It’s 6am on a brisk Saturday morning in November, and George Fitzgerald is about to embark on his weekly journey down to Cork from his home in Kinsealy, north county Dublin.
“When I’ve an assignment due it usually takes up to three or four hours in coursework a night. That’s all on top of the day job, and it’s by no means a 9-5 job either. The hours tend to be very long” says George, as he wrenches open the door of his Audi A4 ahead of another monumental trek south to Cork IT’s Bishopstown campus.
He’s one of a legion of middle-aged students across the country who are choosing to further their education by enrolling in third-level courses. According to latest Higher Education Authority (HEA) figures, full-time mature entrants now account for 14% of the student body in third-level institutions- nearly 10% more than in 1998.
“I could see the need to progress. I was with the same company for 23 years and I’d plenty of in-house training, but for me to progress outside of that I knew I had to get a degree” says George, a customer service manager at Network International Cargo.
Having completed a diploma in Supervisory Management at Dublin’s IBAT college earlier this year, his workplace is now fully subsidising his current part-time Bachelor of Business in Supply Chain degree course in Cork.
And he’s not alone.
According to HEA statistics for the 2011/2012 academic year, 17% of all participants in college courses were classified as mature students (over the age of 23). Of that number, an increasing amount fit George’s description, a fact illustrated by the massive 20% increase in 35-44 year-olds engaged in higher education from 2000 to 2010.
The accompanying report states that increasing unemployment and vulnerability of employment during recent recessionary times has led to many people who may not fit the profile of a conventional college student to either return to or take up third-level education as a means of bettering their career prospects. That’s definitely how George sees it.
“It definitely gives you an edge for your career prospects.
“Not only that, but it’s the stuff you pick up on the course. A lecturer might say something and you can see how that might slot into your own business. Those you’re working for see that you’re not afraid of hard work and putting the extra effort in as well as it being for your own progression.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the employers union IBEC, whose recent survey found that 86% of employers involved are providing financial support to staff who are pursuing further education. This is a welcome development as Ireland looks to further solidify its position as a knowledge-based economy, according to Tony Donoghue, IBEC’s Head of Education and Innovation Policy.
“The only way that Irish standards of living can be maintained into the future is through the development and production of higher quality and more innovative products and services,” said Mr. Donoghue.
“By 2025, mature students are expected to account for a quarter of all students. The recent economic downturn has highlighted the importance of lifelong learning and workforce development. Jobs are becoming increasingly skill-intensive and this trend is certain to continue.”
Latest estimates put Ireland 6% above the OECD average of 25-64 year-olds with 3rd level qualifications. HEA Chief Executive Tom Boland said in the organisation’s 2012 report that our colleges are adapting to reflect their changing student body, which George Fitzgerald is most certainly glad to be a part of.
“I’d definitely recommend for others to do the same as me,” says George. “It’s very intense because I often have assignments due on successive weekends so it’s a difficult workload, but when you know you’re reaching a conclusion and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s definitely worth it. Just for a personal feeling of achievement if nothing else.”