Ireland needs to double healthcare places in college to meet skills demand, Donnelly says

Expansion plans would see a sharp increase in medical and nursing students in ‘coming years’

Ireland will needs to double the number of healthcare college places in order to meet skills demand for the health sector over the coming years, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.

He was speaking at event in Dublin on Thursday organised by the Irish Universities Association where he said the State’s ultimate goal should be a “universal healthcare” system.

Mr Donnelly said there was a large structural expansion needed in healthcare education despite an “unprecedented” increase in our healthcare workforce over recent years.

“I have set the ambitious target of doubling the number of student places across the full range of health professions. We must do this to meet our health workforce and patient care needs in the coming years and decades,” he said.


“I met universities last year to assess the appetite for this and was encouraged to see the enthusiasm for expanding the number of places and for investment and innovation in the education itself.”

He acknowledged that such a step would require significant capital investment across training colleges and said the Government was prepared to play its part in doing this.

Mr Donnelly said the “easiest win” was delivering medical college places. While Ireland has the highest number of medical places per capita in the OECD, he said we do not graduate enough doctors to work in Ireland.

“Why? Because nearly half of the college places are reserved for students outside the EEA [European Economic Area], and the data shows clearly that the majority of these don’t work in Ireland for long,” he said.

While he acknowledged this was due to a funding gap which colleges have had to address by attracting more lucrative international students, he said the current situation needed to change.

“In fact, we don’t really need any new medical college places, we just need to shift the balance significantly towards EEA students. It is simply not sustainable for the HSE to train so many students who will never work in Ireland. To achieve this shift of course requires additional funding.”

Last year the Government reached an agreement with the medical schools to increase the number of places available for EEA students by 200 over the period 2022 to 2026.

“While this agreement was welcome, it is not nearly enough. That change needs to continue such that we double the number of EEA graduates, and it needs to happen at a greater pace than 60 a year,” he said.

Mr Donnelly also said there has been a significant growth in the number of publicly-funded doctors in training, non-training scheme doctors, and consultants. He has set a goal of increasing consultant numbers to 6,000.

To this end, he said health authorities and postgraduate medical training bodies are working together to increase training places and consultant posts.

The biggest increase in new college places will be in nursing, he said, where over 1,550 Irish-trained nurses and midwives registered last year.

The vast majority of those took up permanent HSE contracts on qualification.

“We must be open to innovative solutions to increasing student numbers in the short term. You will have seen the recent agreement we arrived at with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to provide 200 places this September on nursing and midwifery courses in the North for students domiciled in the republic in 2023,” he said.

He said the Government has agreed to include nursing and midwifery in the work on different access routes to the degree training program such as via apprenticeships and Post-Leaving Cert courses.

Mr Donnelly said similar level of ambition was also needed for health and social care professionals.

His department is currently engaging with the Department of Higher Education to secure a doubling of these places, and to do so in “as few years as possible”.

“Our goal is universal healthcare. One of the most important and unfinished projects of our Republic, with its values, of cherishing all the children of the nation equally, enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation,” he said.

“We need to educate our students to the highest possible standards and equip them for the future of healthcare including advances in AI, eHealth, genetics and personalised medicine.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent