Everyone is heading off to college - but is it worth it?
The CAO points race is a national obsession - but going on to third level need not be for everyone, writes Kim Bielenberg
Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30
Early on Wednesday morning, at second-level schools across the country, tens of thousands of students opened their Leaving Cert results with whoops of joy or tears of despair.
Forty years ago, most eager young teenagers finishing school would have started looking for a job and they would have considered themselves well qualified.
Now the attention inevitably turns to college - 60pc of school leavers go on to third level, hoping to succeed by degrees.
After leaving the school grounds with words of congratulations or consolation from teachers, the question of who goes to college and what they do there will be all that matters.
It is the only yardstick by which people measure the success of our schools. But how useful will these degrees be, and why do so many students flounder when they get to college and have to leave?
Tony Donohoe, education officer with the employers' group Ibec, says the CAO points race is a national obsession.
On mantelpieces across the country, the graduation picture of young offspring holding mortar boards is as much a status symbol as the brand new motor in January.
"We tend to overlook other opportunities that young people have, such as getting practical training doing apprenticeships or going to further education colleges," says Mr Donohoe.
The relatively 'low' status of apprenticeships is partly down to cultural attitudes.
Even though there are now attempts to revive them, with apprenticeships in such occupations as accountancy, in some circles they are even seen as a make-work scheme for those who are not qualified to go to university.
"There is a deeply embedded educational elitism where an honours degree is the thing to have and if you don't have it you are inferior," says Martin O'Grady, Psychology lecturer at the Institute of Technology, Tralee.
"That contrasts with Germany where apprenticeships have a high status. In Ireland they just don't have the same kudos."
The problem for students and their onlooking parents is that there has been huge inflation in the qualifications required to find employment, even if the jobs they are going for are relatively menial.
Martin O'Grady, who is co-founder of the Irish Network for Educational Standards, says: "Graduates are doing a lot of jobs where all you should really need is a Junior Cert. There are far too many graduates for the needs of our economy."
A few short decades ago, the Leaving Cert might have been considered a blue riband qualification, but now a degree or even a masters is considered essential.
This is borne out in the unemployment figures. While 11pc of people who left education after the Leaving Cert are unemployed, only 5pc of graduates are jobless.
In the late seventies, after Mr O'Grady sat his Leaving Cert, he was able to get a job as an executive officer in the Department of Justice.
Now these posts are only filled by graduates, and even many applicants with degrees are seeking jobs much lower down the pecking order in the civil service as clerical officers.
As more and more students are funnelled into third level education, inevitably standards drop, according to Mr O'Grady.
The students may have been told that computers and IT are where the jobs are, and so they may enrol in courses that they are unsuited to.
A degree in computing is seen as an inevitable pathway to a steady job, with 75pc of graduates employed within nine months.
But one-quarter of computing undergraduates drop out of their courses, according to figures from the Higher Education Authority. In Construction, the drop-out rates are 29pc, and in Engineering 23pc.
Part of the problem is that many students do not have the maths skills to follow some of the technical courses.
Even though students may be floundering, Mr O'Grady says there is a temptation in the colleges to allow them to pass.
Our system of college funding is largely based on headage payments. So it is in the interest of the institutions to push as many students through as possible, regardless of the standards maintained.
But how good is the reputation of some of these colleges if they allow anyone through, despite their lack of academic ability?
Mr O'Grady says: "I have talked to human resources people in some major employers in Ireland, and they told me unofficially that they bin applications from some colleges.
"They have concluded that degrees from certain institutions are not to be trusted."
The Leaving Cert generation may think that they are set on a certain career path, but increasingly this can change at the drop of a hat. Guidance counsellors now advise that we should expect at least five careers in our lifetime.
Sarah Mortell is one of the lucky ones who found employment quickly, despite a false start in a Science course at Trinity College.
After graduating this summer, she now works for the Web Summit.
"Coming from school I didn't really know what I wanted to do.
"I transferred to business and politics, and it suited me better."