Universities plan easier access for NI students to colleges in South

Current system widely seen as penalising students north of Border by requiring them to have four A-levels

Universities plan to make it easier for students in Northern Ireland to go to college in the South by ensuring A-levels results translate more fairly to CAO points.

The current system is widely seen as penalising A-level students by requiring them to have four A-levels – one of which must be maths – to make it possible to achieve maximum points.

Under the new system, due to come into force for the 2024/2025 academic year subject to agreement by individual colleges, applicants will be able to combine A-levels which take two years to achieve, with less advanced AS levels, which take a single year to complete.

The changes were drawn up by a working group at the request of Universities Ireland, which represents universities on both sides of the Border. The planned changes must be adopted by individual universities across the State, although this is likely to be a formality.


Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has confirmed that the changes in requirements for Northern Irish students who choose to study in Irish universities will be implemented.

“For those who are not familiar with the system, this essentially means it will be easier for students from Northern Ireland to access education here in Ireland,” he said. “There are other issues that we need to work on but I believe this is a very good step.”

The proportion of students from the North in the Republic dropped to a low level of about 1 per cent – or about 1,500-1,600 students – over a period of several years. Last year it fell further still with a 15 per cent drop in the number of CAO college applicants with A-level results from Northern Ireland.

Currently, it is only possible to achieve the maximum 625 points by taking four A-levels and one of them has to be maths.

Under the changes, A-level candidates will be allowed to use the best three A-levels, in combination with a fourth A-level or AS-level or extended project. Another combination may involve two A-levels and two AS-levels. This means applicants can attain a score of 600 points on the basis of these two scenarios, or 625 points if one of the A-levels is maths.

Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh, deputy president and registrar at University of Galway, who chaired the Universities Ireland working group, said the changes were significant.

“The Oireachtas and Government has been asking us how to enhance cross-Border mobility, and a recent ESRI [Economic and Social Research Institute] report showed the A-level equivalencies were a handicap to enhanced mobility. These proposals go a long way to addressing that imbalance and I look forward to greater mobility across the island of Ireland,” he said.

Mr Harris added that the changes represent another example of all-island co-operation in the area of education.

“A shared island and shared future can be built through education. Education can and must be the firm foundations on which we build our shared future,” he said.

“The relationships between our higher education institutions through Universities Ireland and bilateral collaborations is strong but we must keep going. Because if we can make this happen, this small island will be a remarkable beacon of talent and opportunity.”

Universities Ireland includes traditional universities on both sides of the Border. While technological universities are not part of the grouping – with the exception of TU Dublin – they are understood to be considering the proposals.

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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