Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Irish students at Harvard

As the government looks likely to introduce fees in Irish universities, Steven Lydon, an Irish PhD student in German Philosophy at Harvard sought out fellow Irish students at the university to find out their reasons for emigrating, how they have adapted, and what they think of developments back home.

Sat, Dec 31, 2011, 06:00


As the government looks likely to introduce fees in Irish universities, Steven Lydon, an Irish PhD student in German Philosophy at Harvard sought out fellow Irish students at the university to find out their reasons for emigrating, how they have adapted, and what they think of developments back home.

The common strand is that these students were not forced out due to unemployment, but sought further opportunities. The term brain-drain might sound alarmist, but in the future we can expect students to seek out greener pastures given the decline in government funding and the introduction of fees to fill the hole in our formerly world-class education system.

Jenny Sheehy-Skeffington is from Dublin and studied at TCD. She is now in her third year of a PhD in Psychology. “I don’t see myself an emigrant. I still call Ireland home.”

“I wanted to be in an environment that would give me lots of support, as opposed to the more isolated PhD in Ireland and the UK. I left because nothing excited me about the things I could learn in Ireland. I wanted to be at the centre of political and academic debate.”

“The impact of funding cuts in Irish universities includes there being less research labs. The facilities are poor. Some teachers didn’t have permanent academic jobs. However, the quality of students is still really high.”

“It seems unsustainable to pay for everyone’s education, and especially for those who can afford it. Education it a right, but I’d prefer a graduated fee system with a cap. If you have a degree provided by the Irish education system, there’s really no reason to go abroad.”

Donal Cahill is a native of Leixlip, Co. Kildare. He’s now pursuing a PhD in Psychology. “My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I have met many wonderful people, am well supported, have found myself in a very pleasant part of the world.”

“I don’t see myself as an emigrant. I would describe an emigrant as someone who is compelled to leave their homeland as a result of the circumstances there. In contrast, I was drawn from the country by the attractions of a PhD here.”

“Harvard operates on a scale far beyond anything in Ireland. I really feel at the very centre of all that is exciting in my field. In Ireland I felt more distant. I felt more like an outside appraiser than someone who could actually influence things.”

“I am opposed to the idea of fees. It seems to me that the abolition of fees was pivotal in removing any doubts in the minds of many of my peers about attending third-level education. Whereas many of our parents went no further than the Inter Cert, now for many of us, there was no question about or obstacle to continuing on to university. This is a seismic shift in expectations in one generation.”

“Free third level education is a heavy financial burden for the taxpayer, but I feel that it is precisely in such straitened times that third level education needs to be as accessible as possible. If fees must be reintroduced, it would be my ardent hope that this would not occur without the introduction of a strong and symbolic alternative program to keep third level education accessible to everybody.”

Adam Kelly is from Dublin, and is studying on a post-doctoral fellowship after his PhD at UCD. “I study American literature, so I came to involve myself in an American setting. It gave me the opportunity to engage in a really incredible intellectual environment.”

“I’ve really enjoyed it here. I’ve only been here two months but it’s been everything that I’ve expected it to be in terms of meeting great people, hearing great ideas, getting work done, enjoying myself culturally. There have been moments of homesickness, but overall it’s been a great experience.”

“I feel really lucky to come from the generation that I did. We genuinely had no fees. Those were the halcyon days of Irish education. Our generation will be the luckiest and most educated for a long time. That makes me sad. I feel grateful to Ireland for giving me such a good education.”

“But I don’t feel I had an innate right to these things. It’s great that people thought it was worthwhile putting money into education. It seems that’s changing, particularly in relation to humanities. I think that solely emphasising commerce, science and engineering is detrimental to the health of a well-balanced society. IRCHSS and IRCSET have now been merged, and I can only see that as being bad for the humanities.”

“Fees are not the best way to solve the problem in Irish universities. I think our income tax is too low. I don’t think people who work in capital markets are doing more social good than a teacher or nurse. They’re probably doing less good, yet they get paid a multiple salary. I’m not against market rates, but the government needs to level that out by adopting tax rates relative to income.”

“Do I see myself as an emigrant? Yes and no. I’m a temporary emigrant. I was playing football with a load of Irish guys working in Boston, and they’d love to go home. I’m lucky to be in a situation with less pressure, but I don’t know what the future holds.”

Read more of Steven Lydon’s articles at

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