Overseas students won’t solve education problems

Trinity College Dublin: senior research academics met at the university to discuss  the inherent danger in bringing in too many international students in light of the current fiscal regime.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Trinity College Dublin: senior research academics met at the university to discuss the inherent danger in bringing in too many international students in light of the current fiscal regime. Photograph: Frank Miller

Mon, Apr 14, 2014, 01:03

A consultant’s report released last week declared that third-level institutions needed to take a “more commercial approach” if they are to survive. They needed to make savings, but they were also told they should be chasing that money-generating entity, the “international student”. These students represented “an untapped opportunity” that could help relieve budgetary strictures, the Grant Thornton report argued, as revealed by Joe Humphreys, Education Correspondent, in The Irish Times .

There is a widely-held notion, within Government certainly and in some third-level institutions, that reeling in more of these students from abroad – who pay fees of between €10,000 and €25,000 a year depending on the faculties involved – would be enough to counterbalance ongoing budgetary cuts being imposed on the third-level sector. There are those in the sector, however, who would challenge this strongly.

Coincidentally last week, a group of senior research academics at Trinity College Dublin gathered for a routine meeting held before details of the Grant Thornton report were published.

One of their topics of discussion was the inherent danger in bringing in too many international students in light of the current fiscal regime. At best these students “break even” but more realistically, given many are in high-cost faculties such as medicine and science, they represent yet another sinkhole for diminishing university and institute budgets.

The tenor of the meeting was described by one attendee as “really depressing”. The impact of taking on more international students was one of many issues being discussed. And while the academics in this case were in Trinity, the same discussions are taking place in other universities and institutes of technology up and down the country.

As ever, the overarching issue relates to money and the shrinking budgets that make the provision of a quality third-level education increasingly difficulty. There are recruitment bans and in many faculties you need to lose three colleagues through retirement before you can bid to hire one new member of staff.

The committee members discussed how they were meant to “muddle through” with fewer staff, supposedly with no impact on the quality of the education, but this they rejected immediately. The notion educational quality won’t suffer is “nonsense,” one said. “It looks like a constant downward spiral. ”

Of course, these fiscal controls come at a time when there is a drive on by the Department of Education and Skills to encourage more students to undertake third-level education. They are targeting to have 60 per cent of Leaving Cert students moving into third level, well up on the current 40 per cent. But how are lecturers to handle the influx if faculty numbers at the same time are falling?

The academics also discussed their view that those running research groups are actually subsidising the general education system. Many senior researchers would typically have their own research funding, and some of this usually goes into hiring postgraduates who get an opportunity to augment their education with valuable experience. But this means they are not being paid for by the institutions who draw up the contracts, and when the money goes, so does the contract holder.


Finite capacity
There are so many road blocks and impediments and the sector is told, at least at the moment, that fees are not an option. No wonder the institutions look to the presumed international student gravy train to arrive, bringing fee payers from overseas. This resulted in what one committee member described as the “immoral search for rich students abroad”. It is not merit based, it is based on an ability to pay.

If you leave those arguments aside, who is to teach the incoming fee payers, given the tight recruitment controls? Take in 20 foreign students and you will need at least one new lecturer. But will the fees be enough to match the cost of hiring a staff member? And if you just lump the students in, worsening the already poor student lecturer ratio, then what happens to the quality of the education provided?

Given there is an absolutely finite capacity to push more students through the third-level institutions, if you accept someone from outside the State then someone from inside the State won’t get in. Or if you establish a quota and block book access for foreign students, this still prohibits the same number of local students who come up against capacity restrictions.

The Grant Thornton report also exhorted Irish institutions to perform better in international league tables if they wanted more success in attracting international students. But ranking in these tables measures amongst other things student-lecturer ratios, the quality of the education delivered and student satisfaction. Not much reason for optimism then, all this may also impact on our attractiveness to foreign direct investment. Worrying times ahead.