Ronald Wafula wakes before dawn. He uses the quiet time to get some study done before starting on a two-hour and 40-minute journey by bus to college. Originally from Kenya, Wafula is one of some 21,000 international students studying in Ireland, many of whom are struggling.
He was elated when he won a scholarship to research a PhD in finance at University College Dublin (UCD) in September 2020. Looking back, he wasn't prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Every day is a struggle to make ends meet, he says.
His first year of study was online due to Covid restrictions. After securing temporary housing, it took Wafula more than 10 months to find suitable accommodation for his family to come to Ireland. He now lives with his wife – who is not permitted to work under her visa – and one of his children in Rathangan, Co Kildare, while the other child stays in Kenya.
“It’s quite hard to break into the Irish [accommodation] system as an immigrant, especially of colour,” Wafula says. “They want to see a pay slip before they have a conversation with you.”
Wafula gets a monthly €1,500 scholarship stipend. He has worked as a tutor at the university, but his Stamp 2 visa limits him to work no more than 20 hours each week. His hours are precarious and he does not know if he will get any in the current semester.
Meanwhile, his income is quickly swallowed up by his monthly rent (€1,100), electricity (€200) and daily commute (€18 a day).
“It is practically impossible to live any life,” he says. “It becomes really hard to say you’re enjoying it.”
Wafula admits experiencing mental health difficulties throughout his time here. “You have to put on a bold face, so your wife and kids don’t see that... I’m not enjoying the process, but maybe the outcome, which is getting a PhD and hopefully getting a job,” he says.
Wafula wrote to UCD president Andrew Deeks in August, claiming international PhD students were "suffering in silence" and facing "systematic" discrimination during their time in Ireland.
In a statement, UCD said international students receive an offer pack that references accommodation, the cost of living and visa advice. While the college generally has sufficient on-campus places for international students, it said that it does not currently have family accommodation.
The university said PhD candidates have a student status and are deemed to be under full-time instruction, while scholarship holders are exempt from tax on their scholarship income.
They are not normally employees, a spokesman said, and issues around employment are controlled by the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment.
The experiences of international students is raising wider questions around Ireland’s policy of attracting more and more students from abroad.
While their higher fees are helping to plug holes in third-level funding, many international students argue that they are not being treating fairly and are not adequately warned about the cost of living or scarcity of accommodation.
In Ireland, about 17,000 students from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) are paying €10,000-€20,000 for their courses, though in some cases fees can be as high as €55,000.
Most non-EEA students come from the US, China, India, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia. Irish students pay a student contribution charge capped at €3,000.
Bukky Adebowale, vice-president for equality and citizenship at the Union of Students in Ireland, says many international students feel they are treated as if they are cash-cows to prop up an under-funded third-level system. "They don't feel heard," says Adebowale.
Bhumi Mehda, who is studying for a master's in computer science, is one of them. She was required to have €40,000 in her bank account before being accepted into the State. On top of needing €25,600 for tuition fees at UCD, and after receiving some financial help from her parents, she took out a loan to finance the high cost of living in Ireland – but it still wasn't enough.
After arriving from India with her sister Jill at the end of the summer, she was met with the stark reality of Ireland’s housing crisis. Although they contacted 20-30 places a day, they struggled to find permanent accommodation. The sisters spent a month in temporary accommodation and were “freaking out” in fear of having no place to go.
“We [were] staying up late to study until four or five o’clock and getting up early each day to search for an apartment,” Jill says.
Less than 48 hours before they were due to leave their temporary accommodation, with no place to go, they finally secured a year-long tenancy agreement – but it didn’t come cheap. Bhumi, Jill and two friends now live close to Belfield campus in Dublin 4 and pay €2,500 a month for the two-bedroom house or €625 to share a bedroom; far more than they budgeted.
The Irish Times contacted all Irish universities to ask if they provide warnings to internationals regarding Ireland's housing crisis prior to arrival. Many give general advice such as "book early" or tell students about "high demand" in the rental market. NUI Galway seems to go further than most by offering virtual "meet and greets" and information sessions for international students. The university also said it invites housing charity Threshold to provide accommodation guidance to incoming internationals.
Bukky Adebowale of USI says the “honest truth” must be presented to internationals before coming to Ireland.
“There’s an obligation [for universities] to be really quite frank about it and say, ‘at the moment it’s really hard to find accommodation so look early, or make sure you have a deposit, and to anticipate difficulties’.”
Laura Harmon, executive director of the Irish Council for International Students, whose members include 30 higher-education institutions, says she does not think colleges are exploiting students. She argues that universities are following the national strategy on internationalising education in Ireland.
But why aren’t students allowed to work more than 20 hours each week to cover their high costs? The Department of Justice, which issues their visas, maintains the sole reason for students being in the State is to study. The department said it must ensure students can survive on their own resources without relying on work.
Plugging the gap
The move to “internationalise” higher education is Government policy. The Department of Education’s strategy in this area, due an update since 2020, aims to increase the economic output of these students from €819 million in 2014 to €1.15 billion by 2020 and increase the output of the English-language education sector by €200 million. The policy has been bearing fruit; non-EEA students have more than doubled since 2011.
The supply of lucrative international students has helped plug university finances in the years following the recession and, more recently, during the pandemic.
Latest figures show Ireland’s main universities increased their student fee income in the first year of the pandemic at a time when most were confined to remote learning. No refunds were provided to international students; neither were they entitled to the once-off €250 payment from the Government.
“Maybe universities should not make so much money at the expense of people paying,” says Wafula.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris is shortly expected to begin long-awaited action on the 2016 Cassells report, which aims to address key funding issues in the sector. International students like Wafula and Bhumi hope they won't be left behind in the new vision for the sector.
International students: in numbers
Estimated number of students from outside the European Economic Area studying in Ireland
Estimated economic output generated from international students
Tuition fees for most international students