Friday 28 October 2016

Generation realism... for our Leaving Cert graduates

A decade ago we were producing Leaving Cert graduates who felt they were being fast-tracked to the good life. Today's crop are far more grounded... and they'd need to be.

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Still determined: Ciara Quinn from Athlone Community College. Photo: Molloy photography
Still determined: Ciara Quinn from Athlone Community College. Photo: Molloy photography

As one of the country's leading career guidance councillors, Andrée Harpur has been dealing with school-leavers and college graduates for 31 years. She is particularly fond of the current crop.

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She finds that they are much more realistic about their futures than those of the immediate generation before them, and few of today's students are possessed of the sort of relentless sense of self-entitlement that she witnessed every day in the course of her work 10 years ago.

"I'd have teens coming to me with poorly thought out ideas of what they wanted to do," she says of boom-time Ireland. "It would usually be some glamorous field that they felt they could just stumble into."

But the graduates were worse. "You'd have someone earning a really good wage straight from university and they'd be moaning about how they knew someone who was earning" - here she puts on a Ross O'Carroll-Kelly-type accent - "'like 85k, and I'm only on 70k'.

"K," she adds, with a wry chuckle. "That's something you never hear any more. There's very little of the shallowness of the past and today's school-leavers know that there are very few of the old certainties when it comes to work. The jobs market has been turned on its head."

And it may be volatile jobs market that many of the near 58,000 people who got their Leaving Cert results this week will be entering in four or five years' time.

"One of the most deflating things for those who have gone through the entire education system is the thoughts of having to work for free when they graduate from college," says Kevin Donoghue, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). "JobBridge has created a culture where employers think it's perfectly fine to take graduates on and not pay them anything.

"Whatever about the rationale for doing that in a recession, it's pretty obvious that many companies are doing well now and yet the culture persists. So for many of those currently in third-level education, or about to go to college, it won't be enough just to graduate. You may have to work for nothing too and that realisation hits home in either the final year in college or the penultimate year."

But first, there are the college years - often billed the best time in one's life - to navigate. And thrilling as this period may be for many, it can also be a four-year stretch fraught with challenges, not least the mounting cost of being a full-time student.

"The DIT study on the cost of going to college and living away from home, showed the average to be around €11,000," Donoghue says. "At the moment, the maximum you can get in grant-aid is €3,025: that leaves a huge shortfall."

Ian Power, director of the youth affairs lobby group Spun Out, says much of the expense incurred is down to escalating rents. "In Dublin, for instance, it is not uncommon for a one-bedroom apartment to cost between €1,000 and €1,200 a month," he says. "There is a significant shortage of student accommodation and students are having to compete in the rental market with young professionals who obviously have earning power."

Digs - an accommodation option of another era is coming back in vogue - and there are tax breaks for those who rent out a room in their homes. Intriguingly, some B&Bs are offering bed and board to students over the course of the college year, with one ad this week promising both free towels and Wi-Fi.

There is only a limited supply of such accommodation and for many, especially first-year students, the preferred type of lodging is on campus. It's a choice that comes with a hefty price, not least when one considers that several third-level institutions have announced significant increases for the forthcoming college year including three in the capital: University College Dublin, Trinity College and Dublin City University. Anyone hoping to reside in UCD's Belgrove apartment complex between September and June will have to pay €6,427, a 17pc increase on last year's €5,481.

For Audry Deane, welfare officer with St Vincent de Paul (SVP), such figures are way beyond the capabilities of the country's most vulnerable families. "The rising cost of going to college means it has become impossible for school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds to get to third level," she says. "It's the sort of stuff that other families take for granted, like Leap cards (for using public transport in Dublin) and books, that can really hurt those from rural areas, for instance, who might be really struggling to send a child to college in Dublin."

Another worry is the delay some students have experienced when waiting to receive grant aid from government agency Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI). "Colleges need those fees up front and often the families we deal with just can't afford it," she says. "It's infuriating and there shouldn't be a delay. SVP have had to help out in several cases while waiting for the grant to be paid.

"I know of situations where students from those sort of backgrounds have accepted college places and then, a few weeks or months in, the realisation hits home about how expensive it is and they drop out. And, of course, when that happens their chances of finding a good job are greatly reduced. It's a vicious circle."

Many students find they have to take on part-time work to fund their college, and Ian Power says there's a danger that some will end up burning the candles at both ends. When he attended university in Cork, he got a retail job that essentially meant he was working all weekend. "When accommodation costs and fees are going up, is it any wonder that students are having to work ever longer hours."

Parents, he says, are often not in a position to help out. "Students aren't homogenous," he says. "Every familial situation is different and while some have that financial support, others simply don't for one reason or another."

Last month, a Laya Healthcare study showed that the average cost of raising a child from birth until they leave college is €100,000, with much of that centred on first pre-school childcare and then, at the other end, third-level education.

While the vast majority of students are eligible to have college fees covered by the state, the so-called 'student contribution' has to be paid. Last year, this amounted to €2,750: the new college year will see it rise to €3,000, meaning that for those who are grant-aided, practically all the money will go to servicing this fee.

James Doorley, director of policy and advocacy at the National Youth Council of Ireland, wonders if the current system is serving the country's young as well as it might. "Look at the HEA [Higher Education Authority] report: in the region of 7,000 people don't transition from first year to second year. Maybe they've dropped out because of the cost of going to college, or maybe they discovered that third level was not for them."

Doorley says Wednesday's results serve to highlight a system that places huge importance on points. "We should ask ourselves, does everyone need to have a degree? Does everyone have to go on to college, even if their skill-set is elsewhere? What about apprenticeships? The labour market has changed so much in even the past decade and the reality for many is short-term contracts, not pensionable jobs."

Andrée Harpur, meanwhile, believes school-leavers currently weighing up what courses to apply for when CAO offers go live on Monday morning, should not fall into the trap of trying to second-guess what profession might be buoyant when they graduate four or five years down the line.

"The market is changing all the time and many of the old certainties are gone," she says. "I'd hear people talking about maybe looking at something in IT because they've read a newspaper article about how there is a skills shortage in that industry, but it's a mistake to do it unless you really have an aptitude for it. You see people go into IT courses who patently aren't suited to it and they know as much within a few weeks."

She says she would never steer anyone away from a profession in decline, or with little chance of growth, but she says it would be remiss of career guidance professionals not to point out the sobering realities of certain jobs.

"Professions like PR, event management, journalism… there aren't as many openings as there were and it can be harder to break into these fields. I'd never want to discourage anyone from following their heart, but when you hear a teenager say something like 'I'll start a blog and get paid for it', you have to let them know what the reality is."

Harpur says professions such as law and architecture are picking up after being badly hit in recession and believes marketing roles are coming back in force.

"They were decimated in the downturn, but there's definitely been a pick-up in the last couple of years and that's likely to continue. And they're not the sort of flashy marketing jobs of the Celtic Tiger years; these are more about substance." Much like the graduates themselves.

'At 19, I'm now ready to move out and start college life'

Ciara Quinn (19) repeated the Leaving Cert at Athlone Community College and says:

"General Nursing at DCU is my first choice on the CAO.

After getting my Leaving Cert results on Wednesday though, I'm more likely to get offered my second choice: Health Science and Physiology at IT Sligo.

Despite being a bit disappointed with my results, I'm still determined to do nursing. There's always another way into it.

Whatever happens on Monday, I'm going to have to move away from home for the first time to go to college.

Having repeated the Leaving, I can't wait to get a bit of independence. Although, I'll probably still come home at the weekends to get my washing done!

Obviously going to college isn't cheap. The so-called 'student contribution fee' for the year is €3,000, and accommodation could be another €3,000 on top of that, not to mention living costs.

During the year, it was definitely something that weighed on my mind while I was studying, especially as I don't get the grant.

Luckily, both my parents work and have been very supportive towards me and my two older sisters getting a third-level education. I also plan to get a part-time job to help out.

Personally, I think the whole points system is very unfair - and the points are only getting higher and higher each year.

Nonetheless, repeating the Leaving is one of the best decisions I ever made. Over the past year, I've matured a lot. At 19, now I'm ready to embrace college life.

In five years' time, I hope to be settled in Ireland with a good job - but I wouldn't rule out going to England for work either."

- Deirdre Reynolds

Indo Review

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