The Irish Higher Education System

As a prospective international student, you’re probably aware that education systems can vary (sometimes considerably) between different countries.

While experiencing new ways of learning is for some one of the main reasons to study for a degree abroad, it’s interesting to note some of the basic differences between the education system in your host country (in this case Ireland) and what you may be  familiar with in your home country.

For this reason, here’s a general introduction to the Irish higher education system for the benefit of prospective international students.

1 Degree Programmes

For historical reasons, the higher education system in Ireland is based largely on the British system. As in the UK (and USA), Ireland has traditionally had a two-cycle system of higher education: Undergraduate (Bachelor degree) and Graduate (Masters and PhD).


Bachelor degrees are usually of three or four years duration, though specialised professional programmes such as Medicine take longer. Yes, that’s correct, in Ireland you can study Medicine as an undergraduate student.

Undergraduate students enter university on a specific Bachelor degree programme. For example, the programmes such as the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Engineering etc., are all commonly offered by the various Irish universities.

Different Bachelor degree programmes may have different entry requirements (see below). It’s important to remember this when applying, because if you are not accepted for a specific programme at your chosen university,  the same university may accept you on to a another programme with different requirements.

You’ll notice that students at Irish universities tend to specialise in a certain areas of study from their first year of university. The classes taken by an undergrduate are determined by the programme they’re admitted to. Also, students here don’t have general education requirements and don’t generally take electives from outside their area of study.

Graduation Day at NUI Galway

Graduation Day at NUI Galway

This means that if you’re a burgeoning Scientist, you can concentrate on studying purely Science subjects or, if you’re a budding Historian, you won’t be required to take Calculus (unless of course you want to!).

This might be different to your home country, but if you’re unsure about what exactly you want to study, remember that at NUI Galway you simply need to choose a general area of study (e.g. Arts, Commerce, Engineering, Science etc.) when you apply. You don’t necessarily need to know what specific subject (major) you want to study (e.g. History, Economics, IT or Chemistry etc.) within your chosen area of study.

This is because we also offer a number of ‘open’ degree programmes, where students can select a broad range of classes in their first year before specialising in year two. The best example is probably, the Bachelor of Arts (Omnibus) programme. This is a multidisciplinary programme where students select 4 subjects in First Year from a broad range of subjects across the humanities, languages and social sciences etc., before narrowing their focus down to 2 subjects in Second Year (double major).

For example, you might choose to study French, Economics, History and Philosophy in First Year. On entry to Second Year you drop 2 of your 4 original subjects, so in this example you might choose to pursue French and Economics for a Joint Honours (double major) degree.

For students who know exactly what subject they want to study, we also have a wide range of more specialised degree programmes, including Biomedical Engineering, Marine Science, Accounting etc.

Graduate Studies

After completing a Bachelor degree,  a student may decide to go on to pursue a Master’s degree. Master’s degrees are highly specialised and usually take one or two years to complete. There are two general types of Master’s degrees:

    1. taught Master’s, which consists of classes, seminars, coursework and a minor research dissertation. A taught Master’s usually takes 1 year but some take 2 years to complete. 
    2. research Master’s, which consist of working on a research project under faculty supervision usually for 2 years.

As in the UK and the USA, a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree requires working on an original research project, usually over 4 years, before producing a thesis.

Admission Requirements

As mentioned above, entry requirements for Bachelor degree programmes can vary. Certain programmes may have particular pre-requisites from your high school studies. For example, a student applying for Engineering would need excellent grades in Mathematics, whereas a student wishing to study Business or a Humanities degree may be required to have a modern European language. Please refer to the NUI Galway website for country specific requirements.

Entry to a Master’s degree programme usually requires a Bachelor degree in a cognate discipline with good grades. Similarly, a student with excellent grades in their Bachelor degree may be considered for direct entry to a PhD programme.


There are 7 universities in Ireland. These include the four constituent universities of the National University of Ireland (1-4 below) and three others.

  1. NUI Galway
  2. UCD
  3. NUI Maynooth
  4. UCC
  5. Trinity College (University of Dublin)
  6. DCU
  7. University of Limerick.

The 7 Irish universities are largely publicly funded, though they each retain a high level of autonomy in matters such as matriculation, curriculum and the awarding of academic degrees under the Irish Universities Act, 1997.

As well as the 7 universities, there are also fourteen Institutes of Technology (IOTs) in Ireland. With the exception of DIT, the IOTs don’t have degree awarding powers and generally offer more vocational focused programmes in the  science and technology subjects.

For more information, check out our other blog entries on Making the Grade , a guide to the Irish grading system and An Irish University Phrasebook


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One response to “The Irish Higher Education System

  1. Pingback: 10 Websites Every International Student Should Know About | Study In Galway

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