Home or away: There’s more than one route to college

School leavers who cannot get chosen course in Ireland may find the solution abroad

What determines whether you get a place on your dream course? All reputable colleges set minimum academic standards which students must meet before they are offered a place. In Ireland matriculation is the term used to define the standard required to secure a place on most undergraduate degrees.

As a result of the new Leaving Certificate grades, in 2017 the universities and Institutes of Technology will also introduce revised basic matriculation requirements. For matriculation in 2017 candidates must obtain a pass in at least six subjects selected with at least a Grade H5 in two subjects on the Higher Course and at least a Grade H7 (Higher Course) or O6 (Ordinary Course) in four subjects.

Why, then, are very few potential learners aware this is the required standard for a college place? Since the mid 1970s the number of school leavers with matriculation or above has far exceeded the numbers of places on offer on most courses. Since then there has been further competition among the suitably qualified applicants, referred to as the points race, which shuts out a large portion of them from their desired course.

Is there any way around this dilemma? Private education has grown to more than 12 per cent of the third-level sector in response to the demands of disappointed students. Also, the acute shortage of young people in Europe has led to colleges offering more than 850 programmes taught exclusively through English, to attract applicants from outside their domestic market.


In 2012 the University of Groningen in the Netherlands switched all undergrad programmes in its faculty of maths and natural sciences to be taught through English, reflecting English as the language of science in the 21st century. This opened access for Irish students to courses once beyond their reach because of our domestic points race.

It is some 15 years since the first wave of Irish students started fee-paying programmes in veterinary and human medicine in universities in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. The community of Irish students in Budapest is now so large it has established its own GAA club.

In recent years a second wave of students has secured places in European public universities, particularly in the Netherlands, in non-health science subjects such as psychology, politics, business, liberal arts and sciences and international law. As the number of Irish students on these programmes has grown, the range has evolved to include life sciences, physiotherapy, fine art, performing arts, game design, and engineering. These students go to both research universities (seven Dutch universities are ranked higher than TCD) and universities of applied sciences. Apart from the Netherlands the most popular European destinations are Denmark and Germany.

How expensive is it for Irish students to take up a place in an EU university? All EU citizens must be treated equally when it comes to third level costs. Unlike the €2,750 registration costs in Ireland, tuition is free in Scandinavia and Malta, between €600 and €3,000-plus in Italy, where tuition fees are fixed with reference to family income, with the average Irish student paying €900 per annum, including for medicine.

Fees of €1,906 are charged for all programmes in the Netherlands, with a supplement of €1,000 for liberal arts and sciences courses. In Germany and Austria some courses are free, while others charge up to €1,500.

The full fee in the Netherlands can be covered by a tuition fee loan from the Dutch government, with 20 years to repay after graduation. Tuition fee loans are also available in Bulgaria for some medical and veterinary programmes.

Can I apply for a grant in Ireland and use it to fund my studies in Europe? You can take a SUSI grant abroad with you to public programmes in all EU universities. Student grants/loans are also available in the Netherlands and in Denmark towards living expenses, subject to students working part-time.

What grades do I need in my Leaving Certificate for a place in an EU degree programme? Unlike Ireland, most continental European systems try to offer a university-level education to as wide a number of students as possible. Of course, once given this right, students are expected to take it seriously, so if you don't commit fully to your studies in first year you are likely to be coming home at the end of that year.

Six Italian medical schools offer medicine taught through English and are not interested in Leaving Cert grades, as they select exclusively on their own entrance test (IMAT). Dutch universities, excluding liberal arts and sciences colleges, are forbidden by law to select based on grades/points.

Many programmes have no limit on places and will admit you if you hold NUI matriculation. Some courses have a limit on places, such as physiotherapy and psychology, which select students through a combination of interviews and letters of motivation plus, in some cases, preferred grades, like 400-450 CAO points for physiotherapy. Psychology degree programmes often require an aptitude test.

Most high quality Spanish universities are an exception to this rule and select students by grades, which can be high. Higher-level maths is required for many but not all courses in research universities, with ordinary level accepted for most other courses where maths is not a taught subject.

How do I go about applying for a place in an EU university? Only four EU countries, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, have a centralised application procedure similar to the CAO, although there are centralised qualification validation requirements in Germany and Spain. Dutch universities have varying deadlines, even for separate faculties at the same university. The earliest is February 1st for liberal arts and science; most have selection procedures in March/April; others courses remain open until after Leaving Cert results in August. All Finnish and many Swedish universities require exam results by July at the latest, which means most Irish and UK students interested in those two countries need to take a gap year. In Denmark the application deadline is in mid-March. In a number of EU countries applicants apply directly to university or qualification validation body or to the authority organising the entrance test.

Given these disparate application processes, many find the EUNICAS application support service useful (eunicas.ie).

Set up to facilitate UK and Irish students who are unable to access their preferred programme, or any suitable programme at all, in a university at home, the site has details on every course offered through English. It also offers advice on programme choice, application guidelines and forms, past exam papers where relevant, application document review, and assistance in organising university visits.

What about opportunities in the USA? Each year more than 1,000 Irish students go to college in America. There are more than 4,000 third-level colleges in the US, and most deadlines are around the middle of 6th year, so begin preparing to apply to college as early as possible.

This involves identifying prospective schools, taking the SAT exams, ensuring active involvement in extracurricular activity, such as sports or volunteering, and completing a comprehensive application by the deadline.

US colleges have a holistic review of student applications: they look at more than just grades. This suits students who may have struggled previously, but have since improved. Additionally, students do not have to decide what they want to study right away, unlike in Ireland. Instead, they study a broad range of subjects – the liberal arts – early on, and focus on their major in later years. Students need to submit their Leaving Cert results, however, so good grades are still required.

American college applications may initially be daunting. Supported by the US Department of State, Education USA is the only official advisory service in Ireland and is based in the Fulbright Commission. Joanne Davidson, Education USA advisor in Ireland, is at educationusa@fulbright.ie. Information on applying to US colleges is at fulbright.ie.



As a result of the new Leaving Certificate grades, in 2017 the universities and Institutes of Technology will introduce revised basic matriculation requirements:

* Where the requirements are currently 5 ordinary level D3 grades, in 2017 these will become 5 O6/H7 grades.

* Where the requirements are currently 2 higher level C3 grades and 4 ordinary level D3 grades, in 2017 these will become 2 H5 and 4 O6/H7 grades.

* Where the requirements are currently 3 higher level C3 grades and 3 ordinary level D3 grades, in 2017 these will become 3 H5 and 3 O6/H7 grades.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times