If you were to speak with Leaving Cert students and ask them what they hope to study next year, a large proportion would say some form of business degree. In fact, it’s one of the most popular degree courses for those entering third level.
About one in every six applicants to the Central Applications Office seeking a college place in a level-eight higher degree lists a business degree programme as their first choice, second only in popularity to arts.
And it’s no wonder why when you consider the broad choice the subject area encompasses. In fact, a quick search on the qualifax.ie website shows there are more than 330 level-eight business courses on offer in the country, with virtually every college in the CAO system offering a range of business courses.
Business degrees constitute a broad umbrella term that covers employment in sectors such as retail, banking, insurance, management, accounting, human-resource management, entrepreneurship, finance, sales and marketing.
According to Donnchadh O’Mahony, a guidance counsellor at Loreto College Stephen’s Green, that wide range of subjects is one of the biggest motivators for students.
“It’s so general and offers so many different avenues for students. For example, with a general business degree, depending on the area you specialise in, it could be accountancy, finance, marketing,” he said.
“Then even within those you’ve more options. In finance, you have investment banker or stockbroker. For marketing, there’s brand management, advertising, even social media. There are now new roles that maybe weren’t there a few years ago.”
If you are planning to apply for a university degree, one of the broadest business courses is Trinity College’s business, economics and social studies (BESS) programme. It is always popular because it involves elements of business studies, economics, politics and sociology.
For those deciding on a common-entry programme, students will try out all of the different aspects in the first couple of years, from accounting to human resources and supply-chain management.
Then, later on in the course, once they’ve experienced the different opportunities within the field, they will be able to commit to a major.
Mr O’Mahony said it was important for students to research which options they would have available to them as a major by the end of the course, as some colleges offer more options than others.
Points requirements for the courses vary depending on which institution the course is based in. In 2021, points for almost all courses reached record-high levels due to grade inflation associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Points for commerce at UCD rose from 498 to 521 last year, and this year applicants need 555 points for commerce or commerce international. BESS at Trinity also rose for the second year in a row, up from 543 to 577.
Business studies at Dublin Business School was up from 218 to 243, at DCU it rose from to 488 to 511 and at UL there was an increase from 431 to 451.
There’s no requirement for students to have studied business subjects – business studies, economics or accountancy – at Leaving Cert level.
However, Mr O’Mahony said even despite this rise in points, there are still business courses available for those who don’t anticipate receiving extremely high Leaving Cert results.
“Some of the more famous universities like Trinity and UCD have higher points when it comes to their commerce and BESS, business programmes. But then points in your traditional IT colleges – which are now technological universities, so you’ll be coming out with a university degree – are lower for the level-eight degrees,” Mr O’Mahony said.
“And they would also offer level-six or level-seven options for students, where you could then progress on to a level eight. So if a student is thinking about doing a business degree, I would suggest not just the level-eight list but also the level-six and seven list as well.”
Students could also consider business apprenticeships. In recent years, Solas, the further education and training authority, has developed a suite of apprenticeships that includes a level-six accounting technician, a level-eight programme in insurance practice, level-six international financial services associate and international financial services specialist, which is level eight.
In terms of facts and figures, business courses come out in a very favourable light. A study by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) found the dropout rates for business courses is on the decline.
In the 2019-2020 academic year, some 8 per cent of students in business, administration and law degrees did not progress, down from 12 per cent in the 2017-2018 academic year.
According to Grad Ireland, IT, engineering, banking and finance, accountancy, HR and research and development are the sectors that are very popular with graduate recruiters, with technology leading the field.
Earnings for graduates in the sector varies depending on which area they have specialised in.
According to the 2020 Grad Ireland graduate survey, the mean starting salary for those in banking, investment banking and financial services was €30,329 per year, while those in accountancy and financial management started out at €26,757.
Graduates of recruitment and HR had a mean salary of €29,447, while those in marketing and digital media earned €28,957.
Because the courses are so broad and varied, so too are the skills the students pick up, including written and verbal communication, leadership skills, time management and analytical and critical thinking.
“Obviously, like most degrees there will be independent learning, developing your communication skills, teamwork skills, which is massive in business. Most degrees will have digital literacy now as well,” Mr O’Mahony said.
“Then there’s also more technical skills. There will be an element of maths in a business degree, whether that’s analysing business data, whether it’s looking at financial mathematics or an element of accountancy.”
For prospective students who are uncomfortable with maths, Mr O’Mahony said it was important they look at the modules before deciding on which business course best suited them.
“If you were to do something like a marketing degree from the get go, there wouldn’t be as much mathematics in it as there would in a common-entry business degree,” he added.
In recent years there has also been a move towards global business due to the increasingly interconnected nature of the world. These degree courses give students an opportunity to have a year abroad and to learn a language while at university.
Mr O’Mahony said having an additional language on top of the business skills is a “major selling point” when seeking employment.
“You’re going to have language proficiency at the end, as well as an understanding of a country and its culture, its markets, social structures. Ireland has so many multinational countries and we trade internationally with so many countries around the world, so having graduates with this proficiency allows our ability to trade with other countries,” he said.
Mr O’Mahony said specific languages are in high demand, such as Mandarin Chinese, German, Spanish and French.
“If you can marry a business degree, with a language, that would be even more beneficial to you when going into the world of work. That is something Ireland is really trying to promote.”
Employment prospects after graduation are also good. According to DCU’s own graduate employment survey, 86 per cent of its business school graduates went into full-time employment after graduating.
According to Mr O’Mahony, the booming tech sector is a significant contributor to this.
“These businesses need people with a knowledge of IT, they need accountants, they need a brand manager. There are a huge number of careers available,” he added.
Furthermore, in recent years, most large companies have begun to offer graduate programmes, for people who have just finished a degree.
“They train you to the way they want you to work on a daily basis. They would prefer someone to have that business background from college before going onto these graduate programmes and then you can specialise in an area in the company if you wanted,” Mr O’Mahony added.
The job opportunities for graduates of business are wide and varied, depending on which areas students have specialised in.
In the banking and finance sector, there are jobs as accountants, actuaries, stockbrokers or investment bankers.
Many graduates of business also go on to take up leadership roles, due to the focus on management in the courses.
Entrepreneurship is a skill learned through these degrees, meaning graduates often proceed to set up their own businesses and companies.
Marketing degrees can result in jobs in advertising, brand management and now, with the increased focus of online, even digital marketing.
Then there are also jobs in human resources, tech companies and public relations.
The skills that students acquire vary depending on the course they choose to undertake. However, there are some learned skills that are universal such as communication, which is enhanced through written assignments and presentations that are required throughout the course.
Teamwork is also a skill learned in this area of study, due to the heavy focus on group work throughout the courses.
Problem-solving and analytical skills are key learning objectives, as is entrepreneurship and creativity.
Digital literacy is becoming a key part of almost all degree courses, but it is particularly emphasised in business, with many courses offering in-depth modules on different computer programmes.
Business case studies
Hannah Dobson, Marketing, Innovation and Technology, DCU, 2016
One of the most fascinating things about the course is that the material was never set. We were learning about the technology industry, and obviously that changes so quickly, so the course adapted with it.
We had a module in my final year called IT and society and it was looking at the impact of technology on our everyday lives. It made me realise that business and technology specifically are part of our lives.
The marketing innovation and technology (Mint) course really set me up for my career. I applied to the Enterprise Ireland graduate course when I finished and I got to work from the San Francisco office. Mint as a course was very focused on start-ups and technology, so that really stood for me when I applied to Enterprise Ireland.
I already had a year’s work experience under my belt through the course too, rather than going in as a graduate with no experience.
The number of tech companies setting up in Ireland is growing rapidly. Those companies want business graduates who have a good understanding of the technologies they’re working with so those graduates can really understand what they’re marketing.
Caroline Crowley, BSc Accounting, UCC, 2007
What’s really good about the course is that it’s more than just accounting: you study law, tax, finance, technology. There are great exemptions for the professional exams with the BSc in accounting.
The class sizes are small, too, which offers great networking opportunities, so I’m still in contact with a lot of people from my class, despite graduating in 2007.
The degree programme is very broad and it needs to be, really, because the breadth of what you can work in as a qualified accountant is so varied. It is a qualification with international opportunity. The jobs market is very buoyant; accountants can really pick where and when they want to work.
As a graduate, you have a key insight into how business works. You pick up analytical skills and a lot of your projects are done in teams, so we got used to presenting in groups.
The qualification was life-changing, really, it provided me with really great opportunities, it has enriched our family’s business. The changing environment for remote working is very different now, so I’m very fortunate to work with UK clients from our base in west Cork.
Working in professional services is demanding, but I think it’s equally an incredibly rewarding career.