A wide-ranging shake-up of the college entry system will see the Central Applications Office (CAO) reformed into a new connected structure, incorporating for the first time apprenticeships and further education.
he reforms aim to increase choice for students, relieve pressure on the CAO system and ease demand for college places.
Also among measures to transform the third-level sector are plans to change the credit systems for courses, making it easier for students with a further education and training (FET) certificate to continue their education and earn a degree.
Under plans to be announced tomorrow by Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, students completing CAO applications next year will be able to choose apprenticeships as well as Level 4 and Level 5 certificate courses run by colleges of further education and local education and training boards (ETBs).
Students will still be able to select their preferred Level 6, 7 and 8 course options at ITs and universities, but CAO points will not be a factor for offering them an apprenticeship or FET choice. The CAO, an independent body owned by the third-level institutions, does not presently include apprenticeship or FET options.
Mr Harris told the Sunday Independent he is concerned students' options are being limited too early, either because they are unaware of FET courses or because of a traditional focus on securing a place at university.
The department's 'Statement of Strategy for Higher Education', being unveiled tomorrow, will include a commitment to establish a connected system showing the wider options available.
"There are a range of options available to students, but they are not all as visible as others," Mr Harris said.
"For many students, third level is not the answer and apprenticeship is, or further education is, but students are not always as familiar with those choices.
"A key priority of mine and the department's will be reforming the pathways between secondary and third-level education and, crucially, creating one portal that is user-friendly, clear and offers equal visibility of all of the options for all learners and potential learners in one single location."
Officials think including the apprenticeships and FET courses in the CAO system will make students more aware of them.
New data shows there were 79,303 applications through the CAO system for college places next year before it closed last month. This represents an increase of 6,000 compared to a year ago - but the number is set to rise further through late applications. These put huge pressure on the system and create pent-up demand for college places.
Thousands of additional college places were created last year to meet soaring demand, putting the third- level system close to capacity.
Meanwhile, Higher Education Authority figures show dropout rates of about 25pc across the third-level sector. This rises to 33pc at ITs, and 45pc among those studying computing courses.
Officials want this new CAO system to tackle demand and dropout rates. They say the plan also aims to change cultures and attitudes to education, putting apprenticeships and FETs front-and-centre as viable alternatives to college.
The CAO plan is set to be trialled in parts of the country later this year before being rolled out nationally next year.
This year's cohort of fifth year pupils will be among the first third-level applicants to avail of the scheme. They will receive their Level 6, 7 and 8 CAO offers as normal, but will also receive apprenticeships or Level 4 and 5 options if they complete relevant parts of their application.
The plan is the most significant reform of the college application system since former education minister Mary O'Rourke introduced plus and minus letter grading in 1993.
Creation of a unified credit system is also included in the new government strategy - but officials expect that to take up to three years to fully roll out. It will allow credits earned serving apprenticeships or studying diploma Level 4 and 5 courses to be linked with the credit system used at higher education.
Currently, there is a separate credit system in place for FET courses compared to the credits given to students studying Level 6, 7 and 8 courses at ITs and universities.
The new scheme also has the potential to reduce the time it takes someone with a diploma to earn a degree, by recognising the time they have already spent studying.