Third-level education is becoming increasingly accessible to adults on both a full-time and a part-time basis.
Many colleges and universities hold information events for people who want to study as mature students. The Qualifax website (www.qualifax.ie) has a calendar of career events that run throughout the year.
Mature student places
Third-level colleges reserve a small number of places specifically for mature students who want to participate in full-time day programmes. If you are over 23* you can apply for one of these places. This means that you will compete for your place on a different basis to those who are just leaving school. The number of places reserved for mature students are limited, however, so it is likely that you will still have to compete with your peers.
Generally, you are considered to be a mature student if you are at least 23 years of age on January 1 of the year you enter your course. If you are interested in a particular college you should check how it defines a mature student.
If you opt for a full-time course in this way, you will be expected to attend classes or lectures every day and you will be assessed in the same way as the other students on your course.
However, if the full-time model does not suit you, there are other options available, including part-time courses, modular programmes and distance learning.
If you choose to study on a part-time or modular basis, you can spread your studies over a number of years. This gives you the opportunity to organise your time and to study in bursts when it is most convenient for you. It has the obvious drawback that it will take longer to complete than a full-time course, but it also has the advantage that it allows you to work at your own pace, gradually building credits towards your qualification.
A modular programme is made up of separate modules, which are self-contained units within a course. You can study and complete each module separately at different stages during that course. Modular programmes can take place in regular classroom settings or can be part of a distance learning programme. Modular courses are available at degree level in some universities.
The term distance learning covers a wide range of learning programmes that take place away from the physical presence of the classroom and the tutor. If you participate in a distance learning programme, it is likely that you will use a wide range of packaged materials and media throughout your course.
Some courses organise periodic classes where students come together for a day, a weekend or a week at a time, in order to study intensively.
University access programmes
University access programmes aim to increase the participation of under-represented groups at third-level. They do this by supporting young adults and mature students to study at third-level colleges. 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. However, students attending a foundation or access course in any other college or university will not be eligible for funding. An access or foundation course is considered to be a second-level course for the Back to Education Allowance. You should check your options around access programmes with the university of your choice or local Education and Training Board.
Generally, you will need to have completed your Leaving Certificate. However, if you are applying for a place as a mature student, you will not be asked to meet the usual entry requirements. Different courses operate different entry procedures, but, in general, the colleges will take into account your educational background, work history, community involvement and other achievements and interests. This system is known as the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) or Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). It is useful to find out whether the college of your choice uses the APEL system before you apply.
In some cases, you may be asked to take an entrance exam.
You will not have to pay fees in publicly funded colleges if you qualify for the Free Fees Initiative. However, you will have to pay the student contribution unless you also qualify for the Student Grant. You should also find out if you qualify for the Back to Education Allowance.
If you are planning to study at a private third-level college, however, you will be charged fees. These vary from college to college. You can apply for Tax Relief, if you are paying for the course from your own income or another person can claim if they are paying fees on your behalf.
Part-time, modular and distance education
You will have to pay fees for all part-time, modular and distance education courses. The costs vary from course to course. However, you may apply for Tax Relief if you are participating on an approved course.
In order to apply for a third-level course as a mature student, you should first contact the college of your choice directly and send them an up-to-date curriculum vitae (CV). Some colleges require you to apply through the Central Applications Office CAO and you must apply before 1 February of the year you start your course. You will be in competition with other mature students for a place on the course so make sure to include as much detail as possible regarding your educational background, work experience and other interests. If your CV gets through the first part of the application procedure, you will be called for interview. At this point, you may be asked to bring along work that shows your aptitude for the course in question or you may be required to sit an aptitude test.
You can find detailed information about college requirements and supports for mature students in the Mature Student Directory of Irish Third Level Institutions.