Ciara Kenny

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

When an education means emigration

Foreign universities offer courses that are often cheaper than their Irish counterparts, with wider entry criteria, in locations with a lower cost of living. And that’s before you factor in the benefits of living and studying abroad, writes Ciara Kenny.

Fri, Sep 7, 2012, 09:12


Foreign universities offer courses that are often cheaper than their Irish counterparts, with wider entry criteria, in locations with a lower cost of living. And that’s before you factor in the benefits of living and studying abroad, writes Ciara Kenny.

Emily Riordan arrived in Enschede last week

EMILY RIORDAN always knew she wanted to work with people and with her hands. She was good at biology at school and played sports, and when the time came to fill out her CAO application in sixth year she had her heart set on studying physiotherapy.

But when her Leaving Cert results came through in August last year, her points fell short of the requirements for the course in any Irish university.

“I was so disappointed,” she says. “I knew I would have to go abroad because I didnt have the grades to study physio in Ireland, and I became more determined as the months went by.”

Riordan (20) didn’t have any particular country in mind when she began to research her options for studying abroad online. Through, a website that assists students from Ireland and the UK to apply to European colleges, she eventually decided on the Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

She had the minimum grades required for the course, and after writing a letter of motivation outlining why she wanted to study physiotherapy, she was accepted.

“It is a much fairer system than the CAO in Ireland, where someone with really high points can get into a course that they mightn’t be suited to,” Riordan says. “I had never been to the Netherlands before, but I came over with my dad in July to visit the college in Enschede and fell in love with it. It is a real student city, with a great social scene and nightlife.”

As demand has increased and points have soared for university places in Ireland in recent years, a corresponding rise in the number of programmes taught through English in other European universities has prompted more Irish school-leavers such as Riordan to look abroad in search of quality courses with more accessible entry requirements.

According to data published by Eurostat last month, 24,700 Irish people, or 13 per cent of the Irish student population, were enrolled in a third-level course in another European country in 2010. In percentage terms, Ireland lags only behind Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Cyprus, Iceland and Malta, with four times more Irish students taking up courses abroad than the European average.

About seven in every 10 of those who opted to study abroad in 2010 took up courses in the UK, but with fees rising to an average of £8,385 (€10,572) in English universities for this coming academic year, the number of applicants from Ireland has fallen dramatically. Just under 2,000 Irish people accepted offers from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) in Britain this year, an 18 per cent drop on last year and almost 1,000 fewer than in 2010.

“When people think about studying abroad, the first place that comes to mind is the UK, because it is close and English-speaking,” says Guy Flouch, a study-abroad counsellor who runs the Eunicas service.

“But there are more than 740 undergraduate programmes taught through English in other EU countries, and more are being announced every year in response to a growing demand from Ireland and the UK.

“Having the local language is not essential, entry requirements are more realistic, and, in many cases, studying at these European universities is much more affordable than staying in Ireland.”

Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland offer free tuition for EU students on all undergraduate and some Master’s and PhD programmes. In the Netherlands, students pay around €1,700 per year, while state universities in Austria, Germany and Switzerland charge under €1,500, much less than the €2,250 registration fee required by Irish colleges.

Courses such as medicine, psychology, physiotherapy and law, which would require very high points in Irish universities, are particularly popular with Irish students, as the entry requirements in many European universities are not based solely on academic achievement.

Dutch universities are forbidden by law from accepting students based on their grades alone, and applicants for courses such as medicine and veterinary science are assessed on the basis of an interview, aptitude test, a personal statement, and a letter from their school, in addition to Leaving Certificate results.

STUDYING AND living in a different cultural and linguistic environment can also help people to develop international perspectives and networks, which is increasingly recognised by employers at home and abroad.

Students are becoming more aware of the value of overseas experience when it comes to looking for a job in the future, but it is not only employment prospects that motivates them. The desire for an adventure and a wish to escape pessimism in Ireland is a huge incentive for young people to sign up for further education abroad.

“One of the most common phrases I hear when I visit schools or talk to school-leavers when I ask them where they would like to go to study is ‘Anywhere, get me out of here’,” says Flouch. “It is very sad to hear a generation speaking in those terms, but there is no denying that spending your university years in Europe is a great experience.

“Of course, studying abroad is not for everyone, and some young people want to stay close to their GAA club or their boyfriend or the comfort and familiar sights and sounds of home. But there are low-cost direct flights to many of these European cities, which can be just as quick as the train from Dublin to Galway.”

Back in Enschede this week, Riordan has registered for her course, found a new apartment, and made friends with another young Irish student who is also starting his studies there this year.

“Reaching the decision to leave and telling my friends was very difficult,” she says. “I was terrified even getting on the plane last week coming out here, wondering if I made the right decision, but I am confident now that I’m here that I am doing the right thing.”

Erasmus: 25 years of foreign exchanges

MORE THAN 3,000 Irish students will spend between three and 12 months abroad for a study visit or work-placement under the Erasmus programme this year.

The EU scheme to encourage student mobility and European co-operation has arranged more than two million student exchanges since its inception 25 years ago.

Gerry O’Sullivan, head of European programmes at the Higher Education Authority, which facilitates the scheme in Ireland, says interest in Erasmus has been rising steadily over the past five years, with the number of Irish participants doubling since 2007.

“Students are aware now that they are more likely to have to emigrate in the future, and having undergone an Erasmus experience, they will be more prepared for looking for work abroad and adjusting to life in a non-English-speaking country,” he says.

There are 33 countries participating in the programme, but seven out of 10 Irish students go to France, Spain, Germany or Italy for their study exchange. Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are becoming more popular, due to a rise in the number of courses taught through English.

A new proposed Erasmus for All programme, due to be implemented in 2014, could see the borders extended to include countries outside Europe, such as the US and Australia.

About a quarter of participants are studying a language at university, but the scheme is also popular with students of business, social science, law and art and design.

“There isn’t as strong a tradition in Ireland as elsewhere of moving out of home at 18 and travelling to a new place to study,” says O’Sullivan.

“Spending that time abroad, even if it is just three months, enables students to come to terms with living in a new country, communicating in a different language, and mixing with people from different cultural backgrounds. It is also an opportunity to build contacts for the future, and experience how other countries and cultures conduct business.

“They come back more focused on their career direction, and more confident in themselves that they can live, work and learn in different environments. This will stand to them when they graduate, whether they are looking for work at home or abroad.”

The European Commission will have a Youth on the Move stand at the Higher Options fair at the RDS, from September 19th to 21st. See or

Shane Heneghan: ‘There is no incentive to study a post-graduate degree at home’

Shane Heneghan is heading to Warsaw this weekend

THE JOB situation for graduates in Ireland now means looking abroad for opportunities is more of a necessity than an option for us. No matter how good or bad the economy was here in Ireland, however, I would always have had broad horizons, as my professional interests lie in European affairs.

I graduated from NUI Maynooth with a degree in history and economics in 2008, and since then I have been gathering various bits and pieces of short-term professional experience in Ireland and abroad.

I have been interning at the development office of the College of Europe in Bruges since April. It has been a great experience, being in an office with Spanish, French and Belgians, and seeing how different nationalities and cultures approach work. There is a huge networking advantage working with people from different countries, too.

The internship led me to apply for an MA in European interdisciplinary studies in the College of Europe’s Warsaw campus this September, which will incorporate economics, history and law.

The MA is through English and French. I studied French in the first year of my undergrad, and since I got the offer I have been doing my best to practise. To get a job with the European Commission or similar institutions, you need to have a working knowledge of at least two languages, so studying partly through French will be great.

There is no incentive to study a post-graduate degree at home any more, as government supports have been scrapped. I was lucky to qualify for a scholarship for my MA, which will pay for my fees and board, and two study trips to Turkey and Luxembourg.

I am back in Ireland again for a short time before relocating to Warsaw this Sunday. Poland will be a different adjustment again to Belgium but it is a challenge I look forward to.

This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today and on the main website here.

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