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Ireland’s International Education Success and How it Can Go Further

Ireland has many things going for it to make a big splash in the international education market. However, it will take more than luck to maximize their potential, expand their market, and make it a top destination for international students.


Will international education benefit from the luck of the Irish? The expression “having the luck of the Irish” actually refers to Irish Americans who made a fortune in mining in the early 19th Century rather than the Irish in Ireland. However, the concept of good fortune might very well apply to international education in Ireland if higher education institutions (HEIs) make the right moves.

A few facts about Ireland

Just to be clear, Ireland in this article refers to the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign nation, as opposed to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That can be confusing to many people, because Ireland and Northern Ireland is one island, with the Partition of Ireland officially identifying the 26 counties of Ireland and the six northeastern counties of Northern Ireland. 

The partition might be invisible, but Ireland is distinct from Northern Ireland in many respects. The population of Ireland is mostly Catholic, while the population in Northern Ireland is mostly Protestant. Ireland is also still part of the European Union, while Northern Ireland is not as it is part of the UK, which officially left the EU in 2020.

Ireland is a relatively small country (70,273 square kilometers, or slightly larger than the state of West Virginia in the USA) with a population of about five million, which is probably why the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked Ireland as the 6th richest country in the world in terms of per capita GDP in 2019. Ireland has also taken a hit during the pandemic, but Statista projects the nation’s GDP will grow by 4.94%. 

Ireland reportedly has one of the best educational systems in the world. However, of more importance in terms of international education is whether Ireland is going to prove to be a lucky choice for international students.

First, historical perspectives

Many countries have long recognized the benefits of a robust international student population in HEIs, and Ireland is certainly one of them. According to its latest policy report on its international education strategy, Ireland implemented successful strategies as far back as 2010 to increase its share of the international education market. 

Undergraduate programs

The report shows that the results of implementing “Investing in Global Relationships Ireland’s International Education Strategy, 2010-2015” were encouraging. Public and private HEIs in 2010/2011 reported 20,995 international students (11,604 non-EU), and this increased by 58% to 33,118 in 2014/2015 (21,440 non-EU).


It is important to note the 68% jump in non-EU international students because this indicates success in one of the strategic actions for 2010-2015, namely, “Ireland’s higher education institutions will be globally competitive and internationally oriented.” Ireland is part of the EU, so EU students had a natural advantage over non-EU students in going to Ireland for higher education because of Erasmus, yet the number of non-EU students is still greater than that of EU students.

Number of EU and non-EU Students in Higher Education

Figure 1: Number of EU and non-EU Students in Higher Education

Source: Education.ie

According to UNESCO, Ireland played host to 22,283 students coming from at least 115 countries in 2018. The rise is not as impressive as the period between 2010 and 2015, but the number is holding steady, as well as the mix. Of the top 10 sending countries, only two were from the EU.

Source: UNESCO

English Language Training

The focus for international education is often on undergraduate studies, but the English Language Training (ELT) sector is also an important consideration. According to Statista, Ireland has the fourth-largest contingent of international students studying English as a foreign language in the world in 2019, beating out the US.

Number Of Students learning English

Source: Statista

Looking at the 2014-15 figures, the number of ELT students was around 106,000, a 10% increase on 2010 figures. There is also a 29% growth in student weeks between 2010 and 2014, indicating that students stayed longer (and spent more) in Ireland in 2014.


This seems to indicate an overall impression that Ireland was a good place for the international education market during that period. 

Economic impact

International students were certainly good for Ireland. They added €188m (94% from non-EU students) to the income of universities and Institutes of Technology (IoT) funded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in 2014/15. Private HEIs took in about €29m for the same period. Of significant economic impact, however, were non-tuition expenditures such as board, lodging, transportation, visa fees, and so on. For 2014/15, this was approximately €182m.

It would also be helpful to look at the impact of international education on the Ireland system as a whole. The policy report breaks this down into direct, indirect, and induced impacts, and totals around €1.58 billion.

Effect of ELT and HEI

Figure 3: Value of Direct, Indirect, and Induced Impacts of ELT and HEIs

Source: Education.ie 

All this explains the aggressive growth targets of 33% described in the policy report for the HE sector and 25% in the ELT sector by 2019/20. Based on the latest figures from various sources in 2018 and 2019, it seemed that Ireland was on track with its goals.

Second, the current status

Ireland suffered a setback in its promising rise in the international education market with the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in the country. In May 2020, the number of daily new cases in Ireland was almost zero and just over 1,000 active cases, which gave rise to the hope that schools could open later in the year.

However, the number of active cases began to rise sharply in August 2020, with the number of daily new cases peaking on January 8, 2021, at 8,227.  The numbers have dropped considerably since then to 928 new cases a day on January 26, but there are still more than 160,000 active cases. It is no wonder that the government requested ELT schools to halt their recruitment efforts for international students in September 2020. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin confirmed as of late January 2021 that schools, in general, would not be opening as expected in the following weeks as part of tougher restrictions.

Daily New Cases in Ireland

Source: Worldometers

Third, the COVID response and moving forward

The first thing that most international students coming in want to know is if it is safe to do so or if they can even get in during the era of COVID-19. Ireland, like so many countries, hoped to stop the spread by closing down schools. As shown above, this did not work out quite as planned. 

That said, international students currently enrolled in higher education institutions (HEIs) could take comfort in the fact that the government in Ireland has been proactive in ensuring the safety and well-being of all their students during the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis by the Australian government revealed that Ireland extended eligibility for the Pandemic Unemployment Pay to international students, enacted measures to protect tenants from eviction, and extended the number of hours they could work per week. 

Also, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris announced the formation of a working group led by the Union of Students in Ireland to identify, refine, and implement enhancement strategies for the engagement and wellbeing of students in HEIs. Most HEI students are currently in a remote environment that presents academic and social challenges to learners. 

The Education in Ireland site provides a wealth of information for prospective students considering Ireland for the 2020/21 academic year. There are nine universities, three colleges, 11 IoTs, and seven private HEIs in Ireland and they are actively accepting applications for September 2021, although the availability of face-to-face interaction is uncertain. Workarounds include flexible start dates and remote learning should health concerns continue to be a consideration at the beginning of the school year. 

However, HEIs in Ireland face intense competition internally for both local and international students because there are relatively many of them eyeing a small pie. Expanding their reach beyond their borders and the EU by putting boots on the ground in other markets can quickly make a difference on the size of that pie, so there will be more for everyone to go around. 

Finally, some insights

Our survey shows that many recruitment agents working in the international education sector share Ireland’s optimism of better things to come in 2021. However, it also shows three major concerns: student entry restrictions due to COVID-19, financial difficulties due to unemployment, and the move to online learning.


Ireland ticks all these boxes, as do a majority of host countries, yet perhaps Ireland has the advantage in terms of size. A small country with a small population often has greater flexibility when it comes to responding to crises. For example, while stricter measures are in force for incoming travelers until at least March 5, 2021, the government consistently exempts international students wishing to apply for a visa, even for short-stay or “C” visas. 


Ireland also responded quickly to potential financial factors that would discourage international students by opening up its Pandemic Unemployment Pay program to them and increasing the allowable number of work hours per week during the pandemic. Add to that the working group formed to address student difficulties with a remote learning environment and you have a very promising picture forming for “the Free State” in terms of international education.


It is also notable that Ireland has a history of taking aggressive measures to grow its economy, and increasing the value of its international education sector to €2.1bn is certainly part of that. While COVID-19 might have caused a pause in this goal, it is almost certain that Ireland will find a way around it. 


Ireland is truly a promising international education destination. However, there is a big difference between potential and results. Ireland has everything going for it, yet it is not a top destination for international students.  


Higher education institutions need to be more ambitious and create partnerships with established marketing and recruitment companies with global reach. They need to take action now while top destinations such as the UK and US are scrambling to restore confidence in their COVID-19 response and enact policies to ease visa restrictions and once again appeal to the international education market. 


So, will international education benefit from the “luck of the Irish”? As with most things in 2020-2021, it depends. Widespread vaccination and favorable terms of entry will certainly be a good place to start, especially if HEIs continue to make it an attractive destination for international students. 


It is also important to increase exposure to the global market, as Ireland is not yet as popular as it should be in terms of international education. However, with its history as a tenacious and agile player in the field, HEIs that increase their exposure abroad will likely be the biggest winners sooner rather than later. (SUNEETHA QURESHI)


#PartnerForLife #InternationalEducation #InternationalStudents #MSM

Suneetha has more than 10 years of experience in the international education sector. As the Vice President of MSM Global, she leads MSM’s extensive back-of-the-house operations, including MSM’s human resources, financial management, information technology, and marketing, communications, and social media activities. 


She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.  


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments. 

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Data Sources:

Apply for a visa. (n.d.). Retrieved January 27, 2021, from http://www.inis.gov.ie/en/inis/pages/apply+for+a+visa

Brexit: What you need to know about the UK leaving the EU. (2020, December 30). Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887

Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. (2021, January 14). Minister Harris confirms new group to examine student wellbeing and engagement. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/d018b-minister-harris-confirms-new-group-to-examine-student-wellbeing-and-engagement/

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Loughlin, E., & Hosford, P. (2021, January 25). Level 5 lockdown to remain until March 5 with stricter Covid rules for international travel . Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40214057.html

Millar, R., & Schneiders, B. (2020, April 29). Australia gets poor score on international students. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.theage.com.au/national/australia-gets-poor-score-on-international-students-20200428-p54nur.html

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O’Brien, C. (2019, September 10). Young people in Ireland among world’s most educated. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/young-people-in-ireland-among-world-s-most-educated-1.4013671

Plecher, H., & 9, D. (2020, December 09). Ireland – Gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate 2025. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/375215/gross-domestic-product-gdp-growth-rate-in-ireland/

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