‘Fewer’ Irish students will need to study abroad under plans to boost output of doctors, nurses and vets

Third-level expansion plans could see 5,000 additional university places over ‘coming years’

Fewer Irish students will need to study abroad to become doctors, nurses or vets over the coming years under Government plans to provide thousands of additional third-level places in high-demand courses, according to Ministers.

Thousands of students are currently forced to pursue courses in the UK and eastern Europe each year due to high CAO points requirements and limited places in areas such as medicine, nursing and veterinary medicine.

A new Higher Education Authority study indicates that universities could provide up to 5,000 additional places on courses in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry and veterinary medicine, subject to additional funding for staff and new infrastructure.

The first batch of additional places could become available from September 2024 as part of expansion plans “over the coming years”, Ministers said.


A separate study on the potential to expand places for health and social care professions is due later this year against a backdrop of acute staff shortages in these areas.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said the additional places to be created over the coming years will be reserved for Irish or EU students who apply through the CAO process, rather than international students who are considered more lucrative in the eyes of universities.

While he said it was impossible to predict whether CAO points for individual courses would fall as a result, he said the recent expansion of higher education saw points stabilise last year and fall slightly.

“That’s likely to be the trend, but with specific courses you never know,” he said.

While the construction of new facilities at third level will take years to realise, higher education providers are confident in some cases that they can lease premises or expand additional courses with temporary buildings or facilities, according to Government sources.

The overall cost to the State is likely to run to hundreds of millions of euro, both in constructing new facilities and providing additional staff in the higher education sector.

Mr Harris said the next steps will involve higher education institutions making a business case for their proposals, while investment plans will be considered in Budget 2024 and the National Development Plan review.

“This does allow us to plan properly and horizon-scan to see, with investment, where we could be over the next number of years in terms of [third-level places in] healthcare and veterinary medicine,” he said.

“Some of our top performing students do their very best in the Leaving Cert ... and still sometimes find themselves not able to get a place here. That’s not good enough and that’s what we need to try and fix.”

The Higher Education Authority report found that, with investment, an additional 208 doctors, 692 nurses, 196 pharmacists, 63 dentists and 230 vets could be trained every year. This could result in an increase of more than 5,000 third-level enrolments across all years when rolled out.

Many Irish students currently study abroad to train as doctors, nurses or vets. Eastern Europe is especially poplar with more Irish veterinary medicine students estimated to be based in Poland than in the State’s only veterinary school in UCD.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly confirmed that clinical training places will be made available to match the output of nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals.

Where new college places are planned:


The annual intake in veterinary medicine is just 80 students in UCD, which has Ireland’s only veterinary school.

Under expansion plans, the annual intake would jump by an additional 230 students across an expanded UCD facility and new veterinary schools at University of Limerick (UL), South East Technological University (SETU) and Atlantic Technological University (ATU). This, when rolled out, would result in 1,145 third-level enrolments across the veterinary medicine area.


The annual intake of 700-plus medical students would grow to include an additional 200-plus students in expanded courses at RCSI, UCC, UCD and UL.

Maynooth University may also open a new school of medicine, subject to regulatory approval, which could provide an annual intake 60-plus medical students from 2025.

Overall, medical place expansion plans could see an additional annual intake of 208 each year, or just over 1,000 in third-level across all year groups.


The biggest planned increase in places by area of study is in nursing, which would see hundreds of new nursing places in UCC, Maynooth University and DCU, with an emphasis on graduate entry routes.

In addition there are plans to expand existing courses at ATU, DCU, Munster Technological University (MTU), SETU, Technological University of the Shannon (TUS), UL and University of Galway.

In all, the plans would see a combined additional intake of almost 700 students annually, or overall enrolment of 2,400 students.


The plans would see new degree courses at University of Galway, SETU and ATU, as well as expanded places at RCSI and UCC.

This would see an additional intake of almost 200 students, or 980 when the places are rolled out.


While it has one of the highest points requirements, the plans would see an additional intake 63 students each year at RCSI, Trinity College Dublin and UCC.

This would result in more than 300 places across all year groups.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent