Third-level education in Ireland

Third-level educational institutions

A wide range of institutions in Ireland provide third-level education. The university sector, the technological sector and the colleges of education are substantially funded by the State. In addition, there are a number of independent private colleges.

The Higher Education Authority is the statutory agency responsible for the funding of universities, institutes of technology and certain other higher education institutions. It has an advisory role in relation to the whole sector of third-level education.

University sector

Most universities in Ireland are State-funded, but they are generally autonomous. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) is a private university.

The universities in Ireland are:

Technological sector

The technological sector includes technological universities (TUs) and institutes of technology (ITs).

The Technological Universities Act 2018 allows institutes of technology to apply to become a new type of higher education institution with technological university status. TUs and ITs provide programmes of education and training in areas such as business, science, engineering, linguistics and music to certificate, diploma and degree levels.

There are 5 technological universities:

There are 2 institutes of technology:

Colleges of education

Several colleges of education in Ireland provide specialised training for primary school teachers. They offer a 3-year Bachelor of Education degree and an 18-month postgraduate diploma. Post-primary teachers generally do a primary degree, followed by a postgraduate diploma. You can find more information in our document on teacher qualifications.

Other colleges

In addition to State-funded colleges, a number of fee-paying third-level educational institutions offer 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 – see below.

Third-level qualifications

The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) is a system of 10 levels which allows the different standards and levels qualifications to be compared. A diagram of the NFQ is on the website of the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). Third-level qualifications are Levels 6-10 in the Framework.

Award of qualifications

In the university sector the awarding bodies are the National University of Ireland (UCD, UCC, UG and Maynooth), Dublin University, Dublin City University, the University of Limerick, and the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Technological universities (TUs) make their own awards. Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) is the awarding body for third-level educational institutions outside the university sector. QQI is also the awarding body for further education and training. It also awards Higher Certificates (NFQ Level 6). More detailed information is in our document on further and higher education qualifications.

Universities: The State-supported universities all award their own degrees and other awards. University students qualify with Ordinary Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 7) or Honours Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 8). Universities also offer Masters (NFQ Level 9) and Doctoral (NFQ Level 10) postgraduate degrees.

Technological sector: Technological universities (TUs) make their own awards. Institutes of technology (ITs) grant degrees, diplomas and certificates, which are validated by QQI. Students of TUs and ITs generally qualify with Higher Certificates (NFQ Level 6) or Ordinary Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 7). Honours Bachelors degrees (NFQ Level 8), Postgraduate Diplomas (NFQ Level 9) and Higher Doctorate (NFQ Level 10) are also available.

Other colleges: The other State-supported colleges generally grant awards that are validated by QQI. The private colleges make awards, some of which are validated by foreign universities and some of which are validated by QQI. Some of their awards are not validated by any outside body.

Progression is a feature of the National Framework of Qualifications. Often a Level 6 certificate awarded by QQI can offer the opportunity to continue on to a NFQ Level 7 or Level 8 degree. The Higher Education Links Scheme allows those with a QQI Level 5 and Level 6 (NFQ) qualification to progress to higher education. You can get more information on the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) website.

How to apply for third-level education

If you are thinking of going to college you can search the Qualifax website for details of courses. Generally, applications for undergraduate courses in Ireland are made through the Central Applications Office (CAO). You can find more information in our documents on application procedures and entry requirements, third-level fees and tax relief for third-level fees. See below for information about postgraduate study.

If you think you might qualify for a grant, you will find information on maintenance grant schemes for students on third-level courses and grants and funds available for mature students.

Where to apply for third-level education

Postgraduate study

You need to consider what kind of postgraduate study you wish to do, what are the most suitable courses for you and your career and what costs are involved. Postgraduate study can be a taught course or based on research and generally falls into one of the following categories:

  • Postgraduate diploma: Often this is a vocational course, linked to professions such as teaching or librarianship. The subject may be different from the primary degree.
  • Masters degree: This can be a taught course or based on research. It lasts 1-2 years and usually involves course work and a thesis.
  • PhD: This is a doctorate awarded for a thesis based on research. It takes at least 3 years' study and it must be an original contribution to knowledge.

Funding postgraduate study

In general, you will have to pay fees for postgraduate courses. You may be able to get tax relief on the fees. If you got a third-level grant for your undergraduate course, you may qualify for a grant for postgraduate study in Ireland, including Northern Ireland.

There are different sources of funding for postgraduate students. Sometimes financial support is available from the university that is running the postgraduate course; sometimes you need to apply to an external body. A number of research bodies provide funding for postgraduate research in Ireland, including the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.

A number of scholarships and fellowships for study abroad are awarded annually by foreign governments to Irish students who are engaged in, or have completed, a course of third-level education. You can find information about opportunities for postgraduate study abroad on the Department of Further and Higher Education website and on the European University Institute website. If you wish to study in the UK there is a graduate website for the UK called Prospects.

Applying for postgraduate courses

For postgraduate courses you generally apply directly to the university or college. You can find information about postgraduate courses and applications from the careers office in your college or university. If you are applying for postgraduate courses in the UK you may apply online to certain universities and colleges.

Page edited: 26 January 2023