Ireland

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George’s Channel. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 identifies a number of high level objectives for the Irish higher education system.  These are:

  • Ireland will have an excellent higher education system that will attract and respond to a wide range of potential students from Ireland and abroad and will be fully accessible throughout their lives and changing circumstances.
  • Students will experience an education that is excellent, relevant and responsive to their personal development and growth as fully engaged citizens within society;
  • Research activity in Irish higher education will continue to increase. It will be characterised by its international level quality, by a strong and broad base across all disciplines, as well as significant focus in niche areas that are aligned with and are a significant support for Irish national economic social and cultural needs;
  • Institutions will be autonomous, collaborative and outward looking, effectively governed and fully accountable for both quality and efficiency outcomes. They will respond flexibly to the changing needs of the economy and of society. Higher education will recruit, develop and retain high-quality staff, fully accountable for their performance to a strong and dynamic leadership.
  • Higher education will accommodate a diversity of institutional missions that will be clearly articulated and defined. Together, the institutions will form a coherent and inter-related system and collectively will have the requisite critical mass for optimal quality and efficiency.
  • The policy framework for higher education will make national expectations clear. The objectives and operations of the institutions and those of the funding and quality agencies will be mutually aligned, and will be underpinned by a sustainable funding model and clearly defined structures for system governance and accountability.
RegionCentral Europe
CapitalDublin
LanguageIrish
Population6,572,728
Expenditure on higher education2,6 %
Unemployment4,8 %
EuroUniversities in top 1001
EuroUniversities in top 2505
EuroUniversities in top 5008
EuroUniversities in top 100018
Students225,000
Foreigner students8,1 %
Enrollment rate in higher education78,3 %

Since the early 1960s, there has been a transformation with regard to the role of tertiary education and its structure, content, and place in the socio-economic affairs of the nation and a strong higher education binary system was established.  While the universities were to be greatly expanded, the second prong to policy was the building up of a strong non-university sector with a scheme of new regional technical colleges, the development of the Dublin Institute of Technology and the setting up of National Institutes of Higher Education in Limerick and in Dublin. This sector of the binary system was intended to be more technical and applied than the university sector and to come more directly under state control. Even when the National Institutes of Higher Education at Limerick and Dublin were raised to the status of independent universities in 1989, it did not break the policy approach for a binary higher education system.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) was established in 1968 as a key intermediary agency between the state and the universities with important planning and budgetary responsibilities for the university sector. In 1971 the National Council for Educational Awards (NCEA) was set up with academic responsibilities for the non-university sector. The Central Applications Office (CAO) was set up in 1971 to process applications for all university undergraduate courses, on the basis of a points system linked to performance in the Leaving Certificate Examinations. It later took on the processing of applications for the non-university sector also.   

In 1998 the Regional Technical Colleges became Institutes of Technology (IoTs), and while they have delegated authority to grant some or all of their own awards, such authority is ultimately subject to validation by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).

In November 2012, a significant piece of legislation relating to the quality assurance of higher education was enacted, namely the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act (2012).  The Education and Training Act 2012 will have a considerable impact on the quality assurance of higher education in Ireland over the coming years.  Under this legislation, a new agency called Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), was established.  QQI was created by an amalgamation of three bodies that had both awarding and quality assurance responsibilities in the higher education area: the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) and the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB).  

QQI also comprises the body which had awarding and quality assurance responsibilities for the further education and training area; the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC).

Ireland has seven universities legislated for under the Universities Act 1997 and thirteen institutes of technology legislated for under the Institute of Technology Act 2006 and the Dublin Institute of Technology which is legislated for under the Dublin Institute of  Technology Act 2006.  There are also a significant number of private and not for profit independent colleges offering higher education programmes.  

Irish tertiary education has experienced significant growth and development over recent decades involving such features as improved infrastructure, new legislative frameworks, diversification of courses, new forms of teaching and learning, expansion of research activities, new governing structures, quality assurance procedures, and modernised accountability measures. There has been a general proactive policy approach which has transformed tertiary education in contemporary Ireland from that of a generation ago.

The proportion of 18 year olds entering higher education is approximately two thirds. Ireland now ranks highly internationally in terms of attainment in higher education with 48% of 25-34 year olds with a tertiary education qualification.

In 2011, the Minister for Education and Skills launched a strategy that will see the transformation of Ireland’s higher education sector over the next two decades.  The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, has been endorsed by the Government as the future blueprint for the sector. The Strategy sets out changes for the sector that are aimed at providing for:

  • a more flexible system, with a greater choice of provision and modes of learning for an increasingly diverse cohort of students;
  • improvements in the quality of the student experience, the quality of teaching and learning and the relevance of learning outcomes; and
  • ensuring that higher education connects more effectively with wider social, economic and enterprise needs through its staff, the quality of its graduates, the relevance of its programmes, the quality of its research and its ability to translate that into high value jobs and real benefits for society.

It was not until the economic expansion of the 1990’s that significant investment from public funds in research in tertiary education became established. The realisation that the production, dissemination and utilisation of knowledge were the key driving forces of the knowledge society provided a momentum for such investment. While the economic returns from research provide an important incentive for public investment, it is also realised that research widens and advances the intellectual, cultural and artistic accomplishments of society.

There has been significant exchequer investment in research, particularly in the higher education sector, since the late 1990s and this has been matched by high levels of growth in research investment in the private sector. Higher Education R & D expenditure, the majority of which is provided from public sources, increased from €200m in 1998 to €829m in 2009 (Statistics at a Glance 2011) , while the numbers graduating with PhDs grew from 808 in 2005 to 1222 in 2010 (HEA Statistics) . Significant developments since the late 1990s include the introduction of the Programme for Research and Development in Third Level Institutions; the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland; establishment of the Research Councils (merged to form one Council in 2012), and adoption by Government in 2006 of a whole of government Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation.

However, in comparative terms, such expenditure must be gauged against general expenditure on research and development (GERD) as a percentage of GDP. In 2009 Ireland at 1.78% (GNP) is below the EU mean of 1.92%, and the OECD mean of 2.34% (2008) (Statistics at a Glance 2011) . In its National Reform Programme submitted to the European Commission in April 2011, Ireland targets to increase overall expenditure on research to 2.5% of GNP (2.0%GDP) (National Reform Programme April 2011).

The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-13 was drawn up by the National Access Office in close consultation with the Department of Education and Skills and other education partners.  It follows directly from the 2005-2007 Action Plan on Equity of Access to Higher Education and from the 2001 Report of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education.  It is aligned with the National Development Plan in terms of strategic objectives and, in particular, with the high level objective of the Student Support/Third Level AccessSub-Programme.

The objectives of this Plan are set within the overall mission of the Department of Education and Skills, to “enable individuals to develop their full potential and to participate fully as members of society” and to provide for high quality education which will “contribute to Ireland’s social, cultural and economic development”. It contributes directly to the achievement of the Department’s objective to “promote access to higher education for under represented groups and provide flexible learning opportunities.

Bachelor

Branches of Study

The range of faculties, departments and subjects available varies from institution to institution. Details of all courses appear in the prospectus and student handbooks published by each institution. The CAO lists courses available. At the colleges of National University of Ireland, the duration of study for the first degree, the Bachelor’s degree, in Arts and Humanities, the Social Sciences, Law and Commerce/Business Studies, is (with some exceptions) three years. Cognate degrees would generally be of four years’ duration at Trinity College, University of Limerick and Dublin City University. Students on a range of degrees have the opportunity to do part of their study in another EU college.

First-degree courses in Engineering, Agriculture and Science generally take four years; five years in the case of Architecture and Veterinary Medicine, five or six years for Dentistry. Six years are required for Medicine.

Post-graduate diplomas are increasingly available in a range of subjects, frequently linked to continuing professional development.

All the universities tend to offer courses in the Humanities and Arts, Science, Mathematics and Computing, Social Science, Business and Commerce, Engineering and Law. Professional disciplines such as Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Architecture and Agriculture are not available in all universities, and are located in the longer established universities.

The first postgraduate degree, the Master’s degree, requires in general 1-2 years of study and can be taken either by thesis or by examination and minor thesis. A doctoral degree generally takes 3-4 years to complete.

More than a third of primary degree graduates proceed to further study, which includes a postgraduate degree, teacher training and other professional training.

The introduction of modularisation, symmetrisation and credit transfers is allowing more flexibility for students, including mobility between institutions.

The duration of degree courses in IoTs is three and four years (Ordinary and Honours Degrees respectively). The full-time students in the Institutes of Technology by main fields of study in 2011/12 were proportioned as follows: Social Science, Business and Law 26.3%, Humanities and Arts 11.1%, Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction 18.7%, Science 15.9%, Health and Welfare 13.9%, Services 11.4% and other 2.7%. The proportion of full-time students at the different course levels was: Diploma and Higher Certificate (Level 6) 8.5%; Ordinary Degree (Level 7) 36.3%; Honours Degree (Level 8) 51.1%; postgraduate (Levels 9 and 10) 4.1%.

The establishment of the National Qualifications Authority Ireland (NQAI) in 2001, which has since been subsumed into Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), provided an overarching body for all education and training awards which facilitates access, progression and transfer for students within and between courses and institutions.

Admission Requirements

The main entry requirement for higher education is the Leaving Certificate, which is taken at the end of post-primary schooling. Most pupils are aged 17 or 18 on leaving school. Because of competition for places, a student leaving school in Ireland and possessing the academic qualifications for entry to a higher education institution is not automatically entitled to a place. The institutions reserve the right to restrict the number of students entering first-year undergraduate courses. Where it is found necessary to limit the number of entrants to a course, places are allocated in order of merit on the basis of points achieved in the final  school-leaving examination, the Leaving Certificate. In general, prospective undergraduate students are accepted on the basis of examination performance and are not interviewed by the college in question.

The increase in demand for third-level places in certain faculties which took place over the last two decades has caused the entry requirements to rise beyond the basic academic entry standard set by each college. Accordingly, competition for entry is very keen in such disciplines as medicine, veterinary, law, pharmacy. The number of places for such courses is determined by government and agreed by the institutions. Entry to some courses such as art or architecture requires portfolio submissions and sometimes, aptitude tests. Subjects such as Engineering and Medicine may require applicants to have a particular subject such as Mathematics or Science.

In 2009, a new entry mechanism to undergraduate medical education was introduced. The new selection process includes a medical school admissions test that complements the Leaving Certificate examination for selecting applicants for admission to an undergraduate Medical School programme. The admissions test selected by the Irish medical schools is called HPAT-Ireland (Health Professions Admission Test-Ireland). This test is independently administered by ACER (Australian Council for Educational Research). ACER has an international reputation and a track record in the development, management and research of selection tests for undergraduate medical and health related programmes. The HPAT-Ireland test measures a candidate’s logical reasoning and problem solving skills as well as non-verbal reasoning and the ability to understand the thoughts, behaviour and/or intentions of people. It does not test academic knowledge and candidates do not require special understanding of any academic discipline.

Entrance Examinations

Individual institutions do not hold entrance examinations nor do school reports or interviews form part of the entry procedures for school-leaver applicants.  Some institutions hold interviews or entrance examinations for mature applicants.

Numerus Clausus

In courses where numerus clausus does not exist, it is up to the institutes to accept students subject to the availability of space and staff.

Applications for entry to undergraduate courses in universities, colleges of education, institutes of technology and some other institutes of higher education, are processed by the Central Applications Office (CAO), located in Galway. Applicants submit one application form which allows them to choose up to 10 courses from the higher certificate/ordinary bachelor list and/or up to 10 courses may be chosen from the honours degree list. In both cases, courses must be listed in order of preference. The aim of the system is to process applications centrally and to deal with them in an efficient and fair manner. The participating institutions retain the function of making decisions on admissions. Since 1996 a number of the private colleges have joined the CAO system. However, these colleges charge fees and student grants are not available.

Applications for postgraduate courses are made directly to the relevant institution, except in the case of Higher Diploma in Education courses for which the NUI universities have a central applications system, also located in Galway.

Mature Student Entry

The majority of institutions have developed entry routes and quotas of reserved places for mature students. These are generally defined as applicants to higher education who are over 23 years of age (on the 1 of January in the year of entry), who may not have achieved the same entry requirements as school leavers. Institutions vary in their criteria for mature student admission.  General information on entry requirements is available on the Qualifax website which is managed by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). The majority of third level institutions require a mature student to apply in the first instance through the Central Applications Office.  However applicants are also advised to contact the colleges directly to establish if there are any additional admission requirements. In most instances, credit is given for prior work experience, particularly if it has some relevance to the intended course of study. Interviews are held, samples of written work may be sought and some institutions hold entry examinations.

A number of colleges offer pre-entry access/foundation courses to prepare mature learners for entry to tertiary education. Since the launch of a National Framework of Qualifications there has also been increased progression by students with further education awards to higher education. The National Access Office estimates that at least one third of higher education entrants who apply on the basis of a further education award are mature learners.  In 2011/12, 14% of full-time undergraduate new entrants were mature learners.

Development of alternative routes of access is increasing levels of access and lifelong learning in Ireland.  There are also increased levels of transfer and progression within higher education by holders of tertiary level certificate or diploma level awards on to degree-level studies. It is worth noting that institutions with quotas for mature students report that in general those students perform well in their studies. Routes of progression between the higher and further education sectors continue to be developed – 6.6% of students were accepted on a place in higher education in 2012 on the basis of having applied with a further education qualification. This compares to 2.8% of acceptors in 2007.

The majority of institutions have access offices.  Many also have mature student offices and disability support services  Learning support centres, counsellors and career guidance personnel act as a support infrastructure for all students while also focusing on the specific needs of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and those with disabilities.

In 2008, the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education set a target to increase proportion of full-time mature students in higher education from 13% (in 2006) to 20% by 2013. It also set targets for increased participation by mature learners in full and part-time higher education (from 18% to 27% by 2013).  In 2011/12, 14% of full-time undergraduate new entrants were mature students.

Higher Education Access Programmes and Supports

Programmes targeting the increased participation of mature students are supported  by core access funding allocated as part of the annual recurrent grant of each institution by the HEA. From 2006-2011, collaboration between groups of institutions in the development of regional models of support have also been developed with the support of Strategic Innovation Funding. Each higher education institution has an access office and most also have mature students offices and centres of adult and lifelong learning. These units provide support and advice to prospective and current mature students. A range of initiatives facilitate the return to learning by adults seeking second chance entry into higher education, including guidance and information measures such as open days, taster courses, foundation courses and outreach programmes, including links with the further and community education sector in each county.

The core objectives of the plan include the progression of the lifelong learning agenda in Ireland through the development of broader routes of entry to higher education, a significant expansion of part-time/flexible courses (from 7% to 17% by 2013), in tandem with financial measures to address the student support implications of lifelong learning.

Curriculum

In general terms, tertiary institutions enjoy academic freedom in the design of their curricula. No guidelines exist regarding a minimum common curriculum for tertiary level. Once courses are established academic departments have the authority to adapt and refine them, but major course changes need the approval of internal bodies such as faculties. Periodically, peer reviews of the work of departments take place as part of quality assurance processes, and course content may be subject to change in the light of outcomes of the review process.

Where courses are subject to the approval of professional bodies such as the Medical Council or the Law Society, tertiary institutions need to abide by the requirements of such bodies if the courses are to be recognised for professional license purposes. Within the university sector, new course proposals are processed through formal approval mechanisms. Those proposing new courses are required to justify their initiative under a variety of headings, including the need/demand for such a course, the proposed content, costings, pedagogic and assessment methods etc. External peer review opinions are obtained on the proposal which must then be approved by the academic council, the finance committee and the governing body.

Within the IoT sector, a rigorous procedure is also in place, of a different kind, to win approval for new course proposals. As well as gaining the approval of internal institutional bodies, new courses need to satisfy the requirements of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), and in some circumstances the approval of the HEA.

Thus, while the institutions enjoy a high degree of academic freedom in relation to curricula and course design, this is conducted within control parameters which seek to ensure the quality of what is being proposed, and the legitimacy of need for such courses.

With regard to language teaching, the methodology in some instances operates on a sequential basis from the school-leaving standard in the subject while in other cases it is presented from an ab initio perspective. In University College Galway, some courses are provided through the medium of the Irish language. In modern language teaching, efforts are made to teach in the direct method using the target language as the medium of instruction. Courses at undergraduate and post-graduate level on European Studies, combine language study with subjects such as history, geography, art and philosophy. Special efforts are made to support students who have a limited standard in the target language for such courses. Most universities have language centres which specialise in supporting students to develop a functional knowledge of languages required in their academic studies. European Studies has become an increasingly attractive option. Course pairings such as a European Language combined with Business, Law, and Economics have also become more popular.

Teaching Methods

Teaching and learning and successful student completion is at the heart of higher education. Through its funding approach, the HEA provides particular support to these key objectives. Targeted funding has been directed at providing excellence in teaching and learning and support for student retention since 2000 – this was subsumed into the core funding in 2006.  

Teaching and learning have always formed the central core of the work of a tertiary education institution in Ireland. However, in the context of mass higher education, more specific attention is being given to promoting improved quality in teaching with a view to improved learning on the part of students. This new emphasis on teaching quality has become very much in evidence in Irish institutions. In the first instance, stress is being laid on increasing the repertoire of teaching styles. Lectures continue to be a staple format, but are increasingly supplemented by a range of other teaching approaches. Thus, seminars, tutorials, case studies, practicals, workshops, demonstrations, role-play, and action research projects now more regularly feature in the teacher-student interaction.

Methodologies tend to vary from discipline to discipline. Because of the large number of students on some courses there needs to be a reliance on the lecture method, supplemented by tutorials and workshops where the larger group may be broken up into smaller units. In 2011/12 the average student-teacher ratio in universities in Ireland was 23:1 and in the institutes of technology was 16:1.  

Arts, humanities, social science and general science courses tend to have large student numbers which influence the teaching methods employed. While students utilise ICT in a variety of ways to support their learning, the integration of ICT into the actual teaching-learning interaction seems to be best developed in science, architecture, engineering and medical courses.

Course structures are being remodelled as Irish institutions change towards course symmetrisation and modularisation. The institutions have prepared to ensure that the shift from the traditional course framework would be achieved satisfactorily. Modularisation and credit transfer are seen as promoting student mobility within and between institutions at home and abroad, facilitating access, facilitating mature and second chance students, and enhancing continuing or recurrent education. Teaching continues to be discipline- or module-based by the particular department with direct responsibility for the course. Some experimentation is occurring with multi-disciplinary teaching, but this tends to be more at post-graduate level. Courses are taught mainly to cohorts of full-time students on a structured, daily, time-tabled basis. Teaching for part-time courses usually takes place in the evenings, supplemented by some weekend work, or summer courses. Provision for courses on a sandwich basis is, as yet, very limited, but increased modularisation may extend this form of provision.

To a large degree, teachers are free to choose their own teaching methods and styles. While the policies of institutions encourage varied styles of teaching and reward teaching prowess, they do not prescribe methodologies. Most departments will have evolved preferred policies on teaching styles and seek to encourage and promote variety of approach. Teaching staff are expected to implement such policies, but there is no specific obligation on them to do so. Most teachers use audio-visual aids such as the overhead projector, PC Powerpoint or other multimedia in presenting material and tend to prepare their own teaching materials such as handouts, visuals, graphs etc. The latter materials are made available to students free of charge or, if voluminous, at a nominal charge. Students are expected to back-up such materials by purchasing course texts and/or utilising course books in the institution’s library. All institutions now have quality promotion officers who organise a great range of staff development courses. Many of these are in the area of methodology, including the integration of ICT into teaching-learning contexts. Each university department, on a cyclic basis, is subject to quality assurance exercises, including peer review evaluation. The quality and range of teaching methodology forms a central role in this process, to which students contribute. Prowess in teaching now forms a more important part, than hitherto, for staff promotion. Incentives towards excellence in teaching have also occurred through the introduction of a competitive process of awards for distinguished teaching by many tertiary institutions. Some institutions have also devised teaching-learning charters which set out objectives and guarantees on teaching and learning requirements, for both staff and students.

The more extensive use of information and communication technologies (ICT) is greatly enriching the teaching-learning engagement. Students also benefit from course handbooks/guidelines which set out objectives, course outlines, teaching approaches and modes of assessment. Again the availability of ICT, internet and duplication facilities has been of great benefit to students’ learning.

The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 makes a number of recommendations to build on initiatives to develop excellence in teaching and learning.

Progression of Students

Normally, students need to be successful in the formal examinations laid down for each year of study to progress to the next stage. In the event of failure in one or more subjects provision exists for repeat examinations. If the end-of-year examinations occur in May-June, it is usually possible to take the repeat examination(s) in the autumn of the same year. The number of repeat attempts permitted varies according to discipline. In the case of professional courses e.g. teaching, success in the practical or professional side of the course is an essential requirement for passing. Subjects such as modern languages also require success in the oral test(s) as essential for passing final degree examinations. In some programmes provision occurs for passing by compensation. This means that, for instance, if there were three subjects being studied, students could be regarded as successful if they achieved well in two of them, and did not fall below a certain percentage in the third subject, even if they did not achieve the normal passing grade in that subject. In many courses, considerable flexibility is allowed for students to satisfactorily complete their courses in an extra time period – for instance, four to six attempts of examinations may be permitted. The increasing availability of modularised courses has introduced more flexibility into student assessment. Students do not necessarily have to take all course modules in sequence. However, due to a possible unavailability of certain modules each year, unsuccessful students may also be delayed in accumulating the required modules. Most courses are now credit-weighted which also allows more flexibility for transfer between tertiary institutions within Ireland and internationally. Students engaged in part-time courses are usually facilitated by employers with time off for assessment purposes.

There tends to be more flexibility in course duration for post-graduate studies such as masters and doctorate studies. Extensions of time for completion of research or assignments are frequently provided on the recommendation of heads of department. Provision also exists for being taken off the register for periods if students encounter serious health or other difficulties, permitting a resumption of studies/research when the difficulty is resolved.

Employability

Certain courses, involve work-placement in Ireland and/or in another European country. In addition, a developing aspect of student services at third level is a job promotion/contract service. Relations between employer bodies such as Irish Business Employers Council (IBEC) and the universities have become much closer in recent years. University-industry links have become much more integral in higher education. Grants and sponsorship from firms has become much greater than formerly. Many individual firms of a certain type maintain close links with particular departments and faculties. Some firms hold orientation sessions with final year undergraduates in some disciplines. IoTs usually have developed close links with employer bodies in their regions, and some interchange of staff experience takes place. Career guidance personnel tend to have close liaison with employers, and maintain lines of mutual communication between industry and the tertiary institution, to their mutual benefit. There is very little tradition of external employers participating in the assessment of students, but such personnel form part of accrediting committees and peer review teams in areas where this is productive. Representatives of external stakeholders participate in the governing authorities of tertiary institutions and bring perspectives from such agencies to bear on the deliberations of the bodies.

Engagement with enterprise is one of the core pillars of the National Strategy for Higher Education and detailed framework and range of recommendations to ensure the system continues to respond to enterprise needs is being implemented. This includes structured employer surveys and interaction, increased work placement opportunities, staff mobility into enterprise and a renewed focus on generic skills. Progress on the implementation of the Strategy is regularly updated on www.education.ie.

Student Assessment

Within the universities, modes of student assessment (marks and standards) are proposed by individual departments for adoption or adaptation by the faculties and academic councils of the institution. Within the IoT sector, as well as the processing of assessment procedures within institutions, there is also the need to gain the approval of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). In the past, there was a strong tradition of end-of-year summative assessments. These have now greatly altered, and while still operating for course elements, they are now supplemented by a range of other assessment modes. These include continuous assessment by means of assignments, projects, extended essays and action research. As well as contributing to the overall assessment of the student, they also allow for formative feedback to students on the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. With the increasing incidence of modular course provision, assessments are undertaken at end of the module, rather than at year-end, as well as accommodating features of continuous assessment. Of course, modes of assessment vary with the nature of different disciplines. For instance, modern language teaching requires oral examinations, sciences require laboratory practicals, and archaeology requires fieldwork assessments.

There is a strong tendency for heavy assessment in Irish tertiary education, in that most course elements are formally assessed in one form or other. The assessment modes, while varied in format lead to an overall quantitative assessment where total marks indicate the level of honours, pass or fail attained by the student. The subject department retains the key academic responsibility for student assessment. This is conducted according to the marks and standards agreed by the institution, and communicated to the student in course documentation. The system of external examiners exists for each department, whereby at the end of the assessment process, approved examiners, external to the institution, conduct a review of the department’s assessment gradings and help to resolve problems or divergences of opinion which may exist. Subsequent to this, a board of examiners is convened by the university authority where an overview and appraisal of assessments across the institution take place, and agreement is reached prior to the issuing of students’ results. In the case of the IoTs, a representative(s) of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) is also present for the institutional board of examiners meetings. In all institutions provision for student appeals is made, subject to published procedures.

Certification

As academically autonomous institutions, the universities have the authority to set the course content of their courses, to decide the methods of student assessment and to certify the awards given. They have the right to confer their own certificates, diplomas and degrees. These awards are recognised by the State. Where courses are subject to the approval of professional bodies such as the Medical Council or the Law Society, tertiary institutions need to abide by the requirements of such bodies if the courses are to be recognised for professional license purposes.

There has been very little, if any difficulty, relating to the recognition of Irish university qualifications by the State, professional bodies or international agencies. Consultation, good communications and trust have ensured that academic and professional standards are maintained to the satisfaction of all parties. Where adjustments and reforms are periodically needed these are addressed without problems ensuing. The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) enjoys the same degree of academic freedom as the universities in determining its standards, and conferring its academic professional awards.

In the IoT sector, each institute, following agreement of its quality assurance procedures with QQI, validates its own programmes. Additionally each institute, under delegated authority, under the Qualifications Education and Training Act 1999, grants its own awards. Most IoTs have delegated authority to make awards up to Level 9 (Masters) of the NFQ and about half of them have delegated awarding powers up to Level 10 (Doctorate). PhD degrees for the remainder are granted by QQI.

Second Cycle Programmes

Branches of Study

There are two types of Masters Degree in Ireland.  This can be either a taught course or based on research.  A Masters programme lasts 1-2 years and usually involves course work and a thesis. In the case of a research masters, there are generally opportunities for students to continue on to a PhD qualification.

Masters Programmes are delivered across all disciplines in the higher education sector.

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements are a matter for individual higher education institutions.

In general, entry to a programme leading to a taught Masters Degree is typically for holders of Honours Bachelor Degrees. Also in some cases, entry to such programmes can be permitted for those with Ordinary Bachelor Degrees or equivalent who have some relevant work experience. Furthermore, in some cases, entry to such programmes is permitted for people with extensive experience.

Entry to a programme leading to a research Masters Degree is typically for holders of Honours Bachelor Degrees, typically with a high classification attained – first or second class honours.

Curriculum

In general terms, tertiary institutions enjoy academic freedom in the design of their curricula. No guidelines exist regarding a minimum common curriculum for tertiary level. Once courses are established academic departments have the authority to adapt and refine them, but major course changes need the approval of internal bodies such as faculties. Periodically, peer reviews of the work of departments take place as part of quality assurance processes, and course content may be subject to change in the light of outcomes of the review process.

Where courses are subject to the approval of professional bodies such as the Medical Council or the Law Society, tertiary institutions need to abide by the requirements of such bodies if the courses are to be recognised for professional license purposes. Within the university sector, new course proposals are processed through formal approval mechanisms. Those proposing new courses are required to justify their initiative under a variety of headings, including the need/demand for such a course, the proposed content, costings, pedagogic and assessment methods etc. External peer review opinions are obtained on the proposal which must then be approved by the academic council, the finance committee and the governing body.

Within the IoT sector, a rigorous procedure is also in place, of a different kind, to win approval for new course proposals. As well as gaining the approval of internal institutional bodies, new courses need to satisfy the requirements of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and in some circumstances the approval of the HEA.

Thus, while the institutions enjoy a high degree of academic freedom in relation to curricula and course design, this is conducted within control parameters which seek to ensure the quality of what is being proposed, and the legitimacy of need for such courses.

Teaching Methods

In the case of research masters, each student each student has a principal supervisor, who is an active and successful scholar in the relevant area, and who has primary responsibility for the overall management and supervision of the student’s work and progress.

Progression of Students

Holders of a Masters degree, either taught of research, can progress to Doctoral studies.

Employability

There is a long tradition of higher education engaging with enterprise in the area of research. There are opportunities for students to engage with enterprise as part of their studies, and in come cases the student may conduct some or all of their research as part of an in-company placement. Relations between employer bodies such as Irish Business Employers Council (IBEC) and the universities have become much closer in recent years. University-industry links have become much more integral in higher education. Grants and sponsorship from firms has become much greater than formerly. Many individual firms of a certain type maintain close links with particular departments and faculties. Some firms hold orientation sessions with final year postgraduates in some disciplines. IoTs usually have developed close links with employer bodies in their regions, and some interchange of staff experience takes place. Career guidance personnel tend to have close liaison with employers, and maintain lines of mutual communication between industry and the tertiary institution, to their mutual benefit. There is very little tradition of external employers participating in the assessment of students, but such personnel form part of accrediting committees and peer review teams in areas where this is productive. Representatives of external stakeholders participate in the governing authorities of tertiary institutions and bring perspectives from such agencies to bear on the deliberations of the bodies.

Engagement with enterprise is one of the core pillars of the National Strategy for Higher Education and detailed framework and range of recommendations to ensure the system continues to respond to enterprise needs is being implemented. This includes structured employer surveys and interaction, increased work placement opportunities, staff mobility into enterprise and a renewed focus on generic skills. Progress on the implementation of the Strategy is regularly updated on www.education.ie.

Student Assessment

In the case of research Masters, students are generally examined solely on their research thesis.  A taught Masters may also include examination on relevant subjects.

Certification

As academically autonomous institutions, the universities have the authority to set the course content of their courses, to decide the methods of student assessment and to certify the awards given. They have the right to confer their own certificates, diplomas and degrees. These awards are recognised by the State. Where relevant, professional bodies, such as the Medical Council and the Law Society, recognise qualifications in their ambit of responsibility subject to their fulfilling certain requirements for professional recognition.

The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) enjoys the same degree of academic freedom as the universities in determining its standards, and conferring its academic professional awards. In the Institute of Technology (IoT) sector, each institute, following agreement of its quality assurance procedures with QQI validates its own programmes. Additionally each institute, under delegated authority, under the Qualifications Education and Training Act 1999, grants its own awards. Most IoTs have delegated authority to make awards up to Level 9 (Masters) of the NFQ and about half of them have delegated awarding powers up to Level 10 (Doctorate). PhD degrees for the remainder are granted by QQI.

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Organisation of Doctoral Studies

PhD education is provided across all disciplines. The core component of doctoral education is the advancement of knowledge through original research. The majority of PhD students, over 90%, are registered in the university sector. In terms of disciplines, over 60% are undertaking their PhD in the broad SET disciplines, while nearly 40% are in the HSS domain. The normal time to completion for a PhD is 3 to 4 years. Structured PhD programmes  are 4 years in duration.

There have been a number of national initiatives in the last five years which have shaped the development of PhD education in Ireland. The 2006 Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation recommended the doubling of PhD graduate numbers by 2013, the creation of graduate schools , and moves towards more structured PhD education. In response, a number of funding programmes were established by the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA to support the establishment of graduate schools and the development of structured PhD education.

The move to structured PhDs has been accelerated by the establishment in recent years of a Network of University Deans of Graduate Schools. The network has produced a PhD Graduate Skills Statement  which sets out the attributes which modern PhD graduates should possess. These principles recognise that advancement of knowledge through original research is the core component of PhD education, but PhD education must also facilitate additional skills development opportunities, including generic and transferable skills. This statement is fully compatible with the European Universities Association’s Salzburg principles, endorsed by a Higher Education Authority forum in March 2006.

The move to structured PhDs, practice based PhDs and industrial PhDs was supported through PRTLI, the Strategic Innovation Fund, the Irish Research Council and the Health Research Board (HRB) have assisted in the reform of graduate education in partnership with the higher education institutions.  

In 2009, the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) published national guidelines for good practice in the organisation of PhD programmes  and the HETAC published Research Degree Programme Policy and Criteria.  The guidelines present good practice in relation to institutional organisation, admission procedures, induction, supervision, profession development, and assessment.

Structured programmes preserve the PhD’s traditional strengths and embed activities that support the acquisition of a range of relevant specialist and generic skills. The following components have been put in place across HEIs with structured PhD programmes: formal induction, progress monitoring through advisory and supervisory panels, regular professional development needs review, placements where appropriate and access to disciplinary and generic skills development opportunities.

Higher education institutions have worked collaboratively to exchange best practice with regard to supervision arrangements, student supports and recruitment.  

Outside of the standard PhD delivery model, some HEI’s also offer professional doctorates which vary in terms of title, the amount of course delivered as taught element, timelines to completion etc.  Research undertaken as part of a professional doctorate may be more applied in nature, but candidates still acquire the necessary research and enquiry skills in order to carry out research that will contribute to professional knowledge and practice.

The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 recommends the development of a national quality framework for PhD education in Ireland.  This national framework for doctoral education is currently being developed which will offer clarity as to how doctoral education will be facilitated in Ireland and provide guidelines to maintain standards for quality across the system.

Admission Requirements

Entry to a programme leading to a Doctoral Degree is typically open to holders of Honours Bachelor Degrees and holders of Masters Degrees. The general model is that a holder of an Honours Bachelor Degree with a high classification enters initially onto a Masters research programme, and transfers on to a Doctoral programme after one year on the Masters research programme.

In some instances a Masters degree which provides grounding in research methodologies and a specialist knowledge in the area of research, or evidence of equivalent learning is required. Candidates with qualifications other than those outlined above and/ or who have gained credits from previous studies or can demonstrate experiential learning, including Mature Students, are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Admissions procedures and the number of students admitted generally are matters for the individual HEI.

Status of Doctoral Students/Candidates

In general, PhD candidates in Irish HEIs are classified as students and as such are not in receipt of the various employee entitlements eg social security and pensions rights.

Supervision Arrangements

The supervision of each research student is the collective responsibility of the supervisor(s), the department/school and the HEI. In general, each student has a principal supervisor, who is an active and successful scholar in the relevant area, and who has primary responsibility for the overall management and supervision of the student’s work and progress. In some instances a non-academic supervisor may also be appointed as joint-supervisor.

This structure is supplemented by a supporting supervisory academic panel (which may be inter-institutional or comprise international researchers) which monitors the student’s progress to ensure accountability of the supervision process and the resolution of any difficulties in the candidate-supervisor relationship. Periodic formal meetings and formal reviews between students and their supervisor and supervisory panel take place. Conflict resolution procedures are in place in each HEI.

Employability

There is a long tradition of higher education engaging with enterprise in the area of research. Such engagement allows input from non-academic stakeholders to inform the content of PhD programmes. Some schemes also allow for an enterprise partner to co-sponsor an award and in turn to appoint a joint non-academic supervisor to oversee the student’s research. In such instances, the student may conduct some or all of their research as part of an in-company placement.

In short, such engagement with non-academic stakeholders facilitates work placement opportunities for students, enterprise representation on advisory boards and/ or supervisory committees along with general assurance that education and research programmes meet the needs of the employment market outside of academia.  This engagement enhances the higher education system’s capacity to develop work relevant and work ready graduates.

Assessment

A PhD is normally awarded on the basis that a body of work carried out by the student makes “a contribution to knowledge” or is “suitable for publication in whole or in part”. Other aspects are also very important, including:

The depth and breadth of understanding of the relevant field(s) of study displayed by the student, and the expertise gained with respect to basic and advanced methodologies and techniques.

The assessment is based on the thesis itself, and an oral examination of the student. In most institutions, a doctoral candidate cannot submit their work for examination without their principal supervisor’s support. Upon receiving the supervisor’s agreement that the thesis is worthy of submission the university/faculty convenes an examination committee. This consists of at least one internal and one external examiner. The external examiner must be a recognised expert in the thesis area. The doctoral candidate then undergoes a viva voce, which is an oral defence of the thesis before the internal and external examiners. The internal examiner has at least broad relevant expertise in the discipline in question, is an experienced senior person, and acts to maintain consistently high internal standards.

Clear and adequate procedures are defined for all stages of the examination, including:

  • A simple, standard operating procedure for the examination process
  • Definitions of the roles and responsibilities of the chair, internal examiners, external examiners, and (when present and when not present) the supervisor(s)

There are guidelines for the oral examination process that provide for:

  • Format and timetable
  • Normal minimum (e.g. one to two hours) and maximum lengths (e.g. four hours) of the examination
  • Feedback to the student at the end of the examination

Certification

As academically autonomous institutions, the universities have the authority to set the course content of their courses, to decide the methods of student assessment and to certify the awards given. They have the right to confer their own certificates, diplomas and degrees. These awards are recognised by the State. Where courses are subject to the approval of professional bodies such as the Medical Council or the Law Society, tertiary institutions need to abide by the requirements of such bodies if the courses are to be recognised for professional license purposes.

The Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) enjoys the same degree of academic freedom as the universities in determining its standards, and conferring its academic professional awards. In the Institute of Technology (IoT) sector, each institute, following agreement of its quality assurance procedures with Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI)   validates its own programmes. Additionally each institute, under delegated authority, under the Qualifications Education and Training Act 1999, grants its own awards. Most IoTs have delegated authority to make awards up to Level 9 (Masters) of the NFQ and about half of them have delegated awarding powers up to Level 10 (Doctorate). PhD degrees for the remainder are granted by QQI.

Organisational Variation

As a general rule HEI’s in Ireland require a presence on campus for the delivery of PhD programmes. Alternative modes of delivery e.g. distance learning are accessible from non-Irish institutions including the Open University which offers PhD programmes over a three-year period of full-time study (a maximum of six years part time). Under what may be considered a more flexible structure, candidates investigate a research topic and develop research and transferable skills, culminating in the completion, submission and defence via an oral examination of a 100,000 word doctoral thesis.

For registration purposes, all full-time PhD students initially sign up for a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) for the first year of their three-year degree (or for the first two years if part time) and they then transfer to the PhD programme after the successful completion of a probationary assessment.

Mobility in Higher Education

This section outlines the position in regard to mobility in higher education. Separate data is not available for students and academics/researchers.

Irish Educated Globally Connected: An International Education Strategy for Ireland 2016-2020 key goals are to:

  • Attract more international students into Ireland;
  • Make it easier for Irish staff and students to study and to engage in research work abroad;
  • Make Ireland an attractive destination for talented overseas faculty;
  • Establish more collaborative institutional and research links;
  • Internationalise curricula;
  • Further developing Irish involvement in trans-national education (delivering Irish academic programmes overseas and establishing Irish-linked institutions outside of Ireland); and
  • Contributing to overseas development and participating in EU programmes and multilateral initiatives such as the Bologna process.

The internationalisation of higher education holds hugely positive potential for the higher education institutions and for Ireland. The quality of the education system is greatly enhanced by the inward and outward movement of students and staff. Internationalisation enhances the quality of learning, teaching and research in campuses and contributes significantly to the student experience. It represents an investment in future global relationships as it helps to build relationships with future trading partners and supports Ireland’s national goal to become a global innovation hub. These benefits are in addition to the revenue that is generated for the country from every international student.

The Higher Education Authority is working closely with relevant stakeholders in the implementation of the key recommendations for higher education in the Internationalisation Strategy. This HEA provides the lead in the process of strategic dialogue with institutions which leads to agreement on individual institutional compacts which are the subject of regular review and consideration. Each institution will be required to set targets linked to their individual capabilities. Performance will be incentivised through the funding model.

The HEA manages two prestigious Irish Government funded schemes:-

  1. Government of Ireland International Education Scholarships Programme (GOI-IES)
  2. Government of Ireland International Academic Mobility Programme (GOI-IAMP).

The key priorities in relation to these initiatives are:

  • GOI-IES – support the enrolment of high calibre international students in Irish higher education institutions (HEIs)
  • GOI-IAMP – support Irish HEI endeavours in the area of international collaborations.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) is the statutory planning and policy development body for higher education and research in Ireland. Through its international section, the HEA administers a wide variety of programmes with a global focus. They include acting as the Irish national agency/national contact point (Higher Education) for the Erasmus+ programme as well as managing the implementation of Government actions is this area and supporting bilateral co-operation wherever needed.  The Erasmus+ National Agency also plays a key information dissemination role in relation to a range of Erasmus+ Centralised Actions like the Jean Monnet Programme; Erasmus Mundus Master Programmes and Capacity Building Measures.

EUR Ireland serves as the website of the international section and aims to provide a first class information service for all interested in these and other European/International education activities.

Erasmus+ in higher education has 4 main targets:

  • Key Action 1 – learning opportunities abroad for individuals, within the EU and beyond, international credit mobility of individuals and Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degrees
  • Key Action 2 – capacity building projects in higher education supporting partnerships which have an impact on the modernisation and internationalisation of the sector
  • Key Action 3 – supporting strategic policy dialogue to support reform
  • Jean Monnet activities with the aim of stimulating teaching, research and reflection in the field of European Union Studies worldwide Erasmus+ for learners

Students who go on Erasmus have the option to study at one of approximately 5,000 eligible higher education institutions in Europe (for a period of 3 to 12 months) or undertake a traineeship at a host enterprise (for a period of 2 to 12 months). While on Erasmus, students are exempt from paying tuition fees at the host institution and receive monthly financial support from the European Commission via their home institution to help cover their expenses. The Commission supports students for a maximum of 12 months in each cycle of study (Bachelor, Master and PhD) and a student can start their mobility anytime from the end of their first year in university to one year after they graduate (post-graduation students are only eligible to take part in traineeships).

Upon completion of their study/traineeship abroad period, students receive recognition of their Erasmus study programme utilising the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS).

Erasmus for Staff

Erasmus+ provides teaching opportunities and training opportunities for the staff of higher education institutions and staff invited from enterprises. An Erasmus period provides staff with a chance to enhance their professional development and build/strengthen relationships with a new/existing partner institution.  Staff who go abroad on an Erasmus+ mobility typically take part in one of two mobility Actions:

  • Teaching periods allow teaching staff or staff from enterprises to teach at a partner institution abroad. This teaching can be in any subject area/academic discipline and can take place at any institution that has an Erasmus charter for higher education (ECHE).
  • Training periods support the professional development of teaching and non-teaching staff in the form of training events abroad (excluding conferences) and job shadowing/observation periods/training at a partner institution, or at another relevant organisation abroad.

Staff mobilities typically last between two days to two months, with those on teaching placements preforming a minimum of eight hours teaching per week. Support is available for staff travel and subsistence while on Erasmus exchange.

Promotion

The measures which have been taken to promote the learning mobility of academic staff include the following:-

• Information Seminars for students and staff

• brochures to institutions

• attendance at student fairs and career guidance events

• the EUR Ireland website

• Networking: Meetings have been held with a range of bodies

• Valorisation Events: promoting good practice in staff/teaching mobility; placements

The Mobility Scoreboard for Higher Education published by the European Commission in October 2016 indicates that 2002 graduates were inwardly mobile to Ireland, and 6189 were outwardly mobile.

Overall, the figures below show the distribution of higher education students from outside the State, attending college in Ireland

Domiciliary Origin of Full-Time Higher Education Students, 2017-18

Domiciliary OriginNumberPercentage
Europe EU – UG147,23292%
Europe EU – PG17,95576%
Europe – non -EU – UG2070%
Europe – non – EU- PG1961%
America North – UG5,4833%
America North – PG1,1215%
Asia – UG5,7904%
Asia – PG3,72216%
America South – UG790%
America South – PG1981%
Africa – UG4360%
Africa – PG3511%
Oceania – UG4360%
Oceania – PG310%

Source: HEA Key Facts and Figures. Higher Education 2017/18)

A further 12,000 international students annually enrol in private higher education colleges. The Department of Education and Skills engages in Ministerial led Trade missions to core markets and supporting inward and outward high level visits to promote the Irish Higher Education and English language sectors.

Enterprise Ireland is the Irish state agency responsible for supporting the development of manufacturing and internationally traded services companies. The agency provides funding and supports for college based researchers to assist in the development, protection and transfer of technologies into industry via licensing or spin-out companies. Enterprise Ireland is responsible for the promotion of Irish Higher Education Institutions overseas, and manages the Enterprise Ireland Education in Ireland website and brand.

A Code of Practice for Provision of Programmes of Education and Training to International Learners was published by Quality and Qualifications Ireland in July 2015. The Code includes a number of requirements such as the protection of enrolled learners, transparency of fees and refunds processes and the provision of pastoral care services to international learners. Protection of Learners refers to arrangements in the event of a course not being provided or a provider ceasing operation. It requires that there is either provision for a refund of fees and charges, or that arrangements are in place to enable the learner to complete the course in another college. Education and training providers are encouraged to give due attention to the Code of Practice when developing their quality assurance procedures and processes for the provision of international education.

A number of reforms to the student immigration system for international education were approved by Government in May 2015. These reforms, which are being implemented by the Department of Justice and Equality in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, include the restriction of the list of education programmes considered to justify the granting of permission to students to live and work in Ireland (known as the Interim List of Eligible Programmes – the ILEP).

As part of this new process all providers of English language training wishing to recruit non-EEA students are required to apply to the Department of Justice and Equality for inclusion on the ILEP. All English language providers seeking inclusion on the ILEP have to comply with certain new requirements including declaration of ownership, shadow directors, physical infrastructure and teaching capacity. They also need to have compulsory learner protection arrangements in place and a separate account facility to safeguard student advance payments.

The ILEP process is an interim measure until the introduction of the International Education Mark (IEM) for the provision of education to international learners, which will provide a full quality framework in the future. Legislation is being developed to provide for this.

An estimated 106,000 language students visit Ireland each year to attend English language training institutions.

Recognition of foreign qualifications

Ireland is a signatory to the Lisbon Convention on the recognition of foreign higher education qualifications. This requires that each country should recognise foreign qualifications for purposes of access and further study unless it can prove that there are substantial differences between its own qualification and that presented. Quality and Qualifications Ireland  is the Irish national contact point for NARIC (the EU wide network of National Academic Recognition Information Centres). QQI offers advice on the academic recognition of foreign qualifications in Ireland, by comparing them, where possible, to a major award at a particular level on the Irish National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ). The comparability information provided is advisory in nature based on the understanding that the qualification is awarded by a nationally recognised awarding body in the country of origin. A database offering downloadable comparability statements on international qualifications is provided. If the qualification is not on the database, an applicant can submit it to QQI for advice.

European Higher Education Organization is a public organization carrying out academic, educational and information activities on higher education in Europe.

The EHEO general plan stresses that:

  • Higher education systems require adequate funding and, as an investment in economic growth, public spending in higher education should be protected.
  • The challenges faced by higher education require more flexible governance and funding systems, which balance greater autonomy for education institutions with accountability to stakeholders.

Thus, EHEO plans:

  • improve academic and scientific interaction of universities;
  • protect the interests of universities;
  • interact more closely with public authorities of European countries;
  • popularize European higher education in the world;
  • develop academic mobility;
  • seek funding for European universities.