Number of students in higher education rises 17.5% in six years

More students achieving first-class honours than ever before, according to HEA data

The number of students enrolled in higher level education has increased by almost 17.5 per cent over the past six years, according to new data released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

The number of students enrolled in third-level institutions rose from 209,000 in 2014 to 245,000 in 2020. The total number of undergraduate new entrants to third-level in 2020 increased by 6 per cent on the previous year, the largest annual number of new entrants to date.

More students are now achieving first-class honours than ever before, the annual statistics reveal.

The proportion of honours degree graduates achieving a first-class honours or equivalent increased from 16.8 per cent for the class of 2014 to 24.3 per cent for the class of 2020. There was a 3.6 per cent increase in firsts from 2019 to 2020.


The data, compiled by the HEA, looks at the number of students enrolled in a particular year, their route to higher education, their gender, the qualifications graduates achieve and the course areas that most graduates study.

The participation gap between males and females has continued to widen, it found. In 2014, there were 3.3 per cent more females and by 2020, the gap had widened to 17.8 per cent.

Male new entrants had outnumbered female new entrants in 2014 but by 2020, there were almost 3,600 more female new entrants.

HEA’s head of access policy, Catríona Ryan, welcomed the increase in students availing of alternative entry routes.

“Considering the huge impact of Covid-19 on Leaving Certificate students in 2020, it is positive that there has been an increase in students entering via Dare [Disability Access Route to Education] and Hear [Higher Education Access Route],” she said.

The impact of the pandemic could be seen for the first time in the annual statistics, with a drop in the number of international enrolments.

Total international enrolments decreased by 11.6 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019. A fall in non-EU enrolments drove this overall decrease, while the numbers of enrolments from EU countries and the UK saw a small increase.