Hard Brexit could put major pressure on ‘creaking’ third-level sector

Irish students may stay home from UK over fees uncertainty, Oireachtas committee hears

Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said about 4,000  Irish students in the UK and Northern Ireland were postgraduate students. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said about 4,000 Irish students in the UK and Northern Ireland were postgraduate students. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

A crash-out Brexit could place significant pressure on the third-level education system as thousands of Irish students might have to study at home rather than in the UK, the Oireachtas education committee has heard.

Up to 12,000 students from the Republic study in the UK, while about 2,000 attend third-level institutions in the North.

Fianna Fáil TD Fiona McLoughlin, chair of the committee, said she had concerns over the capacity of the State’s higher education system to absorb many of the students who may remain at home due to uncertainty over fees in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

She said the system was currently “creaking at the seams” and questioned how colleges could accommodate a sharp increase in numbers.

Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said about 4,000 of the 12,000 or so Irish students in the UK and Northern Ireland were postgraduate students who had made “career choices” to study there and were unlikely to return to the State’s education system.

In addition, she said a Government strategy to increase student accommodation was on target and delivering thousands of additional places.

She said about 5,000 beds were delivered last year, while another 5,000 were under construction and planning permission was in the pipeline for thousands more student beds over the coming years.

Grants

The committee also heard there was no guarantee that Irish students starting courses in the UK, or vice versa, would be entitled to grants or current tuition fee levels beyond the coming academic year.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh has previously confirmed that Brexit would not affect grants for Irish students who start courses in the UK in the 2019-2020 academic year. These arrangements will continue for the duration of their study.

However, he told the committee the question of what arrangements would apply in future years forms part of deliberations on the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland.

“Talks are ongoing about protecting education . . . I’m not in a position to say what will happen after end of March, but it is our duty to minimise that disruption,” Mr McHugh said.

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne TD expressed frustration that there was no certainty available to new students beyond next year.

“There is a chilling effect on the movement of students because they can’t plan for the future,” he said.