Has Ireland dropped the ball on attracting international students?


The foreign student market is a big money spinner for many countries; Ireland is well-placed, but some self-inflicted wounds have done serious damage to our ability to attract students, writes GRAINNE FALLER

‘IRELAND has failed to exploit an opportunity that could have been as big as the software industry for us. It is hugely frustrating.” Gerry Muldowney, CEO of Dublin Business School, is in no doubt that Ireland has squandered a potential windfall. “Things have changed because of the economic scenario. It’s not going to be easy for us to play catch-up.”

The international student market is worth billions. A conservative estimate for the UK values the market at almost €12 billion – about €2 billion of that generated in London alone. Australia claims similar earnings, while New Zealand, a country comparable to Ireland in terms of population and institutions draws in about €1.5 billion per annum.

It would be reasonable to assume that “Ireland of the welcomes” is holding its own in this market, but in fact our yearly earnings from international students come to just €900 million at the moment. Take English language schools out of that equation and the figure drops to a relatively paltry €400 million.

We are far behind and applications are dropping. Between 2007 and 2008, applications from India were down by 44 per cent. Chinese applications had fallen by almost 29 per cent. “We are facing a real emergency in this regard,” says Nicola Carroll, Head of the International Office in the National College of Ireland.

There are factors that are working against Ireland at present, such as the relative strength of the euro which has pushed up the cost of studying here. The failing economy means that opportunities for part-time work have diminished. But there are other more predictable factors that are weakening Ireland’s position abroad.

Firstly, for many potential students, Ireland isn’t even on the radar. “There isn’t a great awareness of Ireland, in Asia especially,” says Prof Ciarán Ó Catháin, president of Athlone IT, an institution that has made attracting international students a key priority. “At the moment, the universities are branding themselves under the Irish Universities Association. We’re trying to brand ourselves under Institutes of Technology Ireland. We just don’t have the joined-up thinking necessary to give us a coherent approach.”

Asia is a key market. The students who bring real revenue (about €26,000 each per academic year) to institutions and the economy are students who come from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and who engage in full-time, long-term study. Even US students, for whom this country is popular, only tend to stay for a semester or a year. The Asian students are the ones who come and do their degrees, masters and PhDs.

The problem doesn’t stop with a lack of awareness. Even if institutions manage to make themselves known and attract students, the process of entry into the country, should a student require a visa, is arduous.

A Chinese student, for example, can expect to wait approximately four weeks for a visa. If the same student applies to the UK, they will receive an answer within 48 hours. Irish study-visa applicants must supply vast amounts of information, and rejection rates are discouragingly high. In 2007, almost 40 per cent of Chinese students who applied for visas were rejected. In the same year, the UKrejected fewer than seven per cent of applicants. The situation in the Irish visa office in Beijing has improved in recent years, but still, more than a fifth of applicants referred from the Beijing visa office to the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) in Dublin were rejected last year.

“In the beginning, officials simply weren’t prepared for the influx,” says Marie Heraughty, head of international affairs in DCU. “Things have certainly improved with regards to processing visas.”

But have they improved enough? Not enough to make us competitive according to Ó Catháin. “There was a coordinated effort in the UK,” he says. “We had students who were refused a visa here and got visas the following day from the UK. They were students who were there for us and we lost them to a competitor. Of course, some reasons for refusal are legitimate. The visa officials are simply doing their jobs, but we need to look at this matter.”

India has yet to be properly exploited by Ireland. It’s New Zealand’s fastest-growing market, with 6,040 students travelling there to study in 2008 – a figure which grew further last year. Just 2,640 Indian students are currently studying here – only 440 of whom are studying in higher-level institutions. A full 38 per cent of visa applications referred from New Dehli to INIS last year were rejected.

India is a market of agents, who represent students who wish to travel abroad for study. “There was a lot of goodwill towards Ireland among agents five or six years ago,” says Carroll. “But after a few years of applying for visas – Ireland’s requirements are also a lot more onerous than those of the UK – they just grew tired of it.”

It smacks of an opportunity lost. This issue was on the agenda in Ireland. It is now 10 years since the Asia Strategy was launched. A framework for international education was set out in 2005 in a Government report on the internationalisation of Irish education services. Unfortunately, none of the report’s substantive recommendations was implemented.

Five years later, however, the matter looks like it is finally about to be addressed. Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has announced a number of measures aimed at remedying the situation. “There is a recognition that this is something that Ireland has to be proactive about,” says Orla Battersby of Enterprise Ireland. Among the proposals set out are the establishment of a quality mark for English-language schools and higher-education colleges. Enterprise Ireland will be given responsibility for marketing and promoting the Education Ireland brand abroad.

In recognition of the need for a coordinated approach, the Minister has also set up a high- level group to drive the international education agenda. Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has also published proposals on the reform of the immigration situation for students. From now, it seems the departments will be cooperating closely.

While all involved welcome these measures, the question remains – have we missed the boat?

“We’re playing catch-up in a more competitive market, but I don’t think it’s too late,” says Muldowney. “We can study the successful models in the UK and Australia and learn from their mistakes. We really have to create a competitive advantage for ourselves at this point – inducements for students coming here, for example.

“Basically, we need to recognise that this is the future and we have to embrace it.”