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Bounce in EU students, but Ireland faces European competition

Ireland is increasingly becoming a key education destination for students from across the European Union with a raft of universities recording double-digit growth in enrolments from the continent.

Atlantic TU in Sligo is hoping to "be a draw for international talent who want to study high-quality technological university programs in a beautiful part of Ireland". Photo: iStock

Ireland may have profited during 2021 as a result of other English-speaking countries beyond Europe being inaccessible as a result of the pandemic

But according to international education stakeholders, while there has been a surge from EU-27 students in 2021, Irish institutions should also be bracing for increased competition from providers in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.

Provisional admissions figures collated by The Times suggest that almost 17,000 EU students registered at Trinity College Dublin for this academic year, an 8% increase on two years ago. Other institutions have also seen rises, such as the University of Limerick and Maynooth University recording 34% and 28% increases over two years, respectively, and University College Cork EU students rising 18% in the past year.

A total of 1,760 EU students have registered at Dublin City University this year, a 20% increase on two years ago, The Times noted.

“There has been a substantial increase in EU student numbers across the Irish university system, with an average increase of around 20% from 2020 to 2022, distributed across both undergraduate and postgraduate programs,” Lewis Purser, director of learning, teaching and academic affairs at the Irish Universities Association told the paper.

“The data shows that EU students increasingly see Irish universities as a high-quality destination where – as fellow EU citizens — they can continue to benefit from the same terms and conditions, including fees, as Irish students.

“This compares to their status now in the UK where they must pay considerably higher international fees and also obtain visas and work permits. IUA expects this trend to continue, particularly as Irish universities become more embedded in European university networks, and more Irish students travel to other EU countries with Erasmus grants.”

“We have indeed seen a surge in interest from EU-27 students in 2021,” Gerrit Bruno Blöss, founder & CEO of Study.eu told The PIE.

“Although this has gone down again, it’s still higher than pre-Brexit. Our users tend to look at study options 12-18 months before enrolment.”

2020 survey by the study search platform found Ireland was only the fourth most popular alternative to the UK, mentioned by 16% of survey respondents, Blöss added. The Netherlands was ranked top, followed by Germany and then France.

“This was slightly surprising as English is spoken; and although a smaller country, it still has lots of good universities to choose from,” he said.

Carmen Neghina, senior marketing analytics consultant at Studyportals, also suggested that Ireland was benefiting from Brexit, with EU students no longer eligible for home fee status and access to student loans in the UK.

“In relative terms, students from Germany, France and Portugal are now more interested in Ireland than in 2020”

“Ireland did benefit from the drop in student interest for the UK last year, however this year we expect more competition for those students from The Netherlands and Germany and Italy,” she told The PIE.

Growth in interest accelerated from July, with August, September, and October being “particularly intense” in terms of growth, she said.

“Student interest for Ireland is growing from The Netherlands, and also from Poland, Romania and Portugal possibly due to their previous reliance on UK student loans. It is stable or dropping slightly from other EU countries.”

Blöss also added that Ireland may have profited during 2021 as a result of other English-speaking countries beyond Europe being inaccessible as a result of the pandemic.

“In relative terms, students from Germany, France and Portugal are now more interested in Ireland than in 2020,” he agreed.

“Beyond Europe, we see growth opportunities in sending countries like Pakistan, South Africa and Saudi Arabia with increased interest in Irish degrees.” Other stakeholders have previously suggested that African students are turning to Ireland, with its “friendly” fees and living costs, as well as high visa rejection rates putting students off Canada.

Universities in Ireland have also reported rises in non-EU student numbers. DCU is up 23% among non-EU students this year, TCD up 11%, UCD up 9% and UL up 17% over two years. Maynooth University recorded a more modest 4% rise in non-EU admissions, while University College Cork saw registered non-EU students decrease by 4%, The Times found.

Recent university mergers in Ireland may also be having an impact, Blöss posited.

“Another factor driving Ireland’s success may be the recent university mergers with new institutions like TU Dublin, TU Shannon and the new Atlantic Technological University,” he said.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, opened the new Atlantic TU on April 4, describing the state’s fourth TU – Munster Technological University being the other – as a “significant occasion for higher education in Ireland”.

The merger of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Sligo, and Letterkenny Institute of Technology to form Atlantic TU will see the creation of an education “powerhouse” for Sligo, he added.

Attracting more overseas students will be a key aim of the new university, Atlantic TU president Orla Flynn told Independent.ie.

“We will be a draw for international talent who want to study high-quality technological university programs in a beautiful part of Ireland,” she said.

“Mergers always take time and effort but synergies in marketing and branding make it easier to reach and attract students from foreign countries,” Blöss concluded.

Laura Harmon, executive director of the Irish Council for International Students, noted that the lack of affordable accommodation, racism, and the rising cost of living are issues that “must be addressed if Ireland wishes to continue to attract students from abroad”.

During a speech at IIEA Young Professionals Network on March 22, Harris noted a “series of initiatives [in Europe] which play to Ireland’s strength of building institutional partnership, which grow from strong person-to-person relationships”.

“I am particularly anxious that partnerships in further education are increased”

He pointed to Irish universities involved in seven partnerships under the European University Initiative, a “huge increase” in Horizon funding and a rise in funding for the Erasmus program.

“I am particularly anxious that partnerships in further education are increased – we all associate Erasmus with higher education. It is more than that. We must do more in that space,” he noted, however.

“While I do paint a positive picture of our place in Europe, I must also talk about our engagement with the UK,” the minister continued.

“I have always been adamant that Brexit should not define or restrict the rich history of engagement between our education systems. I want that to continue and grow. I recently visited university campuses in Derry and Belfast, and I am struck by the enthusiasm to collaborate on both sides of the border.

“I have met with my counterparts in Scotland, England and Wales, and again, the appetite to work with us is there more than ever. Those connections will remain a constant in the Ireland-UK relationship, as quite rightly they should.”

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