Third level institutions will find it difficult to cater to the demand from Erasmus students who are opting to study in Ireland instead of the UK due to Brexit, the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU has heard.
Representatives from various third level bodies said Irish colleges and universities will struggle to capitalise on the increased numbers of EU and non-EU students choosing to come to Ireland in the wake of Brexit, due to years of chronic under-investment.
Concerns were also raised that Erasmus exchanges, traineeships and work placements, facilitated between Irish and UK colleges, would be withdrawn after the academic year 2022/23, when the UK formally leaves the Erasmus programme.
Students from the Republic who attend colleges in the North, and vice versa, also need clarity regarding their status as international students, the committee heard.
Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), said that a substantial number of students who would previously have chosen the UK for their degree programme or for an Erasmus exchange are now likely to opt for Ireland due to Brexit.
“More than 120,000 non-UK EU students studied in the UK annually before Brexit. While these students paid high tuition fees, they had access to government grant/loan funding to assist with the costs, paid back on graduation.
“Access to this funding is no longer available and students who do not have the ability to cover the higher non-EU tuition fees will seek alternative destinations.
“The 2021 application deadline to UCAS showed that the number of EU applicants stood at 26,010, down from 43,030 the previous year, a drop of 40 per cent. Ireland should aim to be the preferred alternative destination for these students.”
However, the Irish higher education sector will need serious investment to cater to these students, said Mr Miley.
The ratio of staff to students in Ireland’s third level institutions is quite low, and facility upgrades are needed. “Capacity constraints could limit Ireland’s ability to absorb this demand,” he warned.
He added that the UK was now specifically marketing itself to non-EU international students, so Ireland may not have much of an advantage as previously thought, as the only English-speaking country in the EU.
“Rankings are far more potent factors in attracting international students. The lack of adequate investment in the university sector over the last decade means that Ireland has lost ground in rankings and is not in a position to compete as effectively in the highly competitive international student market.”
With regards to research activities, which mainly concerns Masters students, PhDs and staff, Nora Trench Bowles of the IUA said Ireland’s Government Budget Allocation for Research and Development (GBARD) has been consistently below 1 per cent of total expenditure since 2012, reaching an all-time low of 0.93 per cent in 2018.
"This is well below the EU average for GBARD, which is 1.34 per cent of total government expenditure. Ireland's is almost half that of key competitor countries such as Denmark, " she said.
An additional €350 million per year would be needed to bring Ireland into line with the EU average.
She said other issues, such as housing, the cost of childcare, and the lack of work opportunities for researcher’s families were also hindering Ireland’s research potential.
The sector’s ability to purchase lab supplies and building materials is also being affected by Brexit, with Mr Miley warning that building costs of current projects are already costing more than planned.