More students to avail of ‘game-changing’ degree courses outside CAO system

Initiative being widened later this year to include more than 40 study areas including business, nursing, engineering, construction, music and software development

More students will be able to secure degree courses outside the CAO points race under an expansion of alternative pathways into higher education from next September.

The new tertiary degrees start in a further education college and are completed in a university setting.

Students’ grades or points are not a requirement for entry, but they are expected to reach a required level of achievement to continue into university.

The initiative, launched last year with a small number of courses, is being widened to include more than 40 study areas later this year, including business, nursing, engineering, construction, music, sound production and software development.


Officials expect the volume of students likely to take these pathways will increase significantly from a modest start last year, which saw 153 students begin a total of 14 tertiary degree courses.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris made the announcement on Wednesday evening at the launch of Ireland’s Education Yearbook, edited by education columnist with The Irish Times Brian Mooney and published by Phyllis Mitchell.

He said the CAO route placed high levels of stress and pressure on young people, but that new pathways had the potential to be a “game-changer” for higher education in Ireland.

“These unified third-level courses challenge the notion that your Leaving Cert results should determine your education and career path, define a person or their capabilities, or get in the way of their dreams,” he said.

“With these courses I want to send a clear message to young people and their parents when considering options after school: you can be an engineer, a nurse, study business or work in ICT without ever having to worry about those archaic and stressful Leaving Cert points, which some of us here tonight probably still have bad dreams about and wake up in a panic about.”

He said a doubling in the volume of courses will, over time, offer an alternative to the CAO system for many.

Applications are open from Thursday for the first set of programmes, with further courses to be added in the coming weeks. The programmes are available in institutions of further education all over the country, and in areas such as nursing, creative arts, engineering and ICT. Details on all courses open for applications are available online at

A call for proposals has also identified a pipeline of programmes for development for September 2025, with the initiative set to expand into the traditional university and specialist college sector.

Programmes for 2025 have been proposed by the University of Limerick, University of Galway, National College of Art and Design, Mary Immaculate College and University College Cork.

The proposed programmes are in areas of strategic skills need such as pharmaceutical sciences, sustainability and early childhood education.

Dr Fiona Maloney, director of the National Tertiary Office, said the new tertiary degrees were “the most exciting and transformative initiative happening in our education system”.

“This student-centred degree route supports the diversification of professions, addresses the geographical gap in higher education delivery, removes the stress of the points race and provide new opportunities to access your chosen career,” she said.

“The full complement of tertiary degrees will be available over the coming weeks, applications will remain open from February 1st until mid-September through”

Separately, Mr Harris said an increase in the volume of students choosing apprenticeships was a welcome development.

Last year there were 9,000 new registrations, bringing the total apprenticeship population to a record 27,500.

“We know we need to meet certain targets for craft apprenticeships in order to have the skilled workforce to tackle the housing shortages across Ireland, and I firmly believe we are on track to meet those targets,” he said.

He added that the apprenticeship route has expanded to include healthcare, insurance, sales and other areas.

“I truly believe we need to keep sharing the message of the opportunities available in this space, and get rid of any lingering snobbery that may exist among some who believe higher education is the best and only possible route to achieving your goals,” he said.

“Because let me be clear: There is no one right way, there are just different paths. There is no one-size fits all in education, there are just different ways – and they must be open and available to everyone.”

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