Supporting Third Level Access and Engagement at the AONTAS STAR Awards

28 Feb 2024
The STAR Awards recognise the very best in adult learning in Ireland. We celebrate and acknowledge the incredible adult learning initiatives going on across the country, in support of learners, as part of the AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival. This year, there are 24 fantastic shortlisted initiatives. We’ll announce the winners at a special ceremony in Dublin on Friday 8th March – an exciting event to finish our 2024 Adult Learners’ Festival!

The shortlist is divided into five categories of adult learning initiatives that support people with: 

  • Health and Wellbeing 
  • Learner Voice 
  • Social Inclusion 
  • Global Citizenship Education 
  • Third-level Access and Engagement 

The STAR Awards is judged by an independent panel of educators, policymakers, adult learners, and other adult learning experts.  

This category is open to adult learning initiatives that help people with access into university or promote partnerships between higher education and local communities. Let’s take a closer look at the shortlisted initiatives for the category of Third-Level Access and Engagement. 

Here are the nominees: 

Community Wellness, Empowerment, Leadership and Lifeskills (CWELL) Diploma - University of Limerick 

The Community Wellness, Empowerment, Leadership and Lifeskills (CWELL) diploma was designed with local communities in Limerick to address their needs including managing physical and mental wellbeing and empowering people to develop life skills to achieve their goals and the collective goals of their communities. This is a unique academic programme with the University of Limerick, which empowers people to actively participate in community development as citizens. The course is for 2 years, and is part time. There are many barriers to education for people, including cost and the time commitment, and the team worked to address these, including taking a Universal Design approach to learning. To date, 55 students have graduated from the programme with a further 24 currently on the programme. Most students are women. Many have shared experiences of leaving school early, early parenthood, homelessness, and recovery from addiction. For some, progression to further education or employment is neither possible nor desirable but for others CWELL provides a good base from which to progress. Several students have progressed to further education, for instance in social care, and several have secured part-time or full-time work in their communities and in the non-profit sector. Projects from CWELL also promote better mental health, encourage a more active lifestyle, raise awareness of green issues, address isolation, and support local amenities and services.  

ComMUniversity - Maynooth University 

Established in 2011, the ComMUniversity is a programme where people can attend higher education courses in the familiar surroundings of their local libraries. It is a partnership between Maynooth University, Local Development Companies/LEADER Partnership Companies, and the Public Library Service. For some people university seems like a distant, alien, and unobtainable thing. This programme allows them to access a course in the secure and familiar environment of the local library, with the goal of widening participation in higher education, especially for people from communities that are under-resourced or people who have not had the opportunity or encouragement to go to university before. University campuses can heighten anxiety for learners where feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’ can be very strong. Through ComMUniversity, some students have the chance to start thinking about returning to education in a more formal setting. For others, participation in the programme is enough, and they forge new relationships with people in their own communities and combat a sense of isolation and loneliness, especially in since the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Advanced Manufacturing Technician Traineeship - Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board 

This is a QQI Level 6 full-time course designed to offer a second chance in education for adults who have faced marginalisation from the workforce. This initiative caters to a diverse range of people, including women (who are typically under-represented in this work), the long-term unemployed, stay-at-home parents, refugees, people with learning disabilities, and people who left school early. The programme works to tackle barriers relating to prior education, work experience, or age. It provides a supportive learning environment, and covers modules like mathematics, electronics, and robotics. The objective is to empower learners to secure high-quality jobs and to find a transformative change in their lives. It is one of the first courses in the country to present an alternative to the traditional CAO route in Ireland. There are no course fees and students are eligible for a training allowance, a crucial financial support for many. The inclusivity of the programme is reflected in the diverse ages of the students, from teenagers to people in their sixties. Students study problem-solving, organisational skills, report writing, confidence building, critical thinking, and laboratory work. Former students return to share valuable on-the-job experiences. There are trips to local industries, and employers discuss employment opportunities. Some local employers have developed 'fast-track' Level 7 programmes in conjunction with local universities, which serve as further progressions paths for graduates of this programme. 

Making Connections - Waterford and South Tipperary Community Youth Services 

Making Connections is a Local Training Initiative, based in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. The programme offers a Major Award at QQI Level 3 in 'Employability Skills' and targets adults going through challenges with substance misuse, homelessness, and associated mental health issues. The programme began in 2010 and now provides an Outreach service to the Carrick-On-Suir area. The aim is to foster inclusion and support people’s progression to Further Education, Higher Education, and/or employment. Making Connections is the only part-time, flexible programme in Employability Skills in the county that specifically caters for the education and progressional needs of this target group. The programme is community-based, and is rooted in Clonmel and Carrick-On-Suir. This is designed to meet the diverse educational needs of a growing adult population who are living in some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged areas of South Tipperary. The programme provides accredited training to adults who have had to leave school early. It is a stepping stone back to education and a progression route for people who could not engage in education in the past. Learners also experience increased confidence, greater support networks, empowerment, and more understanding around social justice and social inclusion. These are central aims of the programme. The 1:1 classes and small group classes, combined with the use of a Universal Design Learning approach to teaching and learning, makes the programme suitable, flexible, and impactful, particularly for this group of learners.  

Care Team Initiative - Cork College of Further Education and Training, Tramore Road Campus, Cork 

The Cork College of FET, Tramore Road Campus has been in operation for over 40 years, but the 'Care Team Initiative' has developed over the last number of years to effectively integrate into students’ educational journeys to take into account people’s personal circumstances and any personal life events they face, including health issues, mobility concerns, and learning challenges. These experiences can become barriers preventing access, inclusion, and progression to further and higher education. The Care Team helps students from 17 years of age to students in their 70s. They welcome students from countries ranging from Kurdistan to South Africa to Poland. For Ukrainian people displaced by the war, the Care Team provided English language classes, laptops, and one-to-one support. They have worked with the University College Cork Learning Neighbourhoods Initiative to attract people who would not ordinarily seek out education. Many of these people had bad experiences in the past. The Care Team offered a ‘Taster Course’, with the chance to try Heritage Studies, Art, Horticulture, Social Studies, Information Technology and Health. 60 people signed up, and the course ran for over 6 weeks. 15 participants from this course are now full-time registered students completing a Level 5 course, and continue to be guided by the Care Team. These students are now on the path to Further Education and University College Cork. 

Because the STAR Awards ceremony is focussed on the nominees, particularly the learners, it is an invite-only event. But we'll be sharing the ceremony as it happens on our social media, and spotlighting the winners.  

About the Festival 

The Adult Learners’ Festival, happening this year from 4th to 8th March 2024, is a nationwide celebration of adult learning. This year’s theme is “Everyday Learning Spaces – Find Yourself Here,” celebrating safe and supportive learning environments, wherever they may be.  

Visit this page for more details about the Festival 

Find us on or on X/TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIN for the latest updates #ALF24 #FindYourselfHere 

For more information, contact