In Ireland the vast majority of people go on to complete some form of further study after leaving secondary school. There is a very good third level education system and the country is known for producing a highly skilled and astute workforce. Entry into university and college programs depend on the individuals state examination results.

Degrees and course structure

It is important to clarify that there is not a great difference between the terms “College”, “Institute of Technology” and “University” in Ireland. These are terms that are used very loosely in Ireland and many people who go to a registered university will say they go to college and vice versa, unaware of the fact that in other countries there is a big difference between a university and a college. What is important however is to be able to distinguish between the different qualifications those individual Universities, Colleges and Institutes of Technology offer.

Each course that runs in Ireland is registered under the National Framework of Qualifications. This framework is a ten-level system (1–10) giving an academic or vocational value to each qualification that can be obtained in Ireland. This allows individuals to access the quality of the course that they are interested in before applying and gain an indication of what prospects they may have upon completing the course.

In general secondary school leavers aim to gain a place on a course which is registered as a level six, seven or eight qualification.

  • Level 6 qualifications usually take 2 years to complete and act as a stepping stone for further study.
  • Level 7 qualifications are Ordinary level bachelor degrees.
  • Level 8 qualifications are Honours level Bachelor degrees. (Example B.A, B.S.C etc)

The important thing to note is that Colleges, Universities and Institutes of Technology can all offer Honours level Bachelor degrees.

There are under thirty Universities and Colleges in Ireland. Most offer a broad range of courses while a small number focus on education for specific industries. Most of these organisations are organised into different schools of teaching.

There are two semesters in each academic year. In most cases semester one runs from early September to late December, while semester two runs from late January to May. Examinations are typically held at the end of each semester. Most courses also incorporate continuous assessment.

Application and fees

Acceptance into University and College courses is always based on the academic ability and previous exam performance of the applicant in state examinations. In some cases mature entrants may gain access to a course based on previous life experience.

Third level education for Irish Nationals and EU Nationals is paid for by the state however the government has recently introduced a registration fee model where even those receiving free education pay about €4000 per year in the form of a registration fee. In comparison to other countries this fee is quite reasonable, given the opportunities a third level qualification offers.

In order to qualify for “free fees” students must be an Irish National, or a national of another EU state, living in the EU for at least 3 of the past 5 years. They must be applying for a course of at least 2 years in duration and must not have any other qualification which is of a similar standing on the National Qualification Framework.

Anyone who does not fall into the above criteria and wish to go to college or university must pay outright for their tuition without state assistance. The cost per year varies depending on the course but it is worth noting that it is quite expensive with some courses costing upwards of €25,000 per annum.

Campus culture and student life

There are many different types of campuses in Ireland. Some third level institutions are based in the capital without immediate access to a campus and sporting facilities. Others are located in the suburbs and have a much more communal feel with acres of space for activities and on-site accommodation. It is worth visiting the institution on an open day before applying for a place on a course.

Societies play a big part in college and university life in Ireland. At the start of each academic year students are given the option to join societies for a nominal fee. This provides a social outlet for society members and allows new college entrants to expand their social network outside of the classroom. Examples of popular Irish societies in most universities are the climbing society, champion frisbee society and the comedy society. Organised and involved students are elected as society organisers and they arrange regular events on a weekly or bi weekly basis.

Universities in Cork, Dublin and Limerick attract applicants from all over the country and abroad. This means that a fair proportion of students live away from home during this time. Living costs per month will average €1,000+ by the time rent, transport, food, entertainment and any course material are taken into account. This can be expensive when living costs are taken into account and most students find some casual work in a bar or retail outlet to cover some of the costs involved.

Top Irish universities

Three Irish universities offer courses that are ranked in the top 50 in the world. This is a significant achievement given that Ireland is a small country with a small population of under 5 million people.

1. Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College is a city centre based college with a rich history and beautifully maintained cloistered grounds. Students who attend Trinity College are allocated their own personal tutor. Trinity College is also home to Ireland’s largest private library. The college leads many Irish and International based research initiatives.

2. University College Dublin

UCD is based in the affluent area of Belfield on a 360 acre parkland campus. It is Ireland’s largest university with over 30,000 students studying on-campus at any given time. UCD has a reputation for delivering excellent business, arts and engineering courses. Sports and social events are considered an important factor in everyday university life on-campus.

3. University College Cork

UCC is located in the south west of Ireland on an attractive campus which combines new architecture with old. The university is world renowned for its medical courses. The university has an enviable list of alumni including Jack Lynch the former prime minister of Ireland. Societies in UCC are very active and each year they attract many high profile guest speakers.