CAO applications: higher education is not the be-all and end-all

Record numbers are applying to third level but there are many alternatives

Students check the first round of offers from the Central Applications Office (CAO). Photograph: Cyril Byrne/THE IRISH TIMES

Students check the first round of offers from the Central Applications Office (CAO). Photograph: Cyril Byrne/THE IRISH TIMES

 

Latest CAO figures show record numbers of school-leavers have applied for places in higher education institutions this year. Ireland now has the highest proportion of young people with third-level qualifications across the EU. It is an impressive achievement and signals the aspiration of a new generation to reach its full potential.

But there is a flip-side. Latest figures show one-in-six new entrants to third level is failing to progress on to the second year of college. Drop-out rates are as high as 50 per cent in some courses linked to engineering and computing. This raises questions not just about the adequacy of career guidance, but also about the suitability of third level courses for a significant number of school leavers.

Securing a place in a prestigious faculty and graduating with an honours degree is not necessarily the best entry route into a profession. There are an increasing array of routes - such as apprenticeships, further education courses and higher certificates - which provide the kind of occupational skills which are often highly-prized by employers.

One of biggest skills challenge for Ireland is in the area of so-called medium-to-low-level qualifications which do not necessarily require ordinary or honours degree courses. Latest research indicates that more than 65 per cent of our workforce will require these kind of skills over the coming years . Yet, many students - and parents - seem to feel that higher education is the only option to boost their career prospects.

There is overwhelming evidence in Germany and other EU countries of how the apprenticeship model, for example, is delivering the kind of skills we need in the modern workforce in a way that suits young people with a wide range of abilities and aptitudes.

Building up this sector would also relieve some of the pressure on the higher education system. After eight years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, the sector is on the cusp of a financial crisis. About seven institutes of technology are in a financially precarious position. The result has been a slow deterioration in the quality of the system, reflected by our colleges slipping down international rankings. High birth rates mean the numbers projected to progress onto third level are set to rise by about a third over the next decade or so.

There are a variety of routes into professions which are often a better option to help students reach their potential. It is encouraging to see plans to significantly increase the number of apprenticeships in Ireland over the coming years. But its success will hinge on policy-makers boosting the status of the further education sector. Employers, schools and, most importantly, parents also have a vital role to play in promoting alternatives. Higher education is a vital part of the education system - but it is not the be-all and end-all.

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