Irish higher education sector too dependent on international fees

15 June 2020 5 min. read
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Senior academics in Ireland feel their institutions would be in stronger financial positions if the Government would work harder to facilitate the recruitment of lucrative international students. However, a majority are also wary of becoming too dependent on international students for income – a problem which has been brutally exposed by the travel limitations brought in to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

A survey, commissioned by education consultants BH Associates, has found that poor policy support, a failure to attract world-class academics and an unhelpful policy on immigration are inhibiting the Irish education system. A poll of more than 340 senior staff in higher education institutions and agencies was executed by research firm Prospectus showed that 57% are of the view that reform of institutional academic and administration structures is essential in enabling the higher education system to achieve world leading status.

Like the UK, the Irish higher education system is partially marketised – meaning it is increasingly dependent on tuition fees for funding. However, Ireland’s Government continues to strictly regulate how and when universities can recruit – something many university leaders feel is compromising the financial performance of their institutions. At the same time, they feel that Government restrictions mean they are unable to rectify governance and management systems they have in place, which are unequal to the challenges facing higher education.

Immigration practice provides enough support for higher education to attract international students

One of the ways many universities think they could boost funds is by ramping up international recruitment. To that end, 51% said they believe that national immigration practice does not provide enough support for higher education to attract international students – compared to a much smaller 20% who say it does. However, many more respondents told Prospectus that they were wary of becoming overly dependent on their international intake.

A large majority of 68% agreed that there is a high risk for Irish institutions that seek to maximise their income by recruiting a large number of students internationally (compared to just 11% who see no such risk). While international student recruitment is regularly pointed to as the reason why universities have weathered the public funding crisis resulting from the last financial crisis, such dependence has risks as it is subject to the policies and practices of other countries over which Ireland has no control.

Illustrating this, Ireland's seven universities are currently facing a major funding crisis due to the decimation of revenue streams caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions. According to documents reported on by RTÉ, factors such as 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. The Irish Universities Association predicts that the loss in fee income from international students alone will be €181 million.

There is a risk for institutions that seek to maximise their income by recruiting international studentsSimilarly, on the other side of the Irish Sea, the marketised system of higher education has places a huge number of universities under major financial stress amid the Covid-19 lock-down. Mass redundancies and attacks on staff pay and conditions are being planned by universities across England and Wales, as the Covid-19 pandemic tips already struggling institutions into financial collapse. According to research conducted by policy consultant London Economics for the University and College Union (UCU), universities could see a funding shortfall of £2.5 billion in the next academic year.

According to the study, the lion’s share of this drop will come from a massive reduction in the number of international students – who pay inflated tuition fees in the UK – arriving in the system. An estimated 47% drop in international student numbers will cost the university sector £1.5 billion – and coupled with a fall in domestic intake, this could jeopardise 60,000 jobs across the UK.

UCU anticipates that while half of these jobs may be lost in the university sector itself, 30,000 jobs could also be wiped out in local communities where universities run important outreach schemes – something posing a major problem to the wider UK economy.

Having enjoyed a boom in funding thanks to the marketisation of higher education, universities across England and Wales had already found themselves in a precarious position. Having eroded the traditional relationships of collaborative spaces in favour of a consumer-provider contract, they were exposed to new demands of a consumer market, and were subsequently expected to provide more services as value for money – while demand looked set to plateau thanks to huge student debt and socio-political frictions.