More Than Yeats and Joyce

Ireland makes push for greater share of foreign student market -- and vision of being hub for more than study of culture.

August 11, 2008

As an international education major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Sara Connolly figured it might be helpful to gain firsthand experience outside the United States. But where to go? The young American wanted a place familiar in terms of language and culture yet sufficiently different to constitute a real global experience.

"And I wanted to go somewhere that was welcoming," she adds, somewhere international students weren’t just ghettoized.

Historically, such priorities have led Americans to either go to Britain or perhaps Australia for study abroad, but Connolly was to discover her own pot of intellectual gold in Ireland, at University College Cork, where she has since notched up a full year’s undergraduate study and, more recently, an additional 120 hours of field-based experience as part of the master’s degree in international education administration that she has also been pursuing at UMass.

The Irish university enrolls around 2,000 international students, with most of its non-European cohort hailing from the United States and Canada. Satisfaction levels among those students are notably high, according to one survey carried out this year carried out by the independent research specialists International Graduate Insight Group.

Connolly’s ongoing academic love affair with Ireland, as the self-described “heritage-seeker” describes it, takes place at a time when playing academic suitor to many more young Americans has recently achieved policy status in Ireland.

The republic’s Higher Education Authority has just announced plans to double the number of full-time foreign university students in Ireland over the next 10 years.

While short on specifics, the independent statutory body believes Irish higher education needs to acquire a far greater international focus and integrate non-Irish students into local colleges. Certainly, the overall size of the country’s current international cohort would suggest as much, boasting just 12,000 full-time foreign students out of the 160,000 enrolled across the seven publicly funded universities in this nation of 4.4 million.

Nevertheless, over the past decade the number of foreign students has already grown by 170 percent. Sending far more students than any other non-EU country is the United States, which accounts for more than one in five full-time foreign students already in Ireland.

Historically, most American newcomers, like the recent UMass visitor, arrive for shorter periods, often to study the arts and literature. Officials believe that the country’s emergence over the past decade as one of Europe’s tech-laden economic success stories could spur others to pursue full-time opportunities in areas such as economics, information technology and -- particularly in the current global environment and particularly relevant in sectarian Ireland -- peace studies.

But while authorities "are talking more and saying the right things, there’s frankly still not a lot of combined thinking going on between government agencies in areas like immigration and visa issues, in the problems some students have in staying on after graduation," cautions John McPartland, the director of international affairs at Ireland’s best-known university, Trinity College Dublin. TCD already enrolls 1,200 non-European students, about half of them from North America.

"So," he says, referring to a knotty issue that has become a particular problem in the institution’s efforts to recruit students from countries other than the U.S., "we welcome these statements, but in some ways we’d welcome similar statements from the Department of Justice, which controls immigration, even more."

Not that Trinity intends to rest on its laurels until then. This past month the country’s oldest academic institution has finalized plans to join forces with five other Dublin-based colleges, including Dublin City University, University College Dublin, and the National University of Ireland Maynooth, along with the Dublin Institute of Technology and the Institute of Technology Tallaght, to form what will be known as the international strand of the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance, dedicated to promoting the Irish capital as a Singapore-style international academic hub.

The new consortium expects to use its initial funding of 2 million euros (about $3 million) to develop a education brand for the city and establish a small number of new overseas offices, including one in the U.S., along with a dedicated service bureau in Dublin for international students and researchers, some of whose work it would jointly sponsor.

Michael Terbush, a Californian now resident at Trinity to do a Ph.D. in economics, is the kind of long-term visitor the consortium has in mind. "Ireland’s an easy place to get things done, and to get them done in English -- it’s a language you hear more often here than you might, say, walking around Berkeley," Terbush enthuses.

Even allowing for the weakened greenback, the doctoral student calculates that academic life in Ireland remains a cheaper option than a prestigious university back in the United States.

Coincidentally, perhaps, Ireland’s newfound wish to fully internationalize student life come at a time when the country is grappling with its own economic sums: Joblessness in the republic is spiking, the economy is crawling at a fraction of the growth levels seen earlier in the decade, and many export industries are taking a bath.

The gloomy reports, McPartland admits, have led some to speculate that the newfound higher-education enthusiasm could yet prove an excuse for the government to follow the example of other countries, notably those in Australia and Canada, where fee-paying foreign students are often simply viewed as an untapped revenue stream. (And American students would bring revenue. Annual tuition for students outside the European Union is about $25,000, while EU students pay only living expenses.)

"This is an interesting time to be discussing international engagement to be sure,” says McPartland, who nonetheless believes that such fears are misplaced.

The downturn being what is on both sides of the Atlantic, adds the upbeat Sara Connolly, “I would guess that international students would now be even more like to go to Ireland than, say, Australia, because they’ll be watching their money when it comes to things like the cost of air tickets.” At least that’s what she -- and many Irish educators -- hopes.


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