Skip to main content
European Commission logo


EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Support measures for learners in higher education


12.Educational support and guidance

12.5Support measures for learners in higher education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Support Measures for Learners in Higher Education

The social and economic benefits of creating an inclusive and equitable education system have been enshrined in policy and legislation in Ireland since the late 1960’s. The Higher Education Authority Act 1971, the Universities Act 1997, the Qualifications Act 1999, the Institutes of Technology Act 2006 and the Student Support Act 2011 are the legislative framework within which policy targeting equity of access to higher education operates. The provisions of equality legislation, such as the Equal Status Act 2000 also apply to all agencies providing education and training.  

The Department of Education and Skills has responsibility for developing policy to promote equity of access to higher education and established a National Access Office in the Higher Education Authority to advise it in this regard.  Target groups are those under-represented in higher education, including mature students, students with a disability and those from lower socioeconomic groups.

Work to improve access to third level education is being progressed through the implementation of the six-year National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education (2008-2013). The Plan identifies six goals and associated actions in the following key areas; communicating the rationale for Access; supporting the development of national framework of policies and initiatives to achieve access;  the creation of further routes of access and progression to higher education; teaching and learning practices; financial support and resources and makes the case for  a more robust data collection and evaluation framework to advise the development targets and indicators of progress.

The current national access strategy concludes at the end of this year; over the five-year period there have been two formal reviews of progress on the objectives and targets in the national plan. These show that while there has been progress, further work also remains to be done. Key achievements include:

  • The development of access and lifelong learning plans by each HEA funded institution and plans to include access as part of an overall process of strategic dialogue by the HEA with each higher education institution;

  • Advancements in policies on the transition from second level to higher education;

  • The development of core funding and other financial resources for access;

  • Improved systems of evaluation and data collection on access and participation in higher education, in particular through the HEA and DES student record systems;

  • New initiatives to improve student retention in higher education, including the publication of a study on progression;

  • The allocation of additional places for unemployed part-time/mature students through the Springboard programme and the development of policy for flexible/part-time learning.

Work has commenced on development of a national access plan from 2014 on. The new plan will include further targets, actions and evaluation mechanisms for access to higher education in Ireland. It will be implemented as an integral part of a national strategy for higher education to 2030.

Definition of the Target Group(s)

The under represented groups in higher education who are prioritised in national policy are:

  • Students from Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Backgrounds;

  • Mature students (over 23 years of age on entry to undergraduate study);

  • Students with Disabilities.

Since 2007, higher education institutions have been gathering additional information, as part of the registration process, on students’ social, economic and cultural backgrounds. This information provides a more consistent evidence base for national policy, in particular by supporting an assessment of progress to date, as well as the setting of new national and institutional targets for admission and participation.  The information is published each year in the HEA Key Facts and Figures publication. This and other data is also used to  advise the allocation of the financial resources required to support students from target groups in their participation in higher education.  Students in the target categories attract an additional 33% of the standard resource provided for each student and this money is identified within the overall recurrent grant that is allocated by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to each institution received every year. The target categories are:           

  • New entrants from target socio-economic groups, who currently are those from non-manual worker backgrounds and semi and unskilled manual worker backgrounds;

  • Students with disabilities in receipt of the fund for students with disabilities;

  • Mature students who are defined as those age 23 years or older on the 1 of January of the year of first time undergraduate entry;

  • Members of the Irish Traveller community.

National Access Plan Targets

In the current national access plan the following national targets were set for 2013.

  • A national participation rate of 72 per cent of the relevant age cohort will be achieved by 2020 (55 per cent in 2004).

  • All socio-economic groups will have entry rates of at least 54 per cent by 2020 (‘Non-manual’ group at 27 per cent and ‘Semi-skilled and unskilled manual’ group at 33 per cent in 2004).

  • Mature students will comprise at least 20 per cent of total full-time entrants by 2013 (13 per cent in 2006).

  • Mature students will comprise 27 per cent of all (full-time and part-time) entrants by 2013 (18 per cent in 2006).

  • Flexible/part-time provision will increase to 17 per cent by 2013 (7 per cent in 2006).

  • Non-standard entry routes to higher education will be developed so that they account for 30 per cent of all entrants by 2013 (estimated at 24 per cent in 2006).

  • Ireland will reach EU average levels for lifelong learning by 2010 and will move towards the top quartile of EU countries by 2013.

  • The number of students with sensory, physical and multiple disabilities in higher education will be doubled by 2013.

To-date, reviews of progress by the HEA indicate that four of the thirteen targets for 2013 have been achieved and one has almost been attained. A further two targets will be measured shortly and six targets have, so far, not been reached.

Specific Support Measures

All State-funded higher education institution have an access office and in most also a mature students office. These provide support and advice to prospective and current students at pre and post entry.

At pre-entry level the activities generally focus on socio-economic disadvantage and working with designated disadvantaged schools.  At primary level access activities may include visits by pupils to a third level institution; school visits by third level personnel; personal development initiatives (e.g. drama, music, art); supervised study and sports programmes.  Activities are similar once in second level education, however there is more emphasis on familiarisation (e.g. institutional visits by students and open days) and learning support (e.g. study skills, revision courses and extra tuition).  

Access programmes in institutions provide post-entry supports for students throughout their course.  Examples of the types of support being offered include intensive orientation programmes as well as on-going pastoral support and guidance from academic mentors and the access office. Extra tuition, peer mentoring and study skills workshops are offered to many students as well as information and referrals to other student support services of the university, for example the career guidance or counselling services, as necessary.  Institutions also manage programmes of post-entry support which include orientation and mentoring initiatives and learning support measures.

Support measures include state financial aid programmes, in particular the student grant scheme and the student assistance fund.  The principal support in financial terms is provided for under the student grant scheme, which makes available means-tested financial assistance to students in further and higher education.

Student Assistance Fund

The Student Assistance Fund (SAF) provides financial assistance for higher education students who are experiencing financial difficulties whilst participating in college. Students can be assisted towards their rent, childcare costs, transport costs and books/class materials. The operation of the Fund is devolved to the recurrently funded third-level institutions and allocations are based on a combination of total enrolments and equal access data.  All registered full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students who are attending approved third level courses in the relevant third level institutions are eligible to apply for assistance from the Fund. An allocation of €11m was provided in 2012/13 for this Fund.  Exact figures for students benefiting from the SAF will not be available until later this year.  However, it is expected to have increased significantly from the figure of 13,347 students who were supported by the fund in 2011/12.   

Fund for Students with Disabilities  

The Fund for Students with Disabilities provides funding for students with a disability attending recurrently funded and non-recurrently funded institutions that require additional supports and services while studying at further or higher education. Funding is provided for students who have serious sensory, physical, learning and/or communicative disabilities. Funding is provided for additional tuition/learning support, the purchase of special equipment, special materials, technological aids, targeted transport services and sign language assistance/interpreters and personal assistants where applicable. In 2012/13 an allocation of €10.3m was provided for this Fund, supporting 7,895 students (provisional data).