2020 has been a strange time for students at all stages of their educational journey, but as we reach a time of the year that is traditionally a crossroads in the lives of those leaving secondary school, the differences between previous years and now may feel particularly pertinent. In the lead up to A Level and GCSE results days, Way out West is looking at the Higher Education and Undergraduate opportunities available at South West College. We’ll also be analysing the benefits of studying local, 'Earning While You Learn' and hearing from recent students who chose South West College for their undergraduate studies.

For a long time, Higher Education and University were thought of as one and the same, with any educational path other than university considered a back up option and not for students with a history of getting the best results possible. More recently, however, Further Education Colleges have emerged as more and more of a legitimate alternative to University, most notably with apprenticeships in areas such as construction. However, these same Colleges can also provide Higher Education opportunities in other areas, again with their own set of benefits and advantages.

There are several South West College students who are testament to this, including Kyra Mac Mahon who studied at SWC to pursue a pathway in Accountancy and Jill Halliday, who studied at SWC while working in Engineering.

Last year, Kyra achieved the accolade of ‘top student in HLA Level 4 Accountancy Technicians Ireland’ (both in North and South of Ireland) during her employment at Calremount Chartered Accounts. The Accountancy Technicians Ireland HLA provide students with the opportunity to “earn while they learn” and offers pathways to a career in business, accountancy and finance, where apprentices are mentored through a two-year work based learning programme.

'earn while you learn' is becoming a popular alternative to full time university, and school-leavers have the option of higher education qualifications at institutions such as SWC

Speaking after her success, Kyra said, ‘the experience of work based learning alongside academic learning is highly beneficial. We were assigned an academic mentor from the college and a work based mentor from your employment, and throughout the year my academic mentor would visit my employment, which I found very helpful. I am proud of my results and would encourage other students to take this pathway as a career choice.’

Dr Jonathan Seymour, HLA Programme Manager for Accounting Technicians Ireland, visited South West College to acknowledge Kyra’s success. Jonathan said, ‘Embarking on a Higher Level Apprenticeship in Accountancy is a major commitment for any learner, but a rewarding one that is a fast-track to a career as a professional accountant.
The ability to earn while you learn is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to full time university study, and school-leavers, or career-changers, have the ability to study professional and higher education qualifications at progressive institutions such as South West College.’

Another student who choose to pursue undergraduate study at South West College was Jill Halliday. Jill studies a Higher Level Apprentice (HLA) in Civil Engineering at South West College, while also working in the industry. She has always had an interest in Engineering and decided that a HLA was a better option for her than university.

‘My A-Level’s were IT, Engineering and Technology. After school, I decided that an apprenticeship was a better way forward for me than University. I thought it would suit me better. It always occurred to me that if I go to university I’m signing up for a four year course without any guarantee that I’ll like the career at the end of it, or even like the course. Here, with an apprenticeship, I could get into the workplace and gain a feel for whether I actually liked it. It seemed a better option, and now I’ve found out that I do enjoy the work, so it’s worked out well for me so far.’

One of the major challenges that comes with earning while you learn is of course balancing your working life with your educational study. However, Monica says that embracing this challenge is just another way of speeding up the process to becoming career ready.

‘It encourages you to balance your time effectively. You have the weekend to do your college work, so you have to find a schedule that works for you and make the most of it.’ She adds that the classes at SWC help create a learning environment that works well for her. ‘I enjoy the smaller classes we have here. You never feel afraid to ask for help. The tutors are so friendly and the facilities are so modern. It’s a great place to learn.’

Part of the benefit of a HLA for Jill is the variation involved, the way she gets to enjoy a practical working life and also experience specific theory based learning. She explains that the two sides bring the best out of each another.

‘Last year, I was in class on a Tuesday and i'd have to travel around an hour to get here, but it breaks the week up for me. It’s a day out of the office and it allows me to take a step back from the practical work, think about the theory behind it, and gain a better insight and understanding. That balance works well for me. What you learn in the classroom comes into practice when you go back to your workplace, and you gain a better understanding of it overall because of that, rather than sitting in lecturers at university and then just going home. I thought I’d get more experience working than I would at university, and that's definitely been true. At the end of my studies I think i'll get more job opportunities because of that.’