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'A slightly lesser place': Challenges ahead for universities as international student numbers fall by up to 50%

A less diverse campus and a devastating impact on university income lies ahead due to a drop in international students.

Image: Shutterstock/Matt Zulawski

UNIVERSITIES ACROSS THE country are facing significant financial losses this year as the lucrative revenue stream from international students is decimated due to the drop off in students travelling to Ireland from abroad to study.

Many universities, including Trinity College Dublin, Maynooth University and NUI Galway will begin the new term on Monday, while others such as Dublin City University will commence classes – mostly virtually – from 5 October. 

Earlier this summer, colleges began to see a drop in interest from international students by around 10%, a consequence of the global Covid-19 pandemic, but now with the new term about to get underway, that drop-off has risen to 50% in some institutions. 

NUI Galway last year attracted more than 3,000 students to its campus through study abroad and Erasmus programmes. This year, however, the number of students arriving on those programmes is in the region of 1,500. 

“The best guess [this year] based on experience is probably around 1,500. Initially, we were modelling on a decrease of about 80% so actually getting to 50% is quite reassuring compared to where we thought we might be,” Becky Whay, VP at NUIG’s International Office explained. 

“We get students in a normal year from over 100 different countries. Our biggest markets are India, China and the US, and China seems to be be working fairly normal.

“The majority of our US students come to either do a semester or a year as a study abroad year so in a normal year we’d have about 500 students from the US joining us and this year that has largely imploded. 

“If you think about it for all the reasons why international students are so important to us, and it is way beyond financial imperatives, it’s all about the diversity and the intercultural opportunities they create, and richness they bring to our classrooms because of all those perspectives and experiences.”

But while a diverse and inclusive campus brings benefits to the classroom and to the college life of the entire institutions’ student population, there is a significant investment on the part of universities to attract international students due to the fee income it generates. 

Irish students pay college fees of €3,000 per year, and many escape paying that fee through the SUSI grant offering. International students at NUIG pay between €10,000 and €30,000 per year depending on the course they take.

DCU 777 DCU has cancelled all outbound international travel for Irish students this year. Source: Sam Boal

Elsewhere at Dublin City University, course fees are in the region of €15,000 per annum but like NUIG this year the college is facing a drop-off in numbers upwards of 35% to 40%. 

“What we anticipated at the beginning of the pandemic is that numbers would be decimated and what we’re seeing is the numbers this year compared to last year are in the region of 60% to 65%,” Paul Smith, Director of the International Office at DCU said. 

“So they are coming either online, coming in semester two, or taking a hybrid on campus but that’s about 60% of the previous year’s numbers.

“It is absolutely a significant drop-off but I suppose when we were trying to scenario plan at the beginning of the process we weren’t sure if it was going to be 10%, 50% or 100% so in terms of the expectation around this year, it’s not as bad as we thought it would be.

“Obviously it does cause difficulty both in terms of the student experience and also from a finance perspective.”

In July, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris announced a €168 million package to support colleges reopening this year but much of that’s been earmarked for new devices, technology and for student mental health supports. 

Colleges will now have to look elsewhere to make up for lost revenue but Smith said fees have not increased for international students who are attending this year as to do so would be “penalising the students” who also have challenges to face.

Delays in securing visas, issues securing flights within restricted flight schedules, and quarantine measures have all added to the pressure of getting to Ireland for the new academic year. 

“It certainly has been a challenge, and we’re seeing a number of students requesting a late start where they study online for two weeks before coming on campus,” he said.

“And the additional Government requirement for self-isolation has also added to that because many students would have already booked flights to arrive at the start of semester. And then they didn’t know if they would be able to get flights or not.”

Diversity 

The revenue generated through course fees is but one way in which international students contribute to third-level education in Ireland. They also bring a wealth of knowledge and cultural experience with them when they arrive. 

shutterstock_656713282 NUIG has seen a drop of 50% in international student numbers this year. Source: Shutterstock/STLJB

“There are many good things that come with international students and there will be fewer of them this year so you have to look at it both that the university would be a slightly lesser place for the want of them but there’s not a lot we can do about that, obviously,” NUIG’s Becky Whay said. 

“We can think of making as many intercultural opportunities as we can with the students we have here but also, it’s important that the students we do have don’t feel like a minority or underrepresented because there is a smaller body of students in terms of numbers. We’re very conscious of that.”

Juliette Hussey, VP of Global Relations at Trinity College Dublin, echoed similar sentiments about accommodating international students but said universities have been working tirelessly to support them. 

“It will undoubtedly be different but all the clubs and societies are working in terms of planning what they can do in their environments.

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“We’re doing what all the universities are doing in terms of ensuring students have all the information and appropriate supports,” she said. 

“That’s been an enormous amount of work over the last couple of weeks.”

The Irish abroad

Trinity College Dublin also exports a cohort of Irish students every year on exchange programmes including the study abroad programme and the Erasmus programme. 

And while the university was not able to indicate the current year’s figures in terms of international students from abroad, it pointed to the impact Covid-19 has had on Irish students who might have otherwise intended to travel abroad. 

“We have a number of students, particularly undergraduate, who would go on Erasmus or universities outside Europe. In terms of the European side of things, we do have a large number of students going out and coming in [but] less than the normal,” Hussey said.

“But on the other side, outside Europe, the numbers are very, very small and a number of our partners have cancelled the first semester. Very small numbers are moving outside of Europe but in Europe, there’s a sizeable portion.”

Hussey added that Trinity students will have the option to defer their year abroad and where courses require an international component, students will still have the option to continue studying at Trinity for the coming year and still secure their qualification. 

But at Dublin City University, all exchange programmes have been postponed this year, a move that some students embraced while others felt disappointment. 

According to Smith: “Each of the institutions has taken a different approach and within DCU the decision was taken to cancel outbound mobility for this year. Instead, they are allowing any student who was due to travel or has a component that required them to go abroad will have it moved to their fourth year.

“So they can go next year instead and be accommodated if they wish to do it then. We’re trying to be as flexible as we can to ensure they can build in that mobility piece but it will not be this year.

“Some [students] had very much built up excitement and expectation about their mobility, others were very relived there was clarity, that they could plan.”

In what will undoubtedly be a year which is very different for all, Smith said: “As with most things in the current scenario, each individual student reacts in a particular way and what we’re trying to do is provide supports so they can navigate this as best they can.”

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