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Education Trends Report, Key Findings

Education Trends and Course Choices

Education Trends and Course ChoicesThe HEA Key Facts and Figures 2010/2011 makes both informative and interesting reading for those of us interested in what and where people study. This 136-page report provides what it calls a ‘picture by numbers’ of the sector, highlighting key trends for the year as well as information on new entrants to the sector; enrolments, graduate data, student details, socio-economic, ethnic/cultural and disability data (which forms an invaluable tool in increasing access to higher education by under-represented groups). This report tells it as it is in facts and figures.

First off, the higher education sector saw an increase of nearly 4pc in overall undergraduate enrolments from the previous year (2009/10).The report also shows an overall increase in PhD research enrolments in the past few years, with the numbers of full-time enrolments in such programmes increasing by 65pc since 2006/07. The 2010/11 figures show a slight decline for postgraduate students overall. It is a surprising figure to take in when one sees that in the university sector, there were 114,807 full and part-time students overall, while the institute of technology sector had 78,380 full and part-time students.

However, one would imagine that enrolment on certain courses would usually be an indicator of future job shortages in certain sectors along with an indicator of what people want from a career in recessionary times: security, job prospects and longevity. However, the figures show the biggest numbers of full-time undergraduates (24.8pc) are enrolled on social science, business and law courses, while 18.4pc are enrolled in arts/humanities courses. At postgraduate level, social science, business and law courses also heads the list, with science the next largest field of study, accounting for 20.3pc of all enrolments. These findings are somewhat replicated in the mature sector with the most popular area of study for full-time mature students in the universities is Health and Welfare (28%) followed by Social Science, Business and Law (18%). The latter is the most popular discipline for full-time mature students in the IoTs (20%), however this is followed by Health and Welfare and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (both 18%).

What is remarkably difficult to comprehend is that the continuous shortage of skilled Irish workers in some areas still is not overwhelmingly reflected on current up-take of courses in Higher Education. Yes, construction and many other sectors may have fallen off the edge of a cliff, but there is still a serious and consistent demand from employers for graduates with specific skills. While tens of thousands of employees are laid off among all sections of society every month, the computer sector, as one example, is still struggling to find suitably qualified employees in this country. Pauline O’Loughlin of Ernst & Young recently said 70pc of technology firms believe there is currently a skills shortage. ‘They are looking elsewhere to fill roles and Ireland is competing with a lot of locations — particularly the US and Australia — to get talent to come here.’

‘People with qualifications in computing are needed in every sector of the economy,’ says Jim Friars, director of the Irish Computer Society. ‘The demand is only likely to increase in the coming years as information technology affects more areas of our lives.’ A recent report on the computer sector by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs said demand for computer skills is set to exceed the number of qualified workers in the economy. The report said there were not enough school leavers choosing to study computing and electronic engineering. Other likely growth areas in employment, according to FAS and Engineers Ireland, include healthcare, engineering, alternative energy and the updating of infrastructure to comply with environmental standards. Surprisingly, given the effects of recession on restaurants, FAS also reports a shortage of qualified chefs.

Engineers Ireland and other bodies have made strenuous efforts to attract students to engineering, a profession that still has job vacancies. ‘We are keen to get the message to students that there are companies out there who are crying out for good students,’ says Margie McCarthy of Engineers Ireland. Students still don’t fully realise that a career in engineering can involve anything from aviation and water supplies to graphics in computer games and movies. The green agenda will result in many new jobs for qualified engineers over the coming years. ‘There are all sorts of projects that require engineering skills. They include the upgrading of water and waste disposal facilities, wind and tidal energy, and biofuels.’

Martin Shanahan of the government skills agency Forfas said computer engineers and electronic engineers are in short supply. Mr Shanahan said the announcement of 400 jobs by the computer gaming company Goa underlines the importance of information technology to the economy. He also highlighted other areas where well-qualified workers are likely to be needed. ‘In the pharmaceutical and medical devices sector, there are still skills shortages for those with an understanding of design engineering, good management practice and quality assurance. Those people that combine engineering, clinical and business skills will always be in short supply. Even in financial services, where growth in employment seems unlikely in the short term, we still need to develop people with very high level mathematical and quantitative skills,’ Mr Shanahan added.

What the latest HEA report does show is that despite the economic circumstances which presented many challenges for the sector for 2010/11, it is encouraging to see that the period saw an increase of nearly 4% from the previous year in overall undergraduate enrolments.  Students now know that third level education is a necessary pre-requisite in gaining secure employment, if not here, elsewhere. CSO data highlights that those with lower levels of skills are more likely to be made unemployed. This awareness along with the recent re-education at secondary level to let pupils and career guidance teachers know that there are major career opportunities in the technology sector, will more than likely be reflected in a continuing rise in undergraduate enrolments and a change in the most popular courses of choice for incoming graduates from the Leaving Certificate. We might just see a very different HEA report in term of enrolments in the year 2012/13. In the meantime it is important that students, their parents, and adults currently in the workforce familiarise themselves with where the opportunities are and also where they are likely to be.