Paul McCutcheon: Irish universities must collaborate to attract overseas students

New Zealand universities recruit almost 14,000 Chinese students; the Irish universities have just 2,000.

Each October the Higher Education Expo is held China’s four largest cities. It is a massive education fair attended by universities and colleges from around the world seeking to attract Chinese students: it is the most important recruiting and networking event of the year.

The 2015 Expo started on Saturday and a "Country of Honour" is nominated each year for the following year. Ireland will be the country of honour in 2016 but Irish higher education is underperforming in the international market generally and China in particular. Our international recruitment is below the OECD average and lags far behind market leaders such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The contrast with New Zealand is striking. Both countries have approximately the same population and number of universities. However, New Zealand universities recruit almost 14,000 Chinese students; the Irish universities have just 2,000.

Yet Ireland has at least as much to offer as New Zealand. Our universities perform comparatively well in international ranking tables (an important factor in the Chinese market). Ireland is an English speaking country in the EU. Moreover, Ireland was recently voted as the most popular study destination in Europe by international students.


The awareness of Ireland as a study destination is still extremely low in China. Indeed, the visibility of Ireland in general is quite low in China. The costs for an individual university to carry out large scale marketing are prohibitive. A collaborative approach is vital to raising the necessary level of awareness. This should be our focus at a national level, particularly in electronic and social media. The New Zealand government produced a documentary for Chinese TV in 2013 which followed the lives of six students while in New Zealand and on their return home to good jobs. It gave Chinese students and parents positive reasons to consider New Zealand as an education destination.

We need an intergovernmental approach. This would ensure that Irish HE is better placed with a three-way seamless relationship involving government (principally the Department of Education and Skills), Enterprise Ireland (who have responsibility for "Education in Ireland") and the institutions. Governmental involvement and support is vital in this market.

Enterprise Ireland has recruited a new full-time education executive based in Beijing who is working on a number of promotional projects. However, the Irish embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai are additional resources that should be exploited. Indeed, the assignment of an additional staff member to the embassy with a specific education and culture brief could boost the promotion of Ireland as a destination.

We need to develop an Irish education brand in China. At a previous event in China I was struck by how Australian universities had developed a consistent message about the attractiveness of education in their country.

Institutions presented the same headline facts about Australia designed to sell the country as a destination of choice, before proceeding to their own institutional story. The type of points made were that Australia has produced 12 Nobel prize winners, identified six everyday items that were invented in Australia etc. The overall picture was to present Australia as a modern innovative economy. We can tell a similar, if not better, story about Ireland that is targeted at the Chinese market.

I walked around the 2014 Expo to look at how other countries operated. My conclusion is that we need to evaluate critically how Irish HE is presented at such Expos. I believe that while there is value in the “Education in Ireland” brand, the balance between that and the individual institutions needs to be recalibrated. In particular, institutional identity can be obscured to the point of invisibility by the generic brand. The Irish stand looked more like a tourism presentation. There were the abundant scenic photographs but no obvious representation of education in Ireland, or any indication of what we have to offer.

Effective collaboration in China requires a serious commitment from the senior university leadership. While our international staff work well together on the ground, they are hampered by a lack of overt commitment by their institutions to collaborative engagement. A clear and unambiguous message is required. This will require a culture change on the part of institutions, but if we collaborate successfully in China it will be a template for national collaboration in other markets.

Paul McCutcheon is Vice President Academic and Registrar at the University of Limerick