The internationalisation agenda of Irish higher education has come under the spotlight in recent times. It is widely agreed that Ireland has underperformed in its recruitment of overseas students and efforts to promote Ireland Inc. have been noticeably haphazard.
While the international education sector contributes €900 million to the Irish economy each year, we attract less than 1% of the international student cohort. This compares very poorly with the UK which receives more than one-fifth of the world’s share, equivalent to 350,000 students. Similarly, Australian higher education institutions enrolled 200,000 overseas students in 2009, with Chinese and Indian learners comprising in excess of 40% of this cohort. By comparison, less than 6,000 students from these two countries were in Irish institutes of technology and universities in the same period.
In August last year, Minister Batt O’Keeffe announced that he was putting structures in place to develop a new strategy for attracting international students to Ireland. This has seen Enterprise Ireland taking responsibility for marketing and promoting the Education Ireland brand overseas. Education Ireland was first mooted in the Internationalisation of Irish Education Services report published in 2004, but precious little has happened in the interim.
The minister also announced the establishment of a High Level Group on International Education which met for the first time last week. A key issue in the future success of marketing Ireland Inc. is the engagement with immigration services. The Minister for Justice launched a review of the immigration regime for full-time non-EEA students last autumn. The outcome to this process will have a significant bearing on the work of the high level group.
A final word on our prospects for making this country a more attractive proposition for international students comes courtesy of Linda Kelly, Equality Officer with the Union of Students in Ireland:
‘The biggest endorsement for Ireland is to have international students who enjoy studying here, who have a positive experience here and who will recommend Ireland to friends in their home country. This cannot be achieved if higher education institutes and Government departments continue to see dollar signs when creating policy. Policy should and must be student centred if we have any hope of creating a sustainable international education system which can compete with other countries.’