Overseas students: an international solution to an Irish problem?

Cash-strapped third-level institutions have increasingly come to rely on fees from foreign students, but this strategy is not without risk

In a time of falling state support for higher education and rising student numbers, could international students help to plug the funding shortfall?

In recent weeks, Enterprise Ireland held a major event at the Phoenix Park under its brand Education in Ireland, where international students spoke about their experiences of living and studying here.

Enterprise Ireland estimates that these students are worth more than €1 billion to the Irish economy, and it is hoping to lure in even more, with China, Brazil, India, the Middle East, the United States and southeast Asia among their key target markets.

The number of international students coming to Ireland has risen by more than 25 per cent since 2012. At the moment, they make up about 8.8 per cent of the overall student body; the aim is to increase that to 15 per cent by 2020.


Fees for non-EU postgraduate courses can be close to – or more than – €20,000 a year.

Brian Hughes, dean of international students at NUI Galway, says this cohort provides "a large chunk" of the university's income; he cautiously estimates it at about 15 per cent.

“Without these additional students, particularly in areas such as medicine, you wouldn’t have a budget to recruit lecturers,” says Hughes. “But somewhere like Galway also needs to recruit international students if we are to have enough innovators, creators, engineers, scientists and graduates to contribute to campus life and to work here.”

Sheila Power, director of the Irish Council for International Students, which acts as a voice and support centre for them, says Irish universities are attractive to international students and are seen as a friendly, safe, English-speaking, intellectually sophisticated country with significantly lower programme fees than the US or the UK.

Another draw for international students is that they can work during their student visa for between six months and a year after they graduate.

Money troubles

But why would an international student, faced with a choice of thousands of universities across the globe, come to study in an Irish university that is struggling to stay afloat?

“Irish universities are seen as important institutions with long histories and high standards of education, but that may wear thin if international students arrive to threadbare, worn-out and underfunded institutions,” says Hughes.

Barry O’Driscoll, senior market adviser for Education in Ireland, denies that the hunt for international students is all about bringing in money and plugging gaps.

“We also want to bring in talent from around the world, educate our next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs and form global networks of influencers,” O’Donnell says.

Nor is he convinced that international students pay much attention to rankings.

“There are other draws, including work rights, safety, the quality of education and being the only English-speaking country in the euro zone,” he adds.

Bringing in more overseas students might just save Irish education, but it’s not a strategy without risks: we could become dependent on this overseas cash only to see it dry up if overseas students are lured elsewhere.

China’s tune

Some academics have expressed concern that we will end up dancing to the tune of China, India and other major players that might have a very different way of ordering their higher-education systems.

Last year some UCD lecturers questioned the plan for a Confucius Institute that would be jointly run by the Chinese government.

Indeed, Richard Bruton, the new Minister for Education, already has at least one engagement pencilled in to his schedule: a trip to China's international education expo next October where, Enterprise Ireland boasts, Ireland has secured "country of honour" status and hopes to bag a significant number of Chinese students to bring to Ireland.

Ireland has already displayed a capacity to better respond to their needs. Since a report by DCU academic Ciaran Dunne in 2009 that highlighted how Irish students seldom mingled with their international classmates, third-level institutes have worked hard to improve integration, not least by providing more support for international student societies on campus and promoting events such as the Chinese new year or India's Holi festival, says Power.

Still, not all international students are enamoured with everything. One major bugbear that has caused reputational damage and was raised by each of three international students we spoke to – as well as by some State-funded organisations – is the management and organisation of the Garda National Immigration Bureau.

Many students complain about queuing up in the cold from before dawn every year to get their visa; the bureau, however, says it has been implementing measures to change this.

Non-EU students also face significant curbs on their opportunity to travel, although this applies throughout Europe. And the housing and homelessness crisis makes it hard for them to find a decent place to live, although universities are increasingly reserving their on-campus accommodation for international students.

Power says there are occasional issues but that, overall, the majority of students report positive experiences.

“We have strong employment rights compared to many other countries, and the quality of education is high,” she says.

“As long as the sector is underfunded it is bound to have some impact on the decisions of students but, for most of them, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”

Nigim is a PhD candidate at NUI Galway

‘Growing up in Gaza, I worked hard on my education and became the best student in my class at the only school in my region teaching Arabic, English and French.

"After getting my degree from the faculty of engineering in Cairo University, I decided to pursue an academic career.

“I picked Ireland because I was offered a scholarship and wanted to go to an English-speaking country.

“I love my life here. I study five days a week and I enjoy my weekends. After 3½ years here, I’m asked what I think of Ireland. My answer: mighty craic. It’s my favourite Irish expression.

"I've joined the mountaineering club and explore the magical Irish landscape. I play tag rugby. I'm involved in a team that is designing an energy-efficient car: our aim is to build a car that's efficient enough to drive from Galway to Dublin for less than €1 of electricity. I'm involved in the International Student Society, which has given me a chance to make friends from all over the world.

"It's not perfect here, of course. As a non-EU citizen, my travel rights are severely curtailed. I need a visa even to go to Belfast, and when international students do apply to EU embassies, we don't know if we will be granted the visa.

"It feels like pot luck, especially if you're a non-EU student from outside America or Canada. Accommodation in Ireland is hard to find and it can be poor quality and expensive. International students don't often know our rental rights so we're not in a position to stick up for ourselves. And we have to register every year with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, which is very expensive and time- consuming.

“That said, I’m so grateful for these opportunities, and you will always find challenges in life, wherever you go. I have excellent lecturers and professors with huge experience and knowledge. The international office are a great support.

"My supervisor, Dr John Eaton, and his family have been so kind to me, even inviting me for dinner on Christmas Day. Dr Andrew Burke and his family are like my Irish mother and father.

“ I do miss my family, and it’s not easy for me here with them in Gaza. I haven’t seen them for over three years; I try to speak to them when I can but there’s only four hours of electricity per day in Gaza.

“I love Ireland. I’d love to build a life here and raise children in a safe, peaceful environment.”

The latest available breakdown of figures for non-EU students relate to the 2011-2012 academic year.

They show the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland – which has a long tradition of educating international medical students – had by far the highest proportion of EU and non-EU students (57 per cent).

It was followed by NUI Galway (15 per cent), Trinity College Dublin (12 per cent), UCC (10 per cent), UCD (8 per cent), DCU (9 per cent), Dundalk Institute of Technology (7 per cent), Athlone Institute of Technology (6 per cent) and IT Tralee (5 per cent).

More recent figures released by some individual colleges show the numbers have increased significantly since then.

At UCD, the proportion of international students has jumped from 8 per cent to 15 per cent between 2011 and 2014.

NUI Galway’s international students now make up a total of 18 per cent of the college’s full-time students, a 2 per cent increase.