In the last decade, the attitude towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) has completely changed. As people across the country were hit by the last recession, many school leavers chose to pursue an education in a field with good job prospects. As a result, the popularity of Stem courses increased and so did CAO point requirements.
Most Level 8 science degrees require a minimum of 450 credits, with some universities seeing CAO numbers for these programs above 500. Technique has also seen a stratospheric rise, with most level 8s now requiring more than 550 points.
These ascent points are becoming a stumbling block for many who would like to pursue a career in the industry but for whom the Leaving Cert has not gone as well as planned.
This is where continuing education comes in, as most graduate colleges now offer courses in these areas. Science and technology in particular are proving popular with the companies operating PLCs and this increase is expected to continue.
Colaiste Dhulaigh Deputy Headmaster Ciaran McNulty said the Dublin college offers two year-long science courses which have proved popular choices in recent years.
“One is done with DCU. We take exams, we send them to DCU, we get them through this curriculum, and then if the students achieve merit that’s 65 percent or more, they can get access to the first year at DCU,” McNulty said.
“The other science course we do is a QQI course. You do eight QQI modules, that is, if the grade you get in one QQI module can be converted into CAO points. Then you apply to the CAO and hopefully get an offer.”
There are still spots on a degree program for those taking QQI courses, although Mr McNulty said it was important prospective students know they will be awarded through a lottery-like system among people with the same grades.
Donnchadh O’Mahony, a careers adviser at Loreto College, Stephen’s Green, said these courses typically require a high level of math skills, so further education can be beneficial.
“I know we’re trying to push people into these areas, but I suppose they’re very difficult from an academic standpoint. Students usually find that there isn’t much interest in it because it’s very difficult,” he said.
“In engineering you have applied mathematics, physics, higher level mathematics is generally required for all engineering. It’s the same for the natural sciences, you want a very good level. All first-year science courses have a math element.”
Continuing education is a good stepping stone, especially for those who are interested in studying the natural sciences. Most Leaving Cert students have completed only one of the three science subjects for their exams, but most university science degrees have modules in chemistry, biology, and science.
Taking a PLC first allows students to have a basic knowledge of all three subjects before examining them at the third level.
“Not all students would have done science before coming to us. Most would have done one or two on their final certificate. So if they put their heads down, they get a lot out of it,” said Mr. McNulty.
Whilst the vast majority of students passing through Dhulaigh go on to university, this is not the only option for those choosing to pursue further study.
According to Mr. McNulty, engineering students often choose to do an apprenticeship.
“They came to us and did an engineering degree. They try their hand at all areas of the trade and are then introduced to companies. Then hopefully they will get an apprenticeship or can apply for a degree,” he added.
Apprenticeships in these areas are very beneficial according to Mr O’Mahony, who described them as ‘very practical’.
“We need to recognize in Ireland: how do I learn best? Is it a hands-on approach, a theoretical, lecture-based approach, or do I want to learn from others on the job?” he said.
“It’s not just your regular training anymore; It’s not just your worker construction. Now you can do it in science, in engineering, in finance, anything.”
For those who move on to the third stage, the study options after graduation are very varied.
For the pre-university science major, successful students can earn a place in one of more than 12 majors, including Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Analytical Sciences, Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Biotechnology.
Graduates of pre-engineering can find a place on the undergraduate courses in engineering, mechanical engineering and data science, among others.
Mr McNulty added: “It’s also open across the country, from Athlone to TU Dublin to Galway. You probably have over 300 courses that would give you access through the QQI.”
Attitudes towards continuing education have also changed in recent years. Previously seen only as a standard when insufficient credit was earned, they are now increasingly seen as positive avenues for students, regardless of their results on certificate completion.
“It opens avenues for people who just missed it because of the pressure or because of illness or whatever,” Mr McNulty said.
“It’s becoming more of a choice. Careers advisers are now advising people to apply for PLCs as well. Sometimes it’s as a backup, sometimes because they want to do a course like hairdressing or floristry, a year-long course that gets the student employed.”
Mr McNulty said that completing a PLC in these areas before continuing to the third level “slowly introduces you to college life”.
“The positive thing about the further training is that the class sizes are generally small. Especially when a student wasn’t sure if he was ready for university, you’re in a class of 20-25 students, so it’s a nice atmosphere, the teacher gets to know you from day one,” he said.
“So there is encouragement, information if they need a bit of study support, that’s what we can offer them. We are dealing with a smaller number so we can provide learning support really quickly.”
It also allows students to try out the subjects without committing to four years of full-time study, he added.
“Sometimes it might be a good idea to give something a year. In this way, they can check before studying whether this is really the path for them. And of course it’s a cheaper option because the fees are much lower.”
Mr. O’Mahony agrees. “Some students have this type of imposter syndrome. So if you give it a year there is no real impact if you cancel or don’t like it. On the other hand, if you enroll in a four-year Level 8 degree and drop out, there will be both financial and academic implications.
He said this is especially true for engineering, which people didn’t study in secondary school.
“It also helps you decide what areas of the industry you like and what areas you excel in, and then you can decide if you want to go into that area.”
Continuing education and Level 6 or 7 degrees also allow some individuals to work in the area without having to complete a full degree.
“Absolutely after level 6 or 7, depending on what role you aspire to, you can go into that area to work. A lot of people do that, and you can always go back to the next level later,” he added.
And not only the students are open to the idea of further education, but also the universities and technical colleges.
Mr McNulty said: “What the universities have been telling us is that the students who come to us because they’re studying something they like, they generally do assignments and do research and generally end up in the top third of the class when they go to universities.”
According to Mr. O’Mahony, the recognition of QQI courses is also increasing abroad.
“More and more universities in the UK and Europe are accepting QQI applicants. Even if Ireland doesn’t work for you or you don’t get a QQI place on one of the courses in Ireland, as many students attend you can still win a place in the UK or Europe.”