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SETU & An Cosán: Using the power of community education to create transformative higher education pathways for social inclusion and sustainable development

Who we are

South East Technological University is committed to lifelong learning, access, equality and inclusion, and to the provision of a comprehensive educational offering. We provide an enriching and transformational learning experience that enables and supports our students to achieve their potential as lifelong learners and global citizens in a caring environment. Linked provision is a key aspect of SETU’s teaching and learning mission, whereby linked providers enter into an arrangement with a designated awarding body, such as SETU, for the design and delivery of accredited courses to specific student cohorts.

An Cosán is a unique community education organisation based in Tallaght, Dublin, which has grown to become Ireland’s largest community education provider.

What we did

We partnered with An Cosán to deliver a third level programme focusing in particular on mature students and women ‘left furthest behind’, with an Cosán offering wraparound supports to facilitate inclusion and participation including hospitality and childcare, flexible scheduling, and tutor support.

Exclusion from third level education is one of the primary social challenges facing Ireland today, with only 10% of students in higher education coming from disadvantaged areas. An Cosán’s learner-centred, holistic, and transformative educational model was initially based around targeting priority groups in the local community in Tallaght. We developed and expanded the partnership between SETU Lifelong Learning and An Cosán, establishing a national Linked Provision programme that has demonstrated leadership in equity of access, participation, and success.

Map of Education Rate Tallaght

The initiative initially delivered a BA Degree in Leadership and Community Development (NFQ L7) to a class of 12 learners in 2008. It has subsequently expanded to involve 200 community organisations across Ireland, and now serves over 100 students annually, drawn from all priority groups identified in national access policy. The initiative offers courses across a range of disciplines and award levels including Level 6 Certificates, Level 7 and Level 8 Degrees, and Special Purpose or Minor Awards, online provision is offered to all learners to facilitate nationwide access.

Impact Achieved                         

An Cosán and SETU’s collaboration has been successful in promoting lifelong learning and social inclusion. Linked Provision has created opportunities for learners to enter higher education for the first time, opening a world of possibilities and a brighter future for all those participating. We have enabled learners’ progression through the national framework of qualifications, entering quality employment, exiting poverty, setting an example for learners’ children and fostering community development.


  • 272 learners have graduated with a BA Degree level award (2011-2022)
  • 1,017 learners have achieved an accredited award (2011-2022)
  • 88% completion rate for Linked Provision programme (2018-2022)


  • 44% graduates reported entering full or part-time employment (recent graduate survey)
  • 38% graduates reported progressing to Honours Degree or Masters level (recent graduate survey)


  • 97% survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their programme helped with their personal development (2020)
  • 83% agreed/strongly agreed it helped with their professional development (2020)



Impact Personal Professional Development

In successive evaluation and focus groups, participants reported a range of benefits from the programme including enhanced self-confidence, a more positive outlook on the future, enhanced sense of belonging, and greater cultural awareness. Positive outcomes for individual learners have far-reaching benefits for wider Irish society, with learners reporting gaining social capital and capacity to promote social inclusion and human rights in their local community. For example, 71% of survey respondents reported engaging in community, civic, or voluntary activity in the previous four weeks.

What we learned

SETU and An Cosán now share an evidence-based model that demonstrates how adult learners experiencing diverse inequalities can be supported and motivated to access, participate, and succeed in third level education.

  • Collaboration and partnership between SETU and An Cosán in this innovative Linked Provision model of higher education provision brings higher education outside the walls of academia into a community, in partnership with a community, and responding to the stated needs of that community.
  • Accessibility, flexibility and wraparound holistic support is crucial to facilitating inclusion and participation, including part-time modes of delivery, minor awards enabling low-risk options for entry, and provision of hospitality, counselling, digital inclusion and one-to-one mentoring supports.
  • Transformative education enables participation and success, and by centring and valuing adult learners’ motivations, life experience and diversity, learners are empowered with confidence and capabilities, including enhanced capability to undertake higher order learning and to transition to quality employment.
  • Administration, data capture, and reflexivity systems underpin high quality delivery to learners, evidence success in the collaboration, and document organisational learning.
  • Funding that is sustainable, regular, and predictable is key to long-term success.
  • Review processes have underpinned our application of learnings to develop and enhance the programme, including facilitating the rapid transition to online delivery of An Cosán’s programmes during COVID-19.
  • Dissemination and engagement initiatives have extended the national and international reach of the programme, including at conferences, network and advisory group meetings, and in peer reviewed publications

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