7 Dec 2022

“A Step Closer to Educational Equality in Ireland,” says AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless as the new Unified Tertiary Education System for Ireland launches

Adult learning advocate and digital marketing student at TUS Athlone Kayla Dibble with Minister Simon Harris at the launch event

In a landmark day for adult and community education, Ireland will now provide easier access and movement between further education and training (FET) and third level education institutions, making the path clearer for people to progress in education.

Unifying the third-level education system in Ireland is part of a mission to ensure that education is available to everyone, says the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. According to Minister Harris, "for decades we have discussed the creation of a unified third-level system in Ireland. One where you are driven by the career you wish, not the points you get. This is that vision in action."

The new system means more collaboration and partnership across FET and higher education, and joint programmes across the system. It also means the establishment of a Tertiary Education Office, with dedicated staff and resources, and regional co-ordinators to champion the system throughout the country.

AONTAS are pleased to see many of our recommendations included in the new model, including greater visibility and mainstreaming of learning options through Quality and Qualifications Ireland as an alternative to the Leaving Certificate.

This unified approach has been our vision for many years, for example as in our  “Submission for the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2022-2026”, which includes a recommendation to Government to “take a tertiary-wide approach to educational access, by ensuring learners can engage in appropriate accredited provision across the National Framework of Qualifications prior to progression to higher education.” 

The importance of listening to people and what works for them in education has always been a priority for AONTAS. We support people to make recommendations directly to policymakers, with the view that they know best about how the education system should be structured and managed.

Adult learner advocate Kayla Dibble was the only learner invited to speak at yesterday’s launch, having honed her advocacy and public-speaking skills through AONTAS programmes such as Learners As Leaders. Her contribution was recognised by DFHERIS, as they shared on Twitter that she joined the Minister onstage alongside “Executive Director of Transformation Nessa White and Department colleagues.”

Given our belief in the centrality of Learner Voice to educational equality, AONTAS welcomes Kayla’s inclusion at the event and the significance and respect demonstrated to her essential contribution.

Kayla has been vocal – both in her work with AONTAS and in her volunteering work in Further Education and Training centres in her hometown of Roscommon – about the fact that the focus on the Leaving Certificate and the points race is harmful to many young people in Ireland.

Speaking at yesterday’s event, Kayla said: “There’s more to life than the usual routes [to education]. That’s why I am here today and have been advocating for adult learners with AONTAS. They saw something in me at their Learners as Leaders programme in July 2021 that I didn’t even see in myself, and have since encouraged me to become a leader in the sector and work to ensure educational equality is a reality for all.”

Recalling her experience in VTOS Roscommon through Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, Kayla said: “The approach to our learning was very much learner-centred and a collaborative effort between both learner and teacher and I believe this new unified Tertiary Education system needs to adopt that very approach for everyone’s benefit.”

She states that FET must be seen as a viable route for people, and that parity of esteem is required to remove the stigma and ideas of failure.

“Everyone learns differently,” she said. “People shouldn’t be made to take one educational route that only suits one type of student. This diversity should be celebrated, and people’s achievements should be seen as equal regardless of the routes they take. The FET sector is often forgotten about, but I hope that with this new Unified Tertiary Education system it is brought to the forefront and seen as equal.”

Speaking about the event, AONTAS CEO Dearbháil Lawless said: “This policy has come as a result of demand from across the sector. It is centred on the needs of learners and seeks to rebalance growth in all regions of Ireland. AONTAS is a driver for change in this. We commend our colleagues across the sector for their dedication to this policy and cultural move in the adult and community education sector. We believe this policy is a step closer to an equitable system for adult learners.”

View the new policy, and its background and objectives, on the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science website