Last week, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen launched an ambitious new plan to establish Ireland as a hub of international education. With the aim of expanding international students in higher education by 50% and in English language schools by 25% over the next five years, the industry would contribute some 1.2 billion euro to the economy by 2015. Ten separate strategic aims are set out in the plan to achieve in the Taoiseach’s words, a reputation as “a world-leading provider of international education.”
A key feature of the strategy is the overhaul of immigration laws in order to facilitate ease of access for international students. Fresh accountability initiatives in publishing visa waiting times, and a commitment to staff mobility in tackling problem waiting areas are designed to ensure a fast-track access process for students. Greater rights for international students’ families such as attending state-funded schools have been integrated into the plan as well as the right for students to remain in Ireland for up to a year after completing their degree in order to gain work experience. (Read NAFSA’s recommendations for immigration and visa policy reform in the United States).
These legal reforms are complemented by further measures to create a positive international education reputation. These measures include scholarships for outstanding students to attract the brightest minds to Ireland and an international marketing strategy for the Education Ireland brand. The government has also committed to greater engagement with the European Union’s ERASMUS program to ensure that Irish students and faculty study and work abroad in preparation for participation in a global economy.
Interestingly, the strategy is fully aware of the role of international education in shaping public diplomacy. A specific aim of the plan is to create a new generation of advocates for Ireland across the world after they complete their studies in the country. Taoiseach Cowen noted:
Ireland has a tremendous opportunity to become a global leader in the provision of high-quality education to the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, and decision-makers, who will make a difference in their own countries and who will form vital networks of influence for Ireland.
The goal is that as the historic ties between waves of immigrants that once formed an immense Irish diaspora fade, these new ambassadors will form fresh sources of support for Ireland in a global economy. (Read NAFSA’s public diplomacy recommendations for the United States).
However, as the influential Irish Economy (a blog run by economists from Irish universities and regularly cited by the Irish media) noted, the strategy will have to overcome major financial difficulties in the Irish education system if it is to continually attract high-caliber international students. Current fiscal woes of the government have continually pushed universities to charge higher costs on international students as Irish students attend university for free. The government will have to shift focus away from international students as a lucrative source of income and toward the strategy’s bold vision of international students as future advocates and allies. Thus the fate of international education in Ireland is inextricably bound to more domestic matters.
Kevin Dillon is an intern working with the public policy department at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. He has a B.A from Trinity College Dublin and a Masters from University College Dublin. He has previously worked as a researcher in TASC, a Dublin based think tank and in the Senate office of Barack Obama.