Third level study can bring a host of financial and emotional strains

According to a report last year by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) entitled A Study of Progression in Higher Education, the average dropout rate in Ireland is about 15%. Nearly a third of incoming first-year students at the Institute of Technology Tallaght did not complete the year. At Trinity College, Dublin, on the other hand, just 8% of first-years dropped out. This year, as many as 50 students a week are dropping out, according to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) – and money is largely to blame.

“When you have such a big financial crisis, money is obviously the be-all and end-all” said Gary Redmond, the USI president. Students can’t get part-time work and in many cases come from families struggling with debt and unemployment.” Last year, first grant payments for the 2010/2011 academic year were delayed until as late as February for some students adding to their financial pressures. Students should not have to worry about such delays from 2012, when the 66 grant paying authorities will merge and grant payments will be made monthly, rather than three times a year.

Any student that is really struggling can apply to the Student Assistance Fund for money. “That is a fund of €5m, which is divided up between all of the institutions, so it is not a huge amount. It is really for students in borderline poverty. It could be a couple of hundred euro and some textbooks cost that.”

But money is not the only reason students drop out of college. Some just don’t like the course. “We can’t help that,” said Patricia Callaghan, academic secretary at TCD, “apart from making the literature clear and making sure students know what a course is like. For example, a student getting into computer science and business might not think it is as maths-oriented as computer science, but it is. We have to be very clear on the nature of the courses.”

The HEA report found Leaving Cert points were the biggest indicator of whether students would drop out. Those who achieved between 350 and 400 points were most likely to fall away from third level. Students with the highest points were most likely to progress to the second year. Students who do well in English and maths at Leaving Cert are also more likely to continue with their studies. “High-level numeracy and literacy still count for an awful lot,” said Professor Sarah Moore, associate vice-president at the University of Limerick. ” Those are transferable skills. If you write well, that makes a huge difference in all subjects. If you have a reasonably good degree of numeracy, you have the capacity for logic, engaging with evidence and building conclusions. These are important intellectual building blocks, no matter what subject you are doing.”

The Sunday Times 22/05/11


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