Irish universities need a global outlook if they hope to succeed
Foreign students are believed to be worth €20,000 each to the economy. But how can we attract more of them? Kim Bielenberg reports
If you talk to any international student in Dublin they will tell you they are staggered by how much their Irish classmates drink.
They also say that it takes time to adjust to the tendency of Irish students to disappear home to their mammies at weekends.
Some also believe Irish college lecturers could be more accessible, and make their lecture notes available to the students. Three years ago it was hoped that international students could become a cash cow for the economy.
Full-time international students are reckoned to be worth at least €20,000 a year each to the economy, when account is taken both of their fees and living expenses.
At Trinity College, for example, an arts student from outside the EU can expect to pay €16,000 in fees alone.
In 2010, the Government launched a strategy aimed at increasing international student numbers in higher education by 50pc by 2015, but most observers agree that these targets are unlikely to be met.
Figures from the Higher Education Authority showed that the number of full-time foreign students had actually fallen in the five years until last year.
More recent provisional figures for the academic year until June are expected to show that figures have stabilised.
Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, questioned whether "we are doing enough to integrate non-Irish students into all activities on third-level campuses".
"It is not enough to welcome students on day one, we need to ensure they are supported right through their studies," he said.
His concerns are echoed by Sile Power, director of the Irish Council for International Students.
Sile Power said the decline in the number of students was largely caused by the international economic downturn.
However, she said a lot more could be done to improve the quality of experience of students, from the moment they apply to colleges until after they leave.
Ms Power said: "For some foreign students the integration with Irish students does not live up to expectations.
"The Irish tend to go home at weekends and this can lead to isolation and loneliness," she said.
"Colleges have recently made greater efforts to ensure that international students are less isolated with the introduction of buddying systems and a greater emphasis on orientation at the start of courses."
Recent efforts by Irish universities to attract international students include the opening of a Global Lounge at UCD.
UCC is designating some of its accommodation as alcohol-free, partly in deference to Muslim students.
Enterprise Ireland has recently held major marketing drives to attract Indian and Brazilian students.
A surge in the number of Brazilians arriving this year is expected to shore up international student numbers.
Sile Power said students from other countries vary in their expectations.
"American students expect smaller classes and are used to more contact with lecturers. Others are surprised by the informality of the lectures.
Ms Power said: "Lecturers should show more sensitivity that they are dealing with a more diverse classroom, and they should adjust their style."
Griffith College, a private fee-paying institution offering degree courses, has 1,400 international students from 77 countries. The college president, Professor Diarmuid Hegarty, said international education should be marketed like tourism in Ireland.
He said international education was worth €20bn to the UK economy, and if we matched those figures per head of population we should be earning over €1bn.
Earlier this year, the private college took the radical step of offering scholarships to Irish young people, whose families agreed to put up international students in Dublin.
"This exchange does not just bring a benefit to the Irish students in terms of fees," said Prof Hegarty, "it also benefits the country in terms of international contacts."
Prof Hegarty said the shortage of suitable accommodation was becoming a major issue for colleges hoping to attract foreign students. He said there was a need for greater tax relief for student homes.
Prof Hegarty said if rents continued to rise it could give British colleges a competitive advantage.