Studying in Ireland can be an engaging and fun-filled experience. Depending on the course that you choose to pursue, there may be many third-level institutions to choose from and compared to many countries, university fees are far more reasonable. Despite recent results not being ideal, Ireland’s top universities still rank well in the World University Rankings, with two universities, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, both ranking in the top 200 in the most recent ranking report.
On top of their status as institutes of learning, Irish university life is renowned for the many and varied social outlets it provides for its respective student bodies. Cities like Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick, along with smaller towns like Maynooth, Athlone and Dundalk offer students a healthy balance of academic and extracurricular activities.
However, despite these many advantages of college life in Ireland, a degree of confusion exists with regards to who is applicable for what when it comes to third level education and university fees in Ireland. This uncertainty is particularly prevalent for returning Irish emigrants who have lived abroad for a period of time, and children of Irish emigrants who may have been born in Ireland but have lived most of their life abroad.
This guide provides key answers to a range of questions we have received from returning Irish emigrants and newcomers alike on the topic of university fees in Ireland.
Is third-level education in Ireland free?
Yes and no. In Ireland, third-level education is free thanks to the Free Fees Initiative, whereby the Department of Education and Skills pays the university fees to the respective third-level institutions instead of the student doing so. This means that most undergraduate students are exempt from paying tuition to attend university. However, a student contribution fee of approximately €3,000 applies to all students, and that is a contentious point for many students who believe the free university fees tag in Ireland is somewhat of a misnomer.
OK, but anyone in Ireland can avail of this Free Fees Initiative, right?
Wrong! In order to qualify for the ‘so-called’ free university fees, an applicant must have been living in an EEA member state or Switzerland for at least three of the five years before starting his or her course. Generally speaking, you must also be a citizen of an EEA member state or be a family member of an EU/EEA national and have permission to live in Ireland. Crucially, those with official refugee status, permission to remain and humanitarian leave to remain, as well as family members of those with refugee status also qualify in this respect.
So, even though I’m Irish and have been outside Europe for more than two consecutive years, I will most likely be unable to access free university fees for third level tuition in Ireland?
Yes, unfortunately this is the case. One of the biggest shocks that many returning Irish emigrants find upon coming home is that even though they or their children, if applicable, are Irish citizens, they may not qualify for free university fees because they do not fulfil the requirement of having spent three of the previous five years in Ireland, another EEA country or Switzerland.
Are there any other barriers to the Free Fees Initiative that I need to be aware of?
Yes. First of all, to avail of the Free Fees Initiative it will need to have been your first time completing an undergraduate course. Students who are repeating first year, for instance, cannot get a repeat year for free unless this repeat was because of a serious illness which can be verified.
Similarly, if you change course then you will also be ineligible for free fees for the years of study that you completed in the previous course. However, if you are a student who already holds a Level 6 or a Level 7 qualification (certain undergraduate certificates, diplomas and degrees) and would like to progress to a Level 8 qualification (higher undergraduate degree) on the National Framework of Qualifications without having received an exemption from the normal duration of the course, then you may be deemed eligible for free fees.
Also, you may be eligible for free fees if you attended a course but did not complete it and are returning following a break of at least five years to pursue an approved course at the same level.
Finally, to qualify for free fees you will need to be enrolled in a full-time course with a minimum duration of two years. Crucially, this course must be in a public third level institution — this includes universities, the National Colleges of Ireland, all Institutes of Technology, publicly-funded colleges of education and a number of religious education institutions. Students at private third-level institutions are ineligible for the Free Fees Initiative. This is true whether the institutions have Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) approval or not.
Alright, so if I don’t meet these criteria what are my other options?
If you do not qualify for the Free Fees Initiative because you are repeating a year or don’t fulfil the nationality or immigration qualifications, then you may be eligible for EU fees. One important point to keep in mind is that since 2014, Irish, EU, EEA or Swiss students who have spent five years in primary or secondary school in Ireland can qualify for EU fee rates.
Generally, fees for EU students tend to be cheaper than those for non-EU applicants, but are not as low as the free fees enjoyed by Irish or EU-based students who can prove the requisite residency conditions outlined above.
In addition, EU fee rates are set by each individual third-level educational institution. If you are interested in pursuing this route, then you should contact the institution you are looking to attend in order to find out about their EU fee rate and whether or not you qualify. However, if this is not possible, then you will have to look at the higher non-EU fees rate option.
Will UK citizens be eligible for EU fees after Brexit is implemented?
Which, if any, EU-wide programs the United Kingdom may continue to be a part of after Brexit remains to be seen. As soon as this information becomes available, we will update this page accordingly. Note that clarity on this issue may not be forthcoming until after March 29, 2019, when the UK is set to leave the EU, and that the Brexit negotiation process is constantly evolving.
Am I right to presume the non-EU fees will be a more expensive option?
In a word, yes. By their nature, non-EU fees apply specifically to applicants who neither qualify for free nor EU fees. Again, much like EU fees, the rate charged is at the discretion of the individual third-level institution, so our advice is to contact the university, college or institute of technology you are interested in attending for further information.