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Ireland focuses on UK/EU relationship in three-year higher ed strategy

The Irish government has pledged to “promote continuing linkages and deeper connections” between higher education institutions in Ireland and the UK, as well position itself as a leading knowledge economy, it has said as it set out its 2021-23 higher education strategy.

Irish Universities Association will consult closely with the government on “the development of the new strategic framework for international education and research". Photo: Unsplash

"In the post-pandemic Ireland, we will need a new international strategy to help us grow our education, science and research sectors"

The plan also focuses on the country’s relationship with Europe, and covers a raft of strategic goals, from talent, innovation, inclusion, governance and capacity. It has been widely welcomed by stakeholders in the country.

“The department has ambitious goals to reform our higher education sector”

Five targets within the international stratum include: becoming a leading knowledge economy; developing an updated strategic framework for international education and research; advancing partnership with the EU; enhancing cooperation between the North/South; and foster “deeper connections” with UK partners.

“The department has ambitious goals to reform our higher education sector, to grow our research and innovation system and to develop the skills agenda,” minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris said.

“In the post-pandemic Ireland, we will need a new international strategy to help us grow our education, science and research sectors,” added Harris, as reported by The Irish Times.

“Obviously, this is a conversation beyond Covid but it is one we need to start preparing for.”

The minister has also suggested that institutes of technology and new technological universities, which will be central in the “next step in the evolution of Irish higher education”, will boost international reach.

This latest strategy reaffirms a commitment to work with the European Commission and EU partners to support the recovery of the region’s economy, achieve the European Education Area, and promote green and digital transitions.

It will also seek to build a future relationship with the UK along with other EU member states, following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Harris has also suggested this week that a doubling of application numbers to Irish universities from other EU countries could be the result of a Brexit.

Nigel Healey, interim provost and deputy president at the ‎University of Limerick, said the goals outlined in the strategy “attempt to balance the need to support the Irish economic recovery and the structural change already underway to a high-tech future, attract the EU funding, projects and partnerships that will drive the EU’s ambition for a green revolution and, at the same time, reconfigure and strengthen our partnership with the UK”.

“The goals are, in my judgement, well-focused and realistic,” he noted.

Minister Harris – who has been in his role since June 2020 – “has been listening closely to the higher education sector, including the international education community, and there is strong support for the new statement of strategy for his department”, director at UCD Global Douglas Proctor agreed.

“Admittedly, the five goals have a strong flavour of local collaboration (Goal 2 for the island of Ireland; Goal 5 for the UK and the EU, and Goal 4 for the EU), and I think this reflects the importance of Brexit for redefining Ireland’s relationship with its near friends and neighbours,” he told The PIE.

A broader, longer-term ambition is encapsulated in the Irish government’s Global Ireland 2025both Healey and Proctor pointed out, which set out government objectives in 2018 to raise the nation’s profile on the international stage.

“The new Statement of Strategy 2021-23 is, in contrast, a short-to-medium term roadmap and, given the current economic conditions created by Covid-19 and the unprecedented scale of the EU recovery fund, understandably focus particular attention on our association with Europe,” Healey explained.

Also welcoming the strategy’s publication was the Irish Council for International Students, whose executive director Laura Harmon described the document as “forward thinking and ambitious”.

“However, more details are needed on how the department hopes to achieve its goals,” she added.

“The strategy clearly has [the relationship with the UK and EU] as a central focus as the departure of the UK from the EU has meant that Ireland must strengthen ties with its EU partners and redefine its relationship with the UK.”

She also called for more focus given to the ELT sector – estimated to be worth at least €762 million per year – which “is often overshadowed by the higher education sector”.

“We are also slightly disappointed that there are no details given on when the International Education Mark will be rolled out despite the fact that legislation to govern the IEM was enacted in 2019,” she added.

“This is a timely call from the department to look to the future”

Ireland’s seven universities – cooperating closely through the Irish Universities Association – will consult closely with the government on “the development of the new strategic framework for international education and research, which is aimed at building strong, sustainable global partnerships,” Healey added.

“Now that the departmental strategy is confirmed for the next three years, UCD is looking forward to engaging with the minister and his department on the key objectives of a new international strategy for higher education,” Proctor added.

“2020 was a particularly challenging year,” Healey concluded.

“As the vaccination program rolls out around the world and the end of the pandemic comes into sight, this is a timely call from the department to look to the future and focus our efforts on the key short-to-medium term goals that will make a difference to people and the planet.”

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