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Can Ireland realise its internationalisation goals?

Despite its close affiliation with the UK, Ireland has not benefited like its neighbour has from the booming international student market of the last decade. Thanks to assertive policies and  the power of its educational brand, the UK has become not just a regional but world leader in the market and educational institutions from high to low end have reaped the rewards.

St. Joseph's Square, St. Patrick's College, May 2008

Post-study work rights have also been extended to a year for all graduates

However, the currents behind this state of affairs may be heading into reverse. As the UK curbs student visas to the dismay of its industry, Ireland is embracing internationalisation with vigour and pursuing a strategy to dramatically increase international student population by 2015.

As outlined in the government’s Investing in Global Relationships, Internationalising Irish Education report last September, Ireland wants to raise the number of English language students from 100,000 to 125,000; offshore students to 4,500; and full time international students in HE by 50% from 26,000 (since raised to 100% by the recently elected government, meaning figures of 52,000).

To achieve this, immigration policies, quality assurance and collaboration with trusted agents will be bolstered. A new international brand and marketing campaign for Irish education, Education in Ireland, was also launched by the new government to lead the promotional charge.

These are ambitious goals which face considerable challenges – intensifying competition from other study destinations and the recession being just a few. But thinking big on internationalisation is long overdue. As an English-speaking nation in the EU, with high quality providers, a friendly reputation and a diverse (if embattled) economy, Ireland has all the ingredients to become a leading study destination but has lagged in exploiting this.

Ireland has all the ingredients to become a leading study destination

Observers complain there was a lack of joined-up thinking within government and the wider education community, reflected in unreceptive visa policies and insufficient marketing strategies. As in the UK, the IE sector was accused of being patchily regulated, with bogus colleges tarring the reputation of quality providers. And with around 7.1% of students in tertiary education who are international – a proportion it wants to raise to 15-20% by 2020 – Ireland performs relatively poorly against comparable statistics in Australia and New Zealand.

So why has the turnaround taken so long? Gill Roe, manager at Education in Ireland, says Irish education has always been international in nature with strong links to both Europe and the USA in particular. However, she says, “We were not under strong financial and governmental pressure as would have been the case in the UK to recruit international students.”

While the government is keen to downplay the economic dimension of internationalisation, it is hard not to see a link between its plans and Ireland’s current fiscal troubles. The international education sector is worth approximately €900million to the Irish economy, and meeting its recruitment goals could boost this to €1.2 billion by 2015 as well as creating jobs.

The new government is also taking a decidedly more business-like approach to international education by placing Education in Ireland under the control of Enterprise Ireland, the agency that deals with Irish business and trade, and boasts a global network of offices and embassy links. There have also been more ministerial visits abroad to promote education, international agreements, and the launch of a highly trusted agent programme in India.

At home, the government is seeking greater collaboration between universities, language schools and government. The Investing in Global Relationships plan calls for institutions to contribute to a central fund to support generic promotion, something Louise Tobin, Director of International Student Recruitment and Strategy at University College Cork says has been missing for years. “We didn’t have a British Council… We’re a small country, we can’t afford to split up the market too much.” [more>>]

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