Ireland has been called the Land of Saints and Scholars but it would welcome a lot more of the latter, especially if they come from abroad bearing tuition fees. At present, one in 12 of the Irish Republic's 150,000 full-time undergraduates and postgraduates comes from outside the country and the government wants to increase that percentage significantly.
It is the students from outside the European Union who are of most interest to the government, and to higher education institutions, because they pay tuition fees. EU students do not have to pay fees and they are treated in the same way as 'home' students in Ireland.
An attempt by the current Minister for Education and Science Batt O'Keeffe to introduce some kind of charge for all students foundered when the minority Green Party made the retention of 'free fees' a condition for staying in government.
Overseas students in third-level colleges are worth EUR900 million to the economy and the bigger institutions market their courses abroad to attract students. Places in the country's six medical schools are much sought after: the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, founded in 1784, attracts 1,000 overseas applications annually for places in medicine which cost EUR45,000 a year.
The universities charge somewhat less as they receive bigger state subsidies. At University College Cork, for instance, non EU students pay EUR31,000 a year for places in medicine or dentistry while other tuition fees taper down to EUR12,400 a year for law.
Attempts to develop the international market have been frustrated by the lack of a co-ordinated approach between the state and the colleges. The government had promised a single agency but the idea has become yet another victim of cutbacks.
Instead, responsibility will continue to be dispersed among different government departments and agencies. The Education Minister, however, is determined to develop the market and is introducing a "quality mark" for recognised educational institutions.
As in other countries, Ireland has its share of dodgy colleges which are little more than visa factories. Some of these have been exposed in the media from time to time. One in particular was discredited when your correspondent realised the imposing building on the college's website was, in fact, a photograph of his local hostelry.
The college in question had rented an office in the building but the relationship ended shortly after the lack of state recognition for the educational 'enterprise' was brought to the publican's attention.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters