Irish universities face financial black hole over coronavirus

Colleges fear losing millions as foreign students may be obliged to cancel enrolment

Irish universities face losing tens of millions of euro in tuition fees from the impact of coronavirus due to large numbers of international students from China and elsewhere being forced to cancel or postpone enrolments.

Sources across several universities say contingency plans being drawn up include delaying international student entry or providing online courses for these students until the virus threat subsides.

Irish universities have become increasingly reliant on revenue from international tuition fees due to a reduction in State investment per student over the past decade or so.

The bulk of most university income is now generated privately and international fees account for a large proportion of this.

For example, fees for non-EU undergraduate students range between €10,000-€20,000 for students studying business, engineering and science, while they climb to between €40,000-€55,000 for those studying medicine.

Post-graduate non-EU students typically pay between €10,000 and €35,000.

“There are significant concerns in the system right now,” said one senior higher-education source. It has the potential to get significantly worse. The longer this goes on, the more serious the implications are.”

Another said international student recruitment was already suffering, which would place universities under acute pressure in the coming academic year.

“This wasn’t so much an issue in the past when most funding came from the State, but we don’t have that luxury anymore,” said another source.

One source said options such as delaying the academic year for international students were being considered. Another involves allowing students to begin their course online for a discounted fee.

Another source said it is planning to switch its international student recruitment to markets where the impact of coronavirus has been less severe.

Latest figure indicate there are an estimated 32,000 international students attending Irish universities whose tuition fees generate in excess of €200 million annually.

In a report prepared for the Irish Universities Association last year, Indecon estimated that international students also generated an additional €120 million in non-tution fee expenditure.

Bookings down

Many universities and colleges are also worried at a potential drop off in summer students learning English. These people typically occupy on-campus accommodation between June and August.

Some sources say many from Italy and Spain are holding off making bookings, or cancelling existing bookings.

Many English language schools are also worried about the prospect of a fall-off in international student numbers.

It is estimated that more than 120,000 international English-language students attend language schools here, placing Ireland fifth place globally in terms of actual numbers of students per head of population.

Trinity College Dublin, meanwhile, has told staff and students that a member of the college community who was diagnosed with coronavirus appears to have made a good recovery.

In a message sent on Sunday afternoon, it said: "At this time, no other case has been diagnosed to our knowledge. Most of the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute is functioning as normal except for a few rooms on the fourth floor.

“The college remains open for the moment and most students should attend classes and other activities as normal on Monday.”

In a series of protective measures, it has instructed any students or staff returning from “high-risk” areas to avoid coming into college for 14 days . Travel to affected areas has also been banned.

It also appealed to the college community not to “engage with or contribute to the circulation of rumours on social media as this is unhelpful and causes unnecessary anxiety”.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent