At Pathways 2023, Brian Mooney interviews Minister Simon Harris

Brian Mooney speaking at the Pathways Education and Career Guidance Conference hosted by the Galway Advertiser Newspaper in the Galmont Hotel on Tuesday.

Brian Mooney speaking at the Pathways Education and Career Guidance Conference hosted by the Galway Advertiser Newspaper in the Galmont Hotel on Tuesday.

Guidance counsellor, Brian Mooney, sat down with Simon Harris in the lead up to the Galway Advertiser's Pathways Education & Career Guidance Conference, to discuss a variety of topics surrounding further education; including reducing leaving cert student stress, analysing prospective further education options, and overcoming the student accommodation crisis.

BM: If you were in sixth year again, looking at the options and choices ahead of you, what advice would you give to a young person in that scenario today?

SH: I think the best advice I could impart is the advice my own mother gave me which was "success is liking what you do". There are so many different ways of succeeding in life, many different ways of getting to where you want to get to. Look around, look at all the options, and find out what makes you tick, what difference do you want to make in the world and go for it. And I guarantee you, you will end up in a much better place, because you'll find what you're passionate about. And then ask your teachers and your guidance counsellor how to get there.

BM: I know that you have been prioritising more of the European model, where effectively students can choose between a more vocational form of progression from school or an academic one. Where are we with that kind of conversation in Ireland in terms of changing the mindset?

SH: I'm so proud of the progress our country has made on higher education over the last generation or two. But it does also mask another reality. We have perhaps created a very narrow conversation about what the options are. And that has had a couple of impacts. It's put huge mental health pressures on young people. It has also caused real skill shortages, we know we need about 50,000 more tradespeople to be building homes by 2030 in Ireland. What I'm trying to do is devise an education system that has different pathways. The university route will work for many, but so too might an apprenticeship. We now have about 70 apprenticeship programmes in Ireland. We are trying to move beyond this idea that there's just one way because it's just simply not true.

BM: If we look at the points race, in my experience this has always been in specific areas. You have been addressing pinch points over the last number of years, would you like to elaborate?

SH: We have seen a significant number of people get their first choice in the Leaving Cert that has just finished, almost 60%, significantly up on last year. Over 85% of students now get one of their top three choices. There have been particular pinch points around medicine, and around some of the health and social sciences as well, this year is the first year we've seen medicine points begin to drop in a long time. We put an extra 60 medicine places in this year, an extra 60 last year, and more to come next year. We're looking at where are those pinch points? And we're looking now at where is the demand from our students and where are the skills our country needs?

BM: You've been very successful in relation to this initial tranche of qualifications that are available to Northern Ireland. Some students looking at this may have seen that.

SH: So we're going to produce better guidance for students this year because you still need to apply through the Northern Ireland system, and that's important for our students to know. But it's also important for them to know now that there are now 'ring-fenced places', if I can use that phrase, from this jurisdiction, ring-fenced places in nursing in Queens and in Ulster University. Ring-fenced places in medicine from next September, and also in a number of the therapies, the likes of speech and language therapy and in occupational therapy. And I hope we can grow those numbers.

BM: They will need to watch the application dates for UCAS, for those courses.

SH: That is important. If you want to get into a place in a Northern Ireland university, you will still need to apply to the UK system.

BM: You have announced new tertiary degree programmes. Can you tell us about how they will work and how they will operate.

SH: I think if we can pull this off together as a country, this will revolutionise the opportunity to get a degree in Ireland. Up to now the general route of entry into the university degree has been through the CAO. And for some people, they've gone on to colleges of further education. Since this September we have 23 degree programmes where you start the degree in the College of further education, you complete the degree in the university and you're guaranteed the progression from one to the other. Up until we did this, you went into a lotto. And we saw a lot of nurses going to the UK and we have enough challenges in our own health service. I'd say this, there's 23 degree programmes already, you can go to and find out all about them. You could be a very good nurse and not be very good at wrote learning, we've got to begin to understand that for third level students.

BM: We've had the launch of five technological universities now. Do you think they're a good thing?

SH: I think technological universities have the potential to be a game changer for access to education in the region. And for the region's, we know, there's a direct correlation between if you've a university in your region and investment in jobs. And we know if young people, and not so young people have an opportunity to access education in the region, they're more likely to continue to live in the region, invest in the region and be involved in the region. So this is about trying to move beyond this idea that all big roads must lead to Dublin.

BM: How are we going to deal with the student accommodation issue, to enable students to actually study what they really want to study.

SH: So I think we have to deal with it in a couple of different ways. Firstly, the technological universities do provide opportunities for university education in your region. Secondly, we need to make sure we build more student accommodation. So since last November, we have changed government policy, we're now using taxpayers money to help universities build accommodation. Thirdly, digs, that worked for many people. I want students to know that many students, well over 40% of students qualify for Susi, the student grant scheme. If you are a student, go to, and you may well be entitled to financial assistance.

BM: If I'm in the 2024 leaving cert class, am I going to be worried about whether my results go back to pre-COVID levels?

SH: This is about coming up with a gradual way or an innovative way. I'd also say to students is just like night follows day, if grades go down points go down. So this idea that you will be worse off, I don't necessarily buy into that. If we do this correctly, you can see a gradual unwinding of great inflation.


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