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Ireland: social class a powerful influence on student immobility

Social class is a powerful factor influencing whether or not an Irish student decides to study abroad, with those from a lower socioeconomic background less likely to spend time overseas, according to new research that examines why students remain globally immobile.

Irish students on campus at Trinity College DublinStudents on campus at Trinity College Dublin. 26% of ‘stayers’ said they didn’t want to be separated from a partner, friends or family. Photo: Flickr/William Murphy.

"The category of social class or occupational structure plays the most sustained role in predicting the student immobility of Irish students"

In Examining student immobility: a study of Irish undergraduate students, researchers from Trinity College Dublin and Dublin’s Economic and Social Research Institute analysed data on Irish full-time undergraduate students collected through a series of European national surveys carried out by Eurostudent.

Students with a lower family income “displayed a higher propensity for immobility”

A total of 6,895 native Irish students took part in the survey from 2012-2015. Just under half – 3,365 – said they had no interest in studying abroad, with 60% of these ‘stayers’ citing financial reasons.

But as well as analysing the survey responses, researchers looked at the correlation between students’ interest in studying overseas and their background and institution of study.

Researchers found that students with a lower family income “displayed a higher propensity for immobility, one which endured across other factors”.

And students whose mothers had completed a further or higher education qualification were significantly less likely to be globally immobile than those whose mothers had only primary education, it found, while those with fathers in less-skilled occupations were more likely to be among the stayers.

“At the macro-level, the category of social class or occupational structure plays the most sustained role in predicting the student immobility of Irish students,” the study states.

Researchers also found that students enrolled at colleges of education were more than twice as likely to be stayers as those at universities, while those at institutes of technology were 1.3 times more likely.

This correlation could, the study notes, be an indicator either of students’ socioeconomic background or of institutions’ approach to internationalisation, adding: “The analysis indicates that students’ background is a better indicator of immobility over the institution that one attends.”

After financial reasons, language difficulties were the second most commonly cited barrier to study abroad, with 32% of students with no interest in studying abroad giving this as a reason. In fact, just 18% of Irish students who took part in the survey said that insufficient language skills were no problem for them.

“Programs which offer meaningful and robust social support could serve to increase the attractiveness of study abroad”

Short-term impact on potential earnings were another significant obstacle to study abroad, cited by 29% of students with no interest in studying abroad.

Other reasons they gave for wanting to stay in Ireland included not wanting to be separated from a partner, family or friends (26%), not receiving enough information from their home institution about their options (16%), a perception that it wouldn’t benefit their studies at home, and insufficient disability services in the host country.

“These findings raise the question as to what policy options can be implemented to increase student mobility among those from lower socioeconomic groupings,” the study notes.

Citing British Council research showing that international mobility is associated with positive outcomes such as increased salary and perceived advantages by employers, it concludes that “the benefits should be promoted to all students”.

Higher education institutions should take note of the reasons deterring students from studying abroad as a basis for forming policies to encourage outbound movement, it counsels.

“Since not wanting to leave family and friends plays a role in immobility, programs for mobility which offer meaningful and robust social support to students in their study abroad endeavours, and the creation of a trusting, communicative and supported environment, could serve to increase the attractiveness of study abroad for students,” it suggests.

The study’s approach to examining the question of student mobility from the perspective of those who choose not to study abroad is “a novel one as most research examines the experience of those who do go abroad”, the report notes.

“Overall, the findings align with studies highlighting the salience of social class because of the additional financial costs associated with mobility and the social selection process that increases social inequality in higher education,” it concludes.

Mairéad Finn, one of the report’s authors, told The PIE News: “[The research] suggests that while studies looking at mobility might examine aspects of personal motivations, prior experiences of mobility, and other such factors, that these should be grounded in both objective and subjective understandings of socio-economic background.”

Around 3,200 Irish students studied abroad through the Erasmus+ programme in 2016/17, according to the Higher Education Authority.

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