University studies of arts are organised into undergraduate courses (bachelor’s degrees) and postgraduate courses (master’s degrees, postgraduate programmes, doctoral programmes, etc.). The qualifications that can be obtained are officially recognised under the National Framework of Qualifications. The number of students choosing to study arts degrees at third level has been in decline ever since the recession of 2008, with growing numbers of students deserting the arts for a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) course. STEM subjects have been incentivised heavily by successive governments since 2008.
The Bologna Process has impacted third level education in Ireland in a number of ways. The degree structure proposed in the process was already implemented in Ireland prior to the process. The European Credit and Accumulation System (ECTS) was also already in place in Ireland since the 1990s. The standardization of ECTS across Europe has greatly benefited student mobility through the Erasmus programme. The Bologna Process has had most impact on the area of quality assurance. There is now greater consistency of approach across the sector. Ireland was first country in Europe to provide a National Framework of Qualifications in line with the agreed standards of the Bologna process.
Third level institutions specialising in arts and cultural education include the Institute of Art Design and Technology (IADT) and the National College of Art and Design. The Royal Irish Academy of Music is Ireland’s music conservatoire offering pre-college, undergraduate and postgraduate musical training. The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance is situated in the University of Limerick and offers undergraduate and post graduate study programmes in dance and music. The Lir Academy is an academy of Dramatic Art offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses in acting, stage management, playwrighting, directing, and stage design. It is part of Trinity College Dublin and is associated with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Arts administration is also taught at third level with degrees and postgraduate programmes. Many third level institutions, other than traditional arts college, conservatoire or academies, have now created degree programmes related to culture and the arts or have schools or faculties of arts. Increased competition between higher level institutions since 2010 has resulted in many choosing to increase the number and variety of programmes offered to sustain general student numbers. This has led to a proliferation of arts programmes across the country for prospective students to choose from. It has become increasingly difficult to sustain the third level arts ecosystem as a result, with many high quality programmes now under threat.
Discussions of the possibilities of a Creative University/University of the Arts/Creative Cluster began after the publication of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (2011), generally referred to as the Hunt Report. This report came about in the context of severe constraints on public finances under pressure imposed by the troika bailout post recession. It called for a major reform of the public funded education infrastructure, including the possibility of a creative cluster approach to arts education at third level. A number of third level institutes engaged in early stage discussions, but no mergers have occurred around a creative cluster since. In 2020 a new set of discussions have begun on this issue.
As already touched upon above, arts and cultural education at higher level is currently under severe pressure. The number of students choosing to study an arts or creative course at third level has dropped significantly according to the Central Applications Office (CAO). The future of the arts as a profession or creative career is under serious threat as a result. The diversity of voices being heard within or projected through the arts is continuing to narrow. There is need for greater advocacy by government leading to a coordinated policy to support arts education at third level.
A range of access programmes exists to encourage a broad diverse student body. Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) offers assistance to encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend third level. Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) offers assistance to people with disability. Many institutes have their own access initiatves such as Trinity College’s Trinity Access Programme (TAP) to support people from geographical areas with low progression rates to higher education to access third level education.