What type of third level institution should I opt for?

What are the different types of third level learning institutions in Ireland?

What's in a name? Students working on their CAO form may be familiar with the different terms: university, technological university (TU), institute of technology (IOT) and college. But what do these terms really mean, and should it influence your application in any way?

Why is this in the news?

The differences between the various institutions were highlighted in a recent report from the Higher Education Authority, which found that college completion rates were highest in the teacher-training colleges, followed by the university sector and then IoTs.

What do the four types of institutions have in common?


For most students, particularly at undergraduate level, colleges, universities, TUs and IoTs all serve the same broad purpose: providing a third-level education in a particular subject or subject. It’s only when you break it down that you notice the differences.

Okay, so what makes an institution into a “university”?

Universities are internationally recognised as the highest centre of academic learning - and they generally have higher CAO points requirements.

"Practically, universities deal almost exclusively with levels eight (honours degree), level nine (postgraduate degree) and level 10 (doctorate)," says Lia O'Sullivan, head of communications with the Irish Universities Association. "Institutes of technology and technological universities cater for a significant population of level six and level seven qualifications as well. The seven IUA universities (UCC, UL, NUIG, Maynooth, DCU, Trinity and UCD) account for over 75 per cent of all postgraduate courses in Ireland. "

Universities are also different, O’Sullivan says, because they create knowledge through the research of their academics. “They focus on excellence in teaching, learning and cutting-edge research and innovation. They are knowledge creators, not just followers.”

O’Sullivan adds that universities are pivotal to the success of the high-end tech and innovation industries in Ireland. “The clusters around the country – medical technology, ICT, biopharma, agri-food and others are all directly linked with the top universities. These industries have sustained the economy and the tax base during the Covid crisis.”

Is an institute of technology substantially different?

IoTs started off as regional technical colleges, aimed at providing work-ready graduates with links to local industry. These RTCs evolved into IoTs and, today, provide a crucial educational training ground for students that may not be able - or want – to go to university in Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway.

Róisín O'Connell is head of communication at the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), which represents and advocates for the technological higher education sector in Ireland.

“Lecturers in the technological sector may have been coming from industry rather than academia,” she says. “Guest lecturers may also have strong links with industry and there are good links with local industry – a good example here being the steady stream of graduates from IT Carlow into the aviation industry.”

O'Connell says that IoTs are less urban-based than universities. "Letterfrack, part of GMIT, is where students learn furniture design and manufacturing, and these courses provide specific graduates for certain industries."

What if I don’t want to do a degree but would prefer an apprenticeship?

You’re in luck. Over the past decade, a whole host of new apprenticeships have come on stream. While craft apprenticeships including carpentry, motor mechanic and plumbing are still among the core offerings, students can also now train in accounting, auctioneering, insurance, recruitment, ICT, sales, logistics, food and hospitality and more. Many of these apprenticeships are run through the IoTs and TUs, such as IT Sligo’s insurance practitioner programme, where students spend one day a week at classes and four days working. Unlike a college course where students pay to learn, apprenticeships pay students, so you are earning while you learn. These courses don’t run through the CAO, but you’ll find more info on Apprenticeship.ie.

So is a “technological university” a cross between a university and an institute of technology?

Ireland's first technological university, TU Dublin, was established in January 2019 from the merger of the Dublin Institute of Technology, IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown. The second, Munster Technological University, came into existence on January 1, 2021, following the merger of Cork IT and Tralee IT.

Part of the reason for the change, at the time, was because the term “institute of technology” was often unfamiliar to international students, whereas everyone knew what a “university” (technological or otherwise) meant. The mergers are also interested to enable better provision of new programmes and bring together academics across a particular discipline so they can better collaborate.

Prof David Fitzpatrick, president of TU Dublin, points out that the concept of a technological university is not unique to Ireland.

“Technological universities are universities,” he says. “We have moved from a binary system with IoTs to universities to a three-pillar system, and they overlap in terms of what they do. Universities have historically a stronger focus on fundamental and pure research activities, whereas IoTs come from a practice and practically based education approach, but they still do fundamental research. TUs bridge and blur this gap, with a practice and practically based approach to education, and fundamental and applied research activity. We have not lost that local connectivity but we bring the wider regional engagement and strong connectivity with industry across the Dublin region but also nationally and internationally.”

And what’s a college?

Don't stress about this but, in Ireland, the term "college" generally refers to a higher education institution with a specific focus, such as the teacher training colleges or St Angela's in Sligo which is best-known for training home economics teachers (although it does run other courses too). The fee-paying, independent colleges including Griffith College and Dublin Business School also fall into this category, as does National College of Ireland and Carlow College which offer specific and focused programmes.

Should all of this influence a student’s choice?

It’s not something the average student will consider – but there are differences in the type of education that the different types of institution will, says O’Connell.

Perhaps the biggest, practical difference is that IoTs and TUs offer level six and seven courses which can be a qualification in their own right or a stepping stone to level eight.

“Choosing the right course should be your number one criteria. But some students will want the anonymity of a big lecture theatre [in a university] and be self-motivated to learn. On a smaller campus, however, students may get extra supports and smaller class sizes.”

The lines between the different institutions is blurrier than before, however, with industry links and work placement options increasing across the board.

Turn on, tune in – and drop out?

Earlier this year, the HEA revealed that between 60 and 80 per cent of students in some computing and engineering courses were dropping out.

The data was collected before the establishment of the Technological University Dublin and the Munster Technological University, with the HEA tracking the 10-year progress of students who entered higher education between 2008/09 and 2010/11.

The lowest completion rates were in ordinary degree courses (level six and seven) degrees. And whereas 81 per cent of women completed their course, this fell to 70 per cent for men.

The data is somewhat dated, however, and it’s worth pointing out that many of those who chose level six and seven computing and engineering courses might otherwise have gone into construction courses, were it not for the property crash.

Róisín O’Connell of THEA says that the IoT and TU sectors now offer strong supports to at-risk students including drop-in classes, online supports and maths workshops.