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Towards an Integrated Tertiary Education System

A Practitioner’s Perspective

Dr Diarmuid O’Callaghan
Campus Principal, Technological University Dublin
Dr Rory O’Sullivan
Principal, Killester College of Further Education

This article explores the idea of an integrated tertiary education system in Ireland from a practitioner’s point of view, giving prominence to the student perspective. It looks at the potential for the Regional Skills Fora to provide a framework for a more integrated approach to tertiary education provision, and offers proposals for mapping a way forward.


In 2018 the Department of Education and Skills, in its Statement of Strategy, identified a strategic objective of achieving ‘a more integrated tertiary education system’ (DES, 2018, p. 14). This was reiterated in the Action Plan for Education for 2019 (DES, 2019, p. 41): ‘Develop a framework for an integrated strategic approach to tertiary education’ (Action 64.1).

The National Risk Assessment (Government of Ireland, 2019) identified the capacity of the higher and further education system as a strategic risk, stating:

An adequately resourced, flexible, responsive and aligned Higher Education (HE) and Further Education & Training system has a crucial role to play in sustaining enterprise growth in Ireland. (p. 38)

This article will explore the issue of an integrated tertiary education system in Ireland from a practitioner’s point of view, while giving prominence to the student perspective. It will begin by outlining what is meant by tertiary education, then describe some current areas of system convergence between further education and training (FET) and higher education (HE).

Greater cooperation between FET and HE in the framework of an integrated tertiary education sector is to be welcomed. From a student’s perspective, however, a transparent and equitable system for progression from FET to HE is paramount. This is briefly discussed below. To illustrate initiatives that could support further strategic convergence of FET and HE, the experience of the University of Central Florida and its partnership with local Community Colleges will be outlined.

In the Irish context the article will explore, as a possible way forward, the potential for the Regional Skills Fora, in which all FET and HE providers in each region are represented, to provide a framework for a more integrated approach to tertiary education provision. It will conclude with proposals for mapping a way forward.


Before discussing an integrated tertiary education sector in Ireland, we must decide what is actually meant by tertiary education in this context. Given that FET includes provision across the first six levels of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), and HE includes provision from levels 6 through 10, some precision is needed.

While none of the policy statements cited above explicitly defines tertiary education, the context of the discussion therein suggests that tertiary education consists of post-secondary provision. Therefore, provision from levels 5 through 10 on the NFQ will be taken here to be included in the meaning of tertiary education.

This meaning is consistent with the definition used by the World Bank. However, the OECD, EU, and Central Statistics Office (CSO) in Ireland use the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) referencing for the different levels, which has two categories relevant to this discussion (UNESCO, 2019). ISCED level 4, ‘Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education’, is described as ‘[providing] learning experiences building on secondary education, preparing for labour market entry as well as tertiary education’. In the CSO’s Educational Attainment Report of 2018, FET provision at levels 5 and 6 is included in this level (CSO, 2018).

ISCED levels 5 through 8 are classified as ‘Tertiary Education’, which is defined as ‘[building] on secondary education, providing learning activities in specialised fields of education. It aims at learning at a high level of complexity and specialisation. Tertiary education includes what is commonly understood as academic education but also includes advanced vocational or professional education.’

In the world of international comparisons and statistical reporting, both nationally and internationally, the statistical definitions used by these various bodies, while pertinent to this discussion, have been described so as to highlight the need to clarify what is meant by tertiary education in the context of the DES policy objective of an integrated tertiary education sector.

Convergence of FET and HE

A particular feature of the current Irish policy landscape has been the convergence of FET and HE, at both the policy and institutional levels. This convergence has its foundations in developments in relation to qualifications and the NFQ in the late 1990s and 2000s. The Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 established, for the first time in Ireland, a national certification and qualifications system. It also facilitated the establishment of the NFQ, launched in 2003.

With all qualifications at all levels described using the same language of learning outcomes, the NFQ brought vertical convergence between FET and HE qualifications. More recently, this convergence has become apparent in the establishment of a single division in the DES for Higher and Further Education and Training policy, and in the strategic engagements between SOLAS, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), and the Education and Training Boards (ETBs).

Speaking at the Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI) Conference in 2018, QQI chief executive Dr Padraig Walsh, referring to ETBs’ obligation for quality assurance, said that ‘the development, compliance, and reporting responsibilities of the ETBs are now commensurate with those for higher education’ (Walsh, 2018). Indeed, in its recent Statement of Strategy, QQI said the ETBs would be subject to an institutional review model similar to the CINNTE model that applies to the universities and institutes of technology (IoTs) (QQI, 2018).

This alignment of quality assurance approaches between FET and HE is in line with the ambition to see ETBs assuming delegated authority to confer awards. Similarly, the Strategic Performance Agreements concluded recently between SOLAS and each ETB were based on the model used for similar agreements between the HEA and the third-level institutions.

Indeed, the recent programmes of reforms in both FET and HE have highlighted a number of areas where the desired degree of synchronisation between the various elements of overall provision has yet to be achieved. For example, the duplication of provision between FET and HE at NFQ level 6, and in many cases level 5, is perceived as a source of tension between the two sectors. This division has its roots in the creation of the two certifying bodies, the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), under the 1999 Act. It has led to the continued existence of two sets of awards at level 6, one for FET and one for HE. This issue recently attracted the much-needed attention of QQI.

Alignment of educational opportunities from the student perspective

The clearest progression opportunity for learners having completed their Leaving Certificate relates to the transparent processes employed by the Central Applications Office (CAO) to allocate programme places to learners based on points achieved for Leaving Cert subjects. While this process is clear to users and, if anything, brutally fair, it does presuppose equality of opportunity to engage with the Leaving Cert exam process and to obtain good academic grades. It does not so easily accommodate learners who progress through FET to HE. It also does not accommodate mature or return-to-education learners. It also has limits in the context of ‘learn and work’ or apprentice-type programmes, where aptitude may be a more important marker of success than previous academic grades.

FET programmes provide essential opportunities for students who choose not to proceed immediately to work or higher education after their Leaving Cert. The current courses provide a valuable blend of knowledge, skills, and competence to develop the individual and prepare them for the world of work. But this specific blend is not always aligned with those offered in HE programmes. This can lead to challenges when seeking advanced entry to HE from FET programmes, particularly those longer than one year.

Evolution of HE links schemes to more student-centric process

In the context of progression from further to higher education, a process that worked well in the past was the Higher Education Links Scheme (HELS). This was introduced before the introduction of the NFQ and the associated clarity surrounding academic level and credit volume. The HELS allowed students from an FET course to progress to first year of a higher education course, where the academic content was reasonably well aligned. This worked well within a quota of places allocated by a higher education provider, but where demand for places exceeded supply, the FET graduates could find themselves treated differently from Leaving Cert graduates. This could occur even when both technically had a nationally recognised award at NFQ level 5.

The links scheme was extended to a system where nominal points were allocated to FET programmes such that they could be listed with Leaving Cert graduates in a single list for place allocation for individual courses. This was not ideal – not all routes to specific programmes were opened up, and debate continues on the exact point equivalences between the FET and Leaving Cert systems – but it did allow FET graduates to access a broader range of courses. Learners were not restricted in HE to the academic area of their previous FET course. Another way of viewing this is that a decision to progress into a specific FET course did not dramatically restrict opportunities to progress subsequently into different HE programmes.

As the FET system evolved, the number of level 6 programmes offered that spanned two years increased. Graduates of these programmes met further challenges when trying to progress to higher education. They faced the dilemma of losing a year and progressing to first year of the HE course, or attempting to progress directly to second year. The misalignment of the blend of knowledge, skills, and competence between FET year two and HE year one made progression by advanced entry to HE year two challenging in many cases. Yet progressing from a two-year FET level 6 programme to first year of a HE programme extended the duration of learning by a year, adding cost and uncertainty to the learner and expense to the State providing the education.

Without a direct progression to second year, this option is less appealing, as it extends the time to final qualification and entry to the workforce by a year. If progression routes are not well articulated, and programme content not well aligned, FET graduates who progress by advanced entry to second year face significant challenges in participating fully in the HE course. Progression rates in subsequent years of the HE programme can be less than desired as a consequence.

From a student’s perspective, progression from FET to HE remains confusing, complicated, and in some cases not very transparent. The existence of two progression pathways for level 5 graduates from FET to HE, namely a quota system in many universities and a points system for the IoTs, with not all courses on the CAO lists having an obvious pathway, leaves a system which is significantly underperforming in terms of widening participation.

The situation for FET level 6 graduates is also unsatisfactory from a student perspective. Having completed two years in FET and graduated at NFQ level 6, current practice has resulted in students entering the HE course in year two and in some cases year one. This has proved to be a source of confusion and indeed irritation for many FET graduates.

QQI has recently begun a research project on the comparability of the two sets of awards at level 6. If an outcome of this research is to propose rationalising the two sets of awards at level 6 into one set, then implementing this will lead to a number of policy issues for both FET and HE institutions. From a student’s perspective, however, such a rationalisation could facilitate more transparent and equitable progression pathways from FET to HE and support the widening participation agenda.

Possible approaches to convergence between FET and HE

In many countries, progression from FET to HE has attracted much debate (Moodie, 2008; Deissinger et al., 2013; Bailey et al., 2015; Ryan, 2017). A common theme to emerge is structural and curricular alignment to facilitate transparent progression pathways. This is currently attracting much debate at national level, including a subcommittee of the national transitions committee chaired by SOLAS.

By way of illustration, the next section will describe an initiative from Florida involving a partnership between the University of Central Florida and six partner community colleges. This will be followed by a discussion on how the nine Regional Skills Fora in Ireland may provide a framework to facilitate an integrated tertiary education sector in Ireland.

Case Study of University of Central Florida

‘Direct Connect’ to University of Central Florida (UCF) guarantees admission to the university with an associate degree from one of its partner community colleges. Such an associate degree would be similar to a level 6 FET award on the Irish NQF. The benefits of Direct Connect from the student’s perspective are that with an associate’s degree earned from a partner college, admission to the university is guaranteed. This results in a shorter time to degree completion; a smooth pathway for engagement, admissions, orientation, and registration; and access to university facilities, student services, activities, and events during the time of the associate degree programme. It is an institutional initiative driven by the participating colleges and the university in partnership to improve opportunities for the learner.

With such an initiative, educational opportunities are aligned from the student’s perspective, so that no time is wasted and clarity is offered on progression pathways. Complicating issues like government policy on funding and student fees for FE and HE, staff salaries, and student grants are beyond the scope of this article but would need to be resolved to implement such a system.

Such an approach would require alignment of curriculum learning outcomes at NFQ level 6 as a prerequisite. Could an arrangement like this be developed for the Greater Dublin region, linking FE colleges and a Technological University, for example? The current practice is of bilateral arrangements between one FE college and one HE institution. Indeed, it can often be an arrangement between the two course coordinators. In an integrated tertiary education sector, might it be time for a more strategic approach?

The Irish Regional Skills Fora

Among the numerous areas of existing collaboration between FET and HE is one that may provide the platform for structuring such an effort. With the nine Regional Skills Fora, all post-secondary education and training providers meet with employer representatives and enterprise development bodies to ensure alignment of course content with the needs of the labour market. If the relevant providers are already members of these committees, this may be an ideal foundation for building a framework for a more integrated tertiary education sector, including FET and HE providers.

Indeed, given the existing convergence already under way in the areas of qualifications, quality assurance, and strategic performance, the stage is set for increased cooperation at a regional level. In the Dublin Regional Skills Forum there are seven HE institutions and two ETBs. In the two ETBs there are some 25 FE colleges and five training centres. Using the bilateral approach would result in over 200 individual arrangements. Surely a regional approach would be more appropriate. A more strategic approach to FET–HE cooperation at regional level could also have benefits in terms of collaboration, not just convergence, in quality assurance and strategic performance.


This article explored some of the main issues in the development of an integrated tertiary education sector in Ireland. While the rationale for the DES proposing the development is unclear at this time, there are some obvious benefits to greater cooperation and collaboration between FET and HE providers. Issues remain regarding what the DES defines as tertiary education, but clear areas of convergence were identified in qualifications, quality assurance, and strategic performance. In FET to HE progression, more transparency and equity for FET students would be welcome. There are also some challenges. Should QQI’s research into the comparability of the two sets of awards at level 6 on the NFQ propose a rationalisation to one set of awards, the implications for FET and HE providers in its implementation will not be trivial.

From the FET practitioner’s perspective, it must be remembered that the former VEC FE provision in Ireland operated with the post-primary sector. In other word, what are commonly referred to as colleges of further education are, in governance terms, post-primary schools which differ from mainstream secondary schools primarily in three respects: age profile of students, courses provided, and certification offered. Consequently, a prerequisite for developing an integrated tertiary sector would be to develop a new governance model for the ‘FET College of the Future’.

At the ETB level, given the increasing governance demands in strategic performance and quality assurance, Walsh (2018) highlighted the difference in staffing levels, particularly administrative, between universities, IoTs, and ETBs:

The HEA performance framework report in 2014 indicates that 53% of staff in the university sector are classed as administrative, this falls to 31% in the Institute of Technology sector. It is considerably lower again in the ETB sector, yet the development, compliance and reporting responsibilities of the ETBs is now commensurate with that for higher education.

In the end, the success of macro policy will depend on local capacity to implement it. In the context of the macro policy of an integrated tertiary education sector, the current debate about third-level funding, and the persistent capacity deficit in FET, are matters that will require urgent attention.

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