While the plan has support from all quarters, some are cautious about its lofty targets. Tobin believes that doubling students will be a tall order for Cork, despite the steady growth they have seen in recent years. “I am wary about talking about targets, because people can sometimes have unrealistic expectations. I see a slow steady growth. Our numbers are going up 10%-20% each year,” she says.
This sentiment is echoed by Caoimhe Ní Lochlainn, Press Officer at Trinity College Dublin which currently has 2,400 international students. “We do expect more growth but we expect this to be gradual over the next 3-5 years,” she says.
For others, the plan favours some sectors unfairly. “It has taken a long time for them [the government] to realise that the EFL sector is actually as big as it is and also its value to the Irish economy. But they are still very third-level focused,” says Justin Quinn, the managing director of CES, a leading language school. He also believes ministerial claims of doubling student numbers are unlikely to be fulfilled without more investment in the sector.
Another challenge is the public services cuts facing Ireland in the next few years. While the government wishes to boost HE numbers, there has been the suggestion of a cap on student places in the future. Institutions have also been facing staff and budget cuts, which could affect quality of services to international students.
“Public sector recruitment embargoes are resulting in fewer front line staff in higher education institutions dealing with higher numbers of students and this is bound to have an impact on service quality,” says Sheila Power, director of the Irish Council for International Students, which is lobbying for the ring-fencing of fee revenue, for reinvestment in student support. “There will be no growth unless we can offer a quality educational experience to international students in a welcoming environment.”
“The recruitment targets are challenging but realistic”
Regardless of the obstacles, its full steam ahead for Education in Ireland which completed a promotional tour of the USA last year, its biggest HE student market, as well as launching a US student ambassador programme.
According to Keith Moynes, assistant principal officer at Department of Education and Skills, the recruitment targets are challenging but realistic. “The main challenges are the same ones that affect everyone… the state of the world economy and macro-level trends in international recruitment. But this presents opportunities as well,” he says, pointing to the growing global desire to up-skill and the clear advantages the Irish education system can offer.
If his wishes become reality, Irish education providers will have a golden opportunity to capitalise not only on their potential, but also the demand the UK will be turning away in the next few years.