Monday 20 November 2017

Everybody is going to university - but is it really worth it?

Over 60pc of Leaving Certs now go to university or an institute of technology
Over 60pc of Leaving Certs now go to university or an institute of technology
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Third-level colleges continue to expand at a rapid rate, and the number of students going to university is expected to rise by a further 30pc in the next decade.

In just one generation the number of Leaving Cert students going to university or an institute of technology has grown from 20pc to over 60pc.

As the colleges bulge at the seams, some academics are wondering whether a degree should be the ultimate target for every student when they finish school.

Would some students be better off going straight into the workforce or training as an apprentice, rather than spending three or four years at college?

Dr Kevin Denny, lecturer in economics at UCD, said: "On average going to college benefits students but it doesn't suit everyone. If you don't go to college now, people think there's something wrong with you."

Dr Denny says in the past he would have argued that too few people went to college.

"Some people who were capable didn't make it to college. Now you start to wonder if some of the people there should be there at all. It's become a rite of passage, a social thing, as opposed to 'do I need to go to college' or do I want to."

The issue is not just an Irish one. There has also been an enormous global expansion. A recent cover story in The Economist carried the headline: "The whole world is going to university."

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.

Thirty years ago, the Leaving Cert might have been considered a blue riband qualification, but now a degree or even a masters is considered essential.

"It was not that long ago that many people did not even finish second-level school in Ireland," says Maria Hinfelaar, President of Limerick Institute of Technology. "Now the days of coming out of school at 17 with a Leaving Cert and getting a job for life are numbered. Students really have to have further education."

Dr Hinfelaar says third level education not only enhances earnings and employment prospects. She highlights OECD research showing that it increases health and happiness.

By the age of 30, male graduates have a life expectancy six years longer than non-graduates. Female graduates can expect to live five years longer.

There may be benefits for most students, but some employers have questioned whether the quality of some of our courses is high enough, and whether students are properly prepared for the workforce.

The entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly, who made his fortune from the photo company Stockbyte and founded, argues that there are too many sub-standard colleges with degrees that are not worth the paper they are printed on.

He tells the Irish Independent: "It shouldn't be a God-given right to go to college."

Kennelly says there is not enough information available to school leavers about college choices. He says: "They're simply pinning a tail on a donkey".

The businessman says he finds it shocking that some of the best computer science courses have a 50pc attrition rate when there is a shortage of qualified graduates in Ireland. He recruits staff with experience in software development from abroad.

Martin O'Grady of the Network for Irish Educational Standards, says: "We have to ask whether it is useful for people to spend longer and longer in education. Perhaps people would be more fulfilled in the workforce.

"The financial burden falls on parents. It also fuels grade inflation, because as you draw more population into the third level sector, inevitably the ability to meet the demands of third level goes down."

Dr O'Grady warns that when they graduate, thousands of these employment candidates may find that they are overqualified for the jobs that are available to them.

"I keep meeting graduates who do not have the demands placed on them that you would expect. They are doing work that their fathers and grandfathers did with a secondary education or even lower than that".

Martin O'Grady says colleges are encouraged to keep admitting more students, because they receive government funding based on numbers.

Colleges face demographic tsunami

Ireland's third-level colleges are facing a "demographic tsunami" as demand for places is expected to soar over the coming decade, according to the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Malcolm Byrne, head of communications at the HEA, says: "On our projections we are looking at a 30pc increase in student numbers in the coming decade.

"If you look at the pressure felt on primary schools in the past few years and now extending into secondary schools, we can see that there is a demographic tsunami heading for third level."

There are now 210,000 third level students in the State and the numbers have grown by 10 pc over the past five years.

During that period public funding to third level has been cut, and colleges have relied more on student fees.

Malcolm Byrne says: "We are reaching a tipping point where colleges will not be able to absorb more students without an increase in funding."

White board jungle

Is it time for pushy parents to spare their children the ordeal of swotting up for exams during holidays? Fred De Falbe, an English headteacher, has started a debate in Britain by suggesting that kids would be better off taking apart a hoover.

It's time to stop all the hothousing with endless extra-curricular activities and children should be given time to get bored, according to the principal. Writing in Attain, the magazine of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, de Falbe says: "As you turn out the garage, give the broken Hoover or DVD player to your seven year-old to dismantle."

He suggests other activities like writing out the lyrics of a song or painting a wall.

Then, watch paint dry.

* Sitting the Leaving Certificate in June? Would you like to write about your experiences during the exams in a daily diary for the Irish Independent?

The Irish Independent is inviting applications for the position of Leaving Cert diarist 2015.

Any interested candidate should, in the first instance, send an email to

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Irish Independent

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