Adult education: from flower-arranging at night to nuclear physics by day

There are many ways to access adult education and training opportunities

The term “adult education” is something of a misnomer. It brings to mind an image of sitting awkwardly on tiny chairs in the local primary school and learning how to arrange flowers.

Adult education, in fact, is an umbrella term for a diverse range of learning opportunities for adults over the age of 23. Adult learners may be people who missed out on college after their Leaving Cert and are looking now looking at taking on a post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) or even a university course in any area, from arts through to science and more.

They might want to take an evening course in a subject that interests them – anything from ancient history to Spanish. They may have literacy problems and want to improve reading and writing skills. Or they might need to take a course for the job they have, or the job they want. Courses can be taken in the classroom, lecture hall or, increasingly, online.

"We describe adult education as any intervention, formal or non-formal, which adults avail of after they have left school," says Berni Brady, chief executive of Aontas, the Irish National Adult Learning Organisation.


"The main providers of adult and community education in Ireland are the education and training boards, but it is also provided by small, independent community organisations as well as private providers who don't receive State funding. Universities and institutes of technology cater for adult learners too, but is important that the further education and training sector is seen to provide real alternatives for people who don't want to pursue a third-level qualification."

Adult and community education, which caters for an estimated 300,000 adults every year, has changed significantly over the past three years. Before, VECs alone provided further education, while Fás provided training. Now, Fás has been abolished. In its place, Solas has been established to bring together further education and training under the same remit, and to develop policy for the sector.

In practice, this increasingly means that adults looking at their education options no longer have to feel their away around myriad meandering streets in an often confusing neighbourhood. Instead, they can now go to their local education and training board (ETB) who can help them explore their options. Unemployed adults can contact their local employment services or Intreo office at the Department of Social Protection, which can inform them about their options. Online websites, including,, and most of all, are also very useful.

Many courses available through the further education institutes are highly vocational and can lead to excellent job opportunities. At Blackrock Further Education Institute, for instance, there’s a remedial and sports massage course which would cost thousands in a private institution – here, students can do it for just €175.

Josephine Finn, head of the department of adult and community education at Maynooth University (formerly NUI Maynooth), says adult education is "all post-compulsory learning".

How can people figure out what is right for them? “Start with yourself,” Finn advises. “What interests you? Look at where you are coming from and where you want to go next. Do you have a special interest in something in particular? Are you looking for a more formal educational qualification? Is it for personal enrichment and/or to develop your skills and knowledge? What do you like to do? What excites you about the world, and what are you curious about?”

Change of career

Many adults may be looking at education to secure a job or for a change of career, but feel torn over what choice to make. What are the best pathways to work?

“This is a complex question,” says Finn. “It does come back to the individual. People will do exceptionally well if they are motivated to study and also if they have desire to learn. It could be a mistake to focus too much on the award itself. For adults, the process of learning itself can increase their autonomy and self-confidence and they come into their own. This is of value in the workplace.”

All well and good, but for adults who may have little prior experience of learning outside of school, or whose knowledge is a little rusty, how can they be sure the course will be pitched at the right level for them? Finn says it’s very important to research the course properly.

“There is a lot on offer, but doing your own research is, in its own right, a good preparation, as it is a form of self-directed learning. Talk to the local ETB, look at the Citizens Information website, or check out the websites of universities and colleges that have courses which interest you.”

Rory O’Sullivan, principal of the Killester College of Further Education, highlights the importance of research. There is sometimes a misconception about how students can access higher education through a further education course, he says.

“The value given to further education courses can vary widely from college to college and course to course. It is presented on websites as though there is just one path, but that is not the case: there are multiple progression paths into third-level.”


O’Sullivan believes that if colleges and universities are to properly address the issue of access across all demographic groups, this is a matter that needs to be tackled urgently. In the meantime, don’t assume a PLC course automatically opens the door to university – do ask guidance counsellors in your local further education college or ETB office.

O’Sullivan says he has met many adults who are really surprised by how much they have enjoyed their return to learning, particularly how it has impacted on their self-confidence.

“A lot of the public commentary focuses on the labour market. This is understandable in a time of recession, but there are other benefits. “Whether it’s a hobby course in the evening such as dancing or photography, or a certified course to enhance your chances in the labour market, I’ve seen how people’s confidence increases.”

The Dublin Region Adult Education Fair will be held on Thursday, November 27th, at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dublin 8.

See for more details.

For more information see:

How to fund it: Help with fees

The cost of education – adult or otherwise – can be a disincentive. Even if fees are covered, full- or part-time education entails an opportunity cost, with fewer hours in the day available for work or family commitments.

Generally, night classes have to be paid for, particularly those that don’t lead to a qualification but are taken out of interest. Outside of this, costs vary.

Students on PLC courses make an annual contribution of up to €200, but this is waived for medical card holders or people eligible for grants or the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) or Vocational Training and Opportunities scheme (VTOS).

Students over the age of 21 (or 24 if on a third-level postgraduate course) who have been in receipt of a social-welfare payment for at least six months can apply through their local social-welfare office for the BTEA scheme for a grant to help them cover the cost of further or higher education. Students studying part-time may be eligible to keep unemployment, one-parent family or disability payments under the Back to Education Programme. VTOS, meanwhile, is aimed at unemployed people over the age of 21 who have been in receipt of social-welfare payments.

Mature students going to a third-level college or university for the first time are, like all other students, eligible for free fees – but bear in mind that college registration fees still need to be paid, and these can be hefty.

However, like their younger counterparts, they may also be eligible for a student grant.

Students with disabilities may also be eligible for special assistance. The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) can provide further information (

Once in further or higher education, students may be eligible for a grant, which is processed through Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi).

If you run into financial trouble once you start the course, there are student assistance funds in place which may be able to help; talk to your local students’ union welfare officer or student adviser.