30 Aug 2019

Learner Access to Higher Education

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In this blog, AONTAS Head of Research Leah Dowdall writes about access to higher education through further education and training and stresses the need to address barriers that prevent potential learners from accessing third level.

Learners enter the further education and training (FET) sector for a wide variety of reasons, but for a number of learners, FET is a starting point into higher education. For some, FET helps establish clear goals and develop a plan for what a learner wants to achieve before they enter higher education. As one learner explained at an event for the National FET Learner Forum, “It really adjusted my mind set and I can see opportunities now.” For others, FET allows learners to acquire the skills they needed to feel more prepared for higher education.

Skills range from increased self-confidence to developing new learning strategies. For individuals who arrive in Ireland with limited English language skills, FET also provides the language training learners need to succeed in higher education. 

An 2018 Irish Times article celebrated the story of learner Imani Tutu who shared his journey of moving to Ireland, taking up a course at the Cavan Adult Learning Centre, a third-level college that offers FET programmes, to beginning his studies for a degree in law at University College Cork (UCC). For others, FET is “a real chance to re-educate and upskill” in an environment that is flexible and caters for busy life schedules.  The FET sector plays an important role in ensuring learners, who may not otherwise have been supported, are set up for success in the higher education sector.

Education and Training Boards (ETBs), the providers of FET courses, have put measures in place to support learners who want to use their FET courses as a stepping stone into higher education. Local ETBs provide guidance to learners who want to know what higher education courses they should take, where they can go for financial supports, and how to apply to higher education institutions. Learners who have used these services overwhelmingly praise the service, calling it “brilliant” and “very helpful.” Most ETBs teachers learners about and display the National Frameworks of Qualifications, allowing learners to see where the course they are taking falls and what steps they will need to make to become ready to progress to higher education.

Still, there is more that can be done. Learners who want to access higher education face a number of barriers. First, there is the issue of awareness. A number of people are still unaware of courses offered by ETBs. In fact, advertisement of FET remains a consistent recommendation in both the 2016 and 2017 National FET Learner Forum reports. Through the Forum, learners who are currently enrolled in FET courses have expressed mixed levels of awareness about access routes into higher education. Learner have proposed changes to address this, with one learner suggesting “there could be some communication on access say to third-level education. Perhaps link into an education officer in a University.” Other learners have called on the creation of a clear, mapped trajectory that shows how courses offered by the ETB can be used to access higher education. There is also the challenge of funding and accessibility. There is limited funding provided for part-time learners in higher education. For adult learners on limited incomes, who work full-time jobs, have children, or support family members, full-time education is not always an option. These learners are often drawn to FET due to the flexibility offered. Without appropriate supports in place, learners simply cannot afford to progress into higher education.

In order to increase access into higher education, ETBs and higher education institutions must work together to explore new ways to remove the barriers outlined above. By removing these barriers, we can move closer to a more inclusive education system.

For More Information:

To learn more about the work of the National FET Learner Forum (NFLF) contact Leah Dowdall, AONTAS Head of Research at

To find out about the education and training options and access routes into higher education, visit, freephone 1800 303 696 or contact Sam O’Brien-Olinger, AONTAS Information and Policy Officer via email: