Internationalisation ambitions and funding realities

It’s been a busy few weeks in Irish politics, as is invariably the case leading up to the announcement of the national budget. There has been a flurry of activity in the form of action plans and strategies from the Irish Government’s Department of Education and Skills under the leadership of Minister Richard Bruton.

At one recent launch, the minister was jocularly referred to as the “Minister for Action Plans”, such is the raft of new policy and strategy he has overseen in different departments in recent years.

This is an administration not short on ambition as the Irish economy appears to have put more difficult days in recent memory behind it. There is much to be done, however, to redress some of the imbalances that austerity has wrought on the country and on the education and training sector in particular.

Best in Europe

In mid-September, Minister Bruton launched the first Action Plan for Education with the stated aim of making the Irish education and training service the best in Europe by 2026. The most recently unveiled tranche of this assertive action plan is Irish Educated, Globally Connected: An international education strategy for Ireland, 2016-2020 which forms the latest iteration of the country’s ambitions and actions to internationalise its higher education provision.

In the minister’s foreword, the plan is introduced as “a key element of Ireland’s growth strategy for the next five years” and indeed the thrust of the report focuses on what could be considered targets more in line with economic development policy.

These include increasing the number of international higher education and English Language Training students in Ireland by 37,000 to 176,000 and bringing the value of the international education sector to the Irish economy as a whole from €1.58 billion (US$1.74 billion) to €2.1 billion (US$2.3 billion).

To support the achievement of these targets by 2020, four priority areas have been identified:
  • • A supportive national framework;
  • • Internationally-oriented, globally competitive higher education institutions;
  • • Sustainable growth in the English Language Training sector;
  • • Success in overseas markets.
These priorities draw on and are broadly in line with those proposed for higher education institutions’ and member states’ comprehensive internationalisation strategies in the European Commission’s 2013 report European Higher Education in the World.

Advancing a supportive national framework advocates for a 'whole of government' approach to furthering international education policy, ensuring quality, and protecting the rights of international students. As foreign direct investment has been so important to Ireland’s economy, the report asserts: “Highly skilled international students can contribute to Ireland’s talent pool in areas of high skills and specific language demands.”

This will ensure that international students retain their access to the Irish labour market during and after their studies, which constitutes a significant and positive differentiation from recent policy in the United Kingdom.

Becoming internationally-oriented, globally competitive higher education institutions calls on Irish institutions to develop their own comprehensive internationalisation strategies in line with their unique propositions and within government policy and strategy.

The plan pointedly warns that higher education institutions’ internationalisation initiatives “must take into consideration the realities around funding challenges, student accommodation issues and the projected growth in Irish student participation in higher education in coming years”. This is something the higher education institutions would like the government to take into consideration also.

The focus on sustainable growth in the English Language Training, or ELT, sector is a long overdue recognition that, for many international students, the ELT sector is a route of entry to higher education and an integrated approach to marketing overseas strengthens Ireland’s proposition. Many of the most internationalised Irish higher education institutions have already been taking this approach to marketing their institutions for some time.

Succeeding abroad requires Ireland to coordinate its diplomatic service, state agencies, higher education institutions and representatives more cohesively across a far wider geography than just a few priority markets. The omission of any reference to ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – is worrying however. The ASEAN Community is projected to be the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050.

With a significant diaspora worldwide and decades of international students to draw on, engagement of Ireland’s higher education alumni network can deliver significant value for the internationalisation mission. There is no clear proposal to be found in the plan on how to implement this.

There are renewed calls for clarity and concerted action on funding from Ireland’s higher education sector which, according to the CEO of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, has since 2008 experienced a “managed decline”. Within that period there has been a 25% increase in student numbers yet a 38% reduction in state funding.

In Quality in an Era of Diminishing Resources: Irish higher education 2008-15, published in March 2016, the state body Quality and Qualifications Ireland, or QQI, reported on “the impact of reduced resources on the learning and teaching environment” and “negative consequences of these environments on current students”, but also on “the ability of institutions to continue to attract students, particularly international students who bring with them important additional income”, and that this represented “a tipping point where continued cuts/reductions may have serious and irretrievable implications for their future sustainability”.

On a positive note, the QQI report acknowledged the “continued commitment of staff to rationalise, innovate and minimise the impact of reduced resources on students”.

International fees

Fees from international students have become increasingly important for Irish universities as state funding has decreased. This is seen as unsustainable by the sector and universities aren’t willing to view the recruitment of international students as merely a cash cow.

Following the publication of Investing in National Ambition: A strategy for funding higher education, a process of consultation has begun to choose the best option for the state. The need for the government to establish cross-party consensus on the outcome is viewed as a factor in delaying a decision.

At the recent launch of the government’s Action Plan for Education it was announced that a new model for higher education funding will be decided upon and implemented by the second quarter of 2017.

By then Ireland will have a better sense of the effects of the UK’s looming extrication from the European Union. For some the acknowledged difficulty represents an opportunity for higher education and research in Ireland. In order to capitalise fully on that potential opportunity it will be imperative that the higher education sector is properly resourced.

Hard on the heels of the launch of the International Strategy Development Plan came the 2017 Budget. It was hoped that following the recent policy and strategy announcements the sector would receive an injection of funding. Out of a total education budget of €458 million the allocation to higher education was €36.5 million, less than 8% of the total. That’s the kind of money that will only allow the sector to tread water.

Minister Bruton has responded to criticism that the level of funding does not equal his ambitions for the sector by stating that a further €17 million will be added in 2018 and again in 2019 alongside a new funding model to be implemented.

Given the projected value of between €1.58 billion and €2.1 billion to be delivered by universities’ international students to the Irish economy over the same period, one can't help but detect some cognitive dissonance in this level of funding. This does not even take into consideration the immense intangible value that universities bring to Ireland by attracting international students.

Ireland has considerable potential to be an innovative, best practice destination for international education and now is the time for government policy, strategy and funding to deliver on that promise. One hopes that Ireland’s ambitious international education vision and the support it requires will have 2020 foresight rather than needing the benefit of hindsight in 2020.

Darren McDermott is managing consultant at EURASEAN Consulting and based in Singapore.