Breda O’Brien: Why the class of 2020 should consider further education
Undervalued system offers lots of opportunities to progress to higher education in Ireland and abroad
Most people are unaware that FET courses already have better retention rates than higher education. File photograph: The Irish Times
This year would seem to be the perfect year for the Leaving Cert class of 2020 (and those who deferred from 2019) to really think about Further Education and Training (FET) courses.
It is an under-valued sector and one about which parents often have little or no information. So for many students, it is filed somewhere marked “only if I do not get what I want in higher education”. That is a real pity.
Further education covers a very broad spectrum, from apprenticeships to post-Leaving Cert courses, to traineeships. To take just one example, Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Education and Training Board (DDLETB) are offering some 4,500 places on over 200 courses. The programmes cover areas as diverse as the more traditional business and law, along with healthcare, social sciences, journalism, natural sciences, mathematics, beauty and hairdressing. There are also level 5 and level 6 courses in networking, security, games development, animation and web design.
Level 5 is roughly the equivalent of a Leaving Certificate qualification but there are important differences. For a lot of students, a level 5 course smooths the transition from school to higher education. There is an emphasis on independent learning and research skills and most post-Leaving Cert courses now offer significant work experience.
I think further education courses are particularly valuable for the kind of student who would really benefit from an additional year before college. The Leaving Cert is intense and many students are not really certain what areas of study they want to pursue.
A post-Leaving Cert course offers an opportunity to sample an area. For some, it will confirm that they are on the right track but just as importantly, for others, it will indicate that they are definitely not interested.
Cost and retention
We are all familiar with the high dropout rates in the first year of university and parents are painfully aware of the financial implications. In contrast, FET courses are inexpensive, usually around €500. Putting it bluntly, it’s a low-risk option with lots of advantages.
Most people are unaware that FET courses already have better retention rates than higher education but those who progress from them to college also have higher retention rates when they get there.
There are now so many progression routes from FET to higher education. For instance, DDLETB offers a pre-university laboratory techniques course, and in 2019 alone, 83 per cent received offers on higher education programmes, the majority on an honours degree programme.
A level 5 qualification also often offers access to a wide variety of disciplines. For example, with a Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) level 5 award in business, you can access a broad range of arts and humanities degrees.
Many traditional universities and technological universities ring-fence places for level 5 candidates and therefore, you are not competing against those who have done the Leaving Cert but against other level 5 candidates.
The offers for these ring-fenced places come out earlier than the offers for the Leaving Cert students. I often wonder whether they are known as round zero offers because the media has next to zero interest in them, despite their enormous significance for 5,000 students.
Going into higher education this year is going to be very odd and unsatisfactory
It is relatively easy to find out whether a particular course you are interested in accepts level 5. Go to qualifax.ie and enter the college and the course. Get the course code, for example, DN200 for Science in UCD. Then go to CAO FETAC qualifications and put in the course code. It will tell you whether level 5 is accepted and if so, which level 5 awards are accepted and how many distinctions are needed.
Some universities also allow level 6 students progress directly into the second year of certain courses.
Accepted across Europe
Level 5 qualifications are accepted across Europe in the many universities offering undergraduate degrees through the English language and some of those courses even have free fees.
A number of courses that are fiercely competed for in Ireland, such as psychology, can be accessed quite easily abroad using level 5. Sure, no-one is rushing to study abroad at the moment, but in a year’s time, being able to study in the Netherlands, Germany or Denmark through English might look very appealing.
The class of 2020 have had a very rough time. They prepared for years for terminal exams which never happened. As for those who took a year out, none of them foresaw the massive jump in points. FET could provide a chance to decompress.
One of the most attractive aspects of FET colleges is the level of care for students and the small class sizes. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, most classes will be even smaller this year but will still be offering significantly more in-person classes than higher education will.
Our family have had personal experience of the caring atmosphere and attention to students as individuals both in Pearse College in Crumlin and in Stillorgan College of Further Education.
Going into higher education this year is going to be very odd and unsatisfactory - lots of online classes and seriously curtailed social clubs and activities. If ever there were a year to do something a little different, this is it.