Getting to college on Hear and Dare schemes

The Higher Education Access Route and Disability Access Route to Education schemes offer equitable access to higher education.

HEAR and DARE schemes are designed to ensure equality of access to Higher Education in Ireland. Photograph: iStock

HEAR and DARE schemes are designed to ensure equality of access to Higher Education in Ireland. Photograph: iStock


The Leaving Cert is often called a “fair” exam: everyone sits the same exam and it is marked anonymously.

But fairness suggests an even playing field, even though students from wealthier families can afford extra tuition and, meanwhile, disabled students are at a disadvantage in an exam designed primarily for non-disabled students who can think and write fast.

Indeed, for the last two years, the pandemic meant that students had the option of being awarded a grade by their teachers - and this saw the advantage traditionally experienced by wealthier and non-disabled students eroded.

But there’s long since been a mechanism to help even out the playing field: the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) is an admission route for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds to get into college, while the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) provides an access route for disabled students.

Once in college, students can receive support to help them settle in and stay in their course. The University of Limerick participates in both schemes.

HEAR us out

At UL, many of the students who entered college through HEAR also took part in the Engage in Education programme, which is supported by the Irish Youth Foundation.

Engage began in 1991 in the city’s Southill area.

“When students from Limerick made it to third-level, they sometimes felt out of place,” says John Roche, project director of Engage in Education. “We run three programmes: Nurture from fifth class to the Junior Cycle; Compass in the senior cycle; and the four-year Engage programme which supports college students. We noticed that, if a student was living in disadvantage, there was only support or funding if they were in trouble - but not much support for students who were going to school and engaging. Our programme is to address that: the more students that progress to third-level, the better it is for the community as a whole.”

The Compass programme brings students out to the Limerick campuses: Technological University of the Shannon Midlands Midwest (formerly Limerick Institute of Technology) and UL, making it less of an alien world for young people whose parents may not have gone to third level. The programme also helps them to develop their communication and CV skills, mental wellbeing and resilience.

“We’re allowing other students from Southill or Moyross to compete in a system that favours students in fee-paying schools who have a big network,” says Roche. “HEAR is a good scheme that provides for students in certain schools to access college on a lower CAO points requirement. But we see students who perhaps should be in the HEAR scheme and are not, because details of the scheme are not always communicated to those who need them most.”

Chloe** (23) just completed a Masters in European Politics and now works as a liaison officer for an Erasmus company.

“I got the SUSI grant but it wasn’t enough, so the financial help from Engage was huge,” she says. “Through Engage, we had workshops on networking, CVs, study skills and coping with stress, and I’ve done talks for secondary students about my time in college and how I was helped.”

UL’s access programme was also a big help to Chloe: she had a mentor to support her and she was given priority access to certain library books.

Mentorship is one of the most important guides a child or young person can have, she says. “It helps to have people who can push and motivate you to go further. I’ve given talks to local primary schools and it’s great to see 11 or 12-year-olds already thinking about what they might like to do in college.”

* HEAR applicants apply through the CAO. The online process will prompt applicants for evidence of their eligibility, which is assessed based on income, plus a combination of medical card eligibility, means-tested social welfare payments, socio-economic group, school and area. It’s a good idea to start gathering the documents in January or no later than early to mid February, as the application deadline is March 15, 2022.

* A HEAR application information session will be hosted live online on Saturday January 8. See for more details.

We DARE you

Caoilinn Kennedy, head of disability services at UL’s student affairs division, has worked with the university for over nine years.

“I’m also the DARE representative for UL and have worked with other third-levels and AccessCollege,” she says. “Part of this role involves disseminating information on DARE to schools, organisations and the wider community. Before Covid-19, we visited schools and did sessions and clinics, but that in-person element was curtailed by the pandemic.”

Kennedy regularly advises on how to fill out the DARE form.

“There are three sections,” Kennedy says. “Part A is filed online through the CAO, with a deadline of March 1, and it asks for general information. Part B requires the school to fill out an educational impact statement, and part C requires evidence of disability including medical documentation. These two parts can be complex for some applicants so now is the time to start the application process. Parts B and C must be sent in by March 15.”

Students who enter a disability support programme will typically have a needs assessment. “At UL, this involves talking to the student - and, if they wish, parents or guardians - about what supports have worked for them in the past, what course they’re doing and what supports could help, including exam accommodations, assistive technology, time management, one-to-one academic support and much more.

“College is so much more than academics so we support students with their social and personal development, engagement with the college and their classmates, and we have learning support centres too.”

Kennedy says that they work closely with local services, schools and support organisations. One of their main outreach programmes is UXL, which involves two different sets of nine students coming into the university for two days and getting a feel of the campus, clubs, societies and academic life.

Charlie Mullowney graduated from UL with a bachelors in English and new media. She is now doing a part-time masters in technical communication and elearning.

“I have autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and [movement disorder] myoclonus dystonia,” says Mullowney. “I applied to UL through DARE with the support of my school guidance counsellor.

“In school, I experienced bullying by students and, occasionally, teachers. I had to work twice as hard in school and college, with a lot more time spent on assignments which could eat into the time I had for a social life. The UL Disability Support Service was extremely helpful in getting me through. Thanks to them I was able to get the support I needed such as one-to-one mentoring and exam support.

“I feel I have a lot to give both to society or an employer, and with some small accommodations, I can contribute a huge amount. I’m hoping to work in Technical Writing or eLearning, using my experiences and abilities - including attention to detail, compassion and insights into what works for disabled people - to help others. And I’m keen to do more work in advocacy and give a voice for those who don’t have one.”

* Charlie Mullowney writes Charlie blogs at

*All the universities, technological universities and institutes of technology take part in HEAR and DARE. Other third-levels may run similar access schemes. A full list of participating institutions is available at

**Chloe’s full name is with the editor.