tough. You fall into a routine quickly enough but it wasn’t easy. Third year in particular was really stressful but I got a lot of help from the lecturers. I just worked very, very hard and focused on what I wanted to do.

At the moment, I’m working to pay off what I owe. I got a loan from the credit union for my fees and some equipment so I need to get that cleared. The long-term goal is photo journalism or something like that. We’ll see what happens.

Lorna Duffy Marketing and Event Management at Dublin Business School

LORNA DUFFY is 22 years old. She is going into her second year of a degree in marketing and event management in DBS.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do after the Leaving Cert. I was offered a photography course but I just wasn’t sure whether it was for me. I decided to go travelling for a while to see whether things would become a bit clearer.

While I was over there I did a short course in event management and that was it. I just loved it. I’m a real people person and I’m good at organising things. It was perfect really.

A couple of my friends back home recommended I check out the courses in DBS so I decided to come home and I applied for my course. I got the very last CAO offer on the course that year.

I haven’t looked back really. I found first year really good. It was very business oriented which was useful. I tried to get as involved as I could in various events around DBS. There’s a fashion show every year so I was involved in that and I’m helping to promote Freshers’ Week at the moment.

The location of the college is great. It’s so handy. The fact that it’s smaller is a big advantage. The classes are smaller and everyone gets to know one another. It’s like a big family really.

I work part-time throughout the year to keep everything going in terms of fees and so-on. It’s not too bad. I suppose it’s telling that I never have a morning where I don’t want to go into college. Most days I go in early in fact. I grab some breakfast and chat to whoever I bump into.

I’d really recommend DBS overall. It’s a great college experience.

Robbie Staples Business Management in Dublin Business School

ROBBIE STAPLES has just finished a degree in business management in DBS. He is 21 years old and a native of Wexford.

I was always interested in setting up my own business so a degree in business management interested me. I went to an open day in DBS and I was blown away by it. It was honestly like a big family. The staff were just so helpful and nice I just decided that this college was right for me.

I had considered degrees in WIT and UCD as well but believe it or not, the decision was both financial and practical in the end. I know that you pay fees in DBS, but this degree was three years. The ones I was looking at in other colleges were four years. I decided it was better to pay for three and then get ahead in the workplace rather than spending a fourth year in education. I’m a big believer in the value of experience.

I took out a student loan for the fees and I feel that I probably saved money overall by doing a three- rather than a four-year degree.

Anyway, DBS lived up to my expectations. The staff members were incredibly helpful, always available if you had a problem. Seriously, they’d give you their email addresses, their mobile numbers, they were always there if you needed them. The college itself was just really friendly.

The support continues even after you graduate. I’ve applied for jobs and I’ve a couple of interviews lined up next week. The career-guidance counsellor in DBS has been a massive help to me, checking my CVs for me, offering advice.

It’s really great to have that kind of back-up even after you graduate.