Irish study calls for expanded destination marketing and student supports

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Irish higher education continues to internationalise but institutions responding to a recent survey have called for expanded efforts to promote Ireland as a study destination
  • Survey respondents also identified a need for expanded support services for foreign students in Ireland
  • In a related development, the Irish government also recently introduced new legislation to strengthen quality controls in international education

A newly published study commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and funded by the Irish Research Council has found that despite cuts to funding in recent years, Irish higher education institutions have continued their internationalisation efforts.

The study, entitled The Internationalisation of Irish Higher Education, combines survey data and interviews with directors of international offices, faculty and both international and Irish students to arrive at a multi-perspective exploration of internationalisation in Irish higher education. It shows how far Ireland has come as a destination for international students, and at the same time it reveals areas in need of improvement.

Following are some highlights from the study.

The shape of the sector

Ireland’s international education sector currently contributes approximately €1.58 billion per year to the economy (US$1.85 billion), and the Irish government’s goal for 2020 is for this to increase to €2.1 billion per year.

The number of international students attending one of Ireland’s universities has dramatically increased since the start of this century. International students numbered 4,180 in 2000/01; by 2012/13 the count was 10,980. Currently, 10.6% of total enrolments in Irish HEIs are international and they represent an increasingly diverse range of countries. The study notes that notable recent increases have come from China, India, Brazil, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Total foreign enrolment in Irish universities numbered nearly 17,000 in 2017, with another 4,200 students in Institutes of Technology and 2,200 more in specialist colleges that year.

A quarter (25%) of Ireland’s foreign university students study health and welfare, with another fifth in arts and humanities and the same proportion in business, administration, and law programmes. The next most popular programmes are engineering, manufacturing, and statistics.

Asia a key region, agents a key channel

Of Ireland’s three types of higher education institutions, universities cast the widest net in their recruitment activities, focusing on Asia, North America, and the Middle East. Institutes of Technology and private colleges, meanwhile, tend to mainly recruit in Asia.

When choosing an institution, students were most influenced by:

  • Institutional website (37%);
  • Friends (28%);
  • Family (26%);
  • Education agent (23%).

International student respondents also cited “Ireland’s location in Europe, tuition fees which are cheaper than in other English-speaking countries, and the ease of application through institutional websites” as factors that “gave Ireland advantages over other countries.”

An institution’s reputation and the availability of a certain course are the most important considerations for students choosing Ireland (92% and 91%, respectively), but nearly as important is safety. “Personal safety (89%) emerged just ahead of “the cost of study” and “research quality” (87% each) as well as “the cost of living (86%) in the top 5 reasons students choose Ireland.

High satisfaction rates but accommodation still an issue

The overwhelming majority (91%) of international students surveyed said they were satisfied with all aspects of their experiences at Irish institutions. That said, many noted in interviews that there is not enough integration of domestic and international students on campus, and that access to medical and counselling services is not adequate.

Accommodation and cost-of-living issues pose perhaps the greatest challenges for both institutions and students. The study report notes that:

  • “Just over half of international students (55.6%) were satisfied with living costs and the availability of financial supports (54.3%).
  • Less than half were satisfied with the cost of accommodation (45.4%).”

Insufficient and costly student housing is something the Irish government is well aware of. In 2017, it released a National Student Accommodation Strategy to address the issue, and it announced a goal of expanding purpose-built student accommodation by 21,000 beds by 2024 through a combination of public and private development initiatives. In announcing the strategy, the government explicitly acknowledged the important role student housing plays in a destination’s ability to attract international students:

“The availability of on-campus PBSA is an essential element of a HEI’s internationalisation strategy. HEIs have consistently reported that international students demand guaranteed accommodation for at least the first year at time of recruitment…[Further], research internationally has shown that students living in on-campus accommodation have higher retention rates than commuter students, and also exhibit higher scores on developmental scales.”

But again, on the whole international students are happy to have chosen Irish higher education. The 2016 i-graduate International Student Barometer found that Ireland is performing better than the global average in terms of student satisfaction in a number of areas, including the welcoming and supportive environment that visiting students find in the country.

The study goes on to say that “the majority of students were very happy with the social aspects of their experience which included the availability of facilities, friendships and contacts. They were also very satisfied with their day to day experiences of living in Ireland.”

Wanted: More destination marketing

Institutional staff responding to the survey noted that Ireland’s national international education strategy – Investing in Global Relationships: Ireland’s International Education Strategy 2010–2015 – plays a major role in guiding their strategies. That document stands as the first government-produced strategic plan in Europe to set targets for internationalisation.

At the same time, institutional respondents also said that they would like to see more coordination at the national level to promote Ireland as a destination. The study notes:

“While government policy has focused on the promotion of Ireland as a destination for international students, a general view emerged that Ireland was not well known in key markets and this was attributed to a lack of government investment in the promotion of Ireland. It emerged from this study that strategic effort was not coordinated sufficiently at national level to promote Ireland as a destination and there was room for much more cooperation between institutions with reference to international markets. It may be that the reliance on student fairs where much of the resources are expended to promote Ireland as a destination is one that should be reviewed.”

The study also found that while most institutions wanted to grow their international enrolments, there is a concern that increasing numbers and revenue is too much of a priority, and that there should be more resources directed toward supporting international students.

Transnational education helping to drive enrolment

Fully a third of institutions participating in the study are engaged in transnational education (i.e., delivering distance education to students in other countries). The most common activity in this area is “bilateral academic credit recognition,” where international students “undertake a substantial portion of their programmes offshore before enrolling in [Irish] institutions.”

New legislation introduced

The Internationalisation of Irish Higher Education study report is over 90 pages long and we have only highlighted some areas of the findings – the full report is well worth a read in its entirety. And in other Irish news, last week the government approved publication of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill. This will give Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) greater ability to oversee and enforce quality assurance in Irish higher and further education institutions. The bill is also meant to facilitate the long-awaited International Education Mark.

The Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor T.D., commented,

“This is an important legislative reform that will deliver on some key priorities for my Department. In particular, the Bill provides for the introduction of the International Education Mark. This is a key element of the Government’s International Education Strategy which will see the value of this sector grow by one third to €2.1 Billion over its lifetime.  Providers who meet the robust quality assurance procedures of QQI will be allowed to carry the Mark. This will send a clear signal to students about the quality of education and training they can expect to receive.”

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