Navigating the world of adult further education and training

Learning and upskilling options have grown in diversity along with grants and supports

Adult education: even those who go through the third-level system may  return to education to upskill, change career direction, or simply to learn for the sake of learning. Photograph:  iStockphoto/Getty

Adult education: even those who go through the third-level system may return to education to upskill, change career direction, or simply to learn for the sake of learning. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty


Everyone is fairly familiar with the basics of the education system: primary school, secondary school, college and then maybe a postgraduate. But not everyone will follow this path and, increasingly, even those who go through the third-level system may return to education to upskill, change career direction, or simply to learn for the sake of learning.

The further education and training sector is very diverse. While this is certainly beneficial, it can be hard for potential students to navigate through the myriad courses and funding options.

With that in mind, we have compiled a guide to get prospective students started in adult and further education.

Types of courses

What’s what in further education and training?

Access programmes: An alternative entry route to third-level for those who missed out the first time around, this system usually involves a foundation year, in science or humanities, which helps to prepare learners for university. Contact the admissions office in the third-level institutions you are interested in attending.

Apprenticeships: The apprenticeship system is in the midst of a radical transformation with a host of new options being rolled out. Apprenticeships offer the chance to earn money while learning, and working towards a level-eight degree qualification from a third-level institution.

Community education: This form of schooling generally takes place outside the formal education sector, with the needs of learners and local communities central to the design of programmes. Learners are supported with access, childcare and mentoring. These courses often take place in more marginalised communities and can be a stepping stone to further and higher education.

Further education: Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) courses offer a valuable, vocationally oriented qualification in colleges of further education across Ireland. Courses cover areas such as business, computers, childcare, engineering, hairdressing, healthcare, and travel and tourism. There are also pre-nursing PLCs which can be an entry route to nursing; indeed, many PLC courses can be an entry route to third-level.

Interest and night courses: Want to learn but not wild about exams? Adult education courses run in local schools as well as universities and colleges throughout Ireland. There’s a wide range of classes – mostly held in the evening – including history, literature, digital and social media, philosophy, ecology, maths and more. At UCD, the open learning programme allows students to sit in on a range of undergraduate modules and, if they want, earn credits.

Online/blended learning: These courses off a solution for those for those keen to learn but tied down to work and family commitments. Alongside established providers such as Kilroy’s College and the Open University, most colleges and universities now offer online and distance learning courses in a range of subjects.

‘Massive online open courses’: MOOCs are free to anyone with internet access and include courses designed by some of the world’s most prestigious universities. They are not suitable for students in search of a recognised qualification but invaluable if you simply want to upskill or expand your knowledge. At home, DIT, NUI Galway and Trinity are among those offering MOOCs. For a fuller list, check out

Springboard: This government initiative offers over 200 free, part-time and intensive conversion courses in higher education at certificate, degree and postgraduate levels. The courses are open to homemakers, the unemployed or formerly self-employed, and people in employment who wish to take a course in the ICT or manufacturing sectors. For more information, see

Workplace learning: A good employer will support their staff in updating their skills and learning new ones. Sometimes, this will consist of a two-day short course; other times, it will mean being subsidised for a postgraduate degree, diploma or certificate course. Education and Training Boards also facilitate workplace learning initiatives, as do some private education providers. Talk to your employer.

Grants and supports

Cost is the biggest barrier to adult and further education. It is not just the fees that need to be considered; it’s also the impact of not working or working less. There are supports in place, but they tend to be focused on unemployed people and can leave out, for instance, people who want to upskill or change career, women who have worked in the home and want to get back into the workplace, and older people.

Back to Education Allowance/Back to Education Initiative: Carers, people with disabilities, unemployed people and lone parents may be eligible for the BTEA scheme, which allows them to study in second-level or further and higher education while hanging on to their existing social welfare payments. Meanwhile, the BTEI scheme is targeted at over-16s – primarily those who have not completed their Leaving Cert – and allows participants to combine family and work with a part-time further education programme.

Childcare: Returning to learning is a non-starter if there’s nobody to mind the kids. The Childcare Employment and Training Support (CETS) scheme provides subsidised childcare places for some applicants to vocational training courses including further education and training, Youthreach, Vocational Training Opportunities Schemes (Vtos) and BTEI, among others. Meanwhile, the Community Employment Childcare Programme can provide support for parents on community employment schemes.

Disability: Adults with physical, learning or intellectual disabilities can avail of a range of supports. For more information, contact the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (

Maintenance grant: Full-time mature students may qualify for the means-tested maintenance grant. To check your eligibility, see

For further information, your local Education and Training Board is a good starting point, or check out the very informative and detailed website