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Ireland: new Program for Government is “mixed bag” for international students

The Irish Council for International Students has welcomed the appointment of a minister for higher education within the new government. However, it noted that the new Program for Government offers a “mixed-bag” for international students, with the absence of any reference to the International Education Mark a particular cause for concern.

ICOS noted that the approved PfG recognises the importance of overseas students and academics to the HE sector. Photo: Unsplash

"It is essential that international students are not seen as mere ‘cash cows’"

The decision to appoint Simon Harris as minister for higher education comes as a new government is formed and sees the position, which was held at a junior minister level in the last government, promoted to the main cabinet table.

“We look forward to working with minister Harris to advance all of these issues”

Last month, more than 800 academics and researchers penned an open letter to the country’s TDs (members of parliament) calling for the establishment of a Department of Higher Education and Research and flagging a “crisis” in research that “risks becoming fatal if not addressed”.

Ireland’s universities can expect an 80% falloff in first-year registration of overseas students this autumn according to the Irish Universities Association, and institutions have become increasingly vocal in their pleas for support amid such predictions.

According to reports, the collapse of international student fee income, rental of on-campus accommodation and commercial revenues will cost the universities €374 million in the 2020 and 2021 financial years, while IUA has estimated that the loss in fee income from international students alone will be €181m.

Speaking about the ministerial appointment, ICOS executive director Sarah Lennon said it is a welcome decision at a very difficult time for higher education with many institutions facing precarious financial situations.

“It is essential that sustainable and proactive measures are taken that does not compromise the quality of the higher education system,” said Lennon, adding that the decision also comes at a time when the international education strategy is under review.

The stated aim of the last International Education Strategy (2016 – 2020) was to grow the value of the international education sector to the economy from €1.58 billion per annum to €2.1bn per annum by 2020.

“International students fees form a major part of the funding of higher education and the current pandemic has put this income in doubt,” Lennon continued.

However, she added, “it is essential that international students are not seen as mere ‘cash cows’ and all of the benefits that the internationalisation of lecture theatres, classrooms and labs are recognised”.

“ICOS believes that the strategy should recognise the important cultural and educational benefits of international students and also include other measures to ensure the quality of the experience for those students who choose Ireland as a study destination such as ensuring sufficient and affordable accommodation, ensuring that quality controls are in place through the International Education Mark and the introduction of hate crime legislation.

“We look forward to working with minister Harris to advance all of these issues,” Lennon added.

Prior to the Irish general election, ICOS developed a manifesto that set out what it would like a new government to prioritise in order to advance the rights of international students.

ICOS noted that the approved PfG commits to review and update the International Education strategy for Ireland, recognising the importance of overseas students and academics to the HE sector.

Overall, however, ICOS said the new PfG “offers a mixed-bag for international students”.

“Measures taken to improve housing and mental health services will benefit everyone, including students and international students, and the commitment to bring in reforms relating to hate crime are welcome,” read a statement on the website.

The biggest disappointment, it noted, is the failure to mention the International Education Mark, which ICOS said has the potential to drastically improve the experience of international students at both higher education and English language schools level.

Plans to introduce the long-awaited IEM were brought to the fore once again in 2019 when the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Bill was passed with the aim of establishing protections for the staff and students of English language schools in the country.

“The absence of the IEM from the PfG could be seen as an indicator of the low priority of the quality mark”

A spokesperson for Marketing English in Ireland said at the time that the implementation of the IEM was a positive development for schools that would put an end to the unfair playing field and would force all schools to implement high standards.

ICOS said it asked for a commitment to introduce this important reforming quality system, “but unfortunately, there is no commitment to this in the PfG”.

“The absence of the IEM from the PfG could be seen as an indicator of the low priority of the quality mark. However, when the Department of Education releases its new strategy in the coming weeks, ICOS will be able to assess the education priorities fully,” it concluded.

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