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The Higher Education System in Northern Ireland

Learn about the higher education system in Northern Ireland. Find out how it compares to the rest of the UK, the different kinds of programs and qualifications offered and how long they take to complete.

Oct 2, 2020
Northern Ireland Higher Education System

Northern Ireland requires all people to attend compulsory schooling up to the age of 16. However, most institutions require some form of qualification as a precondition to entry into higher education. 

So, the higher education phase effectively begins from the age of 18 after students have attained either their A levels or a vocational qualification equivalent to A levels (such as NVQs - National Vocational Qualifications or BTECs - Business and Technology Education Council qualifications).

In Northern Ireland, three universities and two university colleges are charged with delivering higher education. The Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, the Open University in Northern Ireland, St Mary’s University College Belfast and Stranmillis University College all provide a broad range of vocational and academic qualifications, including certificates, higher national certificates, diplomas, higher national diplomas as well as a variety of foundation, undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate degrees.

Interested in studying business? An MBA in Ireland equals affordable tuition fees and numerous career opportunities for personal and career growth not only in the United Kingdom, but also globally. 

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Generally, the following timeframes apply to higher education studies in Northern Ireland:

          National Certificates (NC)1 year          
Higher National Certificates (HNC)NC + 1 year
Diplomas2 years
Higher National DiplomasHNC + 1 year
Foundation Degrees2 years
Bachelor’s Degrees3 years
Master’s DegreesBachelor’s degree + 12 months
PhDsMaster’s degree + 3-4 years

Quality standards for Northern Irish universities are among the best in the world and credentials from Northern Irish institutions are well respected internationally. No matter your level of study, studying in Northern Ireland is a surefire way to make a positive step towards your prospective career in any field.

Learn more about studying in Northern Ireland:

Northern Irish Language & Culture

Northern Ireland is a country steeped in heritage. Find out more about what the country offers in terms of language, culture, and more! 

Tuition Fees In Northern Ireland

Tuition fees for higher education programs in Northern Ireland can vary. Many international and domestic students pay different tuition fees, depending on where they are from. In this section you'll find all the information on how this works in Northern Ireland.

Living Costs In Northern Ireland

No matter where you study abroad, it’s important to create a budget in advance so that you’re prepared. Therefore, we’ve detailed average living and housing costs so that you can get a better idea of what you would be paying as a student in Northern Ireland.

Entry Requirements for UK Universities

Learn more about the United Kingdom's national application portal and how it applies in Northern Ireland. This section covers what you'll need to do when applying as an undergraduate and postgraduate.


Don't let international student tuition fees stop you from studying abroad in Northern Ireland. Find out more about some of the scholarships available to international students here! 

Student Visas for the UK

Do you need a visa to enter Northern Ireland to study? Learn more about the student visa process, and what you need to enter the country, depending on your citizenship. Don't worry! We've gathered the information you'll need to make it happen.

Programs in Northern Ireland

Ready to browse higher education courses in Northern Ireland? Use our search engine to find and compare top programs in Northern Ireland today!

Photo of Lanyon Building through the trees at Queen's University Belfast by Dean Machala on Unsplash.

Keystone Team


The Keystone Team is comprised of experienced educators and advisors dedicated to providing valuable resources and advice to students all over the world.