The third-level education sector in Ireland consists of universities, institutes of technology, and colleges of education – collectively known as higher education institutions or HEIs. Third-level qualifications are Levels 6-10 in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). The Framework is a system of 10 levels which allows national and international educational qualifications to be compared.
Universities in Ireland are state-funded, but they are generally autonomous. University students qualify with Ordinary Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 7) or Honors Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 8). You can choose from 4 universities in Ireland. These include:
- The National University of Ireland (NUI), which is the umbrella university covering University College Dublin, University College Galway, University College Cork, and St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth. The NUI also has recognised colleges including the National College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Surgeons
- The University of Dublin, which is generally known as Trinity College Dublin (TCD)
- The University of Limerick (UL)
- Dublin City University (DCU)
Institutes of technology
There are 14 institutes of technology located around the country. In the Dublin area they are Dublin, Tallaght, Blanchardstown and Dun Laoghaire. Around the country they are in Cork, Waterford, Tralee, Dundalk, Athlone, Galway and Mayo, Sligo, Letterkenny, Limerick, and Carlow. These colleges run courses in Engineering, Computing, Science, Business, Catering and a wide range of other areas. Students generally qualify with Higher Certificates (NFQ Level 6) or Ordinary Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 7). Honours Bachelors degrees are also available.
Colleges of education
There are several colleges of education in Ireland, providing specialised training for primary school teachers.
In addition to the state-funded colleges, there are a number of fee-paying third-level educational institutions offering courses, mainly in professional vocational training and business. Some of these colleges are linked to universities or professional associations and their qualifications may be accredited accordingly. Others offer Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) accreditation. It is important to check out the accreditation on offer before you choose your course.
Picking a course
The Central Applications Office (CAO), which is based in Galway, operates a centralised applications procedure for all third-level colleges. The CAO website has a listing of all of the third-level courses on offer through their system. You can also check the Findacourse.ie website for lists of higher education courses. If you have identified some courses that are of particular interest, you can obtain more detailed information about them from the relevant colleges.
The points system
Entrance to third-level education in Ireland is generally decided by competition. At the end of their secondary school education, students sit the Leaving Certificate exam and their grades are converted into numerical points based on scores in their 6 best subjects. These points are calculated and third-level places are awarded on that basis. You can find more information in our document on applications procedures and entry requirements.
Recognition of qualifications from other countries
If you have taken your secondary school exams under another system in another country, you will need to check whether your qualifications will be sufficient to secure a place in the Irish third-level course of your choice. You can do this through the Qualifications Recognition service of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. You should then contact the college directly to confirm this before making your application unless it is a college in the Institutes of Technology Central Evaluation Forum.
English language requirements
English is the language of instruction at all third-level colleges in Ireland (some colleges also instruct in the Irish language) so you will need to show that you are proficient in the language before you will be accepted on a course. Colleges’ requirements differ but generally they look for an acceptable English language proficiency test, for example the TOEFL or equivalent. You may be able to take English courses at the college of your choice, but if these are not available there are a number of private English language colleges around the country.
A small number of places are retained for mature students, those over the age of 23. These places are designed to improve access to third-level for adults who may not have sufficient points from their Leaving Certificate to compete with school-leavers. If you are interested in applying for one of these places, you should first contact the college of your choice. Some colleges require you to apply through the Central Applications Office and you must apply before 1 February of the year you start your course.
There are a number of part-time and modular courses and distance education options available if the full-time education option does not suit your circumstances.
Student visas and permission to remain
If you are travelling from a country that requires a visa to enter Ireland, you need to apply for a student visa. If you are not required to have a visa to enter Ireland, you do not need a student visa to study in Ireland but you should have your letter of offer of a place at the school, or educational institution and your other documentation ready for inspection at immigration.
Proposed changes to student immigration: The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has proposed changes to the immigration system for full-time non-EEA students including: from January 2010 a cap on the length of time they can stay in Ireland as students; and from January 2011 a visa requirement for all non-EEA students.
All non-EEA students must register with their local immigration officer to get permission to remain in Ireland. The website of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) has details of what evidence is required. From September 2008 non-EEA students coming to Ireland for the first time may not get permission to remain in Ireland if they have their children with them, or intend their children to join them later on. There is more information about the children of non-EEA students on the INIS website.
Students from the EU/EEA and Switzerland do not need a student visa nor do they require permission to remain in Ireland.
Third level graduate scheme
From 10 April 2007 non-EEA students who have graduated on or after 1 January 2007 with a primary, master’s or doctorate degree may be permitted to remain in Ireland for 6 months. The Third Level Graduate Scheme allows them to find employment and apply for a work permit or Green Card permit. They must be legally resident in Ireland and should apply for this 6-month extension of their student permission (stamp 2) to their local immigration registration office.
Each higher education institution sets its own fee rates. You should contact the ones you are interested in to find out more about their fees. You can find a list of higher education institutions on the website of the Department of Education and SKills.
Free fees: If you are a European Union national or have official refugee status and you have been normally resident in a EU member state for at least 3 of the 5 years before beginning third-level education, you will not be charged fees for approved full-time undergraduate courses in state-run universities and institutes of technology. You may however have to pay a small amount for registration, examinations etc. You may be eligible for a maintenance grant. Funding is not awarded where students already hold an undergraduate degree.
EU fees: If you are an EU citizen or have official refugee status and you have received all your post-primary in the EU but have not been resident in an EU state for 3 of the 5 years before beginning third-level education you may qualify for EU fees. Alternatively, if you are not an EU citizen but you have been residing in an EU country for 3 of the last 5 years before entering third-level education you may be eligible for EU fees.
Non-EU fees: If you are applying for a place at third level as an overseas student, you will be charged full tuition fees and you will not be eligible for a maintenance grant.
If you choose to enrol in a private college, you will have to pay annual fees. These vary from college to college.
Tax relief: You may be able to claim tax relief on third-level tuition fees.
How to apply
Apply to the Central Applications Office (CAO) using a CAO application form. Make sure that you enclose the appropriate fee with your application.
For participating higher education institutions, application can be made on-line through the CAO.
Application deadlines for EU/EEA nationals
Your application should be submitted by 1 February of the year you wish to start the course.
If you miss the February deadline, you can submit your application up to 1 May. You will have to pay an additional “late fee”.
Application deadlines for non-EEA nationals
If you are now, or have been in the past, resident outside the EEA, you may be required to apply directly to the higher education institution (HEI). You need to contact the admissions office of the following HEIs to enquire whether you should apply through the CAO or directly to the HEI.
You should make your enquiries well before the closing date of 1 February and preferably not later than the previous 15 December. If you are applying to any other HEI you should apply through the CAO.