It’s that time of the year again. The summer is over, and more than 200,000 third-level students here are preparing to start another academic year.

Some have recently expressed surprised at the slight decrease in the number of applicants who have accepted college places this year compared to last year.

Many are attributing this trend to the accommodation crisis in Dublin and other urban areas, and there’s a large amount of truth to this.

Tragically, many talented people are indeed being deterred from pursuing further education by exorbitant rents.

However, the overall decline in the number of college applicants should not be viewed with alarm. For too long, far too many Irish people have been enrolling in college courses, and this drop in numbers may actually represent a positive turning point in Irish education.  

We could be witnessing the beginning of a revolution in Irish education, one which will boost economic productivity, reduce educational costs and provide our young people with a broader range of choices to match their aspirations and needs.  

Politicians love to boast of how Ireland has one of the highest percentages of adults with a third-level degree. This is true, but there is no point pretending that this does not come at a cost.

Providing third-level education is not cheap. Appropriate facilities must be built and maintained, teaching staff have be paid competitive salaries and the administrative systems of major academic institutions have to be kept running.

While much of this funding comes from the state, students and parents pay dearly too. A report from the European Commission last year showed that Irish third-level students pay the second highest fees out of 42 European countries examined.

As student numbers have increased, the pressure on our third-level institutions has grown massively.

All stakeholders agree that the resulting funding shortage is damaging the sector – witness how colleges have plummeted in global rankings – and yet no political party is willing to state how exactly we are going to raise the extra €600 million a year needed to maintain standards in the sector.

Another part of the problem of the unstated college-for-all policy is that many who enroll in third-level courses leave with nothing to show for it, except whatever bills they have accumulated.

Last year, it was revealed that more than 70% of Irish students do not make it past their first year in college in certain courses. Drop-out rates are much higher in ITs than in universities, but the problem exists throughout the sector.

Some of these students find courses better suited to them, while others enter the workforce. Either way however, the cost of temporarily educating tens of thousands of future drop-outs in courses that they were clearly not suited to is another driver of our spiraling education bill.

The expectation that people should automatically go to college upon leaving school also exacerbates the housing shortage.

Every year, an ever greater number of students have been seeking accommodation in the densely-populated areas where colleges tend to be located. As demand goes up, so too do prices.

When combined with college fees and living expenses, skyrocketing rents are a crushing burden. A DIT survey published last year suggested that students moving to Dublin for college would likely need €12,495 to cover just one academic year.

This situation – like our present third-level system more generally – is completely unsustainable.

Many people acknowledge this, but are reluctant to give up on the aspiration that they or their children could one day stand next to a podium clutching a college degree: their ticket to a world of opportunity in the professional sphere.

But in many countries, spending 3-4 years in college is not considered to be the only to educate or train people.

Germany is rightly lauded for its skilled and productive workforce, its export-led economy and its very low rates of unemployment.

A huge part of the credit for all this belongs to the country’s vocational education sector. The ‘dual system’ for vocational education involves apprentices splitting their time between normal classes and on-the-job training in companies.

Participating businesses partner with the vocational authorities to their mutual benefit, not to mention that of the students.

Huge numbers of young people in Germany opt for such apprenticeships, which exist in a wide variety of areas and professions. The advantages of vocational training are obvious: paid work from a young age and first-hand experience of what an industry really looks like.

Compared to college education, it is often a faster route to the workplace, too: no small matter for young people eager to make money and gain their independence.   
Many other countries are now looking to adopt a similar approach to Germany and other countries like Austria and Switzerland which have similar systems prosper accordingly.

A vocational system should not be considered as a replacement to university-type education, but instead as a system which can complement it.

Indeed, it is noticeable that the European countries which favour vocational education tend to provide genuinely free university education, and are able to do so because of their strong economies, and the crucial fact that fewer people opt to attend college when attractive apprenticeship schemes are in place. Fewer college students equals more resources per student – so everyone wins.  

The establishment of proper vocational education in Ireland would therefore reduce the pressure on our crumbling third-level infrastructure, while putting real power in the hands of young people trying to decide what it is they want to do in life.

By shortening training times, and by emphasising practical experience over classroom instruction, such a system would more effectively prepare young people for the economy of the 21st century.

Gone are the days where a four-year degree set a person up for a forty-year career in a given industry. Those in college now should be prepared to change not just jobs, but industries, throughout their careers.

Circumstances have changed, and now our education system needs to change as well.

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