Navigating entry to Further or Higher Education

It’s that time of year when thousands of young adults (and some not so young) are commencing full-time further/higher education or training courses throughout Ireland. Transitioning to these courses can be an especially challenging time with course applications, awaiting grades/points, getting a place on a suitable course and so on.

It is all the more strange this year because of COVID-19 – no Leaving Certificate exams, teacher- calculated grades and the uncertainty of how, or even if, courses will function. Will courses run in a face-to-face, online or blended way? Will students have to pay for accommodation or stay at home? Is the internet speed (if you have access) strong enough to participate in online classes?

The process of accessing and commencing such courses can be an exhilarating experience. It can, however, also be a stressful and confusing time for many young adults and their loved ones, as it can be for older adults returning to education or training. Too often over the years, I have witnessed people making major life decisions and changes in this regard without understanding the underlying further/higher education and training systems. A basic appreciation is helpful in accessing and progressing through suitable further/higher education or training programmes. 

Not having a further/higher qualification beyond post-primary school can profoundly limit many people’s long-term employment capacity, their standard of employment and their quality of life. There are many exceptions to this, of course. Some of the best and most skillful workers and entrepreneurs do not have such qualifications. Take for example, Tipperary natives, the Collison brothers. Neither of these billionaire owners of major tech company, Stripe, finished college. The current Director General of the Health Service Executive, Paul Reid, left post-primary school at 16 years of age with an Intermediate Certificate – the previous version of the Junior Certificate. Some of the most capable and erudite people I know have little or no formal education – particularly of my parents’ generation. For the vast majority, a further/higher education or training qualification is a critical factor, which influences their prospects. This is even the case where the individual does not end up working in the field that they qualified in, which is common. Some qualifications are specifically required (e.g. Electrician, Childcare Assistant, Solicitor etc.), but most job applications just require a certain level of further/higher qualification or award to be considered for the position, regardless of the specialisation.  

What follows is a basic outline of the Further Education and Training (FET) and Higher Education (HE) systems in Ireland for those who are intending to or who have recently accessed full-time education or training. Note that some of the descriptions are basic, to cater for varying levels of knowledge. This might help students and parents to demystify some relevant elements of the further/education and training systems in Ireland, with particular reference to Cork. This includes an attempt to clarify the plethora of abbreviations in this space. 

QQI & NFQ: FET and HE courses are often described on education provider websites as being at a certain QQI or NFQ Level. All FET and HE courses that run in Ireland are approved by the Quality and Qualifications (QQI) Ireland. Established in 2012, QQI is an independent state agency responsible for promoting quality and accountability in education and training services in Ireland. QQI is an amalgamation of the previously operational Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC); the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC); the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) and the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI).

Central to QQI’s role is to promote, maintain and develop the Irish National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), a 10-level framework for the development, recognition and awarding of qualifications in Ireland. It is a single national entity through which all learning achievements may be measured and related to each other. Underpinned by quality assurance principles, the Irish NFQ describes qualifications in the Irish education and training system and sets out what each qualification says about what learners know, understand and are able to do. It also sets out qualification pathways from one NFQ level to the next. For more, see

Further Education and Training: FET occurs after post-primary school but is not part of the Higher Educations (HE) system. FET is an addition the second-level education system. HE refers to the third-level education system. 

Cork Education and Training (ETB) board is one of 16 ETBs established by the government in 2013. A major function of Cork ETB – formerly Cork Vocational Educational Committee (VEC) and FÁS – is the provision of education and training services to adults in a variety of settings across the county.

Full-time learning opportunities include Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses, apprenticeships, traineeships, specific skills training, Youthreach, local training initiatives and the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS). Cork ETB has four stand-alone Colleges of Further Education (PLC Colleges): Cork College of Commerce (CCC), St. John’s College, CSN College of Further Education Mallow College of Further Education. Courses run in other settings throughout the county, such as the CCC Skibbereen campus.

Prospective students apply directly to the individual education provider. Entry requirements generally include passing Leaving Certificate subjects, the Leaving Certificate Applied or a relevant QQI Level 4 programme. Mature students (see section below) are usually exempt from the Leaving Certificate requirement. Normally, all applicants are interviewed. Offers of course places are generally contingent on the applicant meeting the entry requirements and satisfactory performance at interview.

The Higher Education Links Scheme (HELS) provides progression opportunities for learners who are interested in applying for Higher Education courses through the Central Applications Office (CAO). Learners can secure Level 5 or Level 6 QQI-FET major award by doing a PLC course and then using this qualification to apply for HE courses. HE or third level colleges reserve places each year for students applying via the PLC/FET route.  The simplest way to find and check progression routes for all PLC courses is using the search tools on

Higher Education: HE or third level education comprises of the university sector, the technological sector and the colleges of education, which receive substantial government funding. There are a number of independent private colleges, such as Griffith College Cork. All of these are all referred to as Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

Universities are autonomous and self-governing, such as University College Cork (UCC). They provide degree programmes at bachelor, masters and doctorate level – QQI levels 7 to 10 on the NFQ.

The technological sector includes institutes of technology (ITs) and technological universities (TUs), such as IT Tralee (ITT) and Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), which are amalgamating to become Munster Technological University in 2021. ITs and TUs provide programmes of education and training in areas such as business, science, engineering, linguistics and music to certificate, diploma and degree levels – QQI Levels 6 to 10 on the NFQ. Undergraduate bachelor degrees are at QQI Level 7 & 8 and postgraduate degrees are at Levels 8 to 10. 

The colleges of education specialise in training for primary school teachers. Training for post-primary teachers is provided by a variety of HEIs. In addition, there are colleges of education that specialise in the training of home economics teachers, teachers of religion and physical education teachers. provides detailed information on programmes for teacher training. 

The CAO processes applications for undergraduate courses in HEIs. Decisions on admissions to undergraduate courses are made by the HEIs who instruct CAO to make offers to successful candidates. Applicants are successful if they meet or exceed the points requirements sets by the HEI for the particular course/programme. An accumulation of points is awarded in respect of subjects completed by the students as part of the Leaving Certificate – usually by examinations but by teacher-calculated grades because of COVID-19 restrictions this year.  

Access Support Services: HEIs run various support services for all students and access services for under-represented groups. Entry requirements can be modified, and specific supports can be put in place to help current and future students. Some of these services include the following.

The UCC PLUS+ programme works with post-primary schools and seeks to target students and to provide motivational and educational assistance to them throughout their secondary schooling to enhance their ability to compete for third level places. Having achieved entry to the University UCC PLUS+ enables students to participate fully in student life and reach their full potential.

The CIT Access Service aims to widen participation by increasing access and supporting positive educational outcomes for underrepresented groups. The Service organises and delivers a range of pre-entry, entry and post-entry support initiatives.

The Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) is a third level alternative admissions scheme for school-leavers with disabilities that negatively impacted upon their post-primary education. Also, the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) is a college and university scheme that offers places on reduced points and more support services to school-leavers from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who are resident in the Republic of Ireland. For more on DARE and HEAR, see

Mature Students: Many further/higher education and training providers reserve a small number of places for mature students, i.e., those that are at least 23 years of age on January 1 of the year you enter your course. Mature students compete for these places differently to those who are just leaving school. 

Generally, a Leaving Certificate is required, but entry requirements are often not the same as for those under 23 years of age. Most education and training providers and courses consider your life experience, your work history, community involvement and other achievements and interests. This system is known as the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) or Recognition by Prior Pearning Learning (RPL). It is recommended to establish whether potential further/higher education and training providers of choice use this method. In a minority of cases, mature student applicants may be asked to take an entrance exam. 

Mature students attending access or foundation courses that are on the Department of Education’s approved list of PLC courses may be eligible for funding under the Student Grant Scheme. Mature students completing a foundation or access programme in any other HEI would not be eligible for funding, as those courses are recognised as a second-level course for the Back to Education Allowance. For options around access programmes, check with your local/Cork ETB. 

For those who may consider the UK as a potential place of HE study, mature students are defined as those aged 21 or over at the start of their studies. Irish PLC qualifications and awards tend to carry a lot of weight by most UK colleges and universities and can sometimes make students eligible to enter year two or three of courses.

For those with qualifications from other European countries, QQI’s NQF is officially compatible with the European Higher Education Area Qualification Framework (QF-EHEA). Recognition advice on foreign (Europe and beyond) academic qualifications in the context of the NFQ is available via 

Pat Culhane

Pat Culhane is a Senior Learning and Development Manager, writer and researcher. He is currently completing a Doctor of Management degree (part-time). He has recently relocated with his family to West Cork. For more, see

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