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'It's not just getting your foot in the door': Over 6,000 third-level students don't make it to 2nd year

While the majority make it to their second year, a sizeable portion of students do not.

Image: Shutterstock/Pressmaster

A NEW REPORT from the Higher Education Authority has detailed how 6,200 third-level students did not progress to their second year.

This dropout rate of around 15% is a major cause of concern according to the report’s authors, and for the Union of Students in Ireland who says that the quick transition from CAO offer to third-level education means that some students arrive at college without the right preparation.

Its deputy president Jack Leahy told that while there had been welcome measures put in place to try to encourage students to remain in education, but a structural change to how students make that transition is essential.

The USI is also calling on the Minister for Education to explore a “second chance” option like in Scotland, where students can withdraw in their first year and embark on another course of study the following year without a fee penalty.

“Cause for concern”

The Higher Education Authority begins its report by saying that making sure students stay in education is a priority for the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, adding that the Irish education system needs to be “more flexible in provision in both time and place” to achieve this.

The statistics show a link between how students achieved academically in secondary school and their chances of dropping out of college, as well as link between dropout rates and what kind of course they do.

For level 6 and 7 courses, 26% and 27% of students, respectively, did not make it to their second year of study in the year 2014/15.

In degree courses at universities, 16% of students dropout in first year.

For students on courses related to construction, the dropout rate was 28%. For those studying to be teachers, however, the rate was only 4%.

Elsewhere, the dropout rate for budding architects on such university degrees was 20%, with the numbers not making it to second year in computer science at 16%.

In terms of previous academic achievement, the report found that those who achieved higher points in the Leaving Certificate were more likely to make it to second year.

For example, almost a third of students who received between 255 to 300 points in their Leaving Cert dropped out before the start of their second year, compared to only 5% of those who received 505 to 550 points.

table he Source: Higher Education Authority

Living up to expectations

USI’S Leahy told that research conducted by the group in 2015 into why students were dropping out of college in first year were surprising.

“We’d expected the issue of finance to be the top reason,” he said, “but it was a perceived inadequacy about the information they received about their course that was one of the major reasons”.

The stats show that students who picked courses with a definite career path at the end, and where they will have been fully aware of the course content, such as education had low drop out rates.

Leahy said that the information given to prospective students at open days and in university prospectus’ doesn’t always correlate to their experience when they begin the course.

“There is a huge benefit to studying computer science, and students are told that there’ll be plenty of job opportunities after college,” he said. “But there’s not of info around about the learning style, and the things you need to know to study these courses.”

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He also said that the gap between getting your CAO offer to starting in college is too short.

The expectation is that you have to be ready in a short space of time. That’s a massive problem. People may need to move home, and find accommodation in a new area.

Leahy added that institutions should make it easier to transfer between courses, if you have met the requirements, in your first year and that there should not be a requirement to pay full fees if you’re returning to a new first year course the following year.

Students may get exam results at the beginning of February and realise that “this isn’t for me”. By then it’s usually too late if they want to drop out and reapply to a new course next year. They’ll then have to pay full years to get back in.


In the government’s National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, it says that “if Ireland is to achieve its ambitions for recovery and development within an innovation-driven economy, it is essential to create and enhance human capital by expanding participation in higher education”.

For this to be achieved, provisions must be put in place to try to stop people dropping out of college, according to the Higher Education Authority.

Leahy says, around two years ago, institutions began to realise that students dropping out meant that their revenue base would take a hit, and initiatives have been put in place to try to keep students in education.

The Scottish model, where the student gets one chance to switch courses without incurring high financial costs is one which could be explored, according to the USI.

“[Certain measures] have been welcome, but it’s not been enough. Some people take a year off to raise the funds to continue in college and never come back. Structural change is needed to how someone transitions to third-level.

It’s not just about getting your foot in the door anymore.

Read: Career coach: ‘Why over 70% of students drop out of first year in some courses’

Read: How students at Irish universities are buying unprescribed ‘study drugs’ to deal with exams

About the author:

Sean Murray

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