The Older Universities

The first Irish University, the University of Dublin known by its single college, Trinity College was the first Irish university.  It was founded by Royal Charter in 1592.  The second university Queen’s University comprised three constituent colleges at Cork, Galway and Belfast.  The University of Dublin was associated with the ethos of the established church while Queens University was nondenominational.  The catholic hierarchy established the Catholic University in 1854.

The issue of university education and religious ethos was controversial throughout the late 19th-century.  Ultimately the Irish Universities Act 1908 established the National University of Ireland as a federal university with three constituent colleges.  University College Dublin, University College Cork and University College Galway.  Queens College Belfast became an independent University and the University of Dublin remained as it was . Little changed after the establishment of the Irish Free State and later the 1937 Constitution.

Two major reviews of higher education took place in the 1960s.  The Report of the Commission on Higher Education and the Steering Committee on Technical Education was published in 1967.  The existing universities were expanded and a new non-university sector developed.  Regional Technical Colleges were established.

Modern Institutions

The Dublin Institute of Technology was developed and the National Institutes for Higher Education were established in Limerick and Dublin.  They were intended to be more technical and applied than the university sector.  They were under more direct state controls.  Eventually, the National Institutes of Technology at Limerick and Dublin became independent universities in 1989, respectively the University of Limerick and Dublin City University.

The Higher Educational Authority was established in 1968 playing an intermediary role between the state and universities.  It had responsibility for planning and budgetary matters.  The National Council for Education Rewards was established in 1972 with responsibility for academic matters in the non-university sector.

The Central Application Office was established in 1971 as a single office to deal with applications for third-level courses on the basis of the Leaving Certificate examination points system.

The last 40 years have seen an enormous increase in student participation at third level.  By the mid-1990s expenditure by the State on higher education had increased to the OECD average.

Higher Education System

The higher education system comprises the following

  • seven universities with associated colleges of education and recognised colleges.
  • 13 Institutes of Technology,
  • former Regional Technical Colleges,
  • the Dublin Institute of Technology
  • A range of state-supported further education and training institutions.
  • A number of private higher education institutions validated by Irish and foreign institutions including the Portobello College, Griffith College and the American College, Dublin.
  • Open and distance provision by institutions including Oscail National Distance Learning Agency based in DCU and the Open University in Britain.

The Higher Education Authority is the intermediate body between the Department of Education and universities and other designated institutions. Universities and other institutions submit their budgets for approval to the HEA.

It has supervisory powers in relation to certain aspects of universities.  It is responsible for developing higher education and assisting state investment in education.  It advises the Department in relation to the educational investment.

Universities Act

The Universities Act 1997 regulates the seven universities. University College Dubin, University College Cork and University College Galway and Maynooth University are constituent universities of the National University of Ireland.  Under the 1997 Act, the constituent universities are largely independent.  They engage in the senate of NUI in academic and policy matters.

The two newest universities are the University of Limerick and Dublin City University.  St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra and Mater Dei are associate colleges of  Dublin City University. Mary Immaculate College of Education Limerick is an associate college of Limerick university.

The Church of Ireland College of Education, Froebel (now part of Maynooth University), Sion Hill and Marino College of Education are associated with Trinity College.  The Royal College of Surgeons, the National College of Art and Design, the Institute of Public Administration and Shannon College of Catering are recognised colleges of the University College Dublin.  St. Angela’s College Sligo is a recognised college of the National University of Ireland, Galway.


Each university has a governing authority.  It is responsible for preparing strategic plans, reports, budget quality assurance procedures and promoting best practice in teaching. There are arrangements for academic councils and faculty structures. Each university has a president/provost who is elected for a 10 year period.

The presidents collectively constitute the conference of the heads of Irish universities.  It promotes university education research to collect policy strategies and programs.

The Irish Universities Quality Board was established in 2003.  Its purpose is to act as a guarantor for the quality of the Irish education.

Institutes of Technology

The non-university higher education sector consists of the Dublin Institute of Technology, 13regional Institutes of Technology, and some private institutions.  the Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute is now part of the Limerick Institute of Technology.

The Dublin Institute of Technology Acts provides for six constituent colleges which were formerly under the auspices of the Dublin City VEC.  Its governing body consists of a president and a directorate, comprising directors of faculties and some cross institute directors. It confers its own degrees.

The other Institutes of Technology operate under the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992 and 1999.  Each has a governing body director and academic counsel. The directors are members of the Council of Directors of Institutes of Technology which coordinates policy and research issues for the institutes.  It negotiates with the Department of Education on matters of concern. Some of the institutes have the authority to issue their own degrees.


The Higher Education and Training Awards Council (Irish: Comhairle na nDámhachtainí Ardoideachais agus Oiliúna) (HETAC), the legal successor to the National Council for Educational Awards (NCEA), granted higher education awards in Ireland beyond the university system from 2001 to 2012.

HETAC was created in 2001, subject to the policies of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, and, specifically, granted qualifications at many Institutes of Technology and other colleges.

All the institutes and the  Dublin Institute of Technology are under the framework of the National Qualifications Authority.  HETAC validated most awards. HETAC was dissolved and its functions were passed to Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) on 6 November 2012.

Adult Education

In 1998 the government published a green paper entitled Adult Education In An Era of Lifelong Learning followed by a White Paper on Learning For Life.  This set out the policy on adult education.

The Universities Act 1997 gave the universities a role in promoting lifelong education through the provision of adult and continuing education.

The Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1989 provided for the recognition validation and accreditation of adult programs.  An Adult Learning Council was established in 2002.

The National Training Fund Act amended the method by which adult and continuing education are financed.  Aontas National Association of Adult Education and NALA is the National Adult Literary Agency.  They were established in 1969 and 1980.

VECs, now the Education and Training Boards,  play a role in the provision of adult education through schools and through supporting community agencies. Some comprehensive and community schools offer adult education as do some secondary schools.

Most third-level colleges provide adult education through extramural courses and distance learning.  The colleges of the National University of Ireland offer separate adult and extramural departments.

The National Distance Education Centre at DCU allows adults through the country access to higher education through distance learning arrangements. Private bodies and voluntary institutions provide education and training for adults including the National College of Ireland and the Institute of Public Administration.

A range of schemes is operated under the rubric of back to education.  These include YouthReach, basic and community education provision, Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme, post-Leaving Certificate course and Adult Literacy.

Private and Voluntary Sector

A range of other private and voluntary institutions provide third-level education.  They vary from state-aided agencies to private agencies.  There is a wide range of studies and validation.  They typically concentrate on particular subjects and areas.  Many are closely linked to existing universities, others are linked to HETAC (now QQI), professional award bodies and international universities.

Most such bodies have been integrated into third-level sector.  The National Council of Education Awards and Higher Education Training Awards Counsel (now QQI), have designated many such bodies.  The NCEA and HETAC(now QQI),  has validated qualifications which were previously validated outside the States.

Tax relief has been provided in respect of approved programs in independent colleges.

The colleges have been integrated into the CAO system.  Certain courses have been funded by the States. Most academic programs lead to awards from the HETAC (now QQI), and are operated within the NQAI structures.

Teachers’ Education

Colleges of education undertake teacher education at primary and post-primary levels.  The colleges are privately owned and state-supported.  They are linked to universities and associated colleges.  The largest colleges are St. Patrick’s, Drumcondra, a  College of Dublin University and Mary Immaculate College Limerick, a College of the University of Limerick.

There primary teacher education colleges, Coláiste Mhuire Marino Institute of Education and Church of Ireland College of Education and Froebel College of Education are associated colleges of Trinity College.

National College of Ireland

The National College of Ireland is a non-profit making body offering a range of full-time and part-time courses at different levels from foundation to degree and postgraduate level.  It has two schools, the School of Business and Humanities and the School of Informatics.

Its courses are accredited by the HETAC and FETAC (QQI).  Most of its students are over 23 and the vast majority study part-time.

NCI has a campus in central Dublin and operates through 40 off-campus site centres operating business and online methods.  It is state-assisted, with the state funding almost half of its cost.

Some Sectoral Instittuions

The Institute of Public Administration is a recognised college of the National University of Ireland.  Its qualifications are validated by it.  It gives graduate and postgraduate and professional courses in public management and related subjects.

The Garda College Templemore trains Gardee recruits in a two-year course leading to a diploma award. The Military College Curragh Camp is validated by HETAC.  Senior officers may participate in a Masters course validated by the Military College and the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

The Royal College of Surgeons was founded in the 18th century to commence training of medical doctors in the middle of the 19th century.  It is a recognised college of the National University of Ireland.  Graduates receive an MB degree.

The Irish Management Institute is independent and owned by its members.  It offers management development courses from half-day to multi-year primary and Masters degrees.  It targets private industry managers, employees and civil servants.  Its courses lead to HETAC (QQI) awards.  It also awards programs jointly with the University of Dublin.

Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute have two campuses in Thurles and Clonmel.It is now part of the Limerick Institute of Technology.

The American College Dublin is a non-profit making institution established by Lynn University USA.  It is accredited by HETAC (now QQI) and offers degree courses. A number of private bodies offer HETAC (now QQI), and other accredited courses.

Business Education

Portobello College offers degree programs in law, business studies, accounting and finance.  It offers national certificate courses in business and computing. Griffith College has 3,000 full-time and part-time students.  It offers programs and certificates to masters degree level and offers professional qualifications in some sectors.

Dublin Business School is a private college specialising in career-focused, undergraduate, postgraduate and professional education.  It offers programs in arts, business, humanities and psychology.  It is designated by HETAC (now QQI), and Liverpool John Moores University.  It is owned by the Kaplan the education division of Washington Post.  There is a significant number of overseas students.

Hibernia College provides online higher education and training programs accredited by HETAC(now QQI),.  It includes the area of public administration, primary teaching, hospitality management and criminal justice.

HSI Business School Limerick has a National Certificate diploma and bachelor courses in business studies and marketing.  It is validated by HETAC (now QQI),  It also offers courses for management accounting technicians, and in electronics with awards being conferred by professional associations.

The Arts

The National College for Art and Design originated in the middle of the 18th century.  It provides courses in fine art, history of art and design.  It trains teachers in post-primary school art.  It is a recognised college of the National University of Ireland, UCD.

The Burren College of Art is an independent third level fine art college designated under HETAC(now QQI),.  It offers semester and summer programs together with a masters program in conjunction with NUIG.

The Royal Irish Academy of Music teaches music at all levels to diploma, graduate and postgraduate degree levels.  It offers diplomas for teachers and performers.  Its BA in music is validated by Dublin City University.

Religious Education

St. Patrick’s Maynooth was founded as a seminary tt the end of the 18th century and became a pontifical university at the end of the 19th century.  There were faculties of theology, philosophy and canon law.  A number of educational institutes in Britain and Ireland are affiliated with it and it offers accreditation n of degrees and diplomas taught in those centres.  It has cooperative links with the National University of Ireland Maynooth and shares the same campus.

The Milltown Institute dates from the 19th century.  There is a pontifical and civil dimension. It is designated under HETAC(now QQI),.  It offers pontifical degrees up to including doctorates in philosophy, theology, spirituality, sacred scripture and pastoral study. It also offers awards validated by the University of Wales,

All Hallows College dates from the mid-19th century and was originally a missionary seminary.  It provides full and part-time colleges for religious and non-religious persons.  It provides BA graduate diplomas, Masters and Ph.Ds. validated by Dublin City University.  Its subjects include theology, psychology, pastoral theology and English literature.

St. Patrick’s College, Carlow and Thurles are diocesan seminaries which offer third-level courses accredited by HETAC(now QQI),.


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