Looking beyond university: how do you choose the right third-level option?

Attitudes to education have changed in recent years with the understanding that one size does not fit all

'The key is highlighting that there are many paths to consider, and that all are equally valid. The smartest post-Leaving Cert choice is the one made by a student who feels well-informed.' Photograph: iStock

Amid the hubbub and the chaos that the end of second-level education can often involve, students could be forgiven for feeling a tad lost when it comes to knowing what path to take next.

For many years it was understood that young people would have to obtain a university degree in order to make a success of themselves, but, this perception has changed in recent years and today’s students have more choices than ever before.

“What’s really important is that attitudes to third-level and the idea that you can only be successful if you have a degree have changed,” says Cecilia Munro, principal of Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Dublin. “It’s okay now to do an apprenticeship, to have a trade, to do a PLC programme.

“Electricians today who have their trade certificate are earning about €80,000-€90,000 per year. People are beginning to recognise that these occupations are really good qualifications and good ways to have a good standard of life.”

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Solas spokeswoman Fiona Hyde agrees. “Discourse around the Leaving Certificate has, for many years, focused around progression into higher education,” she says. “While this is the right route for many, it’s one of many choices out there and, when it comes to education and young people, one size doesn’t fit all.

“It’s important that the dial moves on the conversations we have about leaving school with students – not only in the classroom, but around the kitchen table and in the media too.

“The Leaving Cert is no longer the be-all and end-all it once might have been, and it’s time to start breaking down the mythology attached to leaving school and the questions and decisions around what comes next.

“The key is highlighting that there are many paths to consider, and that all are equally valid. The smartest post-Leaving Cert choice is the one made by a student who feels well-informed.

“Research undertaken by Solas has revealed a rising awareness of Further Education & Training (FET) options in the general population, but we have a long way to go to tackle entrenched attitudes that have not moved with the times.

“It’s often the case that students will tend to assume their parents want them to go on to higher education, while actually parents typically simply want whatever option is best for their child and plays to their individual strengths.”

The third-level education sector in Ireland consists of universities, institutes of technology and colleges of education – collectively known as higher education institutions.

Third-level qualifications are levels six to 10 in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). This framework is a system that allows national and international educational qualifications to be compared.

The technological sector includes technological universities (TUs) and institutes of technology (ITs). Technological universities were created under reforms set out in Ireland’s National Strategy for Higher Education and five technological universities have now been established, involving 12 of Ireland’s 14 institutes of technology.

TUs and IoTs provide educational and training programmes in a wide range of subject areas to certificate, diploma, degree levels and beyond.

So, to the big question: how do you choose what is best for you?

“The first thing I would say is pick something you’re good at,” says Munro. “What you do next is go to websites like Qualifax or MyFuture+ and you look at the careers that are out there, what the pay is, and what you need to get into that career.

“The world is your oyster really because most PLC colleges run courses that are feeders into university courses.”

Irish Universities Association director of learning, teaching and academic affairs Lewis Purser says that once you have identified a course you are interested in, your next consideration should be to find which higher education institution offers it.

“So, what do you really want to study, and where can you find that?” he says. “Not all courses are provided by all institutions. Some will only be available in universities, others may only be available in technological universities.

“For courses which are available in several institutions, then you should look at other factors which may be important to you, such as what elective modules will I be able to choose so that I can tailor the course to suit my own specific interests?

“Does the course include a work placement or other major practical component which will help me develop my skills and enhance my employability? What are the student life and sports opportunities like?

“Remember, don’t just follow the choices made by other people. Make sure you are making the right choice for yourself.”

Mary Quirke, a qualified career guidance counsellor who is currently engaged in private practice, says the best approach is to hone your mindset in on what you think will work best for you in the here and now. “This change of mindset helps if you feel under pressure,” she says.

“Your career journey is yours. It is personal and what you do after leaving school is more often the start of that career journey – not the end. The focus is not just on what you want to learn, be it business, computers, social care or woodwork.

“It can also be about how you think the learning environment will work best for you. How do you like to learn best? On the job, practically, with a mix of theory, in a lecture format, with a larger group or in a small class?

“University is an option for after school or for later. It tends to involve learning on larger campuses with more people and depending on what you are studying can involve theory, practice, tutorials, Erasmus and other opportunities.

“Technological universities tend to have smaller class sizes, offer a lot of opportunity for practical application of your learning and again offer many opportunities, often starting at level six and will also allow you to build to graduating at level eight (degree).

“Further education is another great option – it can be used to explore new subject areas if you are not sure about pursuing them in college just yet. It can also be used as a stepping stone to college if you want to improve on results or gain more learning in a particular area.”

On the subject of FET colleges, Solas’s Hyde says these vocational, flexible and lower-cost options can offer a broad range of options, which “might very well better suit the aptitudes of more students than are currently aware of the breadth of choice out there”.

“FET (one- or two-year courses at level five and six on the NFQ scale, often called PLCs) offer smart options at local level to students, whether they are looking for a stepping-stone pathway onwards to a degree at university, breathing space to trial a subject, or direct entry into employment,” she says.

“There are many possibilities in the world of FET, introducing students into a diverse range of exciting careers, through courses in areas such as engineering technology, animal care, cloud computing, games design, cybersecurity and science.

“The core message is that FET is for everyone. There are flexible, interesting options available in every county, which enables school-leavers who are perhaps not yet ready to move away from home to further their studies locally, without having to relocate, pay over the odds in rent or face long commutes.

“Fees for FET have also been abolished by the Government, which is welcome news to parents and students alike in a cost-of-living crisis.”

There are also some practical differences between FET and university courses, as Munro points out: “There are no more than 24 in a class in a FET college. They operate on a 24-hour week timetable where all subjects are covered in depth. At universities, they operate on a 10- to 12-hour timetable.

“They follow the secondary school academic calendar, which means the move from secondary school into FET is pretty well regulated and it is not a big jump up, and they don’t have the disadvantage of going into a large lecture hall with 300 people staring at them.”

For students who wish to move into a more hands-on field of education, there is the apprenticeship road, but Hyde says they have undergone “a sea change” in recent years in terms of the diversity of subjects on offer, which has opened them up to more students and greater uptake.

“They offer qualifications right up to PhD level, across a broad range of subjects, and also give applicants the opportunity to forge lasting connections with employers, learning on-the-job skills that will set them apart in today’s competitive labour market,” she says.

“Complementing the highly valued craft apprenticeships in the likes of plumbing and electrical, programmes have diversified into new areas such as insurance, financial services and software development, where learners earn while they learn from day one.

“Apprentice registrations were over 8,607 in 2021, which is the highest since 2007, and an increase of nearly 40 per cent compared to 2019. The 66 programmes available in 2022 compares with just 25 available in 2014 – with 25 craft programmes and 41 programmes across a broad spectrum of sectors.”

This is echoed by Quirke, who adds: “Apprenticeships are developing all the time, and are a very exciting space to watch. Yes, you are out in an employment setting, learning the ropes so to speak, but you also do attend college as your programme dictates.

“What is most important is that you recognise that this next transition is only a part of your journey; and you have many choices.

“This is your personal journey and as you consider the benefit of each, while recognising how each part of the system links to the other. There is no such thing as wasting results or points, and the only poor decision is an ill-informed decision. If in doubt, talk to your guidance counsellor.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter