New targets set to expand internationalisation of HE

The Irish government has unveiled a new strategy on international education designed to help the country become “internationally recognised for the development of global citizens through our internationalised education system and a market leader in attracting international student talent”.

The strategy sets out targets for increasing the number of international students and researchers coming to Irish institutions and increasing outward mobility for Irish students and academics and researchers, with the aim of “connecting the benefits of internationalisation with enterprises in support of national economic ambitions and building world-class networks of learning and innovation”.

Richard Bruton TD, the minister for education and skills, said: “This strategy aims to support the development of global citizens through Ireland’s high-quality international education system, by attracting talent from around the world to our education institutions, equipping Irish learners with the skills and experience they need to compete internationally, engaging in world-class research and international collaborations, and addressing global challenges.”

The strategy’s targets include raising the number of international students by 33%, from 33,118 in 2014-15 to around 44,000 by the end of 2019-20, and with it raising the value to higher education from €819 million (US$910 million) to €1.15 billion (US$1.3 billion) over the same period.

It also sets an objective of 25% growth in the English Language Training sector, raising the number of English Language Training students from 106,000 to 132,500 in the same period, and raising its output value from €762 million to €960 million.

Bruton said the international education sector is currently worth around €1.58 billion per annum to the Irish economy and he has a target of raising this to €2.1 billion per annum by 2020.

“I believe that, with the additional supports being put in place as a result of this strategy, this figure is achievable,” he said.

The new strategy, Irish Educated, Globally Connected: An international education strategy for Ireland, 2016-2020, aims to create:
  • • A supportive national framework,
  • • Internationally-oriented, globally competitive higher education institutions,
  • • Sustainable growth in the English Language Training sector,
  • • Success in overseas markets.
The supporting framework will include reforming and enhancing the regulatory environment for international education providers and students. Where needed, legislation will be brought forward on immigration, visa regulation and inspection – work is already underway on finding ways to streamline the immigration registration process for students. Action will link to the National Skills Strategy 2025, the Trade, Tourism and Investment Strategy, and labour market strategies.

The strategy recognises higher education institutions as the primary drivers of internationalisation and will stress maintaining quality and building long-term engagement of students with international partners. The strategy talks of the great potential for transnational education – but is vague on how it will be expanded – and greater internationalisation of the curriculum, underpinned by principles of equality and diversity.

As an English-speaking country, Ireland has a competitive advantage and has been able to perform well in the English Language Training or ELT sector in recent years. It will now seek to further develop specialised programme opportunities particularly for academic or specific business purposes, and specific products featuring opportunities for internships and pathways to higher education teacher training.

Research has indicated that the inclusion of ELT in the broader international education package will improve the ability of agencies to sell Ireland as a destination for international students. It proposes to include the promotion and marketing of the adult non-EU ELT sector in the “Education in Ireland” brand once “appropriate improvements to the regulatory system” are in place.

Education in Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, particularly through its network of embassies, will play a key role in attracting business in the international education market. The Irish Aid programme will continue to be used to help build sustainable partnerships with partner countries.

Ireland – which has a large diaspora both for historical reasons such as the mass exodus after the famine in the 1840s and the tendency in modern times, apart from the boom years before European Enlargement, for graduates to migrate to find skilled work – hopes to build on its alumni and diaspora links to help grow international education.

Bruton said Ireland’s commitment to education has ensured it is home to nine of the top 10 ICT – information and communications technology – companies, eight of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical and life science companies, and half of the world’s major financial services companies.

“Not only does internationalisation of education bring direct financial benefits, but it also creates links and relationships between Ireland and many partners at individual, institutional and country level that will bring further engagement and economic activity in the future,” he said.

“Today’s international students are tomorrow’s leaders, entrepreneurs and investors. By bringing them to Ireland to study, we have the opportunity to influence their future choices by demonstrating that Ireland can be a great place in which to invest and do business.”

The new targets build on strong growth in international student numbers between 2010-11 and 2014-15, from 20,995 up 58% to 33,118 in public and private higher education institutions. The rise was driven mainly by increases in non-EU student numbers, which rose by 85% from 11,604 to 21,440, compared to a 25% increase in EU student numbers. The increase at undergraduate level was 68%, compared to 32% among postgraduate students.

In the same period the number of students in high-quality English Language Training organisations grew by 10% to 106,000 and there was a 29% growth in student weeks, suggesting that more students were staying in the country for longer periods.

Outward mobility

In the other direction, Ireland is seeking to have more Irish students integrate overseas experience into their study by maximizing mobility options for all.

Opportunities for the mobility of students, researchers and staff of higher education institutions is also a crucial element of a modern, globally-focused internationalisation strategy, at national and institutional level, the strategy report says. Mobility brings significant opportunity and benefits for both the higher education sector as a whole and for individual institutions.

“While there has been an increase in outward mobility, more needs to be done to highlight the importance of increasing Irish attendance at world-leading institutions abroad as part of a move towards increasing two-way flows of staff, students and researchers,” the report says.

Universities will actively encourage staff mobility to programme and partner countries under the Erasmus+ and bilateral programmes as a key mechanism for the professional development of teaching, technical, management and administrative personnel and for the internationalisation of curricula.

“The outbound mobility of students and staff, and the intercultural experience which this provides, is essential to the internationalisation of higher education” the strategy report says, with Erasmus+ providing a strong mechanism for increasing outbound mobility.

“The European Commission’s target of ensuring that at least 20% of those who graduate in 2020 undertake a study or training period abroad remains valid. We will aim to be ahead of the European average by 2020.”

Transnational programmes

In addition to the off-shore campuses of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and University College Dublin, Irish universities offer a host of programmes in partnership with providers overseas, and the British Council has identified Ireland as one of the ‘top 10 partner countries for cooperative education institutions in China'.

The target is to increase the number of students registered on Irish programmes on campuses overseas from 2,268 in 2014-15 to 4,500 by 2020. This, however, is the same target as in the previous strategy, for 2010-15, which suggests Ireland is struggling to expand in this sector.

The strategy report underlines the need to adopt an ethical approach to expanding internationalisation, particularly transnational provision, which rules out using standardised generic content that is easily transferrable across borders in favour of programmes that are responsive to local, regional and national needs.

Brexit dilemma

Brexit, the United Kingdom referendum decision to leave the European Union, has created a dilemma for Ireland which is keen to maintain its “special relationship and partnership” with the UK.

Membership of the EU provided an enabling context in which the peace process in Northern Ireland was pursued and the Irish government is committed to maintaining and protecting the current relationship between the two countries as much as possible – including via collaboration between higher education institutions in Ireland and the UK and through North-South educational co-operation, particularly in research and innovation.

The latter has been supported by EU funding and national research programmes in Ireland.

“There is increasing recognition of the potential for promoting a whole-of-island approach through joint measures intended to deliver mutually-beneficial outcomes and this should be explored further in the coming years,” the strategy report says.