Hear and Dare schemes: Levelling education’s playing field

Two State admissions schemes aim to promote equity of access to higher education for those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities

Ask an adult what they remember about the Leaving Cert, and often they’ll shudder in displeasure, recounting the stress and anxiety they felt when undertaking the exams. A milestone in a person’s educational journey, and often incredibly important when determining your career path, the exams cause students to experience extreme pressure, vying for enough points to study their chosen field at third level. For those who are disadvantaged in some way, that stress can be even more acute.

In recognition of this, the State has two nationwide schemes that set out to level out the playing field. In place since the early noughties, the two schemes are Hear, which stands for the Higher Education Access Route, and Dare, which stands for the Disability Access Route to Education.

Hear scheme

Imelda Byrne, head of the access centre at the University of Galway, said the Hear scheme’s aim is primarily to increase the number of people who are disadvantaged socio-economically who attend third-level education.

“We’re talking about people who are on low income. That’s the mandatory criteria in terms of being eligible,” she said


The income limit for the Hear scheme is €46,790 for a family with fewer than four dependent children, €51,325 for families with between four and seven dependent children and €55,630 for those with more than eight children.

“Other indicators of disadvantage under that socio-economic bracket would be [to be] in receipt of social welfare, attending a Deis school, living in a Deis area or being in receipt of a medical card. You don’t have to meet all of those, it’s a combination of indicators, but the one that is mandatory is that people are on low income.”

Ms Byrne said the scheme is recognition that, for some people, disadvantage experienced in the home has prevented them from being able to fulfill their full potential in the State exams.

“It’s targeted at people who do the Leaving Cert and who may not get their points, and indeed those who do get their points,” she said.

“The main benefit for people doing the Leaving Cert is if they don’t reach their points is that each higher education institution that’s linked to the scheme provides a number of reduced points places in all programmes, in all schools, in all colleges within the University of Galway and similarly in other universities and technological universities.”

The reduced points places depend on a number of factors, including the overall number of places on a course, the number of reserved Hear and Dare places on the course, and the number of eligible students competing for the reduced-point places.

Some higher education institutions provide additional detail on the number of reduced points, as well as the method they use for selecting eligible students on their websites. To be awarded one of the reduced points places, students still need to meet the minimum entry requirements and any programme-specific requirements.

In addition, the Hear scheme also provides post-entry supports, including financial aid. Some of the extra support available includes extra tuition, if required, one-to-one meetings with student advisers, and social gatherings or mentoring.

“It isn’t just about opening the door, it’s about ensuring that when they come in they succeed also. What we mean by that is there is a financial aid fund, in which people are guaranteed financial supports throughout their years of study,” Ms Byrne added.

Dare scheme

Similarly, Ms Byrne said the Dare scheme recognised that somebody who had a disability could be prevented from reaching their potential throughout their lives, which could then have an impact on what they achieved in the Leaving Cert.

“The Dare scheme means you can come in on your points, register with the disability supports service, and get supports once you’re in there. There are also a number of reduced points places for the Dare scheme,” she said.

“With students with disabilities, they are supported throughout their time in university or a technological university.”

From this year onwards, the scheme has also changed its eligibility criteria for “specific learning difficulties” to make the scheme more inclusive. A specific learning difficulty (SpLD) is where someone experiences a difference or difficulty with particular aspects of learning.

Instead of just one category for SpLD, the scheme now has two: dyslexia (those with significant literacy difficulties) and dyscalcula (those with significant numeracy difficulties).

Ms Byrne said the individual impact is “enormous” in terms of the scheme’s ability to assist these individuals in being granted a place on their chosen course of study.

She added that the post-entry supports are also invaluable and help these students all the way up until they graduate and, hopefully, enter the workplace.

Students who are considering applying through the Dare pathway must provide evidence of their disability as part of their application.

The evidence of disability form 2023 can be found online at accesscollege.ie. The form is then used to determine whether you meet the eligibility criteria, in addition to determining what kind of support you might need when you get to college.

A student’s application for Dare is not complete until they provide this evidence by the deadline, which this year is March 15th.

The demand for the Dare scheme has increased year on year, according to figures from the Higher Education Authority.

From 2019 to 2020, the most recent figures available, the number of applications grew by 7.5 per cent.

Applicants and institutions

In 2020, 4,012 individual applicants received an offer of a place in higher education, representing a 27.6 per cent increase on the number of offers made in 2019.

Of this, 3,146 student applicants accepted their offer.

According to the schemes’ own website, there are 26 participating higher education institutions that have Hear and Dare.

These are: University of Limerick; University of Galway; University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin; University College Cork; Technological University of the Shannon Athlone and Limerick; Technological University Dublin; South East Technological University Carlow and Waterford; RCSI; National College of Ireland; Munster Technological University Kerry and Cork; Maynooth University and Maynooth Pontifical University; Mary Immaculate College; Marino Institute of Education; Institute of Art and Design Dún Laoghaire; Dundalk IT; Dublin City University; and the Atlantic Technological University in St Angela’s, Sligo, Letterkenny and Galway-Mayo.

All participating higher education institutions reserve a minimum of 5 per cent of their places for reduced-points offers for Dare and Hear schemes, according to the Irish Universities’ Association 2020 summary report of the pathways.

All CAO applicants under 23 are entitled to apply for consideration by participating colleges in both schemes.

If successful, the applicant can use the acceptance for two years; it is valid the year they are deemed eligible and the following year if they do not secure an appropriate offer in year one or simply choose not to proceed and apply again in the following year.

The two schemes are incredibly popular, with the number of successful applicants growing in recent years.

In the 2020/2021 year, some 8.7 per cent of students entered via Hear or Dare, compared to 7.1 per cent in the 2018/2019 academic year and 8.5 per cent in 2019/2020, according to figures from the Higher Education Authority.

And, according to those within the education sector, this is important to ensure equitable access to higher education, particularly the higher-points courses.

A 2020 study from the HEA found students from disadvantaged backgrounds remain significantly under-represented in third level, with those from affluent backgrounds dominating high-points college courses such as engineering, finance and medicine.

CAO procedure

Prospective students apply through the CAO form by ticking a box that indicates you want to be considered as part of Hear or Dare. Students with disabilities who also come from a disadvantaged backround can apply through both processes. Those who are deemed eligible for both schemes are prioritised.

Hear and Dare applicants must register with the CAO by February 1st, 2023, at 5pm and complete the appropriate sections of the online CAO application form no later than March 1st. Supporting documents for either scheme must be sent to CAO before March 15th at 5pm.

For mature students, or students applying on the basis of further education and training results, there are different, college-specific admission routes than Hear or Dare, which usually can be found on college websites.

Ms Byrne said that for both schemes, it’s important to apply early and get parental support as often a significant amount of documentation is required.

“I think it’s really important that parents and guardians are key to helping out because, for example, if I was 18, I wouldn’t necessarily know if I was socio-economically disadvantaged. You have to ask your parents for all the evidence around income and medical card entitlements and so on,” she said.

“If somebody is applying on the basis of a disability disadvantaging them, they would have to provide maybe a psychologist’s report, or an educational impact report. So it could be specialists or it could be schools that are completing these.”

Ms Byrne stressed that there are no late extensions for submitting documentary evidence for the two schemes, adding that getting in early is the best way to ensure you have provided everything that is required.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times