The growth and change in the traditional profile of students in higher education is a great development. It means that every campus around the country is buzzing, with students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.
Almost 14pc of new entrants to higher education in 2010 were mature students (over 23 years of age). In addition, over 5,000 people with disabilities are studying in higher education with support from the national Fund for Students with Disabilities. At least 4,000 students progress from further to higher education each year. And these figures apply only to fulltime courses; part-time students, who have also escalated in numbers since 2009, add to this diversity.
A number of recent initiatives have helped to make higher education qualifications even more accessible to people. State funding has been provided since mid-2009 for education courses geared towards creating new job openings, particularly in new and developing markets. Over the past two years thousands have signed up to study in areas as interesting and diverse as wind energy, web development, entrepreneurship and digital media. Participating students can access a range of financial support, including, in some cases, keeping their social welfare payments, or opting to go full-time and applying for a grant or for the Back to Education Allowance. This kind of essential information is kept up-to-date on www.studentfinance. ie.
In many regions, there are good links between education providers and employers, enabling students to do valuable work placements, with some resulting in a job offer. This kind of approach is going to be developed even further in 2011 as a new internship programme combining work and education is introduced, as well as a new multi-annual fund to facilitate more higher education opportunities for people seeking to reskill and upskill.
For many, it will be necessary to apply for a college place through the Central Applications Office (CAO). If you are a mature student, you will be asked to indicate this on your CAO application form. Work and life experience are generally taken into account in mature student applications, so having a recent educational qualification is not necessarily required. Some colleges require mature students to apply directly to them, you can find this out by looking up the website of the college of your choice. And some part-time courses, particularly those geared towards tackling unemployment, are likely to be managed outside of the CAO system. More details will be available from your local college and from the websites listed below.
Some people choose to first complete a further education course, and this qualification may lead directly to a job. It can also lead to further study, links between further and higher education colleges and courses are established and increasing in number every year (see www.fetac.ie/learners ). A further education course can be a good stepping stone to higher education, giving you an opportunity to learn more about the field you are interested in as well as brushing up on your study skills. If you are interested in progression to higher education, you should enquire about what opportunities are available on completion of your chosen further education course.
Mary-Liz Trant, National Office for Equity of Access to Higher Education, HEA