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Universities face huge losses as thousands of international students delay accepting course offers

Some universities are offering online only study options but others will require the students to move to Ireland for their course.

Many lecture halls will remain empty when the new academic year begins later this year.
Many lecture halls will remain empty when the new academic year begins later this year.
Image: Shutterstock/Pixelci

THOUSANDS OF INTERNATIONAL students arrive on Irish shores every September to begin undergraduate and postgraduate studies at colleges and universities across the country. 

University College Dublin alone welcomes around 6,000 new and returning international students to its campus each year, and between 20% and 30% of the student population in other institutes including Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University are made up of international students.  

The benefits are two-fold: a more diverse student population and a lucrative revenue stream for universities who charge non-EU students large fees – up to €50,000 for those applying for medicine – to enrol in their courses.

Courses such as business and finance programmes can command student fees in the region of €10,000 to €20,000 – significantly higher than the €3,000 fees which apply for Irish students. 

But recruitment of international students for the upcoming academic year has been crushed by the spread of Covid-19, not least because courses have moved online, but also public health concerns that students risk bringing the virus with them from other countries. 

In a typical year, the deadline for students to either accept or defer their offers would be just weeks away, and the majority of students would have paid a deposit confirming their intent to take up a place on a course – this year, much of those students have yet to do so.

“At the moment it’s still very unclear,” said Paul Smith, Director of DCU’s International Office. “If you look at it from a pipeline perspective, we normally have around 2,000 – 2,500 applications for postgraduate courses but obviously the conversion, or people who actually come, is much smaller. At this point, we’re about 10% down on applications… but we’re not clear yet on the intent students have on how to progress.”

shutterstock_1368270218 DCU will offer international students the option to remain in their home country and enrol in courses online. Source: Shutterstock/Derick Hudson

Students need to meet certain academic criteria to be offered a place on a course before they can then apply for a visa. But with Irish visa offices abroad closed until 22 June as a result of the pandemic, and uncertainty around whether they will be approved for a visa, students are reluctant to accept their place. 

“There has been a delay in India for processing because of the spike in Delhi and that is one of our key markets and again, the longer it takes for them to open, the tighter the turnaround time for students who are expected to take up their place on programmes,” said Smith.

DCU has moved to offer prospective students a choice to take the entire first semester online from their home country, eliminating the costs and red tape associated with travelling to Ireland ahead of its academic year beginning on 5 October. 

Others, however, will be providing a dual-learning structure in which their international students will take some modules of their courses online but will also be required to attend smaller classes and lab practicals on campus.

“For very large lectures, they’ll be delivered online,” Juliette Hussey, Vice President for Global Relations at Trinity College Dublin explained. 

“And then the tutorials, the small-group teaching, the laboratory teaching would be done as much as possible face-to-face within social distancing… the majority of programmes will be a hybrid of online and face-to-face.”

Public Health

Universities have ramped up their recruitment campaigns online, each of them hosting dozens of webinars in a bid to secure as many deposits as possible. But with the pandemic spreading at different speeds around the world the success rate has slackened.

Meanwhile, Ireland has been lauded for its approach to tackling Covid-19, with the R0 rate below 1.0 for several weeks now. Indeed, the latest political polling saw a surge in support for Fine Gael and its leader Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as a result. 

With students potentially arriving from countries like India, which on Thursday saw a record 12,881 new cases in 24 hours, colleges will also need to ramp up their efforts to protect both students coming from abroad as well as the domestic student population.

“In all of our communications with them, we’re working through giving them the information in terms of when they arrive, that they need to have enough for the 14 days, to prebook a meal delivery service and packages to get within their room,” Hussey said ahead of Trinity’s academic year starting on 28 September. 

shutterstock_600696146 Trinity College will run hybrid course involving online learning as well as on-campus practical classes. Source: Shutterstock/Marc Lechanteur

“If they’re taking Trinity accommodation it will be within Trinity, they’ll arrive earlier so that they have the two weeks and supports will be in place. Some of them may select their own accommodation and we’ll be informing them once they arrive that they need to give their details for isolation for the 14 days to authorities at the airport.

“We’re working through that now because if you imagine somebody arriving at arrivals at the airport, we’re looking at how we support them from that moment right the way through – through the entire year but particularly through those early days.”

DCU’s Paul Smith said many students have pre-empted the possibility that public health advice may be different in Ireland than that given in their own country. 

“I think what we’re very aware of is that the information provided by the university to the student provides one element of context to the students. They’re all so very active on social media so what we’ve seen is the students already here this year and who experienced the closing down of the semester… are feeding back to the next cohort in what they can experience. 

“They haven’t raised concerns about public health in Ireland, I think at this stage what they’re more concerned about is what it means in their own country and whether they will be able to travel.”

“A lot of it will be led by the public health discussion and a lot of it will be around quarantine, what that means, and how the university can support that,” he added. 

However, concerns have been voiced from international students that arriving in Ireland for an additional two-week quarantine period before they begin their course, coupled with tight turnaround times in accepting their offer, arranging their finances, and then securing a visa, could make studying in Ireland less feasible this year.  

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Financial burden

And while universities insist they will have the safety of their students, both foreign and domestic, at the core of their planning for the academic year, there is a financial burden borne out of the health crisis that only increases the pressure to ensure as many students as possible are recruited from foreign countries.

“There will be a significant financial impact,” Smith said. “The offers [being made] and the accepts are higher but what has dropped significantly is the people who are paying deposits and who are paying fees.

“At this point in time we would expect that the vast majority of people who are coming to university to have paid a minimum of 50% of their fees in order to apply for visas.

“As the visa offices are not open, we haven’t seen any of that yet and that is the real indicator as to whether somebody is intending to come, when they make that financial commitment, and that piece has not happened yet.”

The university, however, will refund deposits in the event that a student can’t secure a visa in time.

Juliette Hussey from TCD raised concerns about the financial impact of a drop-off in international students in the upcoming year. 

“It would have to be the finance office who can look at different scenarios and the impact, but without a doubt universities will see a decrease in fee income in the coming year… There’s a group looking at the financial implications over the coming year so that’s very closely monitored.”

As with many sectors, third-level universities in Ireland will be turning to the Government for supports as the look and feel of third-level education is renegotiated to accommodate Covid-19 in the coming months. 

Department of Education

The Department of Education confirmed to TheJournal.ie that it has received a detailed breakdown of the financial impact of Covid-19 on each third-level institute in Ireland from the Higher Education Authority. 

“Future decision-making on the reprioritisation of existing funding or the provision of additional funding to the higher education system will be made on the basis of the Department’s assessment of this analysis” a spokesperson said. 

In relation to international students and public health advice, the spokesperson said “[it] is considering the question of international travel on an ongoing basis in conjunction with all relevant health and safety guidance and international developments and experience”.

“The EU considers that international students from outside the EU should be permitted to enter the EU for study purposes. There is no plan to treat international students differently from any other person coming to Ireland from outside the EU in terms of the quarantine requirements at this time.”

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